2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

[November 2010 Update: It's been almost a decade since we turned the page on our calendars to 2001. And yet, Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, still feels prophetic. So I'm digging up my review of that re-release and posting it again, and I'll include this - an article that appeared just today on Kottke called "Kubrick Explains 2001."]
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(Warning: This review is offered with the assumption that readers have seen this film. No attempt has been made to avoid plot spoilers.)

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On the occasion of its 2001 remastered re-release:

It has come and gone… the year that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were only dreaming about in 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was first screened. In celebration of 2001‘s year of fulfillment, that classic, “trippy” science-fiction film is making a limited run through major U.S. cities.

I can attest to the pristine quality of this new, polished print and its remastered soundtrack. Unlike other recent director’s cuts, there are no embellishments here, only spectacular images restored to their original glory. And in such a shiny new coat of paint, it’s amazing how contemporary the movie still seems. The special effects are so impressive, it’s hard to believe they reached the screen nine years before X-wings chased TIE fighters across the surface of the Death Star.

And, more than 30 years after its making, Kubrick’s film still has much to say. Actually, it’s more about asking than saying anything.

2001 is a movie about ideas, not effects. It’s occasionally suspenseful, but it’s not a “thriller.” It’s is adventurous, but it isn’t about an adventure. Ten, even twenty minutes might pass without a line of dialogue. And instead of thunderous John Williams fanfares we get, gasp, classical music! The film remains focused intently upon questions about philosophy, history, and human nature.

It begins with a portrayal of “the dawn of man.” We’re shown apes who seem to be leaning forward into their next evolutionary stage. They’re almost human. But Clarke’s depiction of evolution is about more than mere science, and there’s more going on here than just the “survival of the fittest.” There’s a Creator involved… or at least a Supernatural Meddler, in the form of an obsidian-black monolith. Some kind of intelligence is at work in humanity’s development.

The ominous, shiny monolith that occasionally intervenes in history inspires behavior in the apes similar to the way more advanced species respond to the presence of a deity… with fear, curiosity, obeisance, and anger at the suggestion that they might be inferior to something. Whether that reverberating black square is a deity, an angel, a messenger, or an agent from some manipulative alien race, its influence on humanity and history is great, and it seems to prompt the advancement of the species to a new level.

But is the next stage of human evolution better? Just another version of the same behavior? Or might it be a devolution?

With 2001, Kubrick was becoming a master of restraint and suggestion. The film’s long, slow-motion, musical passages seem uneventful and even uninteresting to today’s sound-bite-conditioned audiences. But this style allows more patient moviegoers the time to compare and contrast individuals, eras, and even objects: When an ape-man throws a club into the air, exultant at his ability to use tools for his own ends, the scene jump-cuts several thousand years into the future, and the club in the air becomes, by implication, a space station hovering in space. How much has changed! And yet, how timeless and common human experiences and behaviors have been! We’re still employing the gifts a Higher Power gave us in order to try and gain dominion over things beyond our reach.

And we are still, for all our formalities, uttering the same outrage, fear, and confusion in the face of mystery.

For all that the movie gets wrong in its whimsical vision of a future, it gets many things right: The people of the real 2001 are not a far cry from the people depicted in this film, nor are they much different from the apes in the opening scenes. They still carry on silly social exchanges that amount to very little. They congratulate each other for performing the simplest of communicative tasks, even as they perform scientific feats of incredible complexity. (After a government officer gives a vague and evasive briefing, he is congratulated — “Great speech!” And what do the scientists do when they approach the monolith on the moon? They line up and smile for pictures.) Even the bombast of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” underlines the theme of humanity’s self-congratulatory rise to power. These quiet parallels provide much of the film’s brilliant and subtle comedy. And that’s got to be the film’s most overlooked strength … it’s got a wicked sense of humor right in line with Dr. Strangelove.

David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the astronaut who takes center stage in the film’s last act, is an effective everyman, a guy trying to do his job in spite of the conspiracies and evils that surround him. Dullea’s square jaw and symmetrical face have that ‘action-figure’ look that Kubrick likes for his sympathetic heroes; at times his determined glare is similar to that of Tom Cruise, from whom Kubrick drew a similarly restrained but effective performance in Eyes Wide Shut.

Bowman becomes the Higher Power’s “chosen one.” We’re left to wonder why. I think a rarely noted but significant detail might be that Bowman is taken into the Higher Power’s care soon after he performs the film’s only selfless act. He risks his life to try and safe a colleague, and ends up locked out of his own ship, overpowered and outwitted by the computer he is seeking to override. He is defeated by humanity’s own invention because he sought to save another. His helplessness is emphasized by the design of the pod — its motionless arms are folded in what almost suggests a pose of supplication.

Then comes that last “evolution”, that transformation into something wiser, purer, perhaps more powerful. It’s a surreal and abstract leap some viewers aren’t ready to contemplate. But as it represents humanity’s next step, into a new world of metaphors and symbols, it should be nearly inexplicable. As he nears death, he has retreated into a silent state of contemplation — the life of the mind. And as he passes, he becomes a new creature … “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”

Has David reached an epiphany? Has he been “born again”?

Kubrick’s imagining of what humanity’s next manifestation might be strongly echoes (however unintentionally) Scripture’s own ideas about our future. David becomes like a child. Humankind’s evil, springing from pride, has doomed us. But something in us is of great interest to a Higher Power… the best in us will survive and be transformed for a new era, and we will be new creatures for a new world.

We might be humbled by just how far behind 2001’s projection of humanity’s presence in space we really are. (Or perhaps we should be grateful to have fallen short of it.) We forget that our technological advances into outer space are dependent upon a stable culture, a good economy, a wealth of natural and human resources, and some degree of peace. Recently (since September 11th, 2001), we have learned how vulnerable to change any culture can be. We’ve seen that stability is a precarious state. Will 2001’s space travel be a reality by 3001? If recent events are any indication, we are closer to destroying ourselves than we are to successfully spreading to other worlds. The future may look a lot more like the barren lands of the film’s opening act than life on the opulent space cruisers at the film’s center.

One of 2001’s prominent themes is that humanity tends to use its intelligence (which might be a gift or a natural progression, but the arrival of the monolith suggests the former) to invent and utilize powerful tools for its own advancement. And, as other films like Blade Runner and Terminator 2 have demonstrated, by playing God we eventually learn our limitations — our inventions become too powerful for us to handle and we fall victim to their own “evolving” capacities for self-preservation. Like Blade Runner’s replicants, the Hal 9000 is only doing what any human being would do when threatened; cutting off resources to those that threaten it and saving itself. This provides an interesting contrast to the actions of Bowman, who risks his life to help his fellow man. Kubrick’s vision suggests that the Higher Power anoints the selfless man to become the new being, the Starchild.

In the late 60s and early 70s, movies became daring in order to defeat predictability. The formulas it seemed had been exhausted. Pauline Kael and other critics point to Star Wars and Jaws as the films that brought us back to the clichés with renewed vigor and the “blessing” of special effects. Today, sci-fi is synonymous with Star Trek, which provides us with innumerable, bipedal aliens who communicate the way humans do, so we can learn our lessons in plain English by the end of an episode. 2001 speaks instead by monolith — that is, by metaphor, by poetry, and by suggestion. It makes the demands on an audience that the storytelling of any great artist does: “For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” The questions resonate. As another great storyteller once said, they draw us “further up and further in.”

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Mr. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on the short story “The Sentinel” by Mr. Clarke; directors of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott; edited by Ray Lovejoy; art designer, John Hoesli; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 139 minutes.
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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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