2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick called his light 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the comparison to an omnipotent creator would be presumptuous if it weren’t so apt. 2001 is a work whose pieces are so meticulously fitted together that it feels less like a movie than a self-contained environment, a cinematic biosphere to be visited and explored. The product of a celestial alignment of man, medium, and material, it’s a visionary fantasy made by a director who’s eager to draw viewers into his world. Seen today, it’s easy to understand why its 1968 release cast an instant shadow over the cultural landscape, and how it eclipsed filmgoers’ understanding of just what a movie can be.

2001 is structured as a four-act precis of the human experience, from the first spark of intelligence in our ape-like ancestors to an Everyman’s metamorphosis into a life-form poised between the human and the divine. The film’s movement is continually outward, away from ourselves, jumping from a prehistoric scrum over a muddy pool of water to a ship bound for the moon, from a massive rocket headed for Jupiter to an expedition through another dimension. The transitions are accompanied by abrupt tonal shifts (the lunar visit in particular ends with a knife-like twist), leaving the segments to be unified by the recurring appearance of an otherworldly sculpture that beckons mankind to its destiny. 2001’s diorama spans the history of evolution, and climaxes with the transcendence of human consciousness.

And yet the movie is more complicated than its broadly optimistic trajectory. H.G. Wells once said that you can see in the eyes of modern man the red-hot look of a caveman glaring out at you, and Kubrick exposes positivism’s soft underbelly with a skeptical vision of humanity that keeps 2001 from lapsing into New Age metaphysics or a cosmological Marxism. The homo sapiens inhabiting it are guarded, emotionally absent creatures, separated from their weapon-bearing ancestors by a crust of begrudging civility. Their scientific advances are a misleading measure of their development; mostly their technology has given them an inflated view of their own importance, making them prone to fits of pride and apathy. It’s a flawed race that may be unworthy of the gifts held out to it.

By the time of Dr. Strangelove’s opening titles, Kubrick had become attuned to the sexual byplay between man and his machines, the natural result of our tendency to create things in our image. 2001 further conflates the organic and the artificial, and when an ape-man recognizes a murder weapon in the form of a discarded bone, technology replaces sex as the nature of our Original Sin. The movie’s centerpiece is a deadly battle of wits waged between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the computer HAL 9000. HAL is a unique creation, in equal parts a younger sibling, scorned lover, and Jewish mother. (“I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question,” he nags the astronauts at one point, with a fey lilt in his voice supplied by Douglas Rain.) The cast of his red and yellow Cycloptic “eye” changes with each situation, moving from the look of an eager helpmate to that of a malign and watchful presence. Obsequious, capable of both embarrassment and cunning, and like any corporate cog anxious to cover his own butt, HAL is the most overtly human presence aboard the Discovery. When Bowman disables his memory bank and sends HAL’s intelligence into a tailspin of regression, it rakes up every fear we have about the extinction of our own consciousness.

Kubrick had a singular genius for extracting tension from stillness: in The Shining he’d create a race-against-time between the length of a Shelley Duvall monologue and the ash growing on her cigarette. In 2001, after HAL has murdered his co-pilot, Dave Bowman parks his space pod nose-to-nose with the mother ship, and the two aircraft hang in space glowering at each other in one of the angriest still images ever captured on film. And this spirit of minimalism infects the movie’s actors. Dullea’s performance verges on the immobile, leaving him to express concern and then outrage through minute readjustments of his cheekbones and the insertion of revealing hitches in his diction. Given its restraints, his performance is surprisingly effective, good enough to make us bristle along with Bowman when HAL condescendingly refers to “human error.”

2001’s reputation is baffling if one focuses too much on its story. The film’s coda, in which Dave Bowman completes an accelerated version of his life-cycle and is transformed into the Star Child, is a meandering letdown that plainly taxed Kubrick’s imagination. After the taut confrontation with HAL and the light-show that carries Bowman into his new existence, one wants something more than slippery symbolism, a room dressed like a Versailles bedchamber, and the art-film flourish of a man emptily contemplating a broken wine-glass.

But like The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, 2001’s seminal position in film history doesn’t stem from its content. It’s not important for what it says, but for what it is: a one-of-a-kind experience. New 70-mm. prints of 2001 will be touring a few American cities this winter, and viewing the film in this optimal form drives home the point that seeing it in degraded 35-mm. prints or on television is tantamount to seeing a Bengal tiger confined in a zoo—it’s not seeing it at all. It’s designed as a large experience, and in widescreen projection it becomes a wall of sensation that absorbs our attention. The new prints also feature a digitally remastered soundtrack that allows us to hear in pristine form the movie’s famous score—courtesy of the Strausses and Ligeti, among others—and its array of imaginative sound effects, such as the percussive blasts of an astronaut’s breaths during a long space-walk.

Some critics and movie buffs (including this one) would criticize Kubrick’s subsequent films for their sacrifice of human to formal concerns. With its deliberate pacing and chilly tableaux, 2001 looks like as if it belongs with Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket, as another heartless objet in Kubrick’s ice museum. But its lab-controlled atmosphere is humanized by weightlessness gags and a scene of wry toilet humor, by the sequence in which a scientist’s subordinates kiss up to him over a shrink-wrapped chicken sandwich, and by such spectacularly unnecessary curlicues as the “Blue Danube” docking sequence. It’s an offhandedly prescient movie, foretelling the eagerness of corporate multinationals to secure a toehold in space and, as if it were a matter of small concern in the late 1960s, the end of the Cold War. Above all there are the majestic collages of space and the heavenly bodies, of nature’s grandeur in its largest conceivable form.

Kubrick carefully separated the chaos of the ’60s from his movie, so that his work seems to have dropped from the sky, untouched by the events that produced Bonnie and Clyde or Weekend. In look if nothing else, 2001 has influenced nearly every sci-fi movie that came after it, especially in the starkly lit, infinitely detailed spacecraft models gliding across a velvety black frame. But nearly all of its descendants, with their smorgasbord of special effects and one-dimensional villainy, shrivel to nothing when their creators’ imaginations are weighed against Kubrick’s. None of them would see in the stars what he saw in them: a mysterious yet benign extension of the same natural forces that animate the cottonwood and the tapir. In an extraordinary outburst of heaven-sent clarity, Stanley Kubrick was allowed to see past himself and the rest of us, and to cavort with the gods of the universe.

– Tom Block