Today I took the ultimate trip. I listened to the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey as I walked around the neighborhood.

I’ve had the soundtrack album on vinyl for years. It used to belong to my friend Bill, but when we were in high school—maybe even earlier—I talked him into trading it to me. I can’t remember what I traded—maybe a Fantastic Four poster. In any event, he’s resented it ever since. I can’t say I blame him.

However, Bill was willing to let bygones be bygones and he recently brought some of my albums up to Maine to our mutual friend, Mike, who had the apparatus necessary to convert them into MP3s. I’ve put some of the songs on my iPod, including 2001.

Today I stepped out the door listening to “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” better known as “The Theme to 2001.” It sounded great in all its brassy pomp and magnificence, although the pops and hisses betrayed its vinyl origins and made it sound like music heard in front of a crackling fire. Even with the pops the compositions by György Ligeti remained as mysterious and otherworldly as they were the first time I heard them. “The Blue Danube,” the background music to the scene where the Pan Am shuttle docks with the rotating space station—perhaps my favorite scene from any movie ever—still sounds so rich and lush it could have been recorded on velvet.

I didn’t see 2001 on its first release in 1968. I had to wait until a re-release sometime around 1974, when I was 13 or 14. I was home sick from school on the Friday it opened and nothing would persuade my parents to let me go that night. I cajoled, I begged, I pleaded, I sulked, to no avail. Bill and I had to go on the next night. His sister drove us. I can’t pretend we understood the movie, but we did a good job parroting things we had read about it on the way back, just to prove to his sister that we did.

I’ve seen 2001 a lot since then. I saw it at Boston’s old Nickelodeon Theater, in an auditorium at the University of Southern Maine, and at a repertory theater in Los Angeles. I saw a special 25th anniversary screening at the huge Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C., and I saw the last remaining Cinemax print at the IMAX theater of the National Air and Space Museum. That was disappointing, because the print, pieced together from several Cinemax prints, had faded terribly. But I did see a nice new print at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center, and even later a gorgeous 70mm version, once again at the grand old Uptown. I’ve seen 2001 on television, on VHS tape, and on DVD. Just a few weeks ago a friend showed me a little bit of his Blue Ray version. I will have go back and watch the whole thing. It looked amazing.

When we were living in Washington, my wife and I even put a little bit of dialogue from 2001 on our answering machine message. It said, “Welcome to voice print identification. When you see the red light go on, would you please state in the following order: Your destination, your nationality, and your full name. Surname first, Christian name, and initial.” One day our rather ditzy landlady called and left an anxious message saying she didn’t see any red light and didn’t know what to do.

I love 2001 so much because it creates a sense of awe and mystery. I’ve never been able to look at the night sky the same way since seeing the movie. Somehow this film, shot inside film studios, captured the sense of how cold and vast our solar system is, and how insignificant we are in comparison. It is the anti-Star Wars. There are no explosions, no lasers, no sound in the vacuum of space. Nobody uses the Force. And although director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke fell quite short in their predictions of the future, their alternate-world 2001 feels like it’s the way the future should have been. Kubrick has often been described as cynical about human behavior, but a 2001 with moon bases and rotating space stations and routine flights into orbit and beyond seems incredibly optimistic today.

Science fiction geek that I am, I think the Jupiter-bound Discovery, looking like a huge vertebrae floating through space, is also a pretty cool spaceship.

Plus, there’s Discovery‘s HAL 9000 computer, the greatest serial killer in movies. True, he murdered a mere four people (astronaut Frank Poole and hibernating scientists Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski), which one of today’s cinematic psychopaths would do before the opening credits. But Hal was both creepy and sympathetic. He killed because his human controllers had programmed him to lie about the mission’s true purpose. And then, just before his own consciousness was snuffed out, Hal discovers his own, for lack of a better word, humanity. “My mind is going,” he tells David Bowman as the only surviving astronaut disconnects the computer brain’s higher functions. “I can feel it.”

I can feel it.

When Hal, always in the same bland voice (provided by a Canadian actor named Douglas Rain), pleads with Bowman not to disconnect him it’s chilling and sad. “Stop, Dave,” Hal says as Bowman disconnects piece after piece of his mechanical brain. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave.” Dave doesn’t stop.

Hal also gets the movie’s funniest line. (Okay, the movie’s only funny line.) It comes when Bowman makes his way through the ship to disconnect the errant computer. “I can see you’re really upset by this Dave,” Hal says, his emotionless voice as smooth as pudding. “I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over.” If it weren’t for his inherent psychopathology, Hal might have found a job in a human resources department.

I once met 2001’s author, Arthur C. Clarke, in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. My aerospace magazine had sent me there to cover an astronaut conference. Sir Arthur was one of the speakers. Before one session I nerved myself up to approach the great man and give him a copy of a poster the magazine had done depicting all the people who had flown into space. He was very gracious and pleasant to me. I wish I could have remembered more about what we said, and I wish I had thought to point out that astronauts Poole and Bowman should have been on the poster, too. (Not to mention Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski.)

So it was a joy to listen to the music from the soundtrack this morning. With those odd, cosmic sounds filling my ears, everything I saw became freighted with significance—the squirrel running across the sidewalk in front of me, the stop sign that came closer with each step before vanishing from my field of vision, the side of a house that I suddenly realized looks like an upside-down face. The “Gayane Ballet Suite,” which plays in the movie as Frank Poole jogs around the Discovery’s circular centrifuge, played in my iPod whileI trudged up a steep hill. It’s a beautiful and melancholy piece of music that perfectly captures the isolation and loneliness of a months-long mission to Jupiter.

The music cast such a spell, in fact, that when I got home I spent five minutes on the porch saying, “Open the pod bay door, Hal,” before I realized how futile that was. I entered through the emergency airlock instead.

Advertisements