2001: A Space Odyssey

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

“If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.”
— Arthur C. Clarke

God, did I HATE Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the first time I saw it. I was a teenager, living a semi-normal life in a small Indiana town just outside of Chicago. For some reason, our local mall’s movie house was offering a special event revival showing of the film, and my best friend and I were determined to see it.

Now, we weren’t sci-fi nerds per se (and I apologize for the non-PC designation — I understand that, in the more modern vernacular, the proper term is “geek”), but we both loved what Harlan Ellison would categorize as “speculative fiction”: the wistful works of Ray Bradbury; the hard tech treats of Isaac Asimov; the radical individualism of Robert A. Heinlein. We even broadened our humble horizons with a little of Carl Sagan’s exploratory fact every once in a while. It was an era before George Lucas would sully the genre forever with his throwback homage version of the future. Before then, we reveled in the idea of what the brave new world would unleash — that is, of course, if we survived 1984.

So when something entitled 2001 promised to show us what life would be like 25 years from now — when we were 40!!! — we couldn’t resist queuing up. Of course, the general demographic make-up of the people in line should have tipped us off right away that this was not going to be your average glimpse into the new frontier. Long hairs mixed with mannered intellectuals, the casual film fan replaced by the die-hard, the driven, and the drug-fueled. Still, we paid our money, grabbed some corn and an orange drink from the sole soda machine and settled into favored seats near the back of the theater. What we anticipated was one wild and imaginative ride.

Once the movie started, however, we knew we were in for a long, laborious haul. As the first ape-man-monkey-creature started scratching itself, I turned to my friend and mused “Are we in the wrong theater?” By the time of the famous jump cut, where a tossed bone turns into an orbiting satellite, I already wanted out. Little did my adolescent mind understand what more lay in store. Stanley Kubrick (frankly, a name I really didn’t know at the time — shame, shame) wasn’t about to let his audiences off that easy. No matter how confused we were now, it was about to get a whole heck of a HAL 9000 worse.

Turns out that, in the year 2001, we discover a big slab of granite on the moon. Big deal. Two astronauts are sent to Jupiter to investigate a similar occurrence. Snore. They have lots of roundabout conversations with a talking computer (huh, what the hell is THAT???). Lots of talk about monoliths and the meaning of existence. DAMMIT, when is something…ummm…science fiction-y going to happen?!?

By the time Astronaut Dave Bowman entered the Space Pod to travel into that friggin’ floating piece of pretension, I was completely over 2001. No Jetsons-like cities loaded with badass spacecars. No cool future shock robots bringing harsh and cruel technology-based punishment, complete with lasers shooting out of their chests (pew!-pew!). Heck, not even a single extraterrestrial space babe in tight fitting fur bikinis, just like Uncle Gene and Star Trek promised.

And still, 2001 wasn’t done screwing with my underdeveloped brain. Not by a long shot. As the scent of marijuana mixed with Tic Tacs filled the theater, that infamous space baby made his grand finale entrance, and frankly, I was floored. I couldn’t believe it. Thoughts raced through my brain faster than a rocket into the stratosphere. Who made this crap? What the hell does that mean? A baby, what in the name of the…? Huh? What? But it was the last internal query that stayed with me, long after the bombast of the classical music score had drifted from my memory and HAL’s halting 9000 voice ceased resonating in my head.

This all must mean something. It must.

It took me nearly two decades to discover what “it” actually was. And like the classic quote used at the start of 2001‘s horrid sequel 2010, the answer was right in front of may face. To paraphrase Bowman’s astonishment, 2001 was “full of stars”, and I was about to enter my own monolith, confronting my own dull preconceptions about storytelling, filmmaking, and the role of the human race in the course of cosmic events.

The journey from hatred to homage and homily was a very tricky one indeed. After all, many of the movies that sit in my own personal top ten list — Citizen Kane, Miller’s Crossing, Pink Flamingos just to name three — were love at first cinematic site. I can remember crying in my cramped theater seat when Crossing‘s Gabriel Byrne tipped his hat to Albert Finney, thinking to myself that I had just witnessed a movie of astonishing brilliance. Kane instantly took my breath away, and really has never given it back, while Flamingos argued that movies could expand the language of taste, professionalism, and humor, perverting them into something scatological and satirical at the same time.

Still, Kubrick’s conundrum haunted me. For years afterward, I would occasionally revisit 2001, trying to make sense of my blatant displeasure. Even in college, the ape antics still bothered me. As time went on, I got more comfortable with the moon and Jupiter missions. The planetarium-like light show that kicked off the film’s final act still bugged the ever-lovin’ shit out of me, but I realized that my irritation was more aesthetic than contextual. I guessed I was destined never to “get” this film, to chalk it up to the other unknown quantities of the medium that never spoke to me the way other critics felt they should.

I’ll never forget the day it all finally clicked for me, the exact moment of movie magic clarity. Our local cable company had finally seen to it in their finite wisdom to add Turner Classic Movies to our service, and as luck would have it, I had three plus hours to kill one night and 2001 was showing. I settled in for another round of diminishing disappointment, and waited for the inevitable frustration to sink it.

It never came.

Instead, I was suddenly swept up in a film that finally made sense to me. I could see beyond the problems it had posed before and could actually understand the points Kubrick was trying to make. As each sequence fell into place, I soon realized I was looking forward to parts of the film I once regretted. And when the star child finally arrived, eyes full of wonder and wisdom, my heart leapt and I felt those familiar tears forming again.

Ever since then — and I have revisited the film a dozen times since that fateful eve — my appreciation has only grown. To me, 2001 is a monumental achievement in imagination, a technical accomplishment that has yet to be matched by modern F/X and technicians. Not only is it a solid a piece of serious science fiction, but it is one of the few films that has tried to provide a visual representation of intellectualized philosophical concepts. I have debated its merits with colleagues and co-workers, bristled at those who’ve dismissed its brilliance while scoffing at others who claim Star Wars is a better work of speculative wonder.

In many ways, 2001 is a film one must grow into. It requires a certain level of maturity and understanding that the average filmgoer just can’t possess. This is not meant to be pompous, just pointed. Kubrick and his chief collaborator, imminent author Arthur C. Clarke, demanded a lot of their audience, hoping they could expand their myopic consciousness enough to accept the big picture pronouncements they were making. For the creative team, 2001 wasn’t a glimpse into the future. It was an exploration of inner workings of the special species known as man.

Kubrick’s film was the first to acknowledge the sheer monumental triumph of humanity’s eventual conquering of the concepts of physics and natural law. By making science its servant, not its master, many modern sci-fi epics render their advanced environments and ideas as theoretically impossible; ships that soar to the tops of 700-story skyscrapers, individuals living in dwellings closer to the outer edges of the stratosphere than most explorers have even traveled.

But 2001 grounded its ideas firmly in reality. Kubrick spent inordinate amounts of time on detail, rendering the world his characters inhabited in both fantastical and practical terms. Such denseness pays off, since we truly witness scientific miracles in Stanley’s revolutionary realm. Large holes in planets open up, massive ships settle in to dock with others in mesmerizing, mechanical precision. Gravity ceases to exist, and has to be created and controlled. While others could argue this point, 2001 does paint a future world that could actually exist, one more easily understandable than a starship the size of a small city, or a transportation system that scatters humans like so many particles across space, only to reform them moments later in perfect biological working order.

2001 is also one of the few films to marvel at man’s ability to think. Part of the reason the opening seems so out of place is that we are focusing on the actual events occurring, not the subtext lying underneath them. It is easy to miss it with all the monkey business going on. Sure, some of the symbols are there. When we first see the primitives, they are a disorganized, chaotic lot. Once the monolith arrives, so does intelligence. Groups begin to form. We see tools being discovered — and more importantly, being implemented. But the most telling moment is the killing of the boar. Kubrick and Clarke were both concerned with the advancing arms race, the movie being conceived and created a scant few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. For them, knowledge is a double-edged sword, inevitably used for evil as well as good.

Russian characters are featured prominently in the movie’s second section, as Dr. Heywood Floyd flies to the moon to investigate the monolith sighting. This continues the subtext from the opening material, showing how knowledge continues to aid self-destruction and the desire to destroy others. It is again hit home when HAL becomes aware of the plot against him and takes it out on his shipmates — and he’s a computer, remember, the ultimate source of understanding. Even the aliens, feeling threatened by Earth’s reaching to the stars (turns out the monoliths are a combination stargate/warning device), react in an aggressive, insistent manner. Their ultimate goal may be to reconfigure man as a more salient, somber being (thus, the evolutionary step of the star child) but they are still going about it with a sense of sovereignty — and stridence.

But perhaps the biggest achievement of 2001 is Kubrick’s creative attempt to visualize man’s ultimate place in the cosmos. We are such a self-centered people, so narrow-minded and numbingly narcissistic that very few of us actually stop to consider what is going on outside the bond we have to our own country, let alone our own planet. But Kubrick and Clarke want to argue for a far more humble, retiring role in the universal construct. We may not be the only intelligent life out in space. Actually, we may not be the smartest beings at all.

2001 is a lot like a mental exercise a philosophy professor once taught us. The mind game goes a little something like this: Visualize yourself right now — where you are sitting, what you are doing. Now incorporate that image into a view of the building around you. Again, add that to a mental picture of the town you are in. Then add a vision of your state. Project yourself out even further. See the country you inhabit, view it in conjunction with the rest of the continents on the planet. Realize that Earth is just one of nine (and counting) bodies in this particular solar system and continue to paint in the picture. Add in the knowledge that it is part of a much larger galaxy called the Milky Way, and that often-seen swirl is just one of billions of other galaxies moving around a vast and infinite universe.

This is not meant to make you feel small and insignificant, however. According to the teacher — and Kubrick and Clarke as well — once you realize this daunting ideal, you finally start to envision your place in the celestial scheme of things. Earth and its inhabitants are not the center of creation, just an infinitesimal part in an otherwise unknowable scheme. Other films have tried to show us this concept — most famously, in the opening shot of Robert Zemeckis’s flawed interpretation of Carl Sagan’s Contact — but 2001 applies nuance, not obviousness, to get its point across.

When Dave Bowman finally “lands” inside the monolith, he finds himself in a cold, if still luxuriant room, the kind one might find in a posh hotel of the future. There, he goes about a routine that seems strangely normal. He eats. He sleeps. He sits and takes in his environment. All the while, though, he is aging. Right before our eyes, he jumps from youthfulness to elderliness, moving along the timeline of life at an amazingly rapid rate. The key scene is, of course, the shattering glass. When Dave accidentally knocks down a crystal goblet of wine, we see the vessel fall and break into a myriad of pieces. The dazed man stops and takes a look at the mess, seeing in it what we, the audience, understand is there. Within this once uniform and functional item is inherent chaos, a powerful and potent whole created out of billions of individual elements — all important, all necessary.

Thus is the state of man in the universe. In many ways, 2001 is a religious movie without the overwhelming God complex. It requires us to move beyond our own perceptions of place in the cosmic order and realize that there is something bigger, something greater than our small, human self. In Clarke and Kubrick’s world, it’s the notion of life beyond this planet, different from our own and far more intelligent that fuels their vision. But one could easily substitute omnipotent and omniscient aliens for the friendly face of a wise and world-weary mythological — or theological — father figure and still get the same results.

Yet as a simple motion picture statement, 2001 is also sublimely realized. It is not a movie about action. It is not a film about special effects or the exploration of alien worlds. It doesn’t pin its success on defeating a megalomaniacal enemy (though HAL has often been called one of the greatest villains in cinematic history), or pin its hopes on a hero that will eventually save the day. Over the years, when people ask me why I place 2001 at the top of my list, I argue that it’s the one film that consistently transcends its genre trappings to speak louder and more logically about the truths of the world than any other film made.

Most of the movies I look on as all-time classics — Pulp Fiction, Eraserhead, the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy — actually exceed their story archetype, move beyond their specialized cinematic category to create something wholly original and unique. About the closest anyone has come to approximating Kubrick’s conceit is Solaris (the original Russian film, not the current Clooney remake) and even then, pace was problematic as filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky confused stillness with grandeur.

2001 trumps them all because Kubrick and Clarke understood that, in order to make a movie about the coming of tomorrow, you had to literally conceive of something that was, and would remain, ahead of its time. As I have aged, I have obviously matured into this amazing movie, but I can’t quite say I’ve solved all its secrets. I am sure that as I continue to grow older, this movie will continue to deliver its wealth of undeniable wonders. I can hardly wait to see what it has in store for me when I’m 54 — or 64. Yes, I really did HATE this movie when I saw it for the first time. Now, I can’t imagine my filmic formation without it.