“A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – director Stanley Kubrick
One of the ten best films ever made. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is as much the ultimate meditation experience as well as the “ultimate head trip” as advertised in its year of release. Today, meditative cinema has all but vanquished from our screens in favor of rapid-fire editing and pop tunes on the soundtrack. With each passing decade, I’ve casually noticed a disregard for Kubrick’s masterpiece. Mostly, I believe, is because we can’t sit still without checking our phones. It’s yet another reason why viewing “2001” at a temple, err, movie theater, is mandatory because home video in this case just won’t cut it. To love “2001” is to detach yourself off from everything else.
The prologue of the film is “The Dawn of Man,” set millions of years ago when our ancestors were apes discovering their first tools (Yes, we came from somewhere, is the argument). It’s an awful long section to make that point and introduce the Monolith – a device so godly it had to come from somewhere else, beyond Earth. But with painterly images this jaw-droppingly beautiful, why would you want to cut to what’s next? The presence of the Monolith returns to the moon in the year 2001, an object alien to space travelers and great minds. Something in the universe is bigger than them.
Bringing wonder and splendor are more essential to Kubrick’s film than slowing it down to arbitrary explanations. The Johann Strauss waltz piece “Blue Danube” is used twice in montages of spacecrafts docking onto a large spaceship and the moon. My eyes are slavering over such majestic, gorgeous images (particularly the Pan Am space plane dancing in its way into the spherical spacecraft) – once again, I don’t want to cut to what’s next. I think what I’m getting at, is that if you love the meaning of what an image really means, and the significance of it, there’s no desire to move beyond it. I want that image to soak into my subconscious. Bad movies with nothing to look at choose to cut rapidly with S-E-N-S-A-T-I-O-N(!) to the next shot, because they have nothing to really show in the first place.
Even by the time “2001” introduces Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as astronauts on their way to Jupiter for a secret mission after the halfway point, there doesn’t seem to be a deliberate interest with particular characters. Kubrick isn’t concentrating on a single character or two, but of humankind in the scheme of the universe. More human-like than anyone else is the Hal 9000 computer (voiced by Douglas Rain, who spent a career doing narration). Hal 9000 is so advanced in human empathy and pity, that he also assumes the faults, the jealousies, and self-preservation that are foibles of humans. Is Hal 9000 really on anybody’s side but his own? Nobody is going to turn him off. As a defense mechanism, he tells astronaut Dave Bowman, “I honestly feel you ought to sit down, take a stress pill, and think things over.”
What we do gradually feel is the fright of deep vast open space in the last two-thirds. Man attempts huge feats in space exploration, but is unequipped to deal with its foreign enormity. “Jupiter: And Beyond the Infinite” is the final title card, bringing us to the Star Gate sequence. Its purpose is also a total mystery, but astronaut Dave is thrust into its deep vortex for a long, long “acid” trip sequence. I love 98% of the imagery that Kubrick created for it, via slit-scan photography (implementing some macro photography of colored paints and chemicals), although there is one shot of a star bursting and nebula that looks too much like a painting. Still, what a painting.
Jarringly, Dave ends up in a perfectly calibrated room designed for comfort – this baffles many, but the theory has always been aliens have created this cozy environment so they could watch and observe him peacefully. Then, the ecstasy of rebirth, as Dave becomes the Star Baby. We’ve only been here a few million years in the human body we know now – the possibilities of how we’re able to transform over the course of a million generations is limitless, when you think about it.
I saw “2001” first when I was 8-years old, while my mind was still shaping, and it expanded my imagination and filled me with abstract thought. It’s not the kind of film that satisfies you with replete and definite answers as to its meaning or what really happens at the end. It’s bigger than all of us, and you have to be patient to think for years for what it all means. Short attention spans will scoff, but the rest of you, start pondering.
Special effects by Douglas Trumbull; Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth; Screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.”
141 Minutes. Rated G.
SCIENCE-FICTION / TRANCE-OUT / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Quest for Fire” (1981); “Contact” (1997); “A.I.” (2001); “Gravity” (2013).