2001 at 50: What's so Special About Kubrick's Space Odyssey
“The cosmic ballet goes on.”
These words were uttered by Leonard Nimoy in “Marge vs. the Monorail”, a 1993 episode of The Simpsons. Though intended as a joke, it's a quote that actually is relevant to the legacy and frequent re-evaluation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, fifty years after it’s original release in April of 1968. Indeed, many have rightly defined the moon docking sequence set to Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube as an elegant ballet in the stars.
I’m far from the only movie enthusiast who considers Stanley Kubrick’s operatic masterpiece as the pinnacle of science-fiction film. If you look at any list or any book of the greatest movies, you’ll usually find 2001 at the top (alphabetically, but still). Spielberg called it the “Big Bang” of his filmmaking generation, Scorsese lists it among his favourite films, as did Federico Fellini; and directors like Ridley Scott, Alfonso Cuarón, William Friedkin, Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, Darren Aronofsky, and countless others have sung its praises and cited it as an inspiration.
But what is it about this movie in particular that continues to engross and inspire to this day? Even for its time, it was very experimental. It takes place across time and space, quartered into four chapters, it might as well be a silent movie for what little dialogue there is, and it really takes its time in establishing setting and environment. It’s not much concerned with individual people. Indeed, the characters of 2001 don’t have any real character by design. And of course, the movie leaves A LOT up to interpretation, certainly posing more questions while giving almost no answers. This is what compelled Roger Ebert to conclude “what he (Kubrick) had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music, or prayer.” And I agree with that assessment. 2001 is a piece of art as much as it is a movie, and like any great painting or piece of music, it’s defined by its opaqueness. It challenges viewers to draw their own conclusions and invites analysis. Sometimes that conclusion is “this sucks! It’s long and slow and boring” which is perfectly fine (I’d like to point out that while my generation is often broadly accused of not appreciating art for its own sake, respected critics like Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann were saying the same things in 1968). Regardless of differing opinions, it’s impossible not to talk about 2001 critically. There’s just too much in it that provokes speculation and theorizing. For the purposes of this essay, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel is going to have no bearing. It was written concurrently with the film but does not reflect the films’ intentions. Even if there were elements he and Kubrick included early in the development process, and were retained in the book, it’s the finished product of the movie that matters most. So there’s no background for the monoliths or explanation as to why HAL malfunctions.
So, what is 2001 about? Well one could argue it seems fairly obvious: 2001 is about evolution, both of humanity and technology, and how they effect one another. It’s clear the relationship between humans and technology is integral to the development of this unconventional story. From the very first simple bone made to be a crude tool all the way to A.I., humanity is reliant, maybe even dependent on their technologies. But let’s look closer at that theme. The first appearance of technology occurs with the arrival of the monolith on prehistoric Earth. The eerie black obelisk puzzles the hominids with its geometric diameters and mysterious aura evident of an advanced intelligent design. But for as fearful as these ape-like progenitors are, they’re also curious, with one -called Moonwatcher- going so far as to gingerly touch it. This is the action that sparks evolution, with Moonwatcher later figuring out how to use a bone to his advantage. With it, he kills the ape who’s taken over his tribes’ water hole. It’s notable that the first act the use of a tool inspires is one of violence. The apes discover technology, and immediately use it as a weapon. It speaks to a cynically violent view of human nature; Kubrick’s view of human nature. Early man is gifted with knowledge and cognitive development, and uses it for violence; at our basest, our instinct is towards aggression.
However, after the greatest match cut in cinema history, we see that the evolutionary influence of the monolith has led to immense creativity and innovation in humankind as well. But at the same time, we’re introduced to modern humans and they’re …dull. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is so complacent that he’s introduced on a spaceship -a marvel of human ingenuity- while sleeping. Humans have gotten to the point now that the wonders of space travel have not only bored them, but seemingly sucked the energy out of them. Floyd doesn’t even show much interest in the face of the monumental discovery of a monolith on the moon. It’s being kept a secret and the folks at Clavius Base know its importance, but when they discuss the finding of it on the voyage over, it’s in the tones of matter-of-fact bureaucrats. Once they reach the monolith they feel just as primitive as their ancestors, mirrored in the shot of Floyd touching the anomalous object. Then they take a cheap group photo. The sudden radio signal that follows is in essence the monolith shouting “Enough!” And just as it gave our species a push before, it does so again to compel us to explore.
The scene shifts us into the next part of the story, set only months later this time. We’re introduced to the spaceship aptly named Discovery, and we’re pretty sure we know its mission. The ship itself has an interesting appearance, shaped much like Moonwatchers’ bone, symbolizing that though it may be more advanced, it’s still just a tool. The Discovery’s crew consists of five scientists, three of whom are travelling in stasis. After a scene designed to show off the gravity-defying effect of the set and to play with the audience’s mind, there’s a rather strange exposition scene, where astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) watch a television interview of themselves on what was in 1968 a pure sci-fi device, but what we now call a tablet. Between this scene and an earlier one where Floyd communicates via visual telephone with his young daughter, the film exhibits an affinity for screens. This scene especially expresses a kind of narcissism, given these people are watching themselves. Introduced in the interview as the “sixth member” of the crew is HAL 9000, one of the most fascinating enigmas in the movie: a supercomputer with a calming voice and personality who controls most of the functions of the ship. From his own mouth (or from his translucent red iris on a panel) we hear how he is “incapable of error”, already showing substantial pride for a computer, something pointed out by the interviewer. Bowman posits that we may never know if HAL has real emotions. We soon find out that he does. When he misdiagnoses an exterior panel as failing, and is further corrected by an equivalent HAL system back on Earth, he insists on his infallibility by attributing any problems to “human error”. What happens next is famous. Bowman and Poole, concerned though they hardly show it, go to an EVA pod on the pretence of discussing maintenance, and conspire to disconnect HAL if he shows any further sign of malfunction. Unbeknownst to them, HAL reads their lips through the window of the pod, and fearing for his life, subsequently murders Poole by disconnecting his life support while on a spacewalk. This is what made HAL one of the most famous film villains, but through it all it’s interesting to note his behaviour. HAL is by far the most human character in the movie, demonstrating another more fearful step in our evolution: when our technology surpasses us. To quote film academic Peter Hutchings “Advanced technology might be a source of wonder, but there is no escape from human nature via this technology.” It’s not too dissimilar to Asimov’s I, Robot or (for a less pretentious example) Wall-E. Humans have let machines run everything, and perhaps that is a reason for the indolent existence they now seem to be living –the reason Poole is completely detached by a happy birthday greeting from his parents for example. But what’s most foreboding are the emotions HAL has developed: pride, anxiety, stress, and fear, all of which cause him to react compulsively. HAL never loses his calming voice (provided by Canadian Douglas Rain); he never even gets angry. But he does act on impulse, as humans often do. When Bowman goes out to retrieve Poole, HAL realizes he may come back and connect the murder to him, so he takes steps to prevent that, including killing the other scientists by causing their life support to fail. If he can’t trust Bowman how can he trust the rest? While some see him as an evil computer resorting to murder because humans are inferior, really he’s just reacting in an extreme means of self-preservation.
And it doesn’t work. Bowman goes out to retrieve Poole’s body and when he returns, HAL won’t let him in. He insists he can’t let Bowman jeopardize the mission, but all it really is is fear. Bowman, in the first showing of human ingenuity since the apes, manages to physically get back on-board the Discovery. It’s here HAL’s humanity is undeniable. Since we first met this A.I., Kubrick was clever enough to frame a number of scenes from his fish-eye point-of-view, forcing the viewer to identify with HAL, see the world as he sees it (in one foreshadowing hint of Bowmans’ creative impulses, he’s seen from this vantage point to be an artist). Now we feel all of his panic as Bowman makes his way to HAL’s processor core to disconnect him. “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.” He attempts to rationalize with and assuage Bowman but it has no effect. I wonder if Bowman would still be doing this if HAL were a human. When he extracts HAL’s data modules one by one, it gets worse, the result being much the same as brain surgery. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. My mind is going.” Ultimately HAL has your sympathy down to his last spurt of consciousness, reciting the song he learned when he was first activated: “Daisy”. Upon complete disconnection, a pre-recorded video appears of Floyd telling Bowman the truth of their mission -tracking the mysterious radio signal sent out by the monolith and discovering its origin. When next we see Bowman, he’s abandoned the Discovery for an EVA pod. And so this segment of the film ends much like the first, with man committing murder.
The film continues to follow Bowman into the final instalment, epically titled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”. Arriving at Jupiter, Bowman finds an ominous monolith floating in space. The movie goes full-abstract here when Bowman is then pulled into a kaleidoscopic vortex of bright colours, streaming lights, and dimensions, every so often cutting back to Bowman’s face or eyes in haunting imagery. Gradually, the features of this Stargate grow clearer, tangible topographies begin to appear as though a world is being formed. Eventually, Bowman finds himself in a neoclassical Victorian suite, adorned with white architecture. As he explores this dimension it’s clear time abides by different rules, as he witnesses his future before becoming it. Already aged by the experience, he sees himself as an old man before becoming that old man, sees himself as a dying man in bed, before becoming the dying man, etc. The most curious thing though is that the ancient dying Bowman sees the monolith at the foot of his bed, and whether it’s part of this ageing process or the monolith’s own doing, he’s next seen to have transformed, or perhaps evolved, into a foetus in a glowing orb –the Star Child; and is subsequently sent back to Earth, where he watches the planet contemplatively from space.
After audiences are sufficiently blown away by this ending, they usually ask some variation of ‘what the hell was that?’ What does 2001 mean? There is no easy answer to this -Kubrick refused to give one. And it’s prompted all manner of interpretations over the decades from critics, audiences, scholars, all united in their attempts to figure out this mystifying movie. For all its obvious allusions to evolution, perhaps it’s an allegory for creation. The monolith at the beginning is essentially the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s quest to find them is a journey to find a god, even if they’re unaware of the role the monolith played in their development as a species. But then, the monoliths were surely created too, their form is too specific to be natural, and it’s clear they have sentience on some plane. If that’s the case, we’re looking for their creators. But then what is our existence? The monolith was there to give us an evolutionary nudge all so that we would find them again and presumably pass on to the next stage in our evolution. That’s the most likely reading for what the Star Child is at the end -the first child of a rekindled human race. Could this form be a higher being, or is it punishment for our arrogance, and tying back to the theme of our technology, our complacency in a technological world? Perhaps Kubrick agrees with HAL’s logic of human error -it was humans after all who designed HAL. Whether it was a malfunction, or the engineers did their jobs too well, it can be argued that what happened aboard the Discovery is attributable to humans. Kubrick’s pessimism of humanity is evident in a lot of his movies, from Dr. Strangelove to Full Metal Jacket. And you get the sense he’s very sympathetic to the machines of this world, spending so much time marvelling at their beauty before putting the audience in the shoes of HAL. He doesn’t care about the human characters at all; Keir Dullea even affirms the cast was directed to underplay all their scenes.
But of course the heaviest questions about the meaning of the film lie in that last segment, a cryptic illustration of where we’re headed. Most agree the environment Bowman suddenly finds himself in is some equivalent to a zoo -a recognizable, if not quite ideal and possibly artificial habitat for him, where he can be observed and/or experimented on by the ambiguous aliens. And it’s quite important that they be ambiguous. As Ebert said, “the alien race exists more effectively in negative space -we react to its invisible presence more strongly than we possibly could to any actual representation.” Kubrick believed, and many would share his belief, that if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe it would be in some form outside our capacity to understand, given how complex and anomalous the universe is. And what is the purpose of the Star Child? He certainly seems to be a new stage of evolution, but what does that mean for Earth or the human race. I think it’s a question that doesn’t have an answer. The Star Child just is, and whatever happens next is irrelevant (no, I haven’t seen 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and I don’t care what Peter Hyams thinks). It goes back to Ebert’s assertion this movie is a philosophical statement more than a narrative. Kubrick scholar Norman Kagan contends the director knows no more than us: “After all his irony and elegant cinematography, Kubrick has in a sense never really astonished us. He is unable to suggest what a transcendent being would do.” I believe 2001 is the most agnostic movie ever made. It posits that the true nature of the universe, and by extent life elsewhere in it, is mysterious and enigmatic, and unknowable to humankind because it’s beyond our comprehension. But with that reasoning, we return to the initial question of what is 2001: A Space Odyssey about?
Really, it’s about mankind’s search for meaning in the universe. What is our role in the grand scheme? Where have we come from, where are we going, and what will we have to sacrifice to get there? Kubrick’s not too kind to humanity in this movie but I think he does have some faith. Why else would the Star Child exist but to be a beacon of hope for the next chapter in human history. I get why some would read him as a foreboding omen of the end, but I just don’t see that. He’s too beautifully evocative. I see something better. Bowman was reborn, so why can’t the rest of us be? We may have gotten carried away with our technology, become shells even, but there is spirit still, an interest in finding that ultimate understanding that the Star Child attains. Let’s hope we deserve it.
Kubrick didn’t set out to make 2001 an audience-pleaser. He wanted to make, as Arthur C. Clarke puts it, “the proverbial good science-fiction movie” and didn’t care whether audiences took to it or not. Further, Kubrick said his goal was to “hit the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.” He saw his movie as being among those esteemed higher art forms. And it is. With it’s ground-breaking visuals and expressive music, giving Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra renewed popularity, he did make a movie that both has the visual lusciousness of a great painting and the musical eloquence of a symphony. But then, in its’ existential ponderings, it achieves the heights of the storytelling medium too. Its detractors will criticize it claiming it doesn’t have much of a story, but it does have one, and an indelibly strong one at that. You just have to look past its unconventionality to see it. 2001 truly is the film all science-fiction movies that have followed owe a debt to. Though many have tried, none have equalled or surpassed it. Critic James Verniere noted in his review “With 2001, Kubrick in effect did to film what his monolith makers did to the human race: forced it along, made it evolve.” Nobody will ever have the answers to it, no one will truly figure it out. But we’ll keep experiencing it as we have for fifty years, very much like humanity searching for that elusive meaning in the infinite cosmos.