Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in 2001

2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick
Warner Bros.
2 November 2001

“The sixties happened a long time ago. The adventure is over.”
— Ken Hollings, Destroy All Monsters

Dead to Rights


It’s been tricky these past 33 years, to maintain faith in the grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s most publicized vision: that vast double-decker space station twirling around Earth, Strauss lilting on the soundtrack as humanity drops its own humble clockface into a universe of rotating, revolving bodies. This image’s grace and beauty, which the intervening quarter-century has not at all diminished, has made the real-life space program look awfully ungainly by comparison. Cast against high-minded promises of lunar colonies and Mars missions, the space program — with all its current troubles — should make the answer to the following question seem pretty obvious. But bear with me: Now that we’ve seen 2001, was 2001 right?

Let’s recap: the year after the movie came out, Apollo 11 landed on the moon to much, much fanfare. This is probably the military-industrial establishment’s greatest achievement in a line of work it has since shown little taste for: technological advances that don’t annihilate, or promise to annihilate, people by the thousands.

Still, linking the technologies of the space race and those of mass killing isn’t hard. The ICBM and the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo rocket series are close siblings; some of their replicas and gutted fuselages appear at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum right next to the V-2. Iconographies of exploratory missions and those of forcible colonizations are symmetrical as well, the television image of Neil Armstrong’s tinfoil flag in Tranquility Base evoking the Peary expedition to the North Pole and the Iwo Jima ceremony in equal measure. Like many another colonization or exploration, then, the moon shot had a dual purpose: part human consciousness-raiser, part overwrought flag-raising exercise. Yes, NASA’s mammoth undertaking was a first step toward finding a new home for a humanity that was rapidly poisoning its old one, but it was also just aimed at making the Russians look bad.

Since Apollo 11, the Russians and everybody else have done a smashing job of looking bad on their own. In our own time, alas, the closest anyone has ever gotten to Kubrick’s Blue Danubian Vision of Orbital Bliss is the notoriously smelly Mir, or the over-budget, behind-schedule International Space Station. Now that we’re all at “war”, the next we hear about this space station will probably be years hence, when — just as unfinished as it is now — it follows Skylab and Mir back down on top of us.

Anyway, while we wait for this we can enjoy our new space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, which seems to have taken an unrequested encore in the past few months. So much for the space program’s double iconographies (or, actually, so much for iconographies at all: who can plant a flag in near-earth orbit?). And so much for finding people a new home; with SDI, our last remaining escape route will finally be cut off. We’ll finally have ourselves dead to rights.

To return to the main question, then, 2001 — like 1984 — has neither come true nor been proven false, at least if we look at what has happened to the space program since the movie was made. To the gee-whiz crowd wowed by its special effects, 2001 seems to ask, Will humankind make it this far into the vastness of space? But in the Year 2001, unfortunately, it’s becoming pretty clear that exploring space was never the intention.

Instead, our steadily militarizing, “globalizing” space program — SDI, the International Space Station, the Shuttle with its casual mix of civilian and military missions — is more like the fulfillment of prophesies found in the red-scare space invasion movies of the 1950s. Examples, if you can stand them, include Rocketship X-M, The Phantom Planet, and exactly one other cosmic Earth-uber-alles flick for each particle in the known universe. These movies gleefully foresee that “democratic” order will be enforced from orbit, and that all the world’s nations will coalesce into a militaristic government devoted to shielding the world’s populace against badly dressed freaks from outer space.

Bear in mind that most of these movies were made with the gratefully acknowledged assistance of one or another military branch. And then consider: prophesies are more likely to come true if the prophets are making some of the decisions.

A random example of the red-scare space invasion genre’s durability, over time and borders? Two years after 2001 came out, the year 1970 ushered in that decade’s I-Like-Ike nostalgia fad with the U.S. release of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, a monster-cum-alien saucer movie featuring a buzz-cut American who saves the world. Astronaut Nick Adams snaps his earthling fingers in the faces of would-be alien conquerors and, though he represents the entire planet, snarls in gloriously undubbed American English: For the sake of humanity, he declares, “We’re gonna fight to the last man, baby!”

So the world has a global army for the people’s protection, but according to Nick’s military strategy this same army won’t rule out forcing waves of civilians into the fray, not even if such methods consume the entire species. Dammit, we’re that tough. Or, at least, we’re that stupid. In these movies I’ve never once heard anyone ask: if the whole planet is ultimately expendable, what exactly is it this military is supposed to be protecting? Seems like a pretty good question to me but… you know, whatever.

In this light, 2001 and the revolutionary epoch of its making seem a mere Technicolor blip in an otherwise olive drab post-World War II empire. After the tuned-in, peace-and-love crowd was done grooving on 2001‘s far-out special effects, the military-industrial complex resumed its regularly scheduled programming and, following close behind, Hollywood gradually got back to compiling its exhaustive catalog of extraterrestrial menace’s every possible permutation. Thus these many years since, we have trudged glumly to the local multiplex for Independence Day, Armageddon, Starship Troopers, Mars Attacks!, Evolution, the Alien series, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam, as though 2001, and 1968, had never happened. As though the Neanderthal’s bone in “The Dawn of Man” had simply fallen back to the ground.

To The Last Man, Baby

Since the space program hasn’t helped us decide whether 2001 was right or not, maybe we can answer the question by figuring out what the movie means. Too bad this is so hard to do.

2001 is divided into four parts. For most writers, the quickest way into this inscrutable movie has been through Part 3, by looking at HAL, the Discovery spacecraft’s killing-me-softly onboard computer. As the Discovery approaches Jupiter, HAL snuffs out everyone on the ship except astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). This unkindness is usually attributed to an inexplicable, temporary insanity on HAL’s part, the point of said attribution usually being something interesting about the potential for madness even in purely rational artificial minds, or — roughly the opposite idea — likening insanity to a state of mechanical failure.

Both of these interpretations are a lot of fun. But suppose — as Mark Crispin Miller did so excellently in the film journal Sight and Sound a few years back — that HAL, in exterminating the human crew, is actually acting on orders to do just that if the people on board get out of hand? When Dave Bowman is locked out of the Discovery for fetching Frank Poole’s (Gary Lockwood) woebegone carcass, HAL explains that the crew is being downsized to zero because they are “jeopardizing the mission.”

Is it crazy to ice every human being on the mission? Sure, but only if you assume that the mission was to preserve humans to start with. Turns out that involving people in space exploration is not without its downside, as super-executive Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) finds out on his trip to the moon in Part 2. People are unpredictable. Faced with awe-inspiring occult evidence of extraterrestrial consciousness, pesky humans might actually — aw, for chrissakes — paw at it like a bunch of orangutans! Take a group snapshot in front of it to send home to their families!

Since humans — who can never quite seem to get the rules straight — cause all kinds of problems with their spontaneity, it’s a small wonder Dr. Floyd daydreams about getting them out of the game altogether. Somehow the local settlers on Clavius trust Dr. Floyd even after he confesses to designing a cover-up for the discovery at the base, a pretty creepy one involving an “epidemic.” In a speech he gives on the outpost, he points out the importance of civilian “preparation” and “conditioning” for first-ever contact with space aliens. Without such precautions the meddling populace, with all its “mass panic,” could easily spoil the whole game. In any way he can — from less-than-benign cover story to world-scale “conditioning” — the doctor is eager to herd all these damn people out of the way so Western Science and this cold, unfeeling alien intelligence can get on with it, already.

Given this case study of the guys running the Discovery operation, it’s no surprise that when the mission gets underway the humans on it act like they’ve been written out of the project plan. They sketch. They torture themselves with unwinnable games of chess. They give interviews to the BBC. They jog.

Too bad they never deduce from all their free time that they’re strictly optional — highly educated, spacebound temps. Actually, mankind’s intended emissary to Jupiter’s otherworld is, not Frank or Dave or the contingent of frozen scientists, but HAL himself. A human crew is handy for public relations, but Dr. Floyd designs the mission to tolerate its human components only so long as they don’t get in the way. This demonstrates corruption in its consummate form: in the alienation of a species from itself. What kind of human would view other humans as subordinate to their tools, and particularly on a search for something completely unknown? Wouldn’t a human’s capacity to improvise be useful in such a situation? Apparently not. To the last man, baby.

Not yet as irredeemably nihilistic as many of us seem to be today, Kubrick (or perhaps his partner Arthur C. Clarke) ultimately gives the victory not to Dr. Floyd’s remote-controlled coup, but to Dave — who, traversing Kubrick’s otherworldly light show, gradually sheds all of his tools as they outlive their usefulness. First the Discovery, then the pod, and finally, his suit.

What follows is an unembarrassed affirmation that life, consciousness, and reason are valuable. The climactic kaleidoscope — of cell division, mountain landscapes that bubble and simmer primordially in negative color, platonic forms — is the soup of life and birth, conjecture on what a living thing’s first thought might be. It exults, merely. Some people have found the most baffling part of 2001 to be the orbiting fetus that closes the show, but I bet Kubrick worried that the big baby at the end might make the whole thing a bit too obvious.

This theme — “life matters” — is hard to see not because it’s complicated or unfathomable, but because it’s easy to assume that a filmmaker as austere as Kubrick would close his crowning achievement with a grander theme, one less quaint. Back to the original question: 2001 isn’t right or wrong because, despite the name, it isn’t a prediction, only the story of a peculiar run-in between two value systems that are still dueling now, just as they were dueling in 1968. Only the way they duel now looks a little different. And there is at least one key change between that era and today: if the idea that life matters seemed quaint in the ’60s, then it’s downright obsolete in 2001, gone the way of the 8-track and the Betamax. It may remain obsolete until all of us have been buried under poisoned earth, to the last man, woman, and child.