A Handful of Words: Dialogue in 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY

What is there to say about 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY that hasn’t already been said, many times? Nothing. Have a good day.

Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. All About Eve

Gittes: How much are you worth?

Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Gittes: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?

Cross: Oh my, yes!

Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?

Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. Now, where’s the girl? I want the only daughter I’ve got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.

Gittes: Who do you blame for that? Her?

Cross: I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING. Chinatown

Dr. Floyd: What’s that? Chicken?

Dr. Michaels: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway. 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Stanley Kubrick rejects another skeleton for some imperfection he can’t describe to anyone.

Considering that neither Kubrick nor Arthur C. Clarke are known for their dialogue skills, their writing works as both a parody of techno-speak in science fiction movies as well as an honest replication of the way people actually talk. Movie dialogue is usually complimented for SEEMING believable, but rarely is true to life. Has anyone had a conversation like those in any movie known for its dialogue? (In our TV-centric world people may TRY to talk like those cool people on the tube.) Listen to the folks on the train or in a restaurant and you’ll hear pet phrases and words repeated, all kinds of verbal shorthand, and especially run-on sentences and conversations that never, ever stick to The Point. Movie dialogue isn’t like that, but the best dialogue makes us believe that the characters are speaking in a lifelike manner, while being more direct, clever and amusing than we really are.

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Heywood Floyd talks on the phone to his young daughter, played by Kubrick’s daughter, discussing what she wants for her birthday. With some Russians he avoids revealing what the Americans have found on the moon. In the meeting that follows we come closest to traditional sci-fi movie dialogue, with the discussion of the monolith in that professional manner of all these scientists and military who find the thing of the moment interesting but are unaware of what they’ve got on their hands. He and his co-workers discuss sandwiches while on the way to see the first alien object man has found, everyone polite but not tossing witty one-liners. Imagine if Martin Sheen’s president popped into the room and began talking about the importance of what they are on their way to see. What if a Joss Whedon character appeared (it’s okay, no young women present) and partook of sandwiches and chat about the monolith, and the contrast is stark. In 2001 there is no attempt to punch up the dialogue. (Rewrites are often about “sharpening” the dialogue, making every sentence carry information or reveal character. Clarke and Kubrick worked to reveal the attributes not of individual characters but of the modern human being–faced with the most monumental encounter in their history, our greatest minds talk about lunch). In the sixties there were few big Hollywood science fiction movies, and the dialogue was no more impressive than the average action flick. Fantastic Voyage, for example, has such gems as “What a time to run out of sugar.” (Or coffee–I’m not going back to check.) Delivered as it is in the movie, as a military officer’s attempt at wit, the line would be jolting to viewers of 2001. Modern screenwriters try to be clever; Clarke and Kubrick try to sandpaper off anything that would indicate their characters are anything but men doing jobs and encountering various troubles from boring space shuttle rides to a machine going haywire and causing a fatal workplace accident.

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Sadly, even in orbit, mansplaining still plagues humanity.

The scenes aboard the Discovery are Clarke and Kubrick’s last opportunity to come up with engaging characters and punchy dialogue. Seen as a mini-movie, from the Discovery’s appearance on is a self-contained short story about two astronauts who battle and then transcend man’s own creation, with the survivor going on to be rewarded for proving mankind has matured to the level where our alien betters give us a hand ascending the evolutionary ladder. Bowman is our champion and brings home the great prize. It’s like a very special episode of Star Trek. Now imagine the Discovery being boarded by James T. Kirk. He’d come off as some crazed loon picked up from a space-going lifeboat. Bowman and Poole would instruct HAL to quarantine that emoting, shouting person until he chilled out a little. Meanwhile. Poole and Bowman watch a little T.V., eat in silence–what’ve they got to talk about after months in space with no one else around but a machine?–and discuss how the repairs are going.

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Kubrick did 4,322 takes of this shot. He used the first.

When they finally have a problem to discuss, they are two employees talking about a problem with a computer. It’s a serious situation that clearly concerns them, but again, think of Kirk and crew aboard a self-aware Enterprise having to figure out if the computer is insane in the brain.

Bowman and Poole don’t know that HAL is about to give one of them some serious breathing trouble, and their behavior doesn’t foreshadow it, but the script and direction tip off the audience. HAL’s lip-reading of the two astronauts is the closest this movie comes to the suspense gimmicks we enjoy in other movies; it’s like Alfred Hitchcock subbed for Kubrick that day. (The shots of the lips movie are Hitch’s “bomb under the table” example, translated into space.) The dialogue reveals that these two, who know HAL’s capabilities, simply aren’t aware of how clever it is.

The big action scene from 2001.

HAL’s dialogue is funny because he speaks only a little more formally than Floyd, Bowman or Poole. That mildly more official–robotic–dialogue is one of the reasons 2001’s script is a work of art. It shows something about film awards that it wasn’t recognized, and still hasn’t been. The dialogue isn’t showy, it isn’t clever, but that is the point. The dialogue is bland; the script is the wittiest ever for its genre. Clarke and Kubrick are the science fiction genre’s Samuel Beckett. No, really, what’s so funny? Just because every screenwriting award goes to the script with the showiest dialogue doesn’t make everyone else right and me wrong.

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No doors, no windows in the 2001 Hilton.

When HAL strikes back at those who threaten to shut him down it is with the ruthlessness of a horror movie slasher. It not only takes out Frank Poole and locks Dave Bowman out–effectively killing him, HAL assumes–it kills the sleeping passengers in their cryo tubes or whatever, even though they are no threat to HAL. Now HAL’s assumption that Bowman was taken care of comes back to haunt it, when Bowman gets back aboard. HAL’s pleas, calmly spoken, are as plain as Floyd’s conversations about lunch, but so much more meaningful. How would a human in HAL’s situation sound? Like every caught stoolie from Force of Evil (“What’ve you done to me?” “All that Cain did to Abel was to murder him”) to Miller’s Crossing (“Look in your heart!” a plea which gets a response applicable to HAL: “What heart?”).

HAL’s dialogue as it’s being shut down are a big part of the accepted idea that it is the most human-like character in the movie. He talks in the soft, fake-warm tones of authority figures from politics and T.V. news. HAL is everyone who ever told you this wouldn’t hurt a bit and it’s for your own good.

Getting the last quarter of the movie to himself, Keir Dullea is grateful for those elocution lessons.

The response from Bowman, the human? He doesn’t argue–who would argue with a machine? I mean besides calling your computer a son of a bitch when it’s slow booting up. He works in silence, then gives the response needed for the computer to sing. The human gives the machine permission to do something only humans do, but don’t, not here. Then he shuts it down.

We then get a recording from home explaining the mission, a speech that could come from any fifties sci fi flick.

And that’s it for dialogue, twenty minutes or so from the end.

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I know a picture of the Star Child would be more appropriate, but the face on that thing creeps me the hell out.