(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1968)
One Giant Leap for Mankind…Backwards
If ever there were a contender for greatest film ever made (though I find that exercise entirely too subjective to seriously ponder), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey could likely serve as one of the strongest candidates. The filmmaker’s revered masterpiece is a visual and auditory sumptuous feast. Forgoing typical narration, Kubrick’s bold vision paved the way for a glorious break from tradition in ‘70s American cinema. And, though special effects have made leaps and bounds with the advent of digital technology, 2001 has aged remarkably well having attained the status of timelessness. The year 2001 has come and gone, and Kubrick was mostly wrong about the technological advances mankind should have made, but the accomplishments in filmmaking and the probing existential quandaries remain as relevant as ever.
Kubrick and author Arthur Clarke (serving as co-screenwriter) take on the imponderable task of chronicling the epic odyssey of the human race cleverly beginning with the dawn of man featuring our apelike ancestors who discover the means of survival. Beautiful landscape shots of a sun-glowed prehistoric plain introduce earth as a mostly uninhabited world of potential. These primates live in harmony with tapirs and are not immune to attacks from stronger predators or other tribes. One such tribe awakes one morning to the startling presence of a giant, black rectangular monolith standing erect outside their home. A terrifying hum of guttural, choral chants provides the soundtrack to this intruder and overwhelms the senses. Later on, one ape sitting before a bestial skeleton discovers a new use for the bones: weaponry. In an excellently edited sequence, the ape decimates the skeleton while shots of the unassuming tapirs falling to ground are spliced in. The apes have found a way to satisfy their carnivorous appetites and a way to fend off opposing tribes. Kubrick already hints at the progress of the human race.
In a remarkable transition, 2001 jumps millions of years ahead to an era of space travel. The cosmos is now rife with various spacecraft, some even commercial. Kubrick introduces this mastery of outer space with the delicacy of Johann Strauss’ famous waltz “The Blue Danube.” A space plane and station engage in a dance of sorts as the former docks at the latter. The interior of this space station is highly polished and bathed in stark whites (except for vibrant red chairs that pop against the background). Kubrick proves himself the master of framing a scene. In this sequence, we are introduced to Dr. Floyd bound for the moon where some rather strange activity has rendered an American base there incommunicado. Rumors of an epidemic arise. Floyd, once on the moon, addresses a solemn panel of scientists revealing that the epidemic is nothing more than a cover story for a discovery with paramount implications. This mysterious discovery could be indicative of extra-terrestrial life. An expedition to the site reveals that this inexplicable object is none other than the monolith standing in all its glory. An ear piercing sound foils a perfect photo opportunity, and Kubrick unapologetically leaps forward again intentionally not tying up narrative loose ends.
Eighteen months later, we meet the crew of Discovery I on a mission toward Jupiter. Three crewmembers rest in hibernation leaving astronauts Frank and Dave awake to man the expedition. The two are, however, not alone. Hardwired into the motherboard of the spacecraft, a complex computer program named HAL 9000 functions as a sixth crewmember. HAL governs the technological processes of the ship and sustains the life of the three men in hibernation. We learn that HAL is the most reliable computer ever made, foolproof, and incapable of error. Whether or not he is capable of genuine emotion, no one can know. This omnipresent device (eerily represented by a glowing red orb) watches Dave and Frank as they exercise, eat meals, and receive transmissions from home. When HAL predicts the impending malfunction of a crucial satellite on the ship’s exterior, the two astronauts begin to call into question the computer’s infallibility when they find nothing wrong with the device. A transmission from mission control confirms that HAL has predicted incorrectly. The computer attributes the mistake to human error, and Kubrick captures an incredibly tense sequence as HAL reads the lips of the two skeptical astronauts plotting in a soundproof space pod to unplug HAL, preventing any further mistakes. When Frank leaves the ship to replace the device, HAL sabotages the crew severing Frank’s tether, terminating the three hibernating men, and not allowing Dave reentry into the ship. When Dave forcibly reenters, he decidedly disconnects HAL. Dave’s heavy breathing juxtaposed with HAL’s frighteningly calm pleas to stop are particularly unsettling.
Left with no surviving crewmembers or HAL, Dave approaches Jupiter alone in the film’s fourth and final segment. Kubrick’s 2001 takes a surrealist plunge near its finale as we first see the monolith now orbiting the planet before Dave enters a vortex of neon colors and disjointed cosmic imagery. When the pod finally lands, the explorer finds himself in a Victorian decorated room with a bed and an oddly glowing floor. His pod and spacesuit disappear, and Dave begins to rapidly age suggesting an experience in another time and dimension. The monolith appears again, this time in silence, standing at the foot of the bed where Dave’s dying body rests. The fading figure morphs into an unexpected fetus. Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” commands our attention once more as this now giant pre-born figure hovers above the earth.
Kubrick’s brilliant film remains indecipherable enough to not serve as a meditation on anything per se, but seeks to explore many things. First and foremost, Kubrick’s skill as a filmmaker pushes the boundaries of traditional narration and allows technical expertise to flourish with 2001. The film flaunts exquisite cinematography – impeccable tracking shots (Frank running on the ship’s circular track), unusual camera angles (filming from HAL’s perspective), and a forward-thinking switch to handheld to build the intensity of the scientists approaching the monolith on the moon. Too, Kubrick never hurries himself along resting on images (most notably the monolith) and capturing moments with extended sequences (space plane docking, the pod repairing Discovery I’s hull, Dave’s hallucinatory descent on Jupiter). All of this allows his audience to ruminate on the film’s spectacular visuals.
Thematically, Kubrick’s 2001 cannot be as easily understood. Kubrick and Clarke openly admit that they intended this. We can glean, however, that Kubrick casts a skeptical eye on the supposed progress of mankind. Yes, our ancestors learned how to survive, but at what cost? They also ushered in an era of increased violence and carnage. Yes, mankind seems to have mastered the final frontier, but are we not still surprised by its mysteries? And, yes, artificial intelligence has propelled our species to venture into the unknown like never before, but aren’t its failures even more costly? Kubrick explores these questions throughout with the ominous monolith that ties each of the disparate segments together. What does it all mean? Kubrick and Clarke probably don’t even know. But, what we have is an intelligently engaging film that has become iconic in almost every way. Nearly every visual has entered our collective cultural conscious – the opening shot of earth eclipsing the sun, the ape smashing bones, the waltzing spacecrafts, HAL, the cosmic rebirth. Kubrick’s supremely unique vision may not provide all the answers, but it stands as one of the most rewarding exercises in asking all the right questions.