Stanley Kubrick’s cryptic legacy as a filmmaker was forged by “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A movie unlike anything audiences had seen, it was a prophetic evolution of storytelling. Yet, also Kubrick’s pretentious manifesto in being a misunderstood genius. Its purely visual devices are more a philosophical essay than the landmark of science fiction it is taken for.
Kubrick developed “2001” with legendary author Arthur C. Clarke, who was relatively obscure at the time. They based the film on Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” which he developed as a novel simultaneously. It speculates on the idea of an ancient monolith left by extra-terrestrials, which appears to humans throughout civilization’s course to inform and warn them.
Though, Kubrick took the wet ink from Clarke’s story and smeared it into an ambitious Rorschach inkblot. It’s noted in the film’s production history that Kubrick departed from structural plot and voice-overs into a visual realm of ideas. Big ideas; the kind that have riddled humans since they first questioned where we came from and where we are going? Kubrick provokes the seemingly unanswerable with visual and aural sensations.
Steven Spielberg once described “2001” as the “Big Bang” for his generation of filmmakers. This is evidenced in watching George Lucas’s opening sequence in “Star Wars.” Kubrick detailed this stylized presence of space vehicles consumed by cosmic vastness in his own sequences 10 years prior. “2001” also elevated the xenophobic undertones of 1950s Alien movies into asking what if these beings are beyond imagination.
Kubrick’s vision lit up under brilliant special effects team Douglas Trumbull and Wally Veevers, as well as cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Trumbull’s debut work on “2001” was the first of 3 epic contributions to science fiction, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner.” “2001” was also Ray Lovejoy’s editing debut, having assisted on Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.”
Lovejoy made the most memorable match-cut in history for “2001.” From the opening act we see opposing tribes of apes squabble over water. When one ape touches the monolith, he is awakened to embrace weaponry. Striking his first victim with a bone, his elated revelation sends the bone into the air. Lovejoy summates human evolution with a match-cut to a bone-shaped vessel in space.
With such revelatory visual storytelling, “2001” embodies what the film’s opening music is based on. Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” uses music to adapt philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel about a prophet, Zarathustra, who from the mountaintops of contemplation pronounces “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s manifesto of the Ubermensch (German for Overman) is in a nutshell asking what’s next for man. Like Nas said about Hip Hop in 2006, Kubrick metaphorically pronounced Cinema dead.
The dialogue and plot of “2001” is intentionally vague so that the story reaches deep into subconscious interpretations of images. Kubrick was realizing that the greatest epics, while universal to the human condition, are dead as we approach what evolution may have in store. The “Space Odyssey” subtitle fundamentally challenges western civilization as allegory to Homer’s Greek epic, “The Odyssey.”
It’s no coincidence that the lead (human) part in “2001” is named David Bowman, as Homer’s Odysseus was an archer. The allegory also parallels the glowing red eye of the film’s antagonist, the Hal-9000 computer, like Cyclopes in “The Odyssey.” Essentially Commander Bowman travels to ends of the universe and the mind, like Odysseus on Earth.
Bowman’s journey represents the human condition adrift in the cosmos, attempting to decode its mysteries. As viewers of “2001,” we too are left with only subconscious impressions if we willing submit to its visual experience. Even 40 years later, if a viewer relies on preconceived narrative structures, they will never experience Kubrick’s intention.
Such a deeply allegorical film deserves our appreciation, as does a production that took nearly 4 years to complete. Yet, its cultural significance has been lost to parody, further allowing Kubrick’s pretentiousness as a Zarathustra of his time.