“2001: Space Odyssey” – Nostalgia for the Future

As the Space Shuttle era winds down to a noble but mostly unsentimental goodnight this June, I can’t help but feel that whatever romance was once intrinsic in mankind’s reach for the stars will have been irrevocably drained. Where once an entire nation dreamed of going to the moon and beyond, now the comparatively dreary earthbound tasks of number-crunching and nation-building sap what little is left of broad American technological initiative, perhaps rightly so. The stars seem more distant than ever. I wonder–would we even have made it to the moon without the Soviets?

As such, having been born just before the dawn of this era, my experience watching Stanley Kubrick’s opus “2001: A Space Odyssey” is akin to meeting a beautiful, arresting, mysterious older woman and falling in love, despite knowing full well that I was born too late to truly be hers.

Needless to say, it’s weightless testimony for me to add my voice of praise to a four-decade long litany of adulation for “2001.” It is, of course, one of the most important films ever made, brave for its patient delicacy and groundbreaking for its visual majesty. And as a lifelong fan of hard science fiction, it would be impossible to overstate the impact that “2001: A Space Odyssey” had in ennobling realism in science fiction films, even as it ignited the soul with its bold metaphysical enigmas.

Yet I fear it’s that wry realism, ironically, that could potentially render “2001” somewhat quaint in the eyes of younger generations.

In the second act of the film, as Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to the moon, Kubrick makes a subtle but deliberate point about the capacity of humans to make a humdrum routine even out of something as mind-boggling as space travel, imagining it commercially packaged with doting flight attendants, friendly voice-recognition security checks, and swanky red Djinn chairs in gleaming lounges.

Yet we know now, post-actual 2001, that air travel–let alone space travel–is near punishment by comparison, and orders of magnitude more humdrum than Kubrick and sci-fi master Arthur C. Clarke must have imagined. The lilting strains of “Blue Danube” may only serve to disconnect a young first-time viewer further from that world’s precise yet majestic aestheticism, in which you would assume its young people still dream of careers in math and science.

As it is, the future envisioned by Kubrick and Clarke plays out like an old newsreel, one of those science class films with lily-white magazine models blithely navigating through the wonders of the “World of the Future.” I don’t say this to disparage the film, but rather to say that I feel somewhere between 1968 and now, we as humans betrayed Kubrick’s faith in us to take our technological evolution and run with it.

The result is that the subsequent fantastic journeys of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), both into the heart of a mad computer and through the magnificent star gate, feel like fantastic but not entirely implausible destinies that have been ripped from our grasp by a divergence in time’s flow. Beings as we can’t even get a return trip to the moon organized 40 years on into this future, we’re depressingly closer to the bone-wielding proto-humans of the first act than we are to the Star Child of the final act

Make no mistake: I deeply love and admire “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both as a moviegoer and as an artist, on a number of different levels: the murderous reasoning of HAL resembles more the terrifyingly unbalanced mind of a serial killer than a faulty computer, yet we’re still moved to pity in his death throes; and the unflinching sense of duty on the part of the various humans to launch (literally) into the void, a tribute to the real astronauts who steadily bear the shrinking mantle of our spacefaring destiny even minus the sweep of emotional public support.

Most of all, being a firm believer in the capacity of the human eye and mind to discern the authentic from the generated, the painstakingly-crafted spacecraft models and Douglas Trumbull’s slitscan photography effects for the star gate sequence will forever be the standard by which I judge movie special effects. You can have your “Avatar” or “Sucker Punch” or what have you; the key to my wonder machinery is permanently embedded in the last few breathtaking minutes of “2001.”

Which is in a sense why I’m afraid of the way younger generations will view “2001.” My hope is that they will see it as I do: a glorious ode to the mystery of human destiny that nonetheless could and should have been attainable, had we not at some point turned away to more mundane (and frankly petty) concerns.

My fear is that they will view “2001”–essentially through no fault of its own–as a future vision that’s as impossibly distant as those of your average, effects-laden science-fiction fare, and write it off as just another overly-optimistic fantasy that they can’t spiritually connect to.

Unfortunately, Kubrick may have overestimated our relentless urge to explore, and underestimated our insatiable lust for security, to our immense discredit.