The Blue Danube floats gently across the screen, calming the audience down and instilling an atmosphere of relaxation. Space-ships are travelling through the skies at a leisurely pace. The first ships to appear on the screen, according to Making of 2001, are the nuclear weapons platforms used by the superpowers of Earth. (The actual declaration that these are nuclear weapons was taken out of the final print of the film because it was merely an unnecessary red herring; Kubrick believed that details on the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were inconsequential and not important to the story of 2001). Even if the satellites are dangerous, however, their slow and easy movements lessen their threat. From this point of view, any apparent danger from them is so small as to be nonexistent, and the satellites moving through the sky are mere decorations adding to the celestial backdrop. The apparent slow motion of the spaceships makes them seem as if they are traveling with elegance and grace - in fact, they are graceful indeed, as their movements are being precisely controlled.
The Space Station appears, turning serenely in its orbit, adding to the feeling of calm and order. Kubrick says that this sequence is "a kind of machine ballet." The scene is, in fact, very beautiful.
People have complained about this lengthy space travel sequence, saying that it is plodding and even "boring." The reason why this scene moves at such an unhurried rate is beause Kubrick wanted space travel in 2001 to be as realistic as possible. If, as Roger Ebert mentions, the ships in 2001 merely "zipped around like props on Captain Video," the illusion of realism would be destroyed. The audience would not be admiring the care that went into the special effects; they would, rather, be laughing at such an unrealistic piece of "space opera." Kubrick has attempted to present a vision of space travel as it may happen in real life. Thus, we have the grandoise, awesome, and slow-moving spaceships of 2001.
Note also that, other than the music, the scene is completely silent. There is no sound in vacuum, and thus the spacecraft do not make a sound. Few science fiction films have bothered to obey this law of nature, and thus the spaceships of Star Wars and Star Trek zoom across the screen like the screaming fighters of a World War II action movie. 2001 stresses realism, however, and thus the ships are silent. This is just one of many instances in the film where sound - or lack of it - is used to enhance the effect of the picture.
Moving towards the Space Station is a Pan-Am shuttlecraft. This is the first of many corporate logos to appear throughout this sequence. Kubrick correctly guessed that corporate business would make its mark in space travel, and the first major attempts at making space travel a civilian activity would fall into the hands of the big businesses. As we move to the interior of the shuttlecraft, we see that civilian space travel is indeed a reality: the ship has seats for at least a hundred people. It doesn't look any different from the interior of a commuter train or a jumbo jet.
However, this particular shuttle is completely empty, except only for one passenger: Dr. Heywood Floyd of NASA. He has been sent, at great expense, on a special mission, and this shuttle is being used solely to take him into space. Exactly where he is going, and why, will become clear shortly. It is here that Kubrick begins to include another theme in the movie: the similarities between men and machines. Man has been completely re-molded by his tools, since he first began using them on that day four million years ago - the tool-maker has been re-made by his own tools. He has come to depend on his machines so much that he is becoming a machine himself. The characters in 2001 are so machine-like that they seem incapable of feeling any kind of emotion. This is merely a reflection of what Mankind may actually be like today: machine-like. We are used to seeing movies where the characters are full of emotion - they may be violent or passionate or loving or murderous. But in real life, very few people are so intensely emotional - and thus, the realism of 2001 extends to its characters as well.
Heywood Floyd is asleep. Despite the grand spectacle of outer space outside his window, he has his television turned on - and he is still so bored that he has fallen asleep. Man's control over his environment through the use of tools has grown so complete that he is no longer excited by nature. Space travel is so commonplace that a voyage into outer space is merely another boring routine to be slept through.
In yet another display of the film's amazing special effects, a pen floats casually in the weightless environment beside Dr. Floyd, and his arm drifts aimlessly. Especial care has been taken in making every detail as accurate and as realistic as possible: the stewardesses walk on Velcro slippers to keep their feet on the ground.
The shuttlecraft aligns itself with the rotation of the Space Station and docks; Dr. Floyd leaves the shuttle and the first words of dialogue in the film are spoken:
"Here you are, sir."
Banal, pointless chit-chat, just as we hear in everyday life. The people of 2001 engage in meaningless banter and go through formal routines, just as they do on Earth. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
After meeting Mr. Miller and going through "Voiceprint Identification," Dr. Floyd heads for his next destination. The two figures pass through a strangely empty corridor. The Space Station is, in fact, an orbiting hotel, and except for the curvature of the floor it could easily be mistaken for any hotel on Earth. However, this place is strangely empty: there is obviously enough room to suit the needs of hundreds of people, but almost no one is here. Floyd stops off to make a phone call to his daughter, using a Bell "Picturephone;" this is another example of the care taken to make the Space Station look as realistic as possible. Aside from the use of the Bell Telephone logo, the phone booth even sounds like a phone booth. There is a hissing air conditioner that makes the booth look and feel like a cramped, small, enclosed space. Again, sound is used to enhance the visual image on the screen.
After making his phone call, Floyd encounters a group of Soviet scientists - and here at last the story begins to take shape. We learn why the Space Station is nearly empty: apparently, there is an "epidemic" at the Clavius Moonbase. From this, we can assume that the Space Station has been largely evacuated, and tourist activities halted, until the problem is properly dealt with. Unfortunately, Dr. Floyd cannot discuss the situation at Clavius with his friends at any length, for security reasons. Even amidst these startling plot developments, however, there is the pointless throwaway conversation that is used in everyday talk.
Dr. Floyd's conversation with the Russians is proof that in 2001, the Soviet states and the United States have settled into an uneasy peace (Kubrick couldn't have anticipated the events that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s-early 1990s). With this sequence, Kubrick does not have to spend time discussing the political situation of the future - it can be assumed by the audience. In 1968 when the film was released, the Soviet Union was considered "The Enemy" by the United States, and this scene was probably an optimistic view of the future. Fortunately, it seems that this vision has at least partially come to pass.
Now Dr. Floyd heads onward to the Moon. In addition to the tedium of space travel, we see more examples of human life in zero gravity. A waitress serves meals in liquid form, to be sucked through a straw so that food particles don't float all over the place. She brings the food trays to the cockpit where the ship is piloted, and in doing so she turns completely upside down and seems to walk on the ceiling. With no gravity, there is no need for the conventional vertical method of designing a spacecraft, with a set direction for "up" and "down;" in this case, the designers of the shuttle must have decided that the most convenient way (for mechanical reasons) to build the ship was to have the command deck at an angle differing from the passenger's quarters down below.
In what has been called the most obvious joke of the film, Dr. Floyd ponders the long, complicated instructions of a zero-gravity toilet. Since Mankind evolved in Earth's gravity, travelling into deep space with no gravity requires Man to suffer some hardships.
The shuttle approaches the Moon. There are figures moving on the lunar landscape below, and they see the ship coming in. (From this point of view, the shuttle vaguely resembles a human head. This was a deliberate deisgn: it supports the symbiotic relationship between Man and his machines. The machine resembles a human, and the humans inside have become machine-like.) Finally, we come to Clavius, the American lunar base. Computers align the ship, and it settles down to a landing, where it is taken deep into the bowels of the Moon. The Blue Danube ends; the journey is complete.
The scene changes to what appears to be a corporate or board meeting. A photographer is taking pictures; it looks like any official meeting held anywhere. Dr. Floyd is introduced, and it is here that we learn why the lunar shuttle he rode in was empty: he had been rushed up to Clavius base especially to attend this meeting - a meeting of the highest importance. We also learn that it is not an epidemic that has forced the United States to isolate Clavius from any outside contact, but rather an important discovery of some sort made by the scientists at Clavius. This discovery must be of vital importance, because the Clavius personnel cannot even inform their friends and families to let them know that they are okay, despite the rumours of an epidemic.
The meeting ends, and the scientists take another shuttle craft to the site of the mysterious find. More small talk among the crew - they are obviously trying to hide their feelings by acting as if everything is normal.
Amidst the chit-chat, the fact does surface that this "discovery" is an object that was buried under the lunar surface - four million years ago.
We arrive at the excavation site, and at last the answer is revealed to us. This is what the scientists have discovered, and this is what has put the United States government into such a frenzy: the Monolith! It has been lying beneath the surface of the Moon for four million years. This is how long it has been since Mankind last encountered the Monolith, on that day in Africa when Moon-Watcher threw a bone into the air. This is the connection between the beginning sequence of 2001 and the current act.
The last time the Monolith appeared, Mankind was at a crucial point in his evolution. Now the ebon block has appeared again: does this mean that Man has once again reached a crossroads? Indeed it does. Mankind is leaving his planetary cradle and beginning to reach outward into the Universe. The children spawned on that day, four million years ago, have reached maturity and are preparing to leave the home where they grew up.
But has Mankind truly matured? He has reached the point where his ancient home, the Earth, is no longer able to contain him - but at the same time, Man's survival is still threatened by the very tools he uses to survive. Now, more than ever, Man has the ability to destroy himself. Despite his having survived through the millenia, Man's future is just as precarious as the Man-apes' future was.
The alien sounds of Ligeti's choral begin once again, as the spacesuit-clad scientists approach the Monolith. Here we see a clue that despite his evolution and his many achievements, Mankind is still the same curious beast that his ancestors were, for just as the Man- apes did, now Dr. Floyd reaches out and touches the Monolith, as if to prove to himself that it really exists. The group gathers around the ebon block for a photograph...
...when suddenly, there is an ear-piercing electronic shriek. The scientists stop dead in their tracks, reeling from the intense noise; it even causes discomfort in the audience. The sound is obviously coming from the Monolith itself. The Aliens' experiment, begun all those years ago, is approaching its climax. It's as though a cosmic burglar alarm has been set off, and now the entire Universe knows that Mankind is reaching for the stars - and once again, the "mystical" alignment of the Sun and the Monolith takes place.
After four million years, "TMA-1 had greeted the lunar dawn."
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