****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter
screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick, based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel"
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Alex Jackson Seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a film about evolution is natural but ultimately inaccurate, I think. The Darwinist views evolution as an external response to the world--a survival mechanism--while the Nietzschian views it as an internal, ethical one. Both are touched on in 2001 and both are misleading in that they fail to acknowledge that Man's evolution in this film is born out of destiny. Out of fate. More appropriate to view evolution here in terms of the lifespan of the butterfly or moth. Guided by a supreme alien intelligence, the species of 2001 evolves from the larva (ape) to the pupa (human) to the butterfly (star child).
However, while there are three stages to the evolution of Man, and though we've been conditioned to view the film as having three parts, 2001 is explicitly structured into four parts. In addition to detailing the larval stage, the pupal stage, and the metamorphosis into butterfly, Kubrick depicts the rupture and disposal of the cocoon. According to the informative FAQ at alt.movies.kubrick, the four-part structure is intended, in part, to mimic that of a symphony--in particular, Beethoven's Ninth. Like that of the Ninth, the first movement of 2001 is standard, laying a thematic foundation for the rest of the symphony. The second movement is jokey, the third meaty and dark. The fourth and final movement is rapturous, orgasmic. This symphony structure announces 2001: A Space Odyssey as an abstract work of pure cinema as opposed to a dramatic work.
Perhaps there's another reason for the four-part structure. Kubrick seemingly wishes to move past the limitations of the three-oriented universe. The number three is the number of aesthetic perfection and of the trinity and the crucifixion. With the four-part structure, Kubrick transcends the limitations of Christ, the "human God." The final evolution in the final movement of 2001: A Space Odyssey shows the hero Bowman entering a fourth dimension. There, he's confronted with older versions of himself; like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, he has become "unstuck in time," or rather he is not limited to a perspective defined only by the moment. The progression towards the Star Child state happens chronologically, but in this segment of the film we feel as though the chronology is truly random and has been put into linear order solely for our benefit. In the other three movements, it moves that way because that's the way it is.
The last two shots of 2001 are tantalizing in their implications, and they indicate a filmmaker in full command of his craft. The first is a zoom-in to a black monolith that has abruptly appeared in the dying Bowman's bedroom. The monolith looks like it was painted directly onto the celluloid. It hasn't any sense of depth. I'm reminded of Edwin Abbott's Flatland, in which the narrator, a square, leaves his two-dimensional world in a dream to visit the first dimension, where he appears to be a simple line. The monolith was a three-dimensional object previously in the film, but here it has taken on other qualities that are difficult (nay impossible) for us to perceive. Similarly, the famous closing shot shows the Star Child floating in space. How big is the Star Child? It's deceptively huge. As we cut from a close-up of the monolith to the Star Child in space, on some level we must ask if we are in fact examining the surface of the monolith in microscopic detail. More likely, the Star Child and the aliens that brought him to realization exist within a dimension where such concerns are ultimately meaningless.
If 2001: A Space Odyssey is inexplicable, it's because once we have any grasp about the "what" and the "why" (beyond the broad context in which I'm placing it), the entire experience becomes worthless. We don't see the aliens not because it's better to imagine them--we don't see them because we're not supposed to be able to conceptualize them at all. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a religious film. It's about man finding his place with God in the universe. The great question among the fans at alt.movies.kubrick is whether this film is optimistic or pessimistic. I believe the answer is contained in its religiosity. A belief in a singular omnipotent, omniscient God implies that there is something greater than Man watching over us. A lack of belief in God implies that there isn't. The secular humanist, who I imagine could not have much real affection for 2001, may argue that belief in a higher power inhibits the progression of us as a society. Although the co-existence of human free will and the omnipotent, omniscient God is a major issue in theology, on some level free will must lose out against God. If God can't guide us with an infinite wisdom and power, we haven't any reason to believe in Him, do we? I'd also argue there is another problem, one with which many religions and social scientists would take issue: a belief in God suggests an inflexible, absolute morality that ignores the natural changes of civilization and finally ceases to be functional.
In Utah, the preservation of a "clean mind" is paramount among many of the natives, and this sorely tests my tolerance. I feel, like I'm sure many (if, unfortunately, not all) secular humanists do, that morality should govern actions and not thoughts. I worry about religion treating social problems as opposed to a secularized government. How can you propose to treat wrath or lust if you prevent yourself from feeling it? If you can't openly discuss it? Then there is the question, pertinent especially in Christianity, of how we can have a functional morality if our goal is admittedly unobtainable. If we will never have a clean slate, what's the use of trying? There is something defeatist about a belief in God, the secular humanist may argue. Personally, I'm an atheist in the voting booth and a theist in the movie theatre. I separate the morality of religion with the spirituality and solace of it. There is something boring about atheism. In studying theology, the philosophers I think tend to make the most convincing cases are guys like Kierkegaard and William James, from whom we glean that a life of faith is chosen simply because it's the most experientially satisfying.
A large part of 2001's attraction is this idea of a God that exists far beyond the material world and far beyond your imagination. It can't even be conveyed through film. An anthropologist once told me that religion puts natural phenomenon into comfortable, human terms. In that case, Kubrick seeks to create a God superior to any other God. It doesn't have any identifiably human characteristics; it's so superior to us that we cannot begin to relate to it. Any person of reason must have difficulty believing that the creator of the entire universe (more than 80 billion galaxies) manifested Himself in the womb of the child bride of a carpenter in the Middle East a mere two thousand years ago. To take the most obvious example. 2001 suggests that if God truly does exist, He would be so far ahead of us that He would be incapable of having any more empathy or compassion for us than we would have for an insect.
As it lacks an anthropomorphic God, 2001 arguably doesn't have any morality. We aren't given a lesson, and there isn't any action to it; nobody acts out of free agency (which I argue must exist if we are talking about morality). Everything is calculated, pre-destined--or at least everything seems that way from our limited vantage point. We are entirely in the hands of an omnipotent, omniscient being and so we do not have to worry about using our time on Earth, as it is temporary anyway. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the purest religious film, then. For my purposes, I see it as essential, easily one of the five greatest films ever made. Whether the lack of human free agency in the film is limiting, nihilistic, or even sacrilegious as opposed to comforting or exhilarating I suppose depends on the background of the viewer. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a flawless film, but it's not for everybody. I honestly don't mean to sound elitist--greater minds than mine will hate the picture--but that it's perfect is to me not up for debate.
The charges of the film's cynicism are tantalizing and well worth examining, however. The film's first movement is the "Dawn of Man." A small tribe of apes is struggling to survive in the grasslands, fighting off tapirs and other apes for resources. Things look pretty bleak. One morning, they awaken to discover a black monolith; they approach it and stroke it, amazed at its smooth surface and the humming that apparently emanates from it. One ape breaks away from his group and discovers that he can use an animal bone to crush things. He fashions the bone into a weapon. Now, instead of competing with the tapirs for food, they club them and eat them! Anthropology 101 tells us that the consumption of meat allowed a higher intake of calories for less physical exertion, which led to more leisure time, which led to the development of consciousness, advanced thinking, and human civilization. It is through killing and eating the tapir that the ape raises to a higher level of consciousness, that he can evolve into a human. I think it's intriguing that it isn't until the bone-carrying tribe of apes kills the other tribe of apes that we really begin to think something is wrong.
I'm only half-kidding when I say this, but what makes an ape without a bone that much different from the tapir? What we are seeing is evolution in action. Survival of the fittest. The bone-carrier apes are the supreme race. And besides, this is clearly what God intended. But Kubrick doesn't include any music in this sequence, whereas the discovery of the bone and the killing of the tapirs are scored by "Thus Spake Zarathustra." Such is a sombre, bitter note--the only real one, I think, the anomalousness of it supporting a pessimistic reading of 2001. It happens and then it's brushed under the rug. The bone-carriers circle around an unarmed ape and take turns beating him, a scene replayed in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Pauline Kael read correlations between Jack Torrance of The Shining and the bone-carriers as evidence of Kubrick's hatred for humanity. Kubrick has reduced mankind to the level of simple brutes. This is the pupal stage.
We flash-forward to the future. The bone famously turns into a space shuttle drifting through the cosmos. The space shuttle is the cocoon stage. The scientist Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) is traveling to the moon to investigate the discovery of a black monolith and sleeping on the way there. There is some important exposition that needs to take place in this movement, but most of it is Kubrick beating his meat and showing off his special effects. Not that I'm complaining, of course, as this is the time to do it. There isn't an inappropriate moment anywhere in the segment, and those onanistic tableaux are dazzling. This is the "jokey" second movement of the film. We see stewardesses in virginal Tide-with-Bleach-white demonstrate how to conquer gravity and walk on the ceiling and how, in the future, in space, people consume food through straws. We see an astronaut read the instructions on how to use the toilet, and though that gets us thinking, it's certainly a cutesy touch.
There's a famous scene where Floyd calls his daughter for her birthday via videophone. It's Kubrick paying homage to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, one of the first to predict the visual telephone. 2001: A Space Odyssey is definitely the greater film in my mind--it doesn't have that goofy moralizing where the masses get their opiate--but Metropolis is the only thing that comes close to this film in terms of envisioning the future (our only reference point outside of Kubrick's later films, really). What's interesting is that not only does Kubrick reference the videophone from Metropolis, he references that hilarious sequence where the girl robot brings the men to orgasm by dancing the hoochie-coochie, too. Kubrick meanwhile gives us some anachronisms of his own. The bold Technicolor palette and intentionally dated costumes and hairstyles turn the trip to the moon into one of those promotional short subjects from the '50s. You know, the ones they mock on "Mystery Science Theater" that are about new lines of refrigerators and automobiles.
Ah, refrigerators and automobiles. The automobile saved America, delivering a solid manufacturing industry to capitalize on the jumpstart our economy experienced post World War II. This created other industries that all fed into each other--and the middle class of the 1950s grew comfortably. I suppose after seeing that poor ape getting beaten to death by the ancestors of these space stewardesses, we have to wonder if there's a rotten core underneath that shiny peel. The second movement of 2001: A Space Odyssey is about comfort--the uncomfortable aspect of comfort, you might say. Kubrick presents us with a utopia, yet the very idea of a space race is stifling. We want to see a rotten core, because it's all too goofy to believe. Moreover, there is nowhere to go once you get there. Utopia is static and boring. Kubrick sees mankind as going from brutal to soft. It is here that the groundwork for Kubrick's next five films (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut) is laid.
To illustrate this, let's focus on The Shining for the time being. Therein, we see Man in the utopia, in civilization, regressing back to his brutal ape form. Civilization has stifled him, has left him without an identity; he must return to his animal roots to discover it. Jack Torrance, at the end of The Shining, is the polar opposite of 2001's Star Child; the murder of the "nigger cook" elevates Torrance to religious rapture. He has found his place in the universe, and it is gratifying and real. Stephen King said that Kubrick could never believe in Hell and thought that the ending of The Shining was a happy one, since "anything that says there is something after death is happy." Well, yeah, sort of. Torrance finds peace, a place in the universe, an identity outside the stasis of domesticity. The spiritual orgasm. The Shining's is a happy ending, but a pessimistic one. An inferior but still excellent companion piece to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining is Ken Russell's Altered States: Although that film's protagonist lives in a universe where drugs and sex offer a pure, uncomplicated high, he feels compelled to de-evolve into his primordial state. He's gone so far forward that all that's left for him is to start over at the very beginning.
Moving on to the third movement, two waking astronauts--Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea)--and several cryogenically frozen ones make the journey to Jupiter. The purpose of the mission will not be declassified until they reach their destination, as the world government wants to keep things top-secret for the moment. (This aspect doesn't much interest me, though I suppose it provides more ammunition for the reading of 2001 as a pessimistic view of humanity.) The supercomputer HAL 9000 is controlling all aspects of the ship. HAL detects a fault with the vessel's Alpha-Echo-35 (AE35) communications unit. The astronauts retrieve and run tests on it and it appears to be functioning perfectly. HAL has made a mistake and thus rendered himself unreliable. Frank and Dave then decide to discontinue HAL and run the ship manually. They discuss this in isolation, taking measures to ensure that HAL is unable to hear them, but the computer figures out the plan by reading their lips. Frank goes out to replace the AE35 as planned. HAL silently launches another pod into space, cutting off Frank's oxygen supply. Frank floats silently into the void. Dave retrieves Frank's body, and there is some suspense when he tries to re-enter the ship against HAL's wishes. But he succeeds and proceeds to dismantle HAL's memory bank.
The concept of a robot revolt is of course one of the most redundant plots of all time. 2001 steals it from Frankenstein and Frankenstein stole it from Paradise Lost. Where 2001 differs is in the sheer psychological weight of HAL. Nobody gets out of this movie as simply a character, and that includes the supercomputer. Let me pose a question to you: It is a well-published criticism/observation of the film that HAL is more human than any of the humans. In other words, more emotional. His motivations are understandable. Now, how is this significant? What does it mean to say that HAL is more human? Does it mean that Man has become more mechanical, or that Kubrick is valuing that which is cold, slick, and controlled over sloppy emotion? Well, it's a little bit of both. HAL is the perfect 2001 human; we have instilled in him every quality we value in 21st-century humanity. For a human, HAL is still quite the robot. He represents WASPish stoicism, that stiff British upper lip. There is no passion in Kubrick's "utopia." There is too much cozy comfort, too much banal domesticity. The path of the well-spoken robot is perhaps what we are moving towards. Mankind and, following that path, supercomputers, have evolved far beyond the bone club, and so the tribal war between man and machine has an icy, methodical stance to it. HAL cuts off Frank's oxygen supply. Dave wipes out HAL's memory bank. They are both bloodless and passionless killings with no pleasure or anger behind them. The message of this segment might be that mankind must learn to live without HAL.
I don't buy into the idea that HAL went crazy or was in error; there are no accidents in the 2001 universe. HAL is eliminating the humans for the same reason the humans want to eliminate him: because he believes the unpredictability of their actions jeopardizes the mission. The execution of Frank is progress as far as HAL is concerned. He is moving civilization into the computer age. Similarly, Dave's execution of HAL is a progressive act. It is only with HAL dead that humanity can evolve to the next stage. HAL is a parent figure--an idealized parent figure, if you will, the mother the nurturer and the father the ruler. (The ubiquitous oxygen hoses are well-established to be symbolic of umbilical cords.) HAL and Dave's conflict is Oedipal in that it is only through patricide that the son can assume the place of his father. Just as the alien deities put the spark of the idea of HAL into humanity's mind long ago, they put a spark in the human being that assured his eventual triumph. This is the opening of the cocoon, relatively violent and frightening but intended and natural. And necessary: our little boy must become a man.
Reissued in a Two-Disc Special Edition part and parcel with Warner's newest Stanley Kubrick box set, 2001: A Space Odyssey docks on DVD again in a lovingly-remastered 2.23:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I'd call the presentation definitive if I wasn't reasonably sure that the Blu-ray alternative is, um, more definitive. Nevertheless, this is the best the film has looked or ever will look in standard definition. Scrubbed free of dirt and other blemishes while retaining its organic texture, the image gleams to an extent that half compensates for the dwarfed dimensions of the small screen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is likewise no match for the 6-track stereo sound you'd hear at a 70mm revival (as Tim Lucas recently pointed out on his blog, the original, ahead-of-its-time mix has a transparency that's difficult to replicate in a home theatre, no matter how state of the art), though it's lush and enveloping all the same.
Frankly, I could have gone without an official audio commentary for 2001: A Space Odyssey--but if I had to choose between a heavy scholarly one and a reminiscence with the cast members I would probably choose the latter. It's a Catch-22: any take on a film as holy as 2001 has to be something of a shot in the dark, yet any track that doesn't work on having a "take" on the film and instead concerns itself with ephemera like behind-the-scenes anecdotes and descriptions of how the optical illusions were achieved isn't treating the text with the reverence it deserves. Fortunately, the yakker reuniting actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood helped pry that bug out of my ass. There's lots of requisite Kube worship on display, most endearingly Lockwood's description of how he skipped football practice in college by saying he had to contest a traffic ticket just so he could catch Kubrick's Paths of Glory on opening day. To my surprise, the effects talk is also quite palatable; I was genuinely stopped short by the information that the "Dawn of Man" sequence was filmed not on location but on a soundstage!
I admit to cringing a bit when Dullea introduced himself as "the star of 2001" but felt guilty about doing so by the film's third movement, as neither Dullea nor Lockwood have any delusions as to the blandness of their respective performances. This was apparently the entire point, and Kubrick explicitly instructed them to underact. I dug Lockwood's description of his motivation while watching his birthday message from home. "It's cute, but he's really just not interested," he says. He goes on to say how he conveyed his character's disinterest by appropriating the "Vietnam stare" (particularly fascinating in that Full Metal Jacket is arguably best described as the "2001 generation" going to war). The film's theatrical trailer finishes off Disc 1.
Disc 2 starts off with the 2001 Channel 4 documentary "2001: The Making of a Myth" (43 mins.), hosted by James Cameron. The doc is compromised by a lot of tacky ideas from director Paul Joyce, the worst being when cast members re-enact key scenes from the film. For example, a now elderly Dullea lies on a hotel bed, reaching out for the monolith. I liked the idea of beginning with a shot of Los Angeles in the actual 2001, but even this is mucked up by having a CGI black monolith rise from the smog. Ugh! Still, it's a solid enough supplement to the Dullea/Lockwood commentary. I don't know how to feel about learning that the floating pen on the luxury space ship was achieved by taping a pen to a plate of glass that was then rotated around. I guess I'm mostly impressed and a little sad. The highlight of the documentary is the discussion of the HAL computer. Feminist scholar Camille Paglia says that '60s audiences found it hilarious that HAL computer developed neuroses while his human counterparts did not. The most interesting observation comes from a computer scientist who notes that the easiest, most efficient, most rational way for HAL to kill the astronauts would be to leak their oxygen out into space. For some reason, he does not. I was also grateful to hear history's very first voice synthesization on a computer--which, of course, was demonstrated with a rendition of the song "Daisy Bell."
"Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001" (21 mins.) collects several filmmakers (Lucas and Spielberg among them), Kubrick scholars, and, of course, Roger Ebert* to wax about how fucking awesome this movie is. Not particularly substantial, it's nonetheless one of my favourite featurettes on this DVD. Gary Leva's "Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001" (22 mins.) takes the same gang and looks at how well 2001 predicted the year 2001. Like Leva's "Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick", it is hardly necessary but still great fun. I love 2001 not in spite of how badly some of it has dated but because of it. The naivety of its "future version" strikes me as one of the major points of the film. Regardless, I appreciated the explanation for why Kubrick's future never came to fruition: his was an expectation of what the space program would be like in thirty-five years had we kept going at the pace we were going. If our country maintained a nationalism to rival that of the Soviet Union and computers were never designed for commercial use, I wonder if we would have been able to create a HAL computer as well.
"2001: A Space Odyssey - A Look Behind the Future" (23 mins.) is just plain deadly. Hosted by Vernon Myers, the publisher of LOOK magazine, it appears to be a vintage promotional film made to encourage advertisers to buy space (no pun intended) in a special section of LOOK devoted to America's space program. This section would ride the publicity of the million-dollar production 2001 and put the advertisers' message in an educational context. Wow. Never before has 2001: A Space Odyssey ever looked more uncool. For dedicated hipsters only. "What is Out There?" (20 mins.) isn't nearly as bad, but it sure tries. It's a noble enough gesture, I guess--the featurette takes on the God question and acknowledges that the spiritual aspect of 2001: A Space Odyssey is so far beyond our comprehension that it transcends language. Well, that's why I love it and that was the crux of my review. Then again, as Ludwig Wittgenstein would say, "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence." The agnosticism of 2001 is what makes it fascinating as a film experience, albeit while closing off all avenues for discussion.
A better question is the one about whether or not extra-terrestrial life exists in the universe. Scientists more or less agree that it's statistically likely. Alas, the piece doesn't go very far in exploring the likelihood of us ever actually meeting E.T.. As a kid, I remember bringing this up with my father, a science-fiction buff in addition to a mechanical engineer. He offered that even if there is life on other planets, and even if they had mastered the ability to travel at light speed, and even if they had sufficient fuel for the journey, the distance is so great that it would likely take a thousand years before they met us or we met them and returned home. And think of the changes a civilization goes through in a thousand years. The featurette offers the possibility that we could communicate with alien intelligences through radio, but again there is the problem of our respective civilizations staying static enough to maintain radio stations dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life. "What is Out There" optimistically explores the possibility of wormholes--and hints that this is how Kubrick solved the problem of space travel--but perhaps wisely doesn't dig very deep. I guess my problem with "What is Out There" is that it feels a bit too much like a new age seminar for my tastes, struggling with philosophical questions that have already been resolved to my mind.
Lastly, the good stuff. "2001: FX and Early Conceptual Artwork" (9 mins.) shows the Kubrick team's various "fumblings" (Kubrick widow Christiane's word) in conceptualizing the Star Gate sequence before Douglas Trumball "saved the day." Christiane says that these designs are very "Sixties" and expose a heavy influence from Rene Magritte and Chesley Bonestell, as did most of the decade's cover art for science-fiction novels. That they do; not sure how they would work on film, but they're fascinating. "Look: Stanley Kubrick!" (3 minutes) is a montage of Kubrick's photographs for LOOK magazine. Love the man as a filmmaker and I love his distinct career as a photographer. It confirms for me that one of Kubrick's best films might very well be the massively flawed Killer's Kiss, simply because his early stuff captures something of the post-war period I've never seen before. Concluding the platter is a 76-minute audio interview with Kubrick conducted by Jeremy Bernstein. I'm always surprised to discover that the director sounds less like Laurence Olivier and more like the working-class drag queens populating Andy Warhol's The Factory. Nevertheless, this is easily my favourite extra on the platter. Virtually his entire career up to 2001 is explored, with special attention given to his disinterest in public education and how he couldn't get into college not only because of his poor grades but also because the schools were flooded with returned GIs. Kubrick talks at some length about his "chess hustling" days in Central Park and plainly asserts, without a hint of either modesty or arrogance, that he was the fifth best player there at the time. He lists the four above him by name. Note that this interview cannot be paused, rewound, or fast-forwarded but is assigned chapter stops. Originally published: April 23, 2008.
*Ebert has regularly included 2001 in his SIGHT & SOUND top ten and rightfully brags about being one of the few critics to recognize its greatness at the time of the picture's release. return