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2001 revisited.

During my early adolescence I considered Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to represent Hollywood cinema's supreme achievement. The fact that my enthusiasm for the film was shared by many others was demonstrated by theatres that were packed whenever the film was re-released, which was at least once a year from 1975 to 1982. The film was widely recognized as a standard against which other science fiction films were compared (I distinctly remember that one newspaper, in 1977, preceded its initial review of Star Wars, with the headline "They're both masterpieces, but Star Wars is more fun than 2001").

The following reviews attest that 2001: A Space Odyssey was also one of the more controversial films of its time:

I think Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is some sort of great film, and an unforgettable endeavour. Technically and imaginatively, what he put into it is staggering: five years of his life; his novel and screenplay, with Arthur C. Clarke; his production, his direction, his special effects; his humour and stamina and particular disquiet. The film is not only hideously funny--like Dr. Strangelove--about human speech and response at a point where they have begun to seem computerized, and where more and more people sound like recordings left on while the soul is out. It is also a uniquely poetic piece of sci-fi, made by a man who truly possesses the drives of both science and fiction. (Gilliatt, Penelope. "After Man". The New Yorker Magazine, Inc. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 209)

Whenever the thunder of critical controversy rips through the air, one thing is certain: Lightning has struck. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is just such a jolt of brilliant, high-voltage cinema ... Like any sudden flash accompanied by a loud noise, the film is both startling and illuminating. If it has temporarily left viewers more dazed and curious than enlightened, this is perhaps intentional. The evocation of wonder and awe is perhaps the primary aim of the film ... Whether one wonders what the black metallic monoliths are or what the surrealistic end of the film is supposed to mean or what the opening prehistoric sequence signifies--or simply what the film world is coming to--is temporarily beside the point. What matters is that the imagination and the intellect are jolted out of complacency by the experience of seeing the film. Wonder, like laughter or tears, is a legitimate emotional response. (Allen, John. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Christian Science Monitor. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 229)

It is morally pretentious, intellectually obscure, and inordinately long. The concluding statement is too private, too profound, or perhaps too shallow for immediate comprehension. (Schlesinger Jr., Arthur, Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Vogue. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 246)

2001 is not the worst film I've ever seen. It's simply the dullest. (Dibble, Peter Davis. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Women's Wear Daily. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 246)

For a film that had generated so much controversy in the time of its initial release, 2001: A Space Odyssey generates little discussion among critics and academics today. For critics who try to read the film through post-modern theory, the film might seem simplistic and dull. Although the film reflects the realities of the Cold War, its politics are obvious and undeveloped. The film is also indefinite in terms of the racial/gender stereotypes that it portrays--although all of its characters are caucasian, and in some sequences it seems to preserve the pilot/stewardess hierarchy of a late 1960's airline--Floyd/William Sylvester is presented as treating his female Russian friend as a colleague and an equal. Although recognizably powerful corporate entities are presented in the film (Floyd is transported to the space station on a Pan-American flight, uses a Bell telephone terminal once in the space station, and has a quick drink at the space station's Howard Johnson's franchise) there is no attempt in the film to take a position on their function within current or future societies.

I had personally come to characterize 2001: A Space Odyssey as a highly superficial film that had been a fad of my adolescence. However, after viewing Eyes Wide Shut (1999) I began to perceive Kubrick as a mainstream director strongly influenced by many elements of the European Modernist tradition, particularly psychoanalysis and surrealism. Of Eyes Wide Shut, Richard Schikel writes, in a July 1999, Time magazine review:

... eros and thanatos are exquisitely mixed. The dead body of the first woman's father is clearly visible as she confesses her confused passion; the prostitute turns out to be under the threat of AIDS; the orgiasts, resenting William's intrusion on their saturnalia, threaten him with humiliation and death, and he is "redeemed" only by the intervention of a mysterious woman, who pays for his life with her own. (37)

Other works of Kubrick's are equally influenced by the European Modernist tradition, in fact, the Eros/Thanatos pairings that Schikel noticed in Eyes Wide Shut represent a recurring motif in Kubrick's work. In Full Metal Jacket (1987) Dorian Harewood's character solicits a prostitute, and later endures the film's most excruciating death. The Shining (1980) depicts the wraith of a beautiful nude woman emerging from a bathtub to embrace Jack Nicholson's character, transforming into a rotting corpse as they kiss. A Clockwork Orange (1971) shows Alex murdering the "cat-woman" with a huge plaster phallus, and Dr. Strangelove (1964) has Slim Pickens destroying humanity astride a nuclear phallic symbol.

In the 1924 Manifesto, Andre Breton defines surrealism as:

Surrealism, n. Masc. Psychic automatism in its pure state by which one proposes to express--verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner--the actual functioning of thought. (101)

(Psychic automatism is defined by Robert Short as an attempt "... to identify the source and mechanism of irrational images. Psychic automatism was understood to express the voice of the mind freed from the conventions and limitations of conscious expression." [66]) Kubrick's stated agenda, in producing 2001: A Space Odyssey, greatly recalls the surrealist attempt to speak to the unconscious mind of the audience:

I don't like to talk about 2001 much because it's essentially a nonverbal experience ... It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect. (qtd. in Agel 7)

2001: A Space Odyssey presents us with images that--although naturalistic within the diegesis of the film--are visually aligned with surrealist imagery. The monolith, when it first appears, is utterly incongruous in its perfect symmetry in the pliocene landscape. John Hofsess has noted that the arrival of the shuttle at the space station recalls Leger's Ballet Mechanique (Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Take One. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 235). Audiences are always amused by watching the waitress walking up the wall and along the ceiling of the lunar landing craft, which seems to take on the appearance of a skull as it approaches the moon. One striking image depicts Bowman/Keir Dullea standing on the floor of Discovery's flight deck, while Poole/Gary Lockwood stands on what we would normally consider to be the wall. Although these images are consistent with the film's underlying premises of alien contact and zero gravity, they are nonetheless visually aligned with Dali's melting clocks.

2001: A Space Odyssey also reflects Kubrick's preoccupation with the juxtaposition of eros and thanatos, most notably in the Jupiter mission segment. The image of Poole jogging in the centrifuge among the electronic sarcophagi of the hibernating astronauts juxtaposes an image of health and vitality against one of death. Bowman's creative impulse to draw would normally be associated with eros, however the subjects of his drawings again are the hibernating astronauts. Conceptually, hibernation itself presents such a juxtaposition--although described as an attempt to preserve the ship's life support resources by imposing artificial sleep upon the astronauts, the astronauts do not dream while in hibernation, and therefore no longer function as sentient beings. Bowman's attempt to save Poole using exactly the method that Hal had used to murder Poole (clutching him in the arms of the space pod) presents another juxtaposition.

Eros and thanatos are not understood as limited to sex and death, respectively. Rather, eros is considered an innate drive that compels us to act toward the survival of the species, whereas thanatos is thought to be an innate drive that compels us to act toward the destruction of the species. 2001: A Space Odyssey juxtaposes these drives in order to demonstrate one of the paradoxes of human existence. In Cineaction, issue 46, Garry Watson states "Group solidarity is always based on various kinds of exclusion or opposition". (9) Whenever an "in-group" is defined, by its very nature it also defines an "out-group". By the very nature of our psyches, we are torn between the urge to affiliate, to form social bonds, to form interpersonal relationships, to mate, etc., and the urge to alienate, exclude, or destroy persons, groups, or other species whose agendas or needs do not coincide with our own.

This conflict is presented as an innate characteristic of humankind from the film's onset. The apes depicted in "The Dawn of Man" have already achieved a state of in-group affiliation versus out-group alienation. We see scenes depicting the "protagonist" apes shoving tapirs away while foraging for grass and roots, shrieking at another group of apes that they compete with for water, and huddling together at night for mutual protection and comfort. However, their survival strategies and attempts to consolidate their efforts are ineffectual. The bones strewn all over the landscape indicate that the threat of death is ever present. The tapirs are barely bothered by the apes' attempt to stop them from competing for the same food source. The leopard attacks one of the apes with no fear of recourse, and the shrieking session around the water-hole resolves nothing.

The monolith gives the privileged group of apes the ability to use tools--a skill which allows the apes to realize their natural inclinations towards affiliation and alienation into effective courses of action--in this case allowing them to become predatory and capable of murder. Kubrick here is providing us with a perverse rendering of the Genesis myth--here it is not the fall of humankind that is precipitated by the first murder--it is the ascent.

The famous "four-million year jump-cut" demonstrates that through the effective use of technology, humankind is capable not only of survival, but is capable of success in the most incredibly hostile environments. The three sequences that move to the second encounter with the monolith (those depicting the trip from the earth to the space station, from the space station to Clavius base, and from Clavius base to the monolith) share a great emphasis placed on the technical readouts of the pilots display screens as the spacecraft approach their destinations--reinforcing our sense that human existence in these contexts is contingent on our ability to utilize technology effectively. What is sacrificed here is that humans must surrender much of their awareness and experience of their actual surroundings in order to monitor the equipment they depend upon for their very survival.

When Floyd first arrives at the space station we find humankind plagued with the same issues that plagued humankind in the Pliocene era. There has been much misinterpretation of the scene depicting Floyd's telephone call to his child, which illustrates the affiliation/alienation conflict on many levels. Technology here simultaneously alienates Floyd from his daughter (he is physically removed by several thousand miles from her) but allows him to maintain his relationship with her by telephone (satisfying the emotional requirements of the father-daughter relationship, yet failing to satisfy the tactile requirement of the relationship). Floyd is also forced to rush off the phone and to disrupt his affectionate exchange with his daughter with instructions that are to be relayed to his wife, in order that he might fulfill what later turns out to be a corporate agenda.

Although many critics believe that Kubrick depicts humankind in the year 2001 as devoid of emotion, my impression of Floyd's behavior is one of warmth confused and made problematic by the issues discussed here. When Floyd joins the other scientists for a drink on the space station, his manner is charming and friendly until he is "put on the spot" by Smyslov. His manner then becomes cold and calculated, while his speech becomes very deliberate. His warmth and charm return, however, when he excuses himself in order to resume his journey. His manner changes only when the group agenda is threatened. Once the group agenda is preserved, Floyd's manner again becomes conciliatory.

The scene in the boardroom on Clavius base depicts this further. Floyd receives a warm welcome and is warm in turn, confessing empathy with the others in the boardroom for the anxiety that the false rumor of the epidemic must be causing. Floyd's speech is very familiar here--he refers to someone as "Bill" rather than William. However, when Floyd begins to articulate the "need for absolute secrecy" to the group, his tone becomes firm, and he is depicted in the frame with the American flag immediately behind him. He again has shifted from the personal agenda to affiliate to the corporate agenda to alienate, and oscillates between speaking with the personal voice and with the corporate voice.

The early scenes of the "Jupiter Mission" segment expand upon thematic concerns regarding humankind's use of technology raised in "The Dawn of Man" segment. Humankind is now so expert in utilizing tools to negotiate hostile environments that we see two astronauts who are undertaking the greatest and most dangerous mission in humankind's history and yet are utterly bored by it. Life on board the spaceship Discovery is depicted as completely routine. We first see Poole jogging in an endless cycle in the ship's centrifuge--expending effort yet getting nowhere. Bowman and Poole sit together over dinner and watch the evening news without communicating with each other in what must surely be a parody of middle class existence. Poole's boredom is so extreme that--despite the fact that he is physically separated from him family by millions of miles--he responds to their birthday greeting lethargically.

Hal is introduced to us as a "member of Discovery's crew", further representing the extent to which human endeavor and technological devices have become intertwined. We are also told that Hal can "... reproduce ... most of the activities of the human brain, and with incalculably greater speed and reliability". Later events prove that this is indeed the case. John Allen writes:

As Hitler was a false human version of the superman, so the HAL 9000 computer becomes an equally destructive mechanical version of the superman. The reason for this destructiveness is that the machine appears, in fact, altogether too human. It is presented as capable of pride, envy, rivalry, fear, murder, and the false notion that a scientific mission is more important than life. In short, it is insane, and its insanity threatens to destroy life ... Its insanity, of course, is no greater than that of any fallible mortal who assumes fallible mortals can create, out of their own cleverness, an infallible machine. (Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Christian Science Monitor. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 232-233)

Hal is initially presented as an accepted member of the crew whose participation is a normal fact of shipboard life. Bowman and Poole form a new affiliation with one another, and consequently alienate Hal, when they step into the space pod and, believing Hal cannot hear them, conspire to disconnect Hal. Their former, professional, polite tones are now urgent and concerned, just as Floyd's manner had changed when his agenda was threatened. Hal, in reading their lips and formulating his own plan, is really only reproducing their behavior. They have misrepresented themselves in order to conspire against him and he now misrepresents himself to plot their murders.

Hal commits murder" with incalculably greater speed and reliability" than his human counterparts. The first depictions of violence and murder seen in the film are portrayed as frantic and out of control. As the ape learns to use the bone as a weapon he flails his arms about, smashing bones so hard that they scatter all around him, and finally loses control to the extent that he just throws the bones around. The killing of the tapir is a messy business involving passing the animals meat to all members of the group. The first murder depicted again displays a tendency to over-kill, as the privileged apes thump the corpse of their victim with a club long after their victim is obviously subdued.

Hal's first murder again is very clumsy--he attacks Poole with one of the space pods. As a suffocating Poole struggles to reconnect his oxygen supply, his arms flail about in a manner that recalls the flailing of the apes' arms. Hal's next three murders, however, are much more efficient in their execution. Not undertaking any violent course of action, Hal simply stops providing life support to the hibernating astronauts. His plan to murder Bowman is even more flawlessly efficient. Bowman has already left the ship without his helmet in order to rescue Poole. In order to murder Bowman, Hal simply has to do nothing when Bowman requests that he be let back on board Discovery.

John Hofsess writes:

Kubrick makes it clear, however, that astronaut Bowman alone displays any sign of non-cognitive skills; his sketches (of hibernating humans) are the only evidence of artistic wonder and curiosity, and represent one of the few activities and uses of the mind that HAL is not programmed to emulate. To Bowman is given the task of dismantling Hal. (Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Take One. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 235)

By employing his creative, rather than his logical, processes Bowman arrives at method of entering the airlock through use of the characteristics of the space pod and of the airlock in a manner other than which they were designed for. Paradoxically, because of his greater capacity for imagination, Bowman is obviously greatly upset by Hal's pleas for his life, and feels empathy and remorse for Hal. As Bowman is also possessed of the affiliation/alienation conflict, he is capable of simultaneously feeling empathy for Hal while destroying Hal.

The tendency toward interpreting the film's final segment ("Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite") as representative of Bowman being sent on a trans-galactic journey to another solar system has probably stemmed from a tendency to use Arthur C. Clarke's novel as a key to the interpretation of Stanley Kubrick's film. Clarke's novel is based on an early draft of Kubrick's screenplay, which Kubrick later modified in the extreme, therefore novel and the film should be viewed as separate entities with separate intentions. The psychedelic light show certainly does seem to support being interpreted as depicting a journey through several alien solar systems to an ultimate encounter with a greater intelligence beyond the stars. However, Kubrick jettisoned all narration in the film that would have determined the audience's reading of the film. Many of the landscapes that we seem to rocket over are identifiably terrestrial landscapes--only the color balance of the film, and subsequently our way of perceiving them, seems to have changed. There is also an emphasis on Bowman's flickering eye that recalls Bunuel's use of the woman's eye at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou. This suggests that Kubrick might be using the incredible light show as Bunuel uses the slicing of the eyeball--to shock the audience into a frame of mind where they will be receptive to ideas that they previously might not have been.

The final scene in the hotel room seems blatantly surrealist in its intent. We see the incongruous images of the astronaut and the space pod in an ornate, archaic, Louis XVI hotel room, and we hear weird electronic shrieks on the soundtrack as Bowman explores the hotel room. Critics who use the novel as a key to interpreting this scene have concluded that it represents Bowman spending a period of decades in this hotel room, aging and eventually dying under alien observation, to be reborn to a higher plane of evolution.

This interpretation, however, ignores the manner in which this scene is edited. We actually seem to be observing Bowman at four stages of his life, observing himself at other stages of his life. We first see Bowman, trembling in his space pod, and are then given a covering shot of the pod in the hotel room. We then see, from Bowman's point of view in the pod, an older Bowman exploring the living room and bathroom. This second Bowman approaches then emerges from the bathroom into the dining room. We then see, from this second Bowman's point of view, a third Bowman--much older--in the dining room. This third Bowman hears noise from the bathroom, investigates, finds nothing, and resumes dining. He knocks his wineglass off of the dining room table. The glass shatters loudly on the floor, and the third Bowman leans over to pick up the wineglass. The third Bowman then sees the a fourth Bowman, who is obviously on his deathbed. The fourth Bowman then sees the monolith, which is situated in the position previously occupied by the third Bowman. Kubrick presents this scene according to the Freudian notion that time has no meaning in dreams, and according to the surrealist tendency to emphasize the manifest content of dreams over the latent content of dreams.

The final image of Bowman transformed into an embryo that travels the stars redresses thematic concerns opened in "The Dawn of Man". The embryo travels the stars without technological intervention, as a result of a second encounter with the entity that first introduced technology to humankind. Has humankind superceded the need to utilize technological means in order to survive the environment or, has humankind become indistinguishable from its technological artifacts? Has humankind resolved the affiliation/ alienation conflict to the effect that we are now all capable of negotiating the universe without technological intervention or is Bowman humankind's only representative in this higher realm of being, highly evolved yet completely alienated? The working title of 2001: A Space Odyssey was "Journey Beyond the Stars". In classical literature, The Odyssey tells of Ulysses' extreme adventure in returning home. Has Bowman in some way returned home at the film's conclusion, completing and renewing a cycle? According to Kubrick, the number of answers to these questions should coincide with the number of people who have seen the film.

... 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be easily judged if only because of its dazzling technical perfection. To be able to see beyond that may take a few years. When we have grown used to beautiful strange machines, and the wonder of Kubrick's special effects wears off by duplication in other Hollywood films, then we can probe confidently beyond 2001's initial fascination and decide what kind of a film it really is. (Hunter, et al. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Harvard Crimson. 1968: N. pag. qtd. in Agel 222)

Although nominally a mainstream science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey is extremely tenuous in its adherence to conventional narrative structures. Richard Lippe has suggested (in an unpublished discussion) that throughout the course of his career Kubrick employs a variety of generic forms in order to explore narrative forms and thematic elements that interest him. For example, Paths of Glory is presented in the generic form of the war film, but in terms of its narrative is far more concerned with a critique of the operation of corporate power within the French military hierarchy than it is with a presentation of battle with the Germans. (This critique recalls Renoir's deconstruction of nationalism in Grand Illusion [1938]). 2001: A Space Odyssey represents one of Kubrick's most effective utilizations of a mainstream generic form to express narrative forms and thematic elements usually associated with the European avante-garde. This provides ample opportunity for further study to determine the extent to which the influence of the avante-garde is evident in the larger body of Kubrick's work.

For Nancy Kimoff with thanks to Gerald Grant and Rob Potwin.

Works Cited

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warners, 1971.

Agel, Jerome ed. The Making of Kubrick's 2001. New York: Signet, 1970.

Allen, John. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Agel 229-234.

Breton, Andre. Manifestes du surrealisme. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: n.p., 1969.

Dibble, Peter Davis. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Agel 246.

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick, Columbia, 1964.

Eyes Wide Shut. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warners, 1999.

Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warners, 1987.

Gilliatt, Penelope. "After Man". Agel 209-213.

Grand Illusion. Dir. Jean Renoir. Compagnie Jean Renoir, 1938.

Hofsess, John. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Agel 234-236.

Hunter, Tim, Stephen Kaplan and Peter Jaszi. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Agel 215-222.

Kubrick, Stanley. Interview. Agel 7.

Le Ballet Mechanique. Dir. Femand Leger. n.p., n.d.

Paths of Glory. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. n.p., 1957.

Schikel, Richard. "All Eyes on Them". Time 5 July 1999: 34-38.

Schlesinger Jr., Arthur. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Agel 246.

Shining, The. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warners., 1980.

Short, Robert. Dada & Surrealism. Secaucas: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1980.

Works Cited (continued)

Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. 20th Century Fox, 1977.

Un Chien Andalou. Dir. Luis Bunuel. n.p., 1928.

Watson, Garry. "The Western: The Genre that Engenders the Nation". Cineaction 46: 2-10.

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Author:Babiak, Peter E.S.
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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