Back To School: Stanley Kubrick // ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Unlike many of the filmmakers I’ve written about in this series — Truffaut and Antonioni and the Archers, who I only just familiarized myself with — I am pretty well-acquainted with the works of Stanley Kubrick. In fact, I’m a big fan. The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror movies (and still one of the scariest). I appreciate the kinky weirdness of Eyes Wide Shut. A Clockwork Orange is just madly brilliant. And in my estimation, Full Metal Jacket might be the second-best movie about Vietnam ever made. (Trailing Apocalypse Now, of course.)

But 2001: A Space Odyssey turned into 2001: A Sleep Odyzzzz… when I first saw it — yes, back in the year 2001. I was a teenager at the time, so my tastes perhaps had not fully matured. But I saw a lot of classic films back then, and 2001 was one of few that I just couldn’t stomach. “Why is the first 20 minutes a monkey playing with a bone?” I grumbled. “Why does it end with a baby flying through space?”

Thus I was pretty exasperated (but hardly surprised) when it cropped up in the Top 10 greats on BFI’s Sight & Sound poll, alongside two other films I found devastatingly boring when I viewed them around the same time — The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and The Searchers.

So I decided to let my adult self take in 2001: A Space Odyssey a second time, to see if my opinion had changed any over the past decade.

And did it?


2001-space-ape-bone2001: A Space Odyssey begins on Earth, of all places, following a group of primates (primitive man, we are told) who are fond of leaping and screeching. As observed by my eighteen-year-old self, this odd little sequence goes on for a seemingly unnecessary length of time — the first 20 minutes of the movie — but things pick up once a large black rectangle that looks somewhat like an iPhone appears out of nowhere, causing more leaping and screeching. There’s an iconic moment as one of the apes picks up a bone, discovering the first tool/weapon, and promptly smashes a long-dead animal’s skeleton to bits — before turning the bone on one of his fellow apes. The insinuation is that alien beings introduced the monolith to primitive man, perhaps to jump start the progress of mankind, or maybe to give them a better way to kill each other. (An idea echoed later, in an advanced form, with HAL.) One of the reasons I’m not sure this sequence holds up is the obviously phony ape costumes and the equally fake-looking backdrops, which make it hard to see this as anything but a bunch of actors in gorilla costumes running around with bones and hooting. And sorry, Stanley, but that’s just silly.

Then we move on to the titular odyssey. (One of them, anyway.) Perhaps not surprisingly, in Kubrick’s imagination, the year 2001 looks an awful lot like 1968. While the visuals of ships traveling through the starry cosmos accompanied by classical music are still awe-inspiring, the space station’s interior is so very “mod” it almost feels like a parody of itself. But you can’t really hold the period against the filmmaker, for, in 50 years, I’m sure today’s movies will look “so 2012.” Still, the “far out” idea of future technology (like video calls) can’t help but feel dated, which is likely to inspire a curious effect on modern day viewers; this “futuristic” vision actually comes off as very quaint and of the past nowadays, to jarring effect.We meet the astronaut Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), who has an awkward video chat with his bushbaby-craving daughter (played by Kubrick’s own daughter, Vivien). He is one in a team of scientists who encounter the monolith again, buried millions of years ago on the moon — intentionally, it seems. The monolith makes a long and terrible noise, and then we’re off again, 18 months later, but we can only assume that whatever happened to Floyd and company was profound and probably not good.

Now, in the film’s most substantial chapter, we follow Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), one of two conscious astronauts aboard Discovery One. (Three more are cryogenically hibernating, their hearts beating three times per minute.) David grows suspicious of the ship’s resident computer entity, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain), as well he should. Eavesdropping on the astronauts’ conversation, HAL learns that his shipmates don’t trust him and quickly sets to work trying to get rid of them. He’s successful at dispatching the first astronaut as well as the hibernating ones, but resilient David manages to disable HAL despite the computer’s very human pleas of remorse.

In the final of 2001‘s four distinct chapters, David takes a trip from Jupiter to someplace even further, where he becomes very old and then a baby flies through space. Cue credits.So, a decade later, in contrast to my initial juvenile reading of the film, this time my response was as follows:

“Why is the first 20 minutes a monkey playing with a bone? And why does it end with a baby flying through space?”2001: A Space Odyssey‘s first and last chapters are its most grandiose and least interpretable, inspiring all kinds of discussion of what it all means and how they tie into the rest of the story. These elements are what make it a true epic, with a scope spanning millions of years and who knows how many light years. Add to this the famous classical pieces that make up the score and Kubrick’s unhurried plot, and you have a rightful film classic, as breathtaking as it is confounding.

It’s somewhat comforting to know that times haven’t changed too radically — 2001: A Space Odyssey was greeted with walkouts and scorn at its premiere in 1968, which resulted in Kubrick shaving an extra 17 minutes out of the movie (and then burning all the excess footage). Even at its current running time of nearly two and a half hours, 2001‘s deliberate pace and directorial indulgences make it only half-palatable to the casual viewer. (The extended sequence featuring a multicolored voyage to Jupiter goes on way too long for anyone who’s not stoned.) I have no doubt it would be received the same way today, heralded by some as a masterpiece but bewildering the mainstream. (The modern equivalent is certainly Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life.) At eighteen, I wasn’t yet ready to appreciate 2001: A Space Odyssey. But am I now?I guess so. Like many, I still don’t really understand the film’s final act, even after some Googling. It’s left open to interpretation, but I find it so disconnected from earlier events of the film, I actually just don’t care. 2001: A Space Odyssey pulls a Psycho and gets rid of the character we assume is our protagonist fairly early in the movie, beginning again with a new one. It’s a bold choice but not a terribly satisfying one, narratively. (Not that Kubrick has ever been a people-pleaser.) And even when I do puzzle it out — okay, so some unseen extraterrestrials are fucking with us, Prometheus-style, and maybe there’s some circle of life business going on — that doesn’t necessarily help me like the movie.

It’s the third chapter, David’s showdown with HAL, that is truly ahead of its time and feels as modern and relevant now as it ever did (despite the myriad films that have generously borrowed from it). Even Kubrick’s simplistic imagining of the villain as an innocuous red light, ceaselessly staring back at us, is genius. HAL’s cold computer voice is chilling in its indifference, particularly when he pleads for his “life.” In contrast to the bombastic music and visuals elsewhere in the film, in HAL Kubrick takes a “less is more” approach, and it’s marvelous. And even though the actual 2001 was nowhere near as spacey as this movie suggests, Arthur C. Clarke’s story does indeed predict a growing dependence on artificial intelligence, and our accompanying dread that this won’t end well for the human race. After all, HAL seems a not-so-distant cousin to Siri, the monolith looks like an iPhone… is Kubrick trying to warn us about a certain corporation, perhaps?I don’t know that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film I’d like to watch in its entirety again any time soon. The 2012 screenwriter in me wishes Kubrick had focused the entire film on David and HAL (though we’ve since seen films that do just that, like Duncan Jones’ Moon). But I guess that might excise the supposed weight and import of what Clarke and Kubrick are trying to say (and neglecting to say with any clarity). As an adult and a more experienced cineaste, I’m in a position to admire Kubrick’s strident direction, though 2001: A Space Odyssey is not amongst my favorite of his films on an entertainment level. But the main reason I’m writing about these films at all is that it forces me to consider them more than I would if I merely watched them without comment, and in doing so, I’ve already grown more impressed by 2001 than I was while impatiently viewing that many-hued, maddeningly long trip to through a wormhole. And even if the eighteen-year-old in me still gets restless upon a second viewing, I have to say there’s more to appreciate about 2001 than there is to dismiss. When I think about the better bits, I almost love it.

So you win this time, BFI. We shall see how The Searchers and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc fare at a later date.

Recently I also caught up with Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the beloved comedy that I had never gotten around to. It’s one of those films I felt I’d seen without seeing it, which is to say I was pretty sure how I’d react to it. As always, Kubrick’s eye as a director is pretty flawless, even if what we see is largely board room meetings and telephone calls. It’s a satire starring George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, about a rash general who just “decides” to launch an attack on the Soviet Union, eventually bringing about a nuclear armageddon. Funny, right?As predicted, I can appreciate Dr. Strangelove‘s wit without personally enjoying it much. The absurd tone seems a precursor to many of the Coen brothers’ more comedic films, and in 1964 I imagine it was somewhat groundbreaking in its bravura. It’s hard to believe that this was the same filmmaker whose next picture was 2001, even if both have doomsday hanging over our heads the whole time. I guess I can see why Dr. Strangelove is admired, but I’ve already stopped worrying enough to love 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dr. Strangelove will just have to linger as a near-miss for me.

At least until I see it again, in another decade or so.


4 replies »

  1. Read Leonard wheat’s 2000 book,Kubrick’s 2001;A Triple Allegory,showing all events/people are from the Odyssey(HAL=Cyclops,TMA-1=Trojan horse,Dave=Odysseus)and Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra(HAL=God,made in our image,egBeyond the infinite=beyond god)which begins at sunrise,ends with hero having an interrupted last supper,eg man must ”kill” God before becoming the overman;a fascinating read.Plus at the end,he’s the maturing fetus in the womb,floyd’s lunar trip ended with creation of a dead-end in evolution,note how HAL/Discovery and star-child are both born left screen to right,slowly,into the universe.

  2. Seriously? The movie is about the monolith guiding human evolution. In the last act, the man realizes he doesn’t need his body. He looks, and then he is where he was looking, without physically moving at all. He tries to pick up the cup, but his body is frail, and he knocks it over. His body is a liability for him. When the monolith plants itself at the foot of the bed, he sits up and has an epiphany: he doesn’t need to use his body anymore. I still get chills during that moment. As soon as it happens, he is reborn as the space baby. In the original, he is seen nuking the earth. I wish they had kept that even though audiences hated it. At every stage where the monolith aids the evolution of man/machine, the apes, HAL, the “evolved” creatures immediately use their new intellect to kill. So it would make perfect sense to me if the space baby had used his evolution to kill the rest of human kind. This is not necessarily a negative statement about mankind, but maybe a more general statement about natural selection. The more advanced individuals survive and move on, while the less advanced individuals die. Usually this is due to environmental pressures, but in Kubrick’s version, it is the more advanced individuals themselves who ultimately put an end to the less advanced ones. It’s not really a moral action at all: Kubrick sees it as just the way the world works. Space is inhospitable to humans. That’s just reality. In the same way, advanced individuals survive over their less advanced counterparts, whether by killing them or just outlasting them. This too, is just the way the universe works.

  3. We’re so lucky to live in the Internet Age, when we can be treated to the gripping spectacle of a teenager trying to grasp Kubrick, then concluding that it’s silly.


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