Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

It is the work of a master film stylist in collaboration with a popular science-fiction author.  It is visually stunning, employing groundbreaking special effects, and taking full advantage of the new theatrical technology of the day.  It creates a real and believable future world in a dynamic and inimitable style, while generating dreamlike, mythic, psychological, even psychedelic, and certainly spiritual events and imagery.   It wrestles with weighty questions regarding where we come from and where we are going, while stubbornly refusing to answer them in anything but an oblique and ambiguous way.

It opens with a prologue set in the distant past, where an alien intelligence effects the development of human life on earth.  It then thrusts its viewers into the future, where inexplicable archeological discoveries instigate a space mission to find the secret of alien intervention in human existence.  Along for the ride is an anthropomorphized artificial intelligence that may be working from a hidden agenda, or may simply have gone mad.

The movie is “Prometheus.”

“Prometheus” is the work of producer/director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator”) and two sci-fi writers.  The first is Jon Spaihts, known in Hollywood as the author of a well respected but unproduced science fiction romance, “Passengers,” and hired by Scott’s production company to write two prequel films to the original “Alien.”  The second and perhaps most important is Damon Lindeloff, popular and controversial co-creator of the TV series “Lost,” who steered the project toward more independence from the “Alien” franchise.  Both authors credit Scott with having conceived the overall themes and basic plot of the film.

Like “Lost,” “Prometheus” has been criticized for raising too many questions and answering too few.  Stylish but enigmatic, it fails to provide a clear-cut and straightforward explanation of its proceedings.  It refuses to answer either the larger issues it ponders, or even more direct questions regarding the aliens’ backstory and motivations.

This ambiguity is the attraction of the film for some; it provides the stimulation of open-ended and personalized interpretation and speculation.  The seemingly unending series of unanswered questions, oblique events, and dangling plot strands are a detraction for others.

Speculation and interpretation followed its release, with numerous critics and bloggers offering elaborate scenarios and back stories to connect and explain the film various mysteries, or plot-holes, depending on your perspective.  Blogger Johnathan McCalmont argues that:

To my mind, these attempts to wring meaning from the text of the film are hopelessly deluded as Prometheus is quite explicitly a film about the absolute futility of seeking Big Answers to Big Questions.

In an interview with, the director himself threw a sort of bone those needing more a concrete interpretation of the film’s events, admitting that the filmmakers had considered a controversial motivation for the apparently murderous aliens:

Scott:  We thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, “Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him. 

Beginning with blogger Adrian Bott, the Internet lit up with speculation on how this revelation effects an interpretation of the movie.

And there is a book to offer guidance.  It gives us lingering views of images only fleetingly glimpsed in the film, and even labels the various elements for an easier discussion.  It’s “Prometheus: The Art of the Film” and it tells us what the pyramid, the engineers, the ampule chamber, the babyhead, the hammerpede, the juggernaut, the orrery, the trilobite, and the deacon are.

 All this brought to mind one of my Dad’s favorite movies, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is the work of producer/director Stanley Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining.”) and science-fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke (“Childhood’s End,” “Rendezvous with Rama,” and “The Sentinel,” the short story on which “2001” was loosely based).

Visually, “2001” was and is a revelation.  Narratively, it was a radical and groundbreaking departure from the norm, a major release from a major studio that dared confuse, bewilder, frustrate and delight viewers with inexplicable (but still interpretable) images and events.  “2001” offered no easy answers, no really relatable characters, very little dialogue.  It was slow, certainly painterly, perhaps meandering.  It sent its characters and viewers together on a journey of discovery where the revelations were too vast and complex to understand, and Kubrick was unwilling to lend a helping hand.

Critics were split; many hated it.   Audiences were at first unenthusiastic; it wasn’t until the film’s psychedelic imagery and spiritual resonance clicked with the counter culture that the film’s box office took off.  Soon, the marketing of the film changed.  Gone was its description as "an epic drama of adventure and exploration."   A year later, it would be described in its advertising as “The Ultimate Trip,” directly linking the experience of viewing the film with drug induced euphoria.

So much has been written about “2001;” it would be pointless to recycle it all here.  What I’d like to relate is how and why my Dad, a 40-year-old middle class father and businessman from a small southern town, would be so taken and stimulated by such a difficult, challenging, non-conformist film.

I would have been 12 years old when “2001” was released, so my memory may be somewhat faulty.  I clearly remember sitting near or in the front row.  The movie was so big and so wide that it exceeded my peripheral vision. I remember the overwhelming sound and music, coming from every side. The movie engulfed me. 

I am sure I saw it in Super Panavision 70mm Cinerama, the IMAX of its day.  I thought I saw it at the Terrace Theater in Greensboro, NC, but research reveals that the roadshow release did not come to Greensboro.  We may have made a special trip to Raleigh to see it; we had done so for “The Sound of Music.”  Either way, the unprecedented experience lingers.

So what did Dad relate to? 

Well, Dad loved originality.  Nothing has ever looked, or sounded, or felt like “2001.”

Then there was the meticulous believability of the film, the astonishing make-up and performance of the ape people, the detail of the future world with its clear links to and evolution from the present, the majesty and size of the space vehicles, floating silently in the black sea of space, the uncompromised and unprecedented special effects.  Dad had been impressed with the attempts to insert believable science into the original “Star Trek” series; imagine his response to the painstaking accuracy of this future world.

And there was the sound.  Magnetic stereo.  The absolute cutting edge of film audio technology.  Heightening every breath, every hush.  In the absence of much dialogue, the sound effects, and the silences, burst to the forefront.  And the music.  There had never been such a score.  A soaring rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz, the moody intonations of  György Ligeti, and the majestic “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

I’m going to speculate that there was also something in the day-to-day mundane details of Haywood Floyd and his “business trip” to the moon.  Dad ran a business, begrudgingly wore a tie everyday, and his job often involved travel.  This futuristic business trip, with its Pan-AM stewardess, its anti-gravity toilet, it’s Hilton Hotel, its airplane food, its phone call home, its casual but uncomfortable encounters, must have seemed both familiar and foreign at the same time.

But there was also, and perhaps most importantly, the puzzle.  “2001” was a puzzle waiting to be solved.  And Dad loved puzzles.  But a puzzle needs a definitive solution, not just another interpretation.  And the movie did not provide for a definitive solution. 

But the novel did.

Arthur C. Clarke was writing the novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” even as he was collaborating with Kubrick on the screenplay and the movie.  And Clarke did not have the same interest in ambiguity and obfuscation that Kubrick did.  Clarke had a definitive interpretation of the events of the film.  You could argue THE definitive interpretation; you could argue just another possible interpretation.  But the novel deciphered the movie, and in the days before the Internet, it was the only game in town.

We bought the paperback.   And Dad devoured it.

OMG.  The monolith is an alien device that awakens intelligence and helps mankind evolve. 

The main ape character has a name – Moon-Watcher.  We hear his internal thoughts.  After using the first weapon, he thinks to himself that he is now master of the world, he is unsure of what to do next—but he will think of something. 

HAL fails because of an internal conflict when he is ordered to lie about the mission.

The large floating monolith opens and pulls Bowman’s pod in.  His last words before entering - "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of stars!"  THE MONOLITH IS A STAR-GATE!

All those colors and lights and shapes, that’s Bowman travelling through an interspatial wormhole to a galaxy far, far away.  He passes through the 'Grand Central Station' of the universe, where he sees alien spacecraft in route to other destinations.  He sees what appear to be life-forms.

The aliens hold Bowman in the familiar construct of a ritzy hotel suite.  He ages and evolves in a new entity, the Star Child.  We are also privy to his thoughts.  Like Moon-Watcher, he is now master of the world and uncertain what to do next—but he will think of something.

Now, not only was the movie an amazing and captivating experience, it all made sense.

The explanation gave my Dad permission to like the movie.

He saw it again.  And it became one of his favorites.

Prometheus Unbound: What The Movie Was Actually About

© 2012 Edward Bowen

© 2009 Edward Bowen