Majestic, inscrutable and so open to interpretation that it still prompts heated argument, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” remains a work of icy genius that has endured well beyond the expiration date inherent in its title.
From its opening Dawn of Man Sequence – a battle between warring primates over access to a waterhole – to the final images in which a Star Child is born, “2001” is both rapturous and confounding. Like few other movies before or since, it forces us to speculate about the mystery that surrounds us.
Departures from realism – most notably in the famous cinematic “light show” toward the end of the movie – turned “2001” into a drugged-out “trip” for youthful audiences in 1968, the year of its release. But “2001” was always more than an accessory for hippie pharmacology; it’s an attempt by a serious filmmaker to stagger the imagination and provoke us with ideas.
“2001” brings us to a deeply unsettling place, putting us on the edge of an intellectual precipice: The universe is awe-inspiring and wondrous, yes, but humankind is not necessarily guaranteed a role in its ongoing life.
Thanks to Kubrick (and remember, “2001” was made long before computer-generated imagery became a movie norm), many of us believe we have some sense of what it might be like to travel in space. The pristine beauty of silent black expanses spoke of intergalactic poetry, pushing “2001” beyond the confines of “traditional” narrative. “2001” can be likened to a symphony, a work that moves in dramatic swells, quiet interludes and crashing climaxes.
Judged only by its plot, “2001” could have been shrunken from its 141-minute running time to a 10-minute short. What really happens? A scrawny ape discovers a strange monolith, which somehow stimulates the invention of the first weapon, a bone that’s used as a club. From there, it’s a short leap to “smart” technology and a voyage to the moon, where a second monolith has been uncovered.
Having gotten us to the moon, the movie then takes us on a journey to Jupiter, and finally to what’s described as “beyond the infinite.” The view is radical: Human history is reduced to a few significant developments. What if the rest – everything with which we normally preoccupy ourselves – is just filler?
“2001,” of course, isn’t about its plot; it’s about the sweeping tide of evolutionary history, and it ultimately pits one man against one machine in a race to see which “being” will advance to the next level. The famous confrontation between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the HAL 9000 computer is rich in wit and gamesmanship, but it’s also deadly.
Within that sobering context, Kubrick made room for scorching ironies. Kubrick’s spaceships are neither sleek nor “futuristic;” they’re colossal and cumbersome, technological behemoths that suggest the enormous difficulty of sustaining life in space. Watch the arduous effort required of a flight attendant to carry a tray to a spaceship’s lone passenger in the zero gravity environment of a voyage from Earth to a space station.
Kubrick also brought capitalism into the cosmos. Dr. Floyd – the scientist sent from Earth to view the monolith that has been found on the moon — flew a Pan Am shuttle to the moon. (And, yes, at the time there was a Pan Am. airline.) Kubrick missed few opportunities for wry commentary on rampant commercialism and how profoundly silly it looks when placed against a cosmic backdrop.
Few movies make more magnificent use of music. The graceful waltzes of Johann Strauss accompany docking maneuvers in space. The triumphal pomp of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” serves as a kind of anthem for every ascendant moment. And the otherworldly eeriness of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” provides a soundtrack for Bowman’s voyage toward the infinite, a journey that takes him to an elegant room in which he watches himself age, die and be reborn.
Kubrick made a sci-fi movie that feels bigger than science or fiction, a genre buster that occupies a unique place in movie history. The movie stands as one of the greatest and perhaps oddest creations of 20th century cinema, a monumental art object that seems entirely divorced from typical Hollywood concerns.
Was Kubrick, who co-wrote the movie with science fiction maven Arthur C. Clarke, right in his musings about our collective future? Are we right in our interpretation of those musings? I don’t think it matters. “2001” isn’t meant to satisfy curiosity: It’s meant to drown us in the vastness that surrounds us and perhaps to remind us of our dangerously persistent myopia.
We’re already a decade past the year 2001, yet Kubrick’s movie doesn’t seem dated. I think that’s because “2001” occupies its own dimension, towering over us with its Olympian splendor and unabashed grandeur. For once the power of cinema is employed not to titillate or entertain, but to create and sustain an encompassing vision, an aberration perhaps, but a magnificent and indispensable one.