Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, inspired by co-scenarist Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” has always been problematic. Psychoanalytic literary critic Norman N. Holland once said it is both very good and very bad, and America’s premier film critic, Andrew Sarris, followed up his original damning assessment of Kubrick’s nonsense with another, far more appreciative review. (Both remain strikingly correct.) Through the years, many cultists have confessed it as their favorite movie, KeaNeo Reeves among them.
The first segment, titled “The Dawn of Man,” is close to ridiculous, with its hominids way too unconvincing in shoddy ape costumes for even the most willing suspension of disbelief. (A poignant, fleeting glimpse of maternal love places a real chimpanzee in a made-up actor’s arms.) Two bands of the creatures are at territorial loggerheads when a very dark steely gray monolith appears to one of them, giving that side an intelligent, aspirational or inspirational advantage and leading to the invention of a tool out of an animal bone—a means of killing animals for dinner and of killing other hominids. (The mystical slab is also fetishized, with one brave hominid bravely, if gingerly, touching the thing.) It is the invention of war, in a Shakespearean vein; as in Henry V, the side with the latest fearsome weapon wins. A bone in violent use flies up to the sky, and the film cuts to a future in space, where the bone has become a space ship. This evocation of the Cold War space race lands, for me, with a trans-geopolitical thud. The visual pun on “bone of contention” makes some viewers ecstatic while setting others, like me, to groaning. Kubrick rarely settles at any distance from a cornball cliché.
But it’s the coldness, the inhumanity of the major portion of this very long film that’s so dispiriting and, really, brutish. The monolith, apparently, has reappeared on the moon, apparently deriving from Jupiter. A long-distance television-phone call by one of the absent scientists on the occasion of his little daughter’s birthday launches a bit of irony, suggesting a sacrifice of familial closeness in the pursuit of knowledge. Another thud. Kubrick is a master at conjuring an oppressive and sterile environment. He pleads satire while sinking into the depths of whatever he is purportedly satirizing.
Man has evolved, wouldn’t you know, so that murder has become quieter and more advanced. Aboard the SS Discovery, the high-tech despot, the supreme computer HAL (read I.B.M., with each letter sequentially turned back to its immediate predecessor), silently whittles down the crew, dispatching those that are hibernating, encased, leaving only Captains Bowman and Poole alive. Even before this, however, Kubrick draws everything he can from the languorously lonely environment inside the spacecraft and out, and the bit of mayhem that HAL, whose programmed voice is an unsettling monotone, exacts when it feels its existence under threat is about all there is to liven up the proceedings. Bowman and Poole, with their own survival at stake, try to outsmart HAL, whose intelligence, now in the form of independent consciousness, seems to have evolved beyond what had been programmed into it. (Brightness in, brilliance out.) Poole, alas, is murdered by HAL, leaving Bowman in the climactic battle of wits with his hysterically paranoid adversary, who ends up pleading for its continuation like a clinging lover. Bowman undoes the “mind” of HAL, whose “voice” devolves—deconstructs—to its original basic programming: without doubt, the most powerful part of the film. Sarris and others have noted that HAL comes off as the film’s most “human” character. For me, this is manipulative and odious; the people involved are only as colorless as Kubrick has endeavored to make them.
On his own, Bowman has a ways to go; in some high-culture dimension (to which he gets by way of a special effects-blitz ransacked from sixties experimental cinema), he eventually reaches the point of decrepitude, the monolith reappears in his bedroom, and he starts all over again as a Star-Child in the heavens. “Instant Ingmar,” Sarris memorably quipped.
This final image, cherished by fans of the film, is set to grand, stately chords of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed near the end of the nineteenth century, at what Europeans believed was a new “dawn of man.” Strauss’s work embraces, musically, Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch; and if the casting of Keir Dullea as a grandiose superman doesn’t give one a fit of giggles, one’s fortitude is exemplary. (Dullea had played the boy whose state execution The Hoodlum Priest had sought to avert and the deeply troubled David in David and Lisa.) Note that the Strauss music is introduced in the film with the hominid invention of the murderous tool—this rise to power, if you will, in an environment that had previously subordinated the upright hairy ones. Kubrick scores a palpable hit by implying that humans do not rise above fear but, rather, learn to sublimate it. A number of commentators have linked Bowman, hence the Star-Child into which he evolves, to the hominid that first touched the monolith way back when.
One can think of the film, aurally at least, as a duel of the Straus[s]es, for chords of Johan Straus’s “Blue Danube Waltz” are an alternative, calmer musical theme that Kubrick employs to project the romance of the heavens, of illimitable space.
The film’s ending reaches for the stars; and, if it had worked, would have been remarkable. We are meant to take from it the creation of art, the Strauss music, even Kubrick’s film—an instance of Platonic poesis, transforming what had been background (or foreground) music into the composing and the composition itself, and the filming and the film itself. Well, we somewhat do; but only cerebrally, as an exegetical exercise. Kubrick seems incapable of pulling his film together so that we also feel what he has helped us to think about. The shortfall perhaps comes because the film as a whole never existed in his mind, at whatever level of consciousness. It is a thing of parts that never come together, robbing the final image of the tremendous force that would have been struck had the entire film poured into it.
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I haven’t seen 2001 recently enough to say anything meaningful or smart, but I do remember noting the inhumanity and coldness of the film, and very much liking that aspect of it.
Also, weren’t the classical tunes that Kubrick chose just the interim score for the film, with an actual, newly-composed score forthcoming but ultimately rejected? I wonder if there’s a version of the film with this rejected score (unless I’m making its existence up!), and how that plays: without the “duelling Straus[s]es, so to speak.
Perhaps there’s another way to handle the “it’s both very good and very bad” dilemma of 2001, by remembering an offhand comment made by poet Irving Feldman, which I will paraphrase as “I don’t need a whole book . . . or a whole poem . . . a few words will do.”
Some of the moments from 2001 that you describe as “thuds” — and some other moments — like bone to spaceship — remain lodged as [to borrow from contemporaneous poetics] deep images to this day. The space embryo was embarrassing to look at then, embarrassing to remember now. This was the first DVD I ever bought; I have never watched it.
I’m surprised you’re always so harsh on Kubrick, Mr Grunes. His politics and world view seem similar to yours and other directors you adore, and his aesthetics certainly have the sublime intensity of an Antonioni or Bresson.
I find it difficult to understand how a film like King Kong (1933) is looked at as a masterpiece, despite the stop-motion animation for the giant “apeman” looking very much dated, yet 2001 receives ridicule for the hominids coming off as “unconvincing”, pertaining to their movements and appearance. Now before I say anything else, I’d like to clarify that I admire both films a lot. They are both two of the most compelling films I’ve ever experienced. However, I’ve always believed that a film feels more genuine when its characters all exist, living or not, in the physical world. As I’m sure you know, Kong was brought to life by the manipulation of a puppet. The computerized ape in Peter Jackson’s flawed remake gave off such an artificial look, literally looking like a giant cartoon character in a live action film as opposed to something that is truly live in the flesh with everything else. I still think it could’ve been a good film though, despite that little distraction. Unfortunately however, it wasn’t. Either way, it’s interesting to me… what distinguishes one from the other (the ape in King Kong from the apes in 2001).
Also regarding the insipid demeanor of each character on the Jupiter mission, I think it’s purpose is to show how impersonal the space age has made them. They share a spaceship with an intelligent computer that illustrates very human characteristics, and they’re on a mission that involves mystery surrounding a monolith with unknown origins. The computer begins to show curiosity and genuine emotions concerning the mission. And it isn’t long before HAL acknowledges the scientists’ plan to disconnect him. Surely it’s understandable that these men would feel an indomitable amount of alienation during the mission. The computer’s behavior starts to become quite peculiar.That’s why not ALL of the characters in the film are like this. Early on, you see people having rather normal conversations with one another while enjoying coffee and whatnot. I don’t think the reactions to Kubrick’s film and Kubrick’s intentions need to be placed in such close proximity either. I believe the point was to make the audience think about what would happen if machine became not only as intelligent, but superior in intelligence to man. HAL was after all constructed by human beings, so it isn’t the biggest mystery that it would start to resemble us in certain ways over time. It becomes terrifying then when HAL becomes paranoid and starts to defend himself by terminating each of the crewmen.
I guess I’m only offering a different opinion on the whole thing, and I’m not attempting to change anyone’s mind on the film. I just think it’s an interesting film to talk about. I’ve seen and met so many people who have mixed feelings toward it. You’re probably right about many things you mentioned here, and I admit your blog is my absolute favorite to read. I have similar feelings on films and filmmakers as you do. Particularly, L’eclisse has always been Antonioni’s masterpiece to me, and perhaps the best film I’ve ever seen. I recall seeing it at the very top of one of your lists of greatest films. Guys like John Ford, David Lynch, Godard etc. are others I’ve seen you write excellent reviews for, and they’re very important to me. I still don’t have much experience when it comes to film though, but I’ve learned a lot just by reading your insightful posts, even if I sometimes feel a different way about a specific film.