08 December 2014

Getting A Grip On 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Internet is already groaning under the weight of prose dedicated to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's watershed sci-fi epic. I've downloaded and read dozens of books and compilations of essays about the film. They range from the interesting and insightful to the square peg-round hole hammering by those with an agenda (gender roles etc. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz).

Many point to the humor, much of it subversive, expressed by Kubrick in spite of the po-faced actors and (intentionally) stilted dialogue. I harbor no illusions that this post will be revelatory but as I pondered the film after an umpteenth viewing and reading many essays on AI, war, etc. one theme kept recurring to me: Get A Grip. The phrase is usually a caustic, direct distillation of the self-help culture if not a refutation of it. 'Get a grip!' is most often an admonishment to abandon the touchy-feely nonsense and deal with reality on reality's own terms.

Kubrick has all but stated that he intended the film to be a restatement of 'Man's reach should exceed his grasp' which fits nicely with this theme. In 2001, Get A Grip can be seen or inferred in many scenes. At the risk of exhausting the metaphor, this is by no means a comprehensive list but one done from memory ('to get' is conjugated as necessary):

-Moon-Watcher (the chief primate) Gets A Grip on a bone, making it a club (weapon). His primate clan Get A Grip on their meager vegetarian food while snarling at the competing tapirs.

-The primates, scared out of their wits, eventually get a grip on the monolith by running their hands up and down its surface.

-The Pan Am stewardess Gets A Grip with her grip shoes (too easy) on the deck of the space plane

-The same stewardess Gets A Grip on Dr Floyd's floataway pen, even as he fails to Get A Grip on his seat by falling asleep and allowing his arm to drift weightlessly.

-Once on board the space station, Dr Floyd Gets A Grip and is able to walk normally thanks to artificial gravity (as Bowman & Poole do on the Discovery later)

-The Russian contingent fail to Get A Grip on the nature of Floyd's visit to the moon as he refuses to be drawn on the matter

-Dr Floyd urges the meeting's attendees to Get (and keep) A Grip on the cover story meant to fob off the curious and nervous

-On the moon shuttle, Floyd and his colleagues, despite their knowledge, security clearances and good cheer, admit they have failed to Get A Grip on the monolith's origin and purpose

-At the dig site, Floyd et al attempt to Get A Grip on the monolith just as their primate ancestors did.

-As the monolith delivers its piercing shriek, the scientists attempt to Get A Grip and obey the urge to cover their ears, only to be foiled by the very helmets that are keeping them alive in the vacuum.

-On the Discovery, the astronauts Get A Grip on news about earth while the earth Gets A Grip on news about them. Both parties admit they cannot fully Get A Grip on HAL 9000's human-like ability to interact with the world.

-Poole attempts to Get A Grip on (or at least retain) man's supremacy over machines by challenging HAL to chess

-Poole must literally and figuratively Get A Grip on the Discovery's exterior and on the electronic components he must replace while working in zero gravity

-Bowman & Poole attempt to Get A Grip on the specifics of the 'failed' AE35 unit and, soon after, admit that they must Get A Grip on HAL's apparent malfunction and Get A Grip on the prospect of disabling HAL.

-Simultaneously, HAL feigns confusion when he fails to Get A Grip on his prediction of failure and on Mission Control's confirmation of his error.

-HAL Gets A Grip on the astronauts' scheme by lip-reading

-HAL, controlling the space pod, Gets A Grip on Poole by attacking him and severing his air hose

-Poole, hurtling into space, attempts but fails to Get A Grip on the severed hose

-Bowman Gets A Grip on Poole after a rescue mission in another space pod

-Bowman must Get A Grip when the now openly-hostile HAL refuses to comply with his instructions Bowman must, in order to enter the airlock, Un-Get A Grip on his shipmate to manipulate the controls

-After his successful space pod escape, Bowman must desperately Get A Grip on the emergency repressurization handle

-Back onboard, Bowman Gets A Grip on a wrench, the implement of HAL's destruction

-HAL attempts to Get A Grip on Bowman by suggesting that Bowman himself Get A Grip ('take a stress pill')

-HAL attempts to Get (or Retain) A Grip while his electronic brain is slowly shut down

-After viewing the secret video briefing by Dr Floyd, Bowman must Get A Grip on the true nature of the mission, his role in it and his immediate future

-The entire Star Gate sequence can be seen as Bowman Getting A Grip on the vastness of space, the ultra-advanced intelligence of the aliens he is encountering and the surreality of his eventual landing site.

-Bowman Gets A Grip on daily life as a zoo creature but eventually fails to Get A Grip on his champagne glass, thus signaling a transition

-Bowman, in the last extremity, sees the monolith and once again attempts to Get A Grip on it by feebly reaching out

-The aliens Get A Grip on Bowman by re-birthing him as one of them (or as a new species of hybrid)

-Finally, the Star Child Gets A Grip on his power while the Earth, implicitly, must Get A Grip on what has arrived or, more accurately, returned to them