Second Viewing: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If you want to feel old, see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 movie that framed science fiction for decades, and remember that once you actually saw it in a theater when it was a first run movie. When you are eleven years old, men are orbiting the moon and are ready to land on it less than a year later and you are entranced with everything related to the space program, seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey is something of a mind-blowing experience.

Seeing this movie again forty-three years later was a much more curious experience. It left me feeling sad, wistful as well as seeing a number of flaws in a movie that at age eleven seemed flawless. In spite of the HAL 9000 computer’s paranoid and homicidal tendencies aboard the Discovery One, the year 2001 we actually got was quite horrid overall, whereas the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke imagined was far more hopeful and looked far more interesting.

2001: A Space Odyssey and the year 2001 both dealt with aliens. In the movie there were surreal but never fully seen uber-gods who millions of years earlier saw some potential in a bunch of hairy primates camped next to watering holes on the African steppes. The real aliens in 2001 turned out to be crazed Muslims who used airplanes as giant matchsticks to torch New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Serve me an uber-god and one starchild instead, please.

It is fun forty-three years later to see how close Clarke and Kubrick came to getting it right. Their vision of 2001 was not unlike Gene Roddenberry’s, though not as breathlessly hopeful. It was a world where our toys were all shiny and new, space travel seemed routine, the International Space Station consisted of large and spinning flying wheels high above the earth rather than portions of fuselages bolted together. Despite the Russians hanging around in lounge chairs outside an orbital Howard Johnsons, Kubrick’s 2001 felt fundamentally American. You could tell from the Pan Am clipper shuttles and the uniformly white cast. It was a Clean for Gene future where poverty was out and well clipped hair was in. It was a world where the Bell Company was still around and doing business in videocalls and where you didn’t mind that much watching Stanley Kubrick’s annoying four year old daughter squirm in front of a camera while the earth cart wheeled in the background.

Things just worked in this future, with the exception of HAL 9000 computers. People were civilized, speaking always in measured tones. It was a world where constructing multiple colonies on the moon was no big thing. It was a world where people seemed surreally cerebral and never raised their voices. Applause was polite but muted. For me this kind of world still has a lot to offer me, in spite of its plasticity.

Kubrick brought us a vision of the future too good to be real, just like Julie Andrews singing up Alpine meadows was too good to be real three years earlier. And yet, like Star Trek, it felt somehow possible. The world we actually got was far uglier and messier, but interesting in its own ways. Kubrick envisioned a world where technology was integrated into everything, but what we got was actually more than what Kubrick could envision. Still, that Kubrick got as much of it right as he did speaks well to his legacy.

Most people would agree that 2001: A Space Odyssey was a landmark film. Certainly we had never seen anything like it before. It was grown up, coherent, gloriously rendered and seemed plausible. Moreover, it told a profound story. The irony is though that it told a story largely devoid of emotion. The apes touch the edge of the monolith and jump up and down in excitement. Dr. Floyd goes to the moon to touch it with his gloved hands and it is done with a professional curiosity.

Forty-three years later I see flaws in the movie. It is too unemotional, which is why its successor 2010 (1984) was in many ways the better movie. Dr. Floyd’s speech at Clavius is called a great speech when he says almost nothing. The guy at the registration desk of the Howard Johnson’s at the space station is busy shuffling papers, not looking at a flat panel monitor. Overall, Kubrick seems swept away with special effects, which at that time involved slow motion time lapse photography with models. He also seemed insistent to introduce us to weightlessness by having shapely flight attendants with Velcro slippers hug the carpet. The movie is not completely devoid of humor. We get to watch Dr. Floyd ponder the baffling instructions for using a zero gravity toilet. And for really the first time we get to marvel at how a director could do things like place real tiny people in an observation bay window while a lunar shuttle lands in an enormous landing pad. Kubrick largely lets special effects overwhelm the story.

Still, even in the year 2011 the movie remains reasonably mesmerizing. It is not entirely obvious what the movie means, and much of the dialog is pure noise that adds nothing to the plot, but all these years later it still grabs you. It feels in a genre by itself and you cannot help but flow with the glorious music mostly conducted by Herbert von Karajan. All these years later the amazing cut from a bone rising in the air to a satellite in earth orbit still take your breath away. The space ballet of a Pan Am Clipper shuttle making a rolling motion to berth in the space station’s dock, or a lunar shuttle making a gentle one sixth earth gravity landing on the moon still kindles an appreciation for a delicious symbiosis between art and physics. The film often feels ponderously slow, but that is part of its charm. It remains a classic, somewhat flawed, but a classic nonetheless.

One response to “Second Viewing: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)”

  1. Kubrick thought well enough of his audience as adults who could understand concepts and take a joke.

    Kubrick was also a craftsman who in many ways cared little about his audience as he told a shaggy God story where Man was the punchline.

    And thus, the paradox about the man. And a possible comprehension about the fate of Man that existence and evolution is fit with dead-ends and suffering. And…surprise! Man is transformed into universal consciousness.

    You could also see the movie as self-contained art, cool and awe-inspiring. The only art film that has that kind of self-containment is Russian Ark.

    An extraordinary movie for the ages.


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