Gaffes & Glitches in 2001

by Geoffrey Alexander & Thomas E. Brown

Almost every movie ever made has inconsistencies, continuity defects or glitches. From Dean Martin's disappearing/reappearing exploding buttons in The Silencers, to Charlton Heston's re-appearing ring in Ben Hur, to Mrs. Jumbo's changing headdress in Dumbo, or the famous sixth replicant in Blade Runner (the mystery of which is disposed of once and for all in Paul Sammon's fine book Future Noir) glitches both major and minor are an inevitable part of anything as complex as filmmaking.

But there is a sport among fans of serious science fiction, of ferreting out the flaws, gaffes, and errors in the 'science' part of science fiction films. If a movie sells itself as straightforward fantasy (or ought to, such as the Star Trek franchise), there is much that can be forgiven; but a filmmaker who presumes to present his or her work as a more or less 'realistic' depiction of a possible future, as 2001: A Space Odyssey does, they had better be prepared for some pretty thorough examination of it. Add to this the film-fans' common sport of detecting flaws and gaffes in a film's story, continuity, and production, and the genre of science fiction film can be seen to provide a keen-eyed viewer with more than the average level of entertainment -- though ofttimes the kind a film's producers dread. We can assume Stanley Kubrick had this all in mind when he, along with Arthur C. Clarke (one of the deans of the school of so-called 'hard-science fiction'), undertook to make what Kubrick spoke of as "the proverbial good science fiction movie". 2001, as it results, is much much more than a 'science fiction film'. It's a metaphysical mind-opera, a meditation on mankind's Becoming; it's about the rise of consciousness both within and without human experience -- and not about whether a particular spanner is metric or not. Still, Kubrick went to unprecedented lengths to achieve scientific and technological authenticity. How'd he do? Surprisingly well, is how.

What goes up...

Although Kubrick did not have the use of the Air Force weightless trainer as Ron Howard did for the film Apollo 13, and despite the fact that the largest passenger cabin ever put aloft at the time of filming 2001 was a Gemini spacecraft -- and no-one had ever seen in what manner people behaved in a pressurized, weightless environment -- Kubrick generally makes an effort to depict that environment seriously. Still, the implementation is rather inconsistent, as seen in various scenes; for example, during Floyd's transit to the Moon, Floyd's liquid space food ("Seabrook Farms Liquipack") slips down the straw -- the most widely quoted gaffe in the film, unless one supposes the contents (which include liquid flounder, you'll notice) were under negative pressure in their container. And despite the introduction of Velcro "Grip Shoes" as a conceit in these scenes and in scenes set in the Discovery, the behavior of persons working under the conditions of weightlessness is fairly erratic. One simply could not walk the way the actors and extras are required to under conditions of weightlessness, grip-shoes or no (of course most sci-fi films ignore the issue completely -- for example, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Alien films, etc., all of which have "artificial gravity" created by some unspecified and completely unscientific means.

In the Discovery for example, Bowman and Poole are seen leaning at the computer console in the pod bay (a zero-gee area), and there are other scenes in which Dave and Frank seem to forget that they are supposed to be weightless, except in the centrifuge. And, as Bowman goes to disconnect HAL, he has to climb a ladder from the pod bay -- resting his weight on each step, rather than simply pulling himself up. In fact throughout the film, except when in artificial gravity -- in the Space Station, or in the centrifuge in Discovery -- the occupants "walk" in zero g using Velcro grip shoes to get from place to place (and even climb those ladders). As real space experience has shown, there is no need for such "walking" at all, real astronauts merely float from place to place, and use foot restraints to hold themselves in place when they get there. The impressive staging of the scene in the Aries moon craft in which stewardess Heather Downham walks around the treadmill to enter the control cabin would have been unnecessary -- she could simply have done a mid air flip in real weightlessness. Perhaps Velcro grip "walking" might take place in a commercial passenger spaceliner to help keep the passengers from becoming disoriented, but it makes little sense in a vehicle such as Discovery flown by professional astronauts. In fact the use of grip shoes and "walking in weightless" scenes was undoubtedly used by the filmmakers as a practical way of portraying weightlessness without having to "peter pan" the actors (that is, 'hang from wires') in every shot. It is only now, of course, after umpteen space missions, and millions of miles of film and videotape of people living and working in space, that the film's depiction is so obviously wrong.

This also applies to scenes taking place under conditions of limited gravity: earlier in the film, the dust from the Aries moonship would not have billowed up in the manner shown (though it does so impressively, ironically reinforcing our sense of scale and 'reality' in the shot), as in a vacuum there is nothing for dust to hang about in -- the Apollo landings have shown us this first-hand -- in the real lunar landings the dust flew out in a sheet rather than billowing up. Also, the moonbase photographer's brisk movements (as well as those of other Clavius inhabitants) would result in his crashing through the walls and ceiling in the 1/6 G environment (Note that the moonbus sequence cuts away before we would see how the coffee would pour in the low gravity environment). It's also unlikely one of the film's most dramatic moments, the march down the ramp at the TMA-1 site, would have been as slow, stately, and full of dramatic moment (the lack of verisimilitude in this instance is fortunate). And although the Discovery's centrifuge scenes are superbly executed, in the scene at Space Station Five it's quite obvious the actors in these scenes are descending a ramp as they walk 'around' the wheel of the station from the background to the foreground. The Discovery's 38ft. centrifuge itself is the object of some debate: Clarke and science advisor Ordway have admitted that, as impressive as it looks, the centrifuge would need to have been many times larger or the Corriolus effect in the inner ear would have caused uncontrollable nausea in the crew members. There are also many questions as to the effect of the torque of rotation on objects inside a rapidly rotating centrifuge. According to Ordway's writings, the decision was made to have the centrifuge generate 1/6 G lunar gravity. Of course, rapid exercise such as Poole's running would be impossible in such low gravity.

Lux in Tenebris....

While the errors in gravity may have proceeded from a combination of physical necessity and lack of realistic information, the filmmakers did make at least one and perhaps two conscious, non-scientific choices, and that was regarding the behavior of light in deep space, in a vacuum -- and the fact that in space, stars do not twinkle. In the first case, the problem is, that far from any planetary body to reflect it, or atmosphere to soften it, light striking an object will create shadows that are absolutely black. If you were on the side of a spacecraft facing away from the sun, the darkness would be as complete as the darkest, moonless night (perhaps darker, actually). The only portions of the ship which would be visible would be those actually struck by the sun -- the other portions would be nothing but a blackness against the background of stars. This makes for difficult filming.

As with the 'lightened' shadows of the spacecraft in deep-space, anothor nod to the audiences' 'natural' expectations can be seen throughout the film -- the stars very bright against the blackness of Kubrick's space, twinkle noticably. By doing so of course they violate the physics of the vacuum, as it's earth's atmosphere which makes them appear to do so against the night sky. But it is such a sky one is used to seeing, and the intentional twinkling of the stars adds its portion to the 'believability' of the image, even though it is 'scientifically' incorrect.

In the first place, it's very hard to film a model to represent this fact exactly. And though it can be duplicated somewhat, it is, visually speaking, very disconcerting -- it simply isn't how we are used to seeing things. Add to the this the fact that the Discovery One would have been literally visible when seen from behind (or otherwise a mere sliver or portion thereof when seen from the side), some fudging was in order. One will note then, that the Discovery (and the pods) are lit (with both key light and fill) from angles it could not possibly have been seen from in reality.

Costumes and Sets

At the Academy Awards, in the year it was eligible, 2001 lost the award for make-up and costuming to Planet of the Apes. A profoundly confounded Arthur Clarke wondered very loudly whether the Academy voters had thought Moon-Watcher and company were real apes. Although that may have been unlikely, it is a fact that many less sophisticated persons than AMPAS members (if there are such) have indeed supposed real simians were employed in the Dawn of Man sequences.

But they weren't, of course; the man-apes were played by a troop of dancers, not only for the fact that they could easily be trained to act and to move as paleo-humans ought to have moved, but because their lithe frames would fit inside the ape costumes without looking like people inside of ape costumes. The chief among them, Dan Richter, a dancer, mime, and sometime actor (a close friend incidentally of John & Yoko's in London) played Moon-Watcher, the bone-wielder -- so named because in the book he would spend his quality-time in lunar contemplation.

Even knowing this, the scene is impressive to watch, and totally convincing no matter how many times it's seen. The apes' fear and fascination for the Monolith (which is, with due credit to Ligeti's music, the most moving non-verbal sequence ever put on film), their tragi-comic battle over water, and Richter's joyous and insane discovery of the bone as weapon (in both its instances) -- who prefigures in his physical expressions, like an archetype, later Kubrick hero/villains like Major Kong and Alex DeLarge -- are a director's triumph. Still, there is one shot where the ankle-zipper on one of the apes' costumes has been reported being seen; and, in the facial close-ups of the apes cowering in fear of the veldt at night, the fact that the mask of the costume is not attached to the skin around the eye-sockets becomes apparent, if one looks for it (usually it's the mood of these scenes, and the intensity of the actors expressions, which disguise this fact). It will be remembered that in Planet of the Apes it was just this kind of detail which made the make-up for that film famous -- however fake the rest of it looked (the muzzles of the masks in 2001 were executed far better -- they had teeth, for example...). It might not be too much to suggest that this one detail lost 2001 the Oscar in this category (assuming that the voting was done purely on matters of merit...).

Those zippers mentioned above are not the only gaffe with regard to costumes; as Bowman enters the HAL Logic Center, his left glove is detached from the suit, showing his wrist. And, in the famously abstract 'hotel room' sequence, as Dave in his spacesuit walks around the room, we can, in one shot, see his "smoking jacket" from the later shots laid out on the bed -- yet it isn't visible in other shots.

Space-helmets also provide a moment or two of interest. Although the clever conceit of a push-button "visor" makes the face of the stuntman invisible in some of the scenes requiring one, the reflectivity of the glass reflects the cameraman in a close up in the TMA-1 scene, in Floyd's helmet; there has been a report that this occurs again in a later shot, with the same kind reflection off of Bowman's helmet. In cases where the shot was hand-held, this would of course have been Kubrick himself. As for the sets...the Discovery model and sets are out of scale for each other. Gauging from the size of human beings to the space pods, the Discovery's forward sphere appears to be no more than forty feet high. While this is a close fit to the actual centrifuge set, the production drawings indicate that the forward sphere would have to accommodate the HAL brain room, the forward command center, the storage corridor, and the airlock...and as anyone can see from the production sketches (available in Piers Bizony's book 2001: Filming the Future), it'd be extremely difficult to do this.

Remember also that Discovery is a nuclear powered spacecraft, with a spherical "command module" separated from the nuclear power plant by a long spine -- the craft is supposedly 700 feet long, and the boxes on the spine are liquid hydrogen tanks. Clarke and Ordway have written that such a power plant would need gigantic wing like "cooling vanes" to radiate the heat of the nuclear reactor. Bizony's fine book shows several Discovery designs including such wings, but Kubrick decided not to use them, because wings would have suggested some kind of aerodynamic function. The thin appearance of the spacecraft, as finally decided looks far more like a pure space vehicle, and has the added benefit of looking very much like the skeleton, the bones of some prehistoric creature...

Also, the Aries lunar shuttle depicts the crew cabin at the top of the sphere in a certain perpendicular relation to the passenger cabin, which rings the sphere's sides; yet the stewardess makes a 180-degree turn (upside down) to enter the crew cabin after exiting the central elevator -- about 90-degrees too far around.

The Pods...

When Bowman enters the emergency airlock, the hatch is supposed to be blown off using "explosive bolts" (cf. Dr. Strangelove). In fact we see a big puff of smoke and Dullea emerges from the smoke into the airlock, the hatch itself simply disappears, in reality it would have preceded Bowman into the airlock. A frame by frame viewing of this sequence indicates that smoke seems to pour in around the still closed hatch and once it is obscured by the smoke Dullea is lowered into the scene (which was filmed vertically in the manner described for the spacewalks with his body obscuring the wires suspending him), apparently there was a jump cut at this point, or the hatch was simply slid open once it was obscured by the smoke the explosive impression was created by undercranking the camera.

Also, Dave emerges from Discovery in the final part of the film in the center pod, but in fact the only remaining pod would be the pod to the right (looking at Discovery from the front); the center pod was the one which killed Frank and spun off into space, the left pod was the one which Dave used for the emergency airlock maneuver.

Cameras (and Projectors)

In Floyd's telephone conversation with his daughter, as the little girl talks, she wiggles around -- and the camera moves slightly to keep her in frame: not bad for stationary picturephone. The actress is, of course, Kubrick's own daughter Vivian, and we can presume Kubrick again filmed the shot himself. Shame, shame.

There are also several views of Poole watching Bowman during the preparation and first spacewalk on a monitor. In a number of these the camera's location is inconsistent with the structure of the spacecraft -- in other words there is no place on Discovery from which the camera showing the image to Poole could have been located. A few can be ascribed to the cameras on the pod; but this is inconsistently portrayed, and many of the shots used are simply copies of the principle photography.

Also, the necessary placement of cameras during some of the effects shots create interesting juxtapositions. The scenes of Bowman and Poole floating weightless outside the Discovery and of Bowman in HAL's Logic Center were done by suspending the actors (or stuntmen) on wires, and filming from below. During Bowman's first EVA, we can see the shadow of the wires attached to his feet against the white pod, just after he emerges. And as Bowman floats in the brain room, his backpack is hanging down under the effect of gravity from the scenes shot from below -- though in the head down angle, the backpack appears to be floating.

Not only cameras, but projectors as well can create problems. When we first see the (rear-projected) control cabin readout in the Orion shuttlecraft, it shows the spin of the station relative to the Orion. When we see the Orion and the Station lined up (though a matte shot composited with stock footage of the Orion interior), the readout is still showing the same relative motion of the craft.

Readouts throughout the film do give an impressive feeling of reality. They were in fact hand-animated films projected back from 16mm film loops. If you watch carefully you will see the same readouts repeated from time to time, because the film was in a loop. This is especially visible in shots showing HAL's control panel later in the film.

Also, the same type of rear-projected readouts in the pod cabins project their images on Bowman's face as he retrieves Poole's body -- it's hard to imagine a video techology other than rear-projected film that would have this effect -- even though it adds immeasurably to the scene (their shifting, blink urgency both underscoring and contrasting Bowman's steely, inexpressive determination). It's hard, in this case, to classify it as an problem.

If the shoe fits...

In the opening title sequence, the sun rises over the earth, which is simultaneously rising over the moon: The scene is dramatic, but the comparative sizes of the sun earth and moon are wrong. In reality the earth looks tiny from the distance of the moon -- about 4 times larger than the moon in our own sky, but easily covered by a the outstretched thumb. In fact, throughout the film, the relative sizes of the earth, moon, sun, planet Jupiter and its moons are not consistent, and the phases of the various planets and moons are inaccurate from shot to shot. And in the first monolith sequence, the scene begins at sunrise with the man apes gathering around it. When they look up the monolith, a few minutes later we see the sun directly overhead, with a sliver of a moon aligned with it. The magical alignment of the Sun, Moon and Earth, and later the Sun, Jupiter and its moons, is not scientifically accurate, but was designed to give what Kubrick called "a magical feeling" to these scenes. And just before Dave is swept into the Stargate, we see the moons of Jupiter aligned in a way which would be astronomically impossible. This was done as part of the "magical" alignment as described above.

When Dave is shown in the "cosmic hotelroom" at the end of the film, we hear his breath, but not the oxygen flow of his suit, as was heard during the EVA sequences -- but is this not an error, really. It is consistent with the fact that no mere human instrumentality works in this virtually magical environment (note the final readouts on the pod's instrument panel "Non-Function"), and it also explains how Dave could breathe inside a sealed spacesuit without an oxygen flow, and how the pod itself merely disappears once Dave is outside it. Note that in Clarke's far more literal interpretation in the novel, the pod and spacesuit remain in the room until the end -- and rather than a magical meal on china, Dave eats blue food extracted from beer cans kept in a refrigerator and watches old TV shows. There is one glitch in this scene, however -- as Dave walks around the room the smoking jacket outfit which he is later seen wearing as an old man, can be briefly glimpsed lying on the bed...yet it disappears until the shots when he is wearing it. But given the overall sense of this scene, transcending as it does time & space, perhaps we shouldn't be so literal...

Getting Real...

These are just about all the glitches or gaffes that have been detected and reported in 2001 -- and to go any further, or to more exacting in one's standards as to what constitutes an error, would be excessive. In fact it begs the question as to how far one should go in exhibiting technical exactitude, as shots which fudge or overlook the facts (such as the slow, heavy gait of the astronauts at the TMA-1 site) are far less jarring than attempts to 'demonstrate' an awareness of some scientific fact (such as Floyd's ludicrously floating food-tray, which rises from his lap like a seance-table in some fakir's parlor). Ron Howard's Apollo 13 was technically perfect in it's depiction of zero-gravity -- but who would go so far as to suggest that this later film had anything like the gravity of 2001?