2001: A Space Odyssey
(SPOILERS) There isn’t, of course, anything left to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the devoted still try, confident in their belief that it’s eternally obliging in offering unfathomable mystery. And it does seem ever responsive to whatever depths one wishes to plumb in analysing it for themes, messages or clues either about what is really going on out there some around Jupiter, or in its director’s head. Albeit, it’s lately become difficult to ascertain which has the more productive cottage industry, 2001 or The Shining, in the latter regard. With Eyes Wide Shut as the curtain call, a final acknowledgement to the devout that, yes, something really emphatic was going under Stanley Kubrick’s hood and it’s there, waiting to be exhumed, if you only look with the right kind of eyes.
That does mean, however, that the relatively less obscure approach found in his other movies post-2001 – the period from which he’s really regarded as setting out his store – is slightly disinclined towards such conspiratorial probing. Yes, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket lend themselves to the discussion, particularly of the MK-Ultra kind, but comparatively speaking, they’re open books. Barry Lyndon tends to be conspicuous by its absence in such talk, however. And still, even given The Shining’s blossoming of late, the conversation comes back to 2001.
I know, when I first saw the film, I was aware of its status as a hallowed classic, much in the same way as the various David Lean films I had been introduced to. With 2001, though, it was left to me to discover (I suspect this would have been 1984, the year the sequel came out, courtesy of an afternoon screening on BBC2). It’s a film which, for a novice viewer, requires patience, particularly in the early stages, but even at a tender age, undisciplined in film grammar, it was readily identifiable as doing something very different, even as it occupies the same kind of classical expanse as a Lean epic. Once the bone is thrown, and we land in space, the film has exerted a hypnotic hold. It’s a rare skill, ever more so today, to realise that slow and sure can be more riveting than fast and furious.
Structurally, 2001 announces itself with chapters, but resists linking them by character or location; only the obelisk – the strange, unnatural, intrusive obelisk – is there to guide us onward towards the infinite. Much has rightly been said about how the picture is disincline towards identification with its human protagonists. Dr Floyd (William Sylvester, an unassuming presence known mostly for his TV work) is introduced in the second chapter, nominally investigating the same shiny black brick introduced in the first; in any traditional narrative, he would be our protagonist, which may be why in Clarke’s follow up, and the corresponding feature, he is our protagonist; 2010: The Year We Make Contact is a much more traditional affair, with a much more traditional movie star playing Floyd (which is not to say Peter Hyams’ film, or Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Floyd, doesn’t have its merits).
And much has also been rightly said about how HAL is more human than the humans; “his” fate is far more affecting than the shrug that greets the premeditated murder of Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). Clarke’s decision to reanimate Poole in 3001: The Final Odyssey is symptomatic of the kind of uninspired desperation that afflicts much of current genre writing; indeed, it’s a tired trope of modern SF/fantasy that no one stays dead and thus stakes are limited. Clarke’s sequels are similarly guilty of revelling in excessive continuity and over explanation, both of which blight much of our prequel and sequel driven age; anything that can have a gap filled must have it filled, whether or not that’s to its ultimate benefit.
Kubrick, in contrast, emphatically favoured ambiguity and the viewer’s own interpretation. While it’s fairly self-evident that the Monolith is responsible for initiating/accelerating mankind’s evolution – with the implicit spark of reasoning comes the quest for power and violence, this via the recognition of difference and superiority, the idea that the development of consciousness requires a descent for millennia before it can hope to raise itself up and beyond foolish things – the wherefores and whys are left to the imagination. Clarke would collapse much of this, most notably in 3001 (the final part of his quadrilogy), in which, in a pre-empting of the flawed creation that has gained much ground in the resurgent currency of gnostic beliefs and creeds and the likes of Ridley Scott’s regretful star-seeders in Prometheus, the First-Born (the creators of the Monoliths) decide to destroy humanity (prevented by a handy computer virus, suggesting Clarke may have looked to Independence Day for inspiration, of all things).
The de-mystification of the Monolith is front and centre of 2010, but even that includes the incredible, iconic scene of the engulfing black spot on Jupiter (notably Saturn was originally intended for 2001 but changed due to effects issues; Jay Weidner would have it that this was no accident); unsullied in 2001, it’s an object of fear and foreboding, particularly in tandem with the accompanying György Ligeti soundtrack selections – one experiences palpable unease and tension, the wailing and distress of a million souls in hell pleading for respite. Anything after this is a retreat: Spielberg’s benign contact, Lucas’ serial simplicity, Scott’s blue-collar corporate malfeasance (and mundane take on a botched creation in Prometheus). Kubrick is wise to keep his alien force nebulous, even though Douglas Trumbull reported that was simply because they ran out of time and money rather than because he didn’t want to.
The artificial intelligence concept at the secondary heart of the film – just as the creators of the Monolith have played God, so has man with his own creation – has also, of course, been the source of much inspiration since, understandably as 2001 is pretty much the baseline for the modern AI, and the evil AI at that; Proteus and Mother would be notable responses over the course of the next decade, while the apotheosis would come with Cameron’s Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, in which the machines (all but) succeed in wiping out humanity. It’s an ever-more potent theme, bridged by the dangers of humanity aligning itself with their artificial systems and consequent potential/threat of the hive mind, with some more extreme conspiracy theories suggesting this has alreadybeen achieved and done, that our existence itself is an AI-created simulation, our real selves existing, The Matrix-like, in another realm (for which comes first, the SF concept or the “reality” that inspires or was inspired by it – and who knows where the realreality behind that simulation starts and ends – boundary lines can get a bit fuzzy around this point). Amid such convoluted machinations, Kubrick’s vision could be taken as relatively simple and benign – raising us up to eventual enlightenment, but only via the discovery of our worst natures, in whatever form, and from there to God.
That said, it’s interesting how steeped 2001 is in conspiratorial thought. The second chapter says straight up that the plan is to deceive humanity for its own good (“Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation”). Kubrick’s future presents the combination of the wonders of impossible, utopian space travel and the darkness of classified, mysterious, potentially untoward projects; the idea that revealing the truth to humanity will be its undoing (or conversely, salvation) is still the major currency of many in the conspirasphere. People wouldn’t be able to take it. Best of all, HAL is the perfectly manifested conspiracist – one who is cool, logical and precise in his paranoia – voicing doubts regarding happenings on the Moon he isn’t privy to and convinced of his own infallibility (“This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been down to human error”).
Readings of 2001 can go in a number of differently dense directions, some of them ending up with the Monolith as the essence of the cinema screen itself. One popular idea, extending into The Shining, is that this is Kubrick’s confessional of his faking the Moon landings, one the aforementioned Weidner, in particular, has run with. It’s a feature of conspiracy theories, extending to almost any train of thought, to be fair, whereby, when you examine them more closely, they begin to take shape as planned in every detail and minutiae, whether or not that's legitimately so. It’s something that lends itself particularly to analysis of Kubrick’s work, since it is so meticulous in very evident and tangible, recorded and itemised ways (the time spent nursing projects, on getting takes right, on editing). As the many and varied methods for interpreting his work (Room 237 being the tip of the iceberg) prove, however, that doesn’t mean that because one can find something there, it was necessarily the director’s intent (and when we’re talking conspiracy, intent has to be all).
Weidner’s readings are fascinating, nevertheless, up to a point, for the occult and elite extrapolations he makes that guide us (semi-) coherently through the director’s body of work. One can makes sense of why a filmmaker who wasn’t a big fan of science fiction (Kubrick felt the ideas were good but the execution inevitably deplorable) had been considering a return to the genre with A.I. Artificial Intelligence if his real focus was the elephant in the room of even the anaesthetised Spielberg version (that the only reason parents would want a child who doesn’t grow, stays the same etc, is because they’re paedophiles; the berg would have us believe that the most sentimental parts of A.I. actually come from Kubrick, however). And it’s much easier to credit that Eyes Wide Shut was edited after the event – the finger has again been pointed at Spielberg – than that it simply isn’t quite as satisfying a career capper as it ought to be (and I do recognise many of its celebrants’ points; I like the film a lot, but that doesn’t mean it feels entirely finessed).
Certainly, when you have shots in which the Moon surface/Monolith looks intentionally like the outside of a film set (because a film crew has set up there), the idea seems to fit. Weidner also asserts that the Monolith is the Philosopher’s Stone (the quest for gnosis and the immortality of the soul), which is fairly easy to buy into because it isn’t so very far from the film’s overarching text. On the other hand, his assertion that this future is purpose-built by the military-industrial complex and thus to be disdained doesn’t quite translate. Kubrick clearly took delight in the gleaming perfection of his technological future, supported as it is by the Blue Danube Waltz; the music in his pictures is every bit as informative as the images, if not more so, and this is 2001 at its warmest and most exultant, playful even (Weidner asserts that at first it seems as if Kubrick is celebrating technology; no, he is. That doesn’t mean he isn’t also depicting the flipside. Two contradictory ideas can exist simultaneously; elsewhere in his piece Weidner appears to acknowledge this kind of thinking).
Under Weidner’s hypothesis, Kubrick faked the Moon landings – although he asserts man didgo there – in return for being able to make the kinds of movies he wanted… Odd then, that the director didn’tget to make Napoleon not that long after. Weidner also considers it ironic that a supposedly atheist filmmaker made the ultimate religious movie, except that one doesn’t need a religious view of God to embrace 2001’s more spiritual, if you will, leanings. Weidner ultimately gets heavily into an over-baked pudding concerning Aryans evacuating the Earth for Mars via the Secret Space Program, which makes it easy to throw his Kubrick theories under a space bus, if you so wish, but there’s some engrossing material in there.
It’s interesting that the director would go on to make The Shining, because 2001: A Space Odyssey was, until that point, the closest he had come to producing a horror film. A ‘U’ certificate one, admittedly, but one that nevertheless manages to unsettle and conjure a sense of the uncanny in the mode that horror in its loosest – or purest – sense can. Which is why it’s very easy to compare the room Keir Dullea ends up in to the Overlook Hotel. I mentioned David Lean early on, and that director at his peak held sway over a cinema of pure sound and image that could be almost overpowering, in a way few directors have or are capable of (Leone was another). Kubrick, though, trumps him through his willingness to become so much more oblique with baseline narrative and thus the possibilities of content and subjective experience. And the film of his that achieves that the most is this one. It’s his zenith as a filmmaker; nothing he would later embark on would come close to such perfection of concept and realisation.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.