An exploration of the dialogue in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’
Chuck Klosterman once wrote about how we are obsessed critically with the underrated and the overrated that we rarely note the exactly correctly rated. 2001: A Space Odyssey falls into that category. Everyone thinks it’s a masterpiece and it absolutely is. On its 50th anniversary, I had the opportunity to attend a screening at the Cannes film festival, introduced by Christopher Nolan, which showed a restored 70mm print and its manifold glories were there to behold: the grandeur, the sweep, the perfect use of music, the impeccable sound and production design, the special effects that still hold up half a century later, the tension, the deep themes and the bold storytelling. However, there was another element that I noticed that doesn’t get much recognition and is, dare I say, underrated: the dialogue.
Now there’s a good reason why we don’t talk about the talk of 2001, and that is because there isn’t much. A title like ‘Dialogue in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001’ feels like a fake Ph.D. title in a satirical novel about how wacky universities are these days to put alongside ‘A Chomskian Reading of Sex in the City 2’ or ‘The Proustian Subtlety of Dumb and Dumber Too.’
The original screenplay is only 65 pages long which is extremely short for a film that initially showed with a 161-minute running time. And many lines, including a narration, were shaved or cut entirely. There are no words spoken for the first 25 minutes of the film nor the last 23. Approximately 88 minutes of the film is dialogue-free. Roger Ebert calls it effectively a silent movie. You could also think of it as a musical with large sections of the film featuring music that effectively narrates what we see on screen, providing an additional layer of meaning.
And the dialogue we get is with one exception unexceptionable. But here I’m going to argue that this is an achievement. It’s possible that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick weren’t great at writing dialogue – having read many of Clarke’s novels, dialogue is not his strong point – but I’d argue that the triteness of the dialogue is fully intended. And if not, then it works anyway. But let’s break it down.
Floyd, Heywood R.
We first meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) napping on the shuttle from Earth to the Moon via the partly constructed space station. His utter indifference to the magnificent space travel underlines a point Kubrick is at pains to make. By 2001, space travel has become so frequent as to be mundane. Far from the glamor of the first astronauts with their ‘Right Stuff,’ we have a company man who looks like he might be as suited to Madison Avenue as NASA. The first line of the movie comes from the hostess as he lands at the space station: ‘Here you are, sir, main level please.’ Voiceprint identification is an innovation, but the phone call with his daughter is a familiar situation – dad’s away on business. Most communication for Floyd is either phatic or purely functional. The meeting with the Russian delegation on their way down featuring the superb British comic actor Leonard Rossiter is the one moment that conversation risks becoming meaningful. Rossiter’s presence enlivens this scene and marks it as a drily witty one. A parlor game of reading between the lines and polite probing. Floyd’s evasiveness we will later learn – ‘I’m sorry, I’m simply not at liberty to say’ – is a double bluff, tacitly confirming a cover story that isn’t true. For all his affability, Floyd is a politician, and in his briefing on the moon base, he will mix a chuckley familiarity to cover a steely purpose. All of this is in stark contrast to the momentous occurrence. The awe that we are feeling as an audience is contrasted with the actual participants in the mystery who pay lip service to the event while choosing a flavor of sandwich: ‘they all taste like chicken anyway.’ The irony is that all this non-communication is taking place while the Monolith awaits. It could be argued that the Monolith had the first line of communication in the film when it somehow talked to the hominids of the Dawn of Man section and will once more ‘speak’ via a radio signal that will make Floyd and his colleagues, busy taking congratulatory selfies in front of their prize, finally shut up and automatically if uselessly put their hands to their helmets, trying to block out the sound.
Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.
The astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) have been chosen for the mission for their compatible personalities and their unflappability. In other words, they’re as dull as ditchwater but good in an emergency. The most emotional member of the crew turns out to be the HAL 9000 supercomputer, voiced by Canadian actor Douglas Rain. Frank has a birthday party and a chess game; Dave does some drawing and jogging, but if drama is going to come, it isn’t going to come from then. It’s interesting that the glitch in HAL occurs via a failed conversation. HAL is essentially playing the role of the audience, probing Dave to find out what he thinks about the exposition around the mission. Dave is as trained in non-communication as Dr. Floyd and effectively shuts down the conversation with ‘You’re working up your crew psychology report?’ So the chief crisis of the mission is caused by a lack of communication. HAL just wanted to be heard out, and as if his feelings had been hurt, he tries to shut everyone else up. Permanently. It’s also an irony that a film that tells the story through visuals also has visual language betraying the two humans when HAL lipreads their conspiratorial planning. HAL’s mental breakdown and his pleading with Dave is the emotional core of the film – ‘Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop Dave? Stop, Dave…’ – made all the more powerful because of the impassive voice: the absence of effect is affecting. HAL singing ‘Daisy’ will be succeeded by the return of a prerecorded Dr. Floyd, someone who is basically talking to the void.
The novel, of course, will give Bowman a final ‘It’s full of stars!’ exclamation that the Peter Hyams sequel will make much of, but in the original that’s it. Speech has been supplanted by visuals. Voices will be heard in the hotel room, but they will be indistinct and incoherent as Bowman moves to a pre/post language state as the Star Baby. And we as the audience are left pretty much speechless as well.