2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

‘Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.’
~ HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

I preface this essay with fair warning that if you demand a traditional three-act narrative structure with dramatic dot-connect character arcs, bolstered with things blowing up all around the cosmos, in your science-fiction pictures then Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" may well put you to sleep with its aleatory vibes and sensory transmissions. If, however, you were mesmerised by Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative "Solaris" you might find this film isn’t deliberately paced enough within that caveat. Barely a single line of dialogue is heard in the film’s first half hour and you will either have been completely absorbed and immersed and entertained by the opening prehistoric chapter resembling a silent era film production, or you will feel that your exasperated restlessness can now settle down as the actual movie is going to begin, with explanations for the prologue’s purpose. This film intends to do no less than invoke the propositions of time and space, obliging our own philosophical perplexions as we ponder deeply the principles of what it really means to live as a human being on the cusp of sublime artificial intelligence development, the evolution of our species and our place within the rest of the universe. It has deservedly earned its status as a veritable monolith on the dense cinematic landscape.

The film is separated into episodic partitions of disproportionate length, and ostensibly they are all unified by the appearances of slim, rectangular black monoliths. We used to think of these as resembling tombstones but now they stir comparisons to large flat screen monitors turned vertically upright. These structures appear in four different places within our solar system (the African savannah on Earth, the Moon, orbiting around Jupiter, and in a bedroom someplace past Jupiter). Depending on your own introspective examination of this motion picture, you might desire a need for absolute answers, or you prefer to let the film reside in a parabolic state as I think it works better resting in these ambiguous insinuations. Let us contemplate for one moment how the film might be received if Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke decided to keep their narrative on autopilot, for example, by incorporating a scene in which we see explicitly who is responsible for scattering these monoliths across the universe and why. That would allow all audience members to lean back and promote a passive viewership. Or if in the first part, when fearful ape-like animals, struggling to survive in their vegetarian ecosystem, confront the first appearance of a monolith only for the giant object to teach them, visually, how to progress as a species by adapting and inventing in an accelerated drive. Like a modern computer tablet teaching us a life skill. In this case it is by identifying how a throwaway bone could serve an ulterior, lethal purpose. The embodiment of this part could be acknowledged as the ability for intuition in intelligence life forms, and that is perhaps why Kubrick avoided obvious confirmations of plotted action. These hominids, the prototype human beings, caress the monolith and it guides them metaphysically, perhaps. Something inside them begins to revolve (or evolve) and we see one of them, Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter), have what appears to be an original thought, slowly tilting its head. As with all the film, it is open to interpretation how much the internal power of the monolith shaped this consciousness or if it did nothing magical. Rather it could be a completely inert structure that only inspired the ape simply for what it visually represented: seeing something artificial in a natural terrain and having the revelation that practical tools can be created from the wasted nature all around them. Those smooth edges of the monolith are not a familiar occurrence and I might tentatively propose that the man-made construction plants the germ of this idea.

At times this motion picture will appeal to those who enjoy tension in their mainstream sci-fi, and at other points it lingers on what it regards as fascinating with a somnambulist's perspective. Kubrick dives deep into the inscrutable vastness of space and, by extension, the nonlinearity of time with his free-flowing linkage of associative symbols that are denied a concrete and straightforward understanding. Kubrick refused to ever express his own personal opinion of what his film represents, because that would reduce it to a work of definable constructs. It is a convergence of intangible ideas, thoughts, and inklings, and within each abstraction exist multiple interpretations. It was a little eerie to be thinking about the film so soon after viewing the third season of "The Crown" with an episode centred on Prince Phillip’s fascination with the first moon landings, wrestling with his own inner torment and suppressed aspirations. In the episode Phillip is granted a private audience with the three astronauts and has come armed with a set of profound and transcendental questions to ask. Through his benevolent idolising he has mistaken the three men as now having ascended to a godlike status with an infinite wisdom and expertise, when really they are just three ordinary men who were carrying out their job duties with methodical accuracy and now feel out of their depth at trying to respond verbally to such grand inquisitions.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" was released one year before these moon landings and yet few would look at its depiction of man on the moon as something imagined, for it realistically subscribes to all the science fact that was available at the time of production. It is quite incredible to think that no-one had ever seen the images of the planets from outer space that we now take for granted, and thus Kubrick had to speculate with difficulty the correct perspective on the unknown. In part two of the movie, which is achieved through a famous match cut along an axis of action from the ape’s bone being tossed in the air to a floating space bomb orbiting downwards, we are temporally transitioned forwards by four million years to the millennium, where another monolith artifact has been discovered buried on the moon. Kubrick and Clarke presumed that the space war rivalry would continue rather than dwindle out gradually, and so in their vision of a future thirty years ahead the moon is regularly visited and man has even gone as far as Jupiter. The majestic visual waltz, underscored using an audio waltz 'The Blue Danube' by Johan Strauss, provides a wondrous appreciation for the intricacies of life in space, with carousel-like space stations that simulate real gravity. It is implied that from that revelation of using the bone as a weapon to defeat enemies and to hunt as carnivores, our species began its long quest towards building and realising the tools and machines that became ever more complex, and now they have finally reached the next milestone destination so they can travel beyond their own small planet. Kubrick’s wordless evocation of this triumph allows the viewer an opportunity to hold their breath and share those feelings that a romantic Prince Phillip felt.

Those feelings are rather short-lived as it turns out. Think about the bone toss - is it a transient yearning for a sublime transcendence or is it linked to the space bomb negatively? Is Kubrick’s subtext of the smash cut really about how man has continuously invented bigger and better ways to kill each other? Examine the space aesthetic too. Despite the vastness of outer space, astronauts are cramped into small environments, unable to move in this anti-gravity without their spacesuits and industrial gripped footwear. It is an ultimate irony that in such an environment humans seem to be lonelier than anywhere else. On two different occasions we notice how the technology advances allow characters in space to video message family back home, and neither seem of great interest. On the Jupiter mission, jaded astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) watches the pre-recorded birthday message from his parents with glazed eyes and motionless reactions. Closer to home, on the international space station near the moon, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) converses live with his daughter on a screen, in what we might now refer to as Skype or FaceTime, but there is little of consequence to be relayed. At the time of the film’s release many criticised its portrayal of humans with such a clinical, detached demeanour. Kubrick includes an extended traveling shot of Dave compulsively exercising around the spinning axis of the spaceship, and persists so that the spectator might gather the malaise and lack of enthusiasm onboard. The most formidable surmise by Kubrick, in my opinion, is the sequence in which two astronauts watch saved videos of themselves on what looks like a modern computer tablet, so fascinated with themselves on the screen that they eat food with their left hand without shifting their eyes from the monitor. Even Tarkovsky, in part, directed his "Solaris" as an alternative vision where the humanism was an integral, albeit troubling, feature for its characters internal yearnings. With the exception of the operating system HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) very little of the verbal discourse directly penetrates the spectator’s emotions. I believe this was done intentionally, as evidenced by Kubrick’s frequent still camera set-ups from afar of these conversations. One such example of this occurs during casual mingling between Floyd and some Russian scientists, where we are left very much on the fringes and without ready-made identification for how to digest what is being said. I believe the majority of directors would have had a direct camera shot of Floyd (perhaps even in a close-up) as he utters the line that he is not at liberty to divulge such information.

Not everyone considered this possible interpretation and took each of these scenes at face value with less kindness. The great film critic Stanley Kauffmann was an admirer of Kubrick’s films but he disliked this picture with an articulate review in The New Yorker, sensing that Kubrick had fallen in love with the visual effects models and gadgets (overseen by Douglas Trumbull) that he had neglected to incorporate a good narrative. He refers to Floyd’s video call sequence. ‘We sense this as the envoy makes an utterly banal phone call back to earth just to show off the mechanism.’ In regards to the insipid dialogue, he singles out that particular pseudo-Cold War rivalry conversation and another for criticism. ‘There is a scene between the envoy and some Russians that would disgrace late-night TV. There is a scene with the envoy and some US officials in secret conference that is even worse.’ This is all fair enough if you avoid looking at such scenes on connotative grounds. It harks back to Prince Phillip being too exasperated to ask the three astronauts any other big questions, because they have shown themselves to be small-minded and incapable of a response that would not fail the sphere of Phillip’s desired answer. To them the moon visit resembled just lots of dust and not anything greater on a spiritual level, and they are famous for only being the first people to walk on it. This is what Kubrick might be implying with the banal dialogue, where space travel has become mundane and the wider population have grown weary of the lack of any sign of extraterrestrial life.

It also stands as a counterpoint to the impeccable, vivid synthetic speech rendering of the Jupiter mission ship’s on-board computer HAL 9000, most frequently referred to as HAL. With his careful, precise diction his voice projects every syllable without ever having to raise it to roaring rhetoric. This computer entity now has some lesser contemporary models at a consumer-grade pricing and we can understand more competently how to work alongside such technology. HAL tells us that he, and the brethren of other 9000s, are the most reliable computers to ever exist and have never been responsible for an error of even the most minor inaccuracy. HAL exists as a conveyance of all known human knowledge and memory, as demonstrated by the game of chess in which he pinpoints the opportunity overlooked by Dave. As with the intentions of the monolith appearances, some spectators demand specific reasons for why HAL should indeed make an error and then intentionally sabotage the entire mission, under the warped delusion that by terminating the human astronauts he is in fact protecting the integrity of the mission. One of the film’s most ingenious sequences involves Bowman and his compatriot Frank (Gary Lockwood) locking themselves into a soundproof pod to deny an audio wavelength to HAL. They discuss the prospect of having to cease HAL’s core computer brain after his mistake because his all-encompassing control could lead to further jeopardy if he is indeed progressively malfunctioning. Kubrick cuts to a shot of the system’s red laser sphere, before taking HAL’s perspective in an unnerving point-of-view shot, where his visuals shift between the two men speaking in silence and we understand that HAL is reading their lips and knows exactly what is being discussed. All these years later and what was once considered unimaginable in reality is now upon us, as artificial devices are, as Kubrick recognised, now being programmed with the intelligence to read lip movements.

The chapter involving HAL’S breakdown is the longest and most frequently analysed from the film. I think this comes from the twin revelations after Dave is successfully able to decommission HAL, which casts doubt as to why the artificial intelligence became selfish and evil, as we assumed it was because he did not want to accept the notion that his own infallible brain was failing. What could be a more human vice than insurmountable pride and a suppressed sense of one’s own failings? The segment in which he concedes that he can feel his mind diminishing, pleading persistently with Dave to stop shutting him down, brings to light the fact that HAL perhaps had achieved true consciousness. Earlier, a televised news story beamed onto the excessive number of monitor screens on the craft in which the presenter highlighted a certain ridiculing of the 9000 series, by suggesting that widespread opinion believes they only mimic humans rather than reproduce that humanism. There is no right or wrong way to evaluate this question, but if you look at Clarke’s writing or the film’s sequel "2010: The Year We Make Contact" (1984) it will provide more substantial support. However, as an independent Kubrick film there is substance to be gleaned by the provocations of more questions being raised than answered. With immediate blind-sighting, a video message is played inside the room of HAL’s mind once fully disconnected, and what becomes known to Dave gives us further understanding to feel sympathy for the artificial intelligence. His mind failed him because he had been programmed with an additional secret to conceal from the astronauts that conflicted with his entire make-up of full disclosure and freedom of relaying information. In retrospect we might be inclined to speculate whether HAL lied about a fault that was never there in the first place, because he felt shame that he was allowing the secret to affect his impartiality and create vulnerable emotions. Also in hindsight we might agree that if Dave had radiated a more humane personality (he seems to rescue his colleague Frank out of protocol rather than goodwill) he would have taken pity on HAL’s tragic awareness of his own mortality and allowed him to continue living, as this particular scene is the film’s most poignant. He sings a song as he dies, yes, but notice how his last words are to announce where and when he was born - like a human aware of his own consciousness.

The film then reverts back to the audio-visual feast that was displayed in the first chapter, a wordless exploration on arrival at Jupiter and the third sighting of a monolith and to the infinite that lies beyond. This part of the film is approximately twenty minutes and is the most problematic and disagreeable to viewers, because it shuns whatever minimal exposition aided previous segments and resides in completely irrational plot developments. By the conclusion of this part and the film itself, it fades to black over an enigmatic exercise within the realm of supernatural expressions. Albert Einstein first introduced the conceptual idea of what today we would refer to as wormholes or a connection of black holes with his space-time theorem on general relativity. In the year of 2019 astrophysicists captured the first ever image of a black hole in a galaxy 54 million light-years away. I suspect Kubrick, if he were still alive, would be very happy to have his film’s futuristic content hold up to a modern viewer. Dave’s journey through this space-time distortion star-gate is pure cinema with its associative sights and sounds. He ends up in a familiar, yet deliberately alien, location that echoes a decorated house from the Enlightenment era. Or as Clarke refers to this bizarre checkpoint as a ‘space zoo’ and we thus wonder who is observing his accelerating aging (like accelerating learning) or shape shifting ability, and if they telepathically appreciated that a human would feel most comfortable in rooms of a pseudo-house like on Earth whilst their new transitions happen. Kubrick does not cheapen the sequence by utilising dissolves, slow-motion or special effects as Dave (in his younger age) views himself as a progressively older human, but rather just implements shot-reverse-shot strategies with the younger persona inexplicably vanished.

It leads to the fourth and final presence of a monolith as Dave in old age appears to be on his death-bed and, as he reaches out to the erect artifact, his rebirth metamorphosis into a crude, rather mutant looking human baby in a transparent lunar-like glowing orb is fulfilled. The ending is baffling at a surface level of entertainment, but if we pause to dive deeper below the surface there are ample representational qualities of an artistic intention. The last image in the film is of this Star Child orbiting the Earth and the two are of comparable size. It recalls the film’s first visual of the Earth, Moon and Sun aligning in an eclipse, which might not have seemed to be of any major relevance at the time other than as a glorious spectacle. I want to concentrate on a particular shot involving the first monolith, where Kubrick and his collaborators place the camera extremely low so that the erect object towers up within the filmic frame, except there is still a little space right at the top for another intended eclipse with the Sun metaphorically kissing the monolith. Kubrick may avoid explaining the secrets of the monolith, but there is no question that he has set out to insinuate that these artifacts definitely contain an open-ending meaning. It is a variation of how astral stars can align and a space-time opportunity presents itself.

Rekindling an acute interrelation to the bricolage of the prehistoric first chapter through the interwoven music of Richard Strauss’ 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' on the soundtrack, Kubrick indicates how the use of the bone as a tool/weapon is somehow as magnificent and powerful as the rebirth of Dave Bowman, and by extension perhaps the next step on the evolutionary path to conquering planets beyond our own. Kubrick used these classical music pieces while overseeing the pacing of the filmed models and decided they married better to the images than a freshly conducted piece. Some critics feel the music works because it does not underscore but exists outside of the film’s world. I do not completely agree with this assessment as I think the showstopping five-note structure of the 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' nudges viewers into feeling a particular emotion to the visual, however indirectly, that this is an epiphany for the ages. I do maintain that the music strengthens the film’s modus operandi as conveying signifiers on a pure level of abstract thoughts and sensory sensations in an alchemy mixture. The score grants us extra gravitas to allow such feelings to affect our consciousness, even if on a plot-driven level of narrative we don’t need to understand the how and the why we should feel such a profound response.

The critical consensus for Stanley Kubrick’s work in the present day is such that many of his thirteen feature-length films are considered masterpieces. He took his initial tentative steps in a filmmaking odyssey with "Fear and Desire" (1953) and "Killer’s Kiss" (1955) before he made "The Killing" (1956), widely considered (and one I also wholeheartedly vouch for) as his first great cinematic work. This was followed by the solemn anti-war vehicle "Paths of Glory" (1957) and a big studio epic "Spartacus" (1960). After that was the controversial love story "Lolita" (1962), and 1964’s black comedic satire of "Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)" which immediately preceded his magnum opus "2001: A Space Odyssey," a work of unbounded ambition. The majority of scholars would rate this as the pinnacle of a marvellous career while a vocal minority of critics complain that his later films beginning with "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) showcased a director who grew ever colder and distanced from his audience, although his obsessive symmetric and concentric staging and framing developed. Obviously this was apparent in "2001: A Space Odyssey" but that specific mood was an equally important ornament on Kubrick’s mantelpiece with its connective tissue prospects. He wanted his realisation of infinite space to be indifferent rather than hostile to humans. Those on Earth who think of space travellers as courageous conquerors of the galaxy are never shown. Outside of the videophone images we are completely immersed in space. If those who have jobs up there seem less heroic than we expect, I suggest that they have witnessed first-hand the insignificance of the human race and its small world in the grander scheme, and rather than being in awe of space they accept and are resigned to the fact that it just goes on and on in a never-ending void. In essence these humans have become machines.

This future that Kubrick envisaged in this film is one where the tone of the human verbal interaction is more important than what was actually being said. At this close date to 2020, it would appear that the development of AI has reached, or in some cases, almost surpassed the technology depicted in the movie, as exhibited by the phenomenal mobile operating systems shackled to the majority of human beings. What is even more proficient and disheartening is that Kubrick was correct in displaying how much we would rely on this advanced tool, and how it would squeeze out our verbal communication as we let the artificial intelligence talk for us, and how presumptuous it is to worship them as godsends when their limitless capacity could inflict our own peril as a species. The film opens up a dialogue between mankind and machines and how we as a species advanced as benefactors of our artificial tools. Computers are a lot smarter than humans, but the existential point raised in "2001: A Space Odyssey" is that these machines could be sentient and with that comes their ability to tell the master that this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. The tools become us and we cease to exist, and such a proposal includes questions of how ethical it is to murder such sentient AI creations in retaliation. The missing link in the contest might be the potential to evolve further beyond, something like an externalisation of the film’s Star Child, where somewhere in a limitless field of consciousness we can salvage an omnipotent splendour. Whether that next step on the evolutionary development would be a force for good or bad in the long-term is way up there, and light years away, for debate. We now have proof of black holes, and therefore more space to dream of that singular pathway that could open up an entire universe to us.

Also in my collection: Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"

For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/

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