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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