(Warning, this whole review is one long spoiler. In my defense this movie is 49 years old.)
The only good thing about The Academy Awards is that for the whole month before, TCM plays many good (and not so good) old movies. Last night I watched 2001. As the exit music was finishing it occurred to me that this was the first time in almost fifty years that I had watched the movie from beginning to end. Back in 1968 I attended the film in a large theater in Manhattan as part of a class trip. At the time I was a sci-fi fan but I distinctly remember becoming incredibly bored during the “Infinity” sequence. And sure enough, last night I found my eyes glazing over as I waited for Keir Dullea to stop making funny faces and show up in Versailles. And then it also occurred to me that it was actually a very, very good movie. So, let’s talk about it. You already know I don’t like the “Infinity” sequence. But I find the rest of the film is excellent. Not everybody cares for Kubrick’s style in film-making. There is a great deal of stylization and idiosyncratic imagery that bothers many people. And without a doubt it is highly un-naturalistic. In fact, the ape men were the most realistic as personalities. The other characters are decidedly wooden.
But without a doubt this movie is an amazing spectacle. The matching of images to the musical soundtrack is perfect. The sequences of space ships landing and maneuvering are shown as if they were dancers in a ballet. The “Dawn of Man” sequence is riveting. I could believe that the actual event was very much like the portrayal (minus the monolith of course). It captured the essence of human ingenuity. The desperate and sordid circumstances of that ingenuity ring true.
And then there’s HAL. I hate HAL. I always have. But he is the perfect Frankenstein Monster. And the arc of his crime and punishment is, for me, a thing of hideous beauty. His relations with the astronauts are as creepy and dishonest as some Dickens villain, something like Uriah Heep. Some people feel sadness when Dave lobotomizes HAL and reduces him to the level of a two-year-old singing “Daisy.” I never shared that sadness. I guess I’m more Old-Testament.
So, that brings us back to the “Infinity” sequence which sucks. But following it we have what I call the “Versailles” scene where I guess Dave lives his life out as a captive of the monolith makers. This is weird and I guess necessary to set up the conclusion. Dave dies and is reborn as the next stage of human evolution. And he is returned to our solar system and the picture ends with him floating above earth to the sequence of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” playing us out.
In sum we have a fifty year old movie that is still visually stunning, that addresses the inexplicable advance of savage animals to the brink of interplanetary travel and the frightening prospect of facing our masters in artificial intelligence. What’s not to like? Well he could have added a few good-looking space babes but nobody’s perfect.
In the first part of this post, I’ve given a little background on how I became introduced to Ray Bradbury’s stories. After detailing Dandelion Wine, I feel talking about his shorter works is the next order of business. I own a collection of these called “The Stories of Ray Bradbury” which includes what Bradbury considered his best 100 short stories. I went through these today and picked out my favorites. I feel it’s necessary to qualify that statement. There are more than a few of Bradbury’s best stories that have become components of the longer work Dandelion Wine. Since I’ve already reviewed that work I’ve left these short stories out of this selection process.
Here are my selections for the best of the best in the same order as they appear in the book:
- The Crowd
- The Scythe
- The City
- There Was an Old Woman
- There Will Come Soft Rains
- The Veldt
- A Sound of Thunder
- Invisible Boy
- The Fog Horn
- Hail and Farewell
- The Great Wide World Over There
- The Man Upstairs
- The Jar
- Touched with Fire
- The Town Where No One Got Off
- Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!
- The One Who Waits
Now here’s the thing. I could easily have added double this number. Almost all the stories are good. But these are the ones I especially like. So, this selection probably says more about me than it does about Bradbury’s best of the best. But that can be said about any critic’s choices.
An interesting fact I discovered after making this list is that there are at least three stories in this list which I don’t think have any SF&F content in them whatsoever. They are just studies in human nature. And yet they appear on this list. Which I take to mean that Bradbury finds people interesting and knows how to make them interesting to his readers. Now, that may not seem remarkable, but look at the people writing at the same time as Bradbury. Let’s take Isaac Asimov. If you read Asimov’s long or short fiction what you will find is that he is a purveyor of ideas. But his characters, even his protagonists are ciphers. There isn’t any emotional content worth mentioning. And that even counts the scenes where the action is dependent on an emotional response from one of his characters. He could just as well have been describing billiard balls ricocheting around a pool table. You might even see the psychological logic of the emotional response but you won’t experience empathy or interest in the character as a human being because of it. It’s just a plot device.
This was why Bradbury was different back then. He wrote people in SF&F stories as if they actually were people. Better writers back then were also doing this to some extent. Heinlein’s characters displayed more individuality than the average and this is one of the reasons why he is still enjoyed. But Bradbury brought this to a much higher level.
What else can be definitely said about Bradbury’s stories? I would say that he almost exclusively deals in the foreground of the picture. By that I mean that his subjects are almost always face to face. If Arthur C. Clarke were describing a nuclear holocaust you would see it from orbit. You would see the ballistic paths of the ICBMs and you would be at the top of the parabola when one missile starts to descend. And you would see the individual nuclear ignitions across the face of the globe like some fireworks display. That’s not Bradbury. With him you’ll see the aftermath of a suburban home on the edge of the kill zone. You’ll see the toaster in the kitchen and you’ll see the shadows of the family imprinted onto the side of the house facing the gamma ray flash.
Even when Bradbury does write a story of aliens invading earth you are not going to get War of the Worlds. You’ll get that same suburban neighborhood with husbands and housewives and little Jimmy working on his hobby in the basement.
So now I’ve said a bunch of words about Bradbury’s short fiction. If you’re looking for hard-core technical sf or even just plain old amusing space opera do not stop at Bradbury. Move right along. There’s none of that here. But if you want to delve into the mysterious world within a world that is the human soul take a trip with him. It might strike a resonant chord. Or it might not. Either way you’ll learn something.