2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
We stand here confronted with the inadequacy of most any review of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the most cinematic of experiences possible from a major, mainstream studio film, which translates in some way to its being so difficult to pin down verbally — its essence is not easily captured. But it’s not impossible, of course, and it’s far too rich and rewarding a film for us not to at least try. Alfred Hitchcock explained “pure cinema” thus: “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.” Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is a fervent, exciting, witty enactment of such a theory: it achieves the highest level of visual storytelling while presenting the viewer with a constant flow of ideas but nevertheless providing a sensory, galvanizing experience so absent of overreaching and rife with such a vague and lyrical spirit of magic it wouldn’t be difficult to see it daily, to coax a new experience out of it each time.
But we use the term “magic” loosely because 2001 occurs in — and to a very large degree, remains true to — the language of science as much as the language (its own language really, as unique as the custom MGM logo that precedes it) of cinema. Though it possesses considerable levity, however deadpan, its intellectual seriousness sets it apart from the overwhelming majority of films that were labeled “science fiction” in the decades leading up to it and certainly those that have made the genre so profitable since then. It is a film about human progress, about evolution, the importance of discovery and exploration, and the human capacity for same, not a film about time-traveling damsels in distress or monsters on forbidden planets. It’s a film that speaks to the better part of our own spirit of curiosity and yearning. Outside of the spirited, slightly melancholy Arthur C. Clarke prose that set the project into motion, its sole precedent might be the Méliès film Voyage Dans La Lune — though an exercise in the fantastic, it finally boils down not to any overwrought molding of extraterrestrial existence as a comic book-level contrivance but to the bare reality of people pointing up to the sky and needing to know what is beyond them.
Pauline Kael would eventually call 2001 “the biggest amateur movie of them all”; author Jerome Agel would label it a “musical comedy.” Both are essentially correct, even if at least one of them meant their observation derisively. The poetry runs amok here: space stations and commuting vessels given genuine awe and reverence as Strauss blares romantically, an avid and wide-eyed sense of both novelty and skepticism when approaching the marvels and pratfalls of the near future. The film is huge, intimidating, scary, hopeful, but more than anything it’s beautiful, and in an honestly soul-stirring manner poorly explained by any aesthetic concerns. Its Homeric sweep rattles something deep in our bones, as deep as the reaction of the apes to the Monolith in its earliest depicted turning point.
The image set and central conceit of 2001 is so familiar now, and such a part of the culture, that it’s both difficult to imagine what a bizarre cultural moment it must have been in 1968 and easy to forget what a brilliant work of minimalism its narrative is. Operating from Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” and little more than Kubrick’s interest in the possibility of extraterrestrials beyond that, the two of them chose to take the most elegant and simple, yet enticingly mysterious, approach of all. We never see aliens; we never hear ideas or themes explicitly stated. The existence of alien life forms, their awareness of an advancing life on Earth, is pared down and simplified to the presence of a tall black Monolith — “its origin and purpose still a total mystery” — a fearsome (accompanied by an oppressive Gyorgy Ligeti choir) and troubling signal we nevertheless instantly appreciate for its oblique purpose, as if instinctively. It seems nearly supernatural for Kubrick and Clarke to have even devised it.
Kubrick’s career had been on a steady climb since his mounting of the prestigious critical success Paths of Glory, which directly led to his being hired by Kirk Douglas to replace Anthony Mann on Spartacus, but 2001 stands as both a thematic progression and a technical quantum leap forward from his prior film, the satiric comedy Dr. Strangelove, which shares a number of the more ambitious film’s concerns and themes — certainly reflective of the volatile decade in which they were made. 2001 frees itself from much of the Cold War paranoia that Clarke, always a pragmatist with a subservience to universal beauty even in dread, would undoubtedly have balked at, but it retains its status as both a relentlessly optimistic tale (how strange to call something that encompasses the breadth of human history a “tale”) and an impassioned warning call. It’s the largest, most universally relevant and poetic of all major movies.
What, then, is this poem about? Put simply, it’s a direct treatise on evolution with mankind’s relationship to technology as its center. Though Kubrick and Clarke were wrong about the expansion of space travel to a civilian concern by the turn of the century, they predicted the spirit of the times unfailingly (as Clarke, unlike Kubrick, lived to see). The first Monolith appears as a specter of fear and possibility to a small tribe of early humans tormented by a battle over a watering hole. (On repeat viewings you’ll note the parallel of the undisturbed Earth landscapes in these early shots to the unfamiliar strangeness of Jupiter two hours later.) One of them is inspired to use a stray bone as a weapon which subsequently allows him to kill the leader of the other tribe and exercise free reign over the watering hole, thus taking a broad step toward the future, toward innovation and war. We cut to that future instantaneously in a breathtaking edit that follows the weapon being thrown into the air and drifts via match cut to a space station millions of years later.
As Robinson Jeffers wrote, by this point man’s “powers and his follies have become fantastic”; the tool of the pre-humans has become the technology of now, which has allowed the manifestation of a sense of wonder to the benefit of science and into actual commercial space travel, but has also on some level enslaved us — perhaps defined by the way that the film first depicts a “tool” being used specifically in service of violence on other humans. The people in 2001 no longer talk in language or with depth but with detachment, banality, saying little actually relevant to what is truly occurring. We do glean the information to learn that another Monolith has been found on the Moon, and as it’s being investigated it emits an ear-piercing radio signal pointing toward Jupiter, an alert to the extra-terrestrials that Earth’s intelligent life has progressed to this point. Some, including the late Ray Bradbury, would complain about the flatness of the human characters compared to the machines they were operating, missing the point entirely: that in mankind’s quest to go farther and learn more, the film posits that it has sacrificed its essence of passion and curiosity in favor of bureaucracy and routine (much like the people, coincidentally, in Truffaut’s Bradburdy adaptation Fahrenheit 451).
The intelligent computer HAL 9000, the star of the film’s third and longest sequence, certainly illustrates this parable more than effectively. It behaves more as a human than the astronauts and crew on the mission to Jupiter to find the meaning of the earlier radio signal, and ultimately its fraught emotions become violent and vengeful as it destroys life in order to prevent any jeopardizing of the Mission, or perhaps to jeopardize it. HAL is as fascinating a creation as Norman Bates; Douglas Rain provides the computer’s soothing, nonchalant, finally fearful voice. The cavernous computer’s dismantling and scary-funny song interlude — one of the most tense and beautiful sequences ever shot in any film, and very much a product of Arthur C. Clarke’s vivid imagination as much as it is a visual dream for Kubrick — is a brilliant mirror for the discovery of bone-weapons and skull-crushing earlier on. The sole surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea, a competent actor surely cast for his luminous eyes which figure prominently in the last act of the film), asserts his power over the technology that’s long controlled him, and his reward is to discover and become a party to humanity’s next act. His transformation is signaled in film language as well — fast cutting, handheld, and POV shots become the norm for the final half-hour of the film, with fewer arid static surveys of the scenes and action. Mere gadgetry can no longer decide the direction of mankind, as a boon or a hindrance.
It’s Bowman himself who now decides to mount a small pod and head into Jupiter’s airspace, following yet another Monolith. The open-ended finale bears written explanation even less than the rest of the film, with even Clarke himself failing in the novelization to evoke its magic, but in truth it’s more straightfoward than is generally implied — Bowman travels through a wormhole and seems to age many years as he bears witness to shocking, abstract, strangely colored sights he cannot understand. At the conclusion of his journey, he is thrust into a Louis XVI hotel room, evidently constructed from the unseen aliens’ understanding of life on Earth for a man like Dave, and sees himself grow old — then becomes something metaphorically weighty and different, something more: the manifestation of enlightenment. It’s an ending more open-ended than anything else in the already cryptic film, though its thrust seems clear enough after some contemplation and as with Patrick McGilligan’s nearly concurrent TV series The Prisoner, there’s simply no possibility that a more straightforward conclusion could have served the vividly dreamlike narrative without major comedown or disappointment. Some would crow that they didn’t understand, but a finale less ambiguous and lyrical would’ve been criminal, would’ve robbed everything before it of its meaning and final cinematic legacy.
It seems oddly reductive to even conceive this as a “cinematic” experience, which sounds hyperbolic, but how many films bite off this much of the entirety of human experience and don’t bristle at the size of it? In this space we’ve faulted Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, for instance, for attempting a much more fragmented and spiritual variation upon the same thing, which is all the more reason to hail the impeccable completeness of craft and storytelling expertise Kubrick exhibits here. He is right to define humanity and science through enigma both foreboding and comforting, for the wonder he therefore conjures up. As he later said: “I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to ‘explain’ a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film — and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level — but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.”
That’s one reason it’s such a warm and enjoyable film to revisit; it’s not merely a musical, as Agel said, but it feels like a piece of music, without thoroughly divesting itself of linear storytelling or becoming a purely avant garde film. Kubrick’s grandly ingenious move seems to have been, put simply, to pick up the story he and Clarke conceived but also the ceaselessly romantic language in Clarke’s prose and apply these things to create a film of both hard, clinical truth and powerful cinematic romance. The Blue Danube sets us off into both a massive flight of fancy and an intelligent story, of such a higher caliber than even the brightest of prior science fiction, meant to sweep a person up and to be taken seriously. The contradiction of abstract and concrete is mirrored by the authors’ ideals for humanity — the skeptics who wonder. But Franco Zeffirelli would shortly phrase it better than anyone in a telegram to Kubrick: “YOU MADE ME DREAM EYES WIDE OPEN.” Decades later, the dream continues.