Muthah from another planet

2001: A Space Odyssey isn't a sci-fi flick, it's the sci-fi flick

During a summer movie season dominated by a 300-pound celluloid gorilla named Independence Day, The USA Film Festival has offered a smashing August menu of sci-fi classics to remind moviegoers that once, not so long ago, the genre provided greater opportunities for audience involvement than thrills and chills.

This is not to say those aren't respectable goals. There's a reason why Independence Day earned the equivalent of several Third World countries' combined gross national product: It's a gorgeously crafted piece of entertainment that, as several pundits have already pointed out, broadcasts fuzzy-wuzzy messages about community and common purpose. In many ways, though, this makes that movie an aberration in the sci-fi movie field, which has usually adopted the perspective of one or more individuals facing a powerful or unknown experience. The best sci-fi has always unnerved and enthralled us because it's a reminder that, if we're not necessarily alone in the universe, we are certainly sentenced to a lifetime in solitary confinement by our own ignorance about the grand scheme of things.

The USA Film Festival kicked off its "Sci-Fi Summer" with Planet of the Apes, a crude, endlessly fun little 1968 popcorn parable in which Charlton "Ben Hur Does Not Swish" Heston came within a monkey's breath of the nasty arbitrariness that characterizes the process of evolution. The festival followed that with Robert Wise's 1951 secular humanist tract in a spacesuit, The Day The Earth Stood Still. An extraterrestrial know-it-all named Klaatu ("Everyone who comes from a species that's mastered interplanetary travel, raise your hand") made a detour to the Big Blue Marble so we pathetic, hairless apes would realize that, when it comes to stuff like atomic energy, we still haven't learned that fire burns when you touch it.

Closing "Sci-Fi Summer" is one of the most beautifully designed, seamlessly executed, deliberately obtuse cinematic masterpieces of the last 30 years. The fact that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi flick is almost incidental to its themes when you sit back and let the enormity of its meditations on technology, progress, and human nature press down on you. 2001 is impressive enough in its videotape edition; watch it swoop, glide, and pirouette in its natural habitat, the big screen, and two hours and 20 minutes later you emerge with the wind knocked out of you.

2001: A Space Odyssey is probably best understood not as part of the American movie tradition of science fiction, but as one of Stanley Kubrick's blood-freezing prose poems on the fallibility of humankind. Arriving between the writer-director's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1972), 2001 (1968) would seem to be a breather for Kubrick fans about to pass out from sprinting through the acidic anti-authoritarianism of the other two films. The balletic 2001 affirms that there is an ultimate authority, or at least one bigger than the biggest human big shot. None of the characters in it is particularly foolish or grandiose (Kubrick deliberately discouraged his actors from displaying much personality), but they are all flotsam tumbling helplessly in space--in one case, literally. Kubrick doesn't pontificate here on what humans are; he punches us in the gut with the somber realization of what we aren't.

While it would be a huge injustice to both films to compare Independence Day to 2001, I'll contrast their styles to warn whippersnappers who have never seen the latter, or people who have a fond but distant memory of it.

Kubrick, who began his career in the early '50s as a photographer for Look magazine, loves to linger over pretty scenes. And since he is credited as big chief of a tribe of special-effects designers that includes Douglas Trumbull (a Star Wars wizard), his desire to showcase the still-pristine imagery in this movie can feel--for contemporary audience members who have sworn allegiance to quick-cut editors--like a stranger waving pictures of his new baby in your face.

Stanley Kubrick has never favored a disruptive editor's presence in his films, but here the slow, uninterrupted pans across various planetary horizons and the inky abyss of deep space itself are especially evocative. The special effects, while still impressive, won't wow you. Nonetheless, assuming the moviegoer has the patience to surrender to Kubrick's gliding camera, the languid pace of 2001 can induce the sensation of weightlessness in the viewer. While you're in this disoriented state, the director lays his themes on the table like baroque tarot cards. Their significance is relative to each other, and to the viewer.

Which brings us to the debate between 2001's admirers and its far less numerous debunkers: Is the movie's shimmering vagueness really just a con job by an indisputable master of cinematic technique? Any director who concludes his film with an oversized fetus floating toward Earth deserves hard scrutiny for his motives. And what's up with the giant spotless domino that keeps appearing throughout the millennia?

Naysayers should be directed to the film's original source, a 1951 short story called The Sentinel by 2001's co-writer, Arthur C. Clarke. The story is used simultaneously as inspiration and point of departure; an American astronaut discovers a shiny black slab while exploring the moon that functions as a wire to be tripped by spacefaring species, alerting an intelligence millions of years old to the relative advancement of another race. The story ends with earth dwellers in nervous anticipation of the unknown species' reaction to their trespass. Will it be hostile or benevolent?

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