To even begin to parse the possible meanings of 2001: A Space Odyssey – perhaps the granddaddy of deep-think science fiction filmmaking, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke – it helps to determine a through-line. What do the three main segments in this behemoth of a film, from the prehistoric ape men to the moon explorers of the title year to the space baby that floats among the stars at the finale – have in common?
Most obviously, the monolith, that onyx slab that appears out of nowhere to exert its ambiguous will on the lesser creatures standing in awe of it. In the wake of its siren call – which sounds like an opera chorus singing into the beating blades of a giant fan – those who have been exposed to the monolith have their minds expanded in ways that send shivers through the universe. The prehistoric humans suddenly comprehend that a smooth, discarded bone can function as a tool. When the bone is tossed in the air, we get the famous match cut to a 21st-century tool: a space craft. After another (or the same?) monolith is discovered on the moon, the being whose mind is expanded is not a human at all, but an advanced form of artificial intelligence – HAL 9000 – that becomes sentient while piloting a mission to Jupiter.
And so 2001 offers, if nothing else, a pattern. I’m not saying this pattern explains the film itself – to say nothing of the mysteries of the universe – but it does suggest that there is more going on here than the seemingly separate set pieces that have made the movie the stuff of legend (the bone toss, “Open the pod bay door HAL,” that climactic, candy-colored light show). 2001 is a masterpiece beyond its technical mastery and formal ingenuity. This is a movie that reaches for the stars and finds itself, against all odds, on the other side of them.
There are those who don’t agree, perhaps most famously Pauline Kael, and I can understand the urge to resist. In many of Kubrick’s films, especially his momentous ones, there is an unabashed pretentiousness that makes you wonder if he’s putting us on. When a filmmaker titles a segment of his movie “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” is he joking? Is Kubrick laughing, imagining all of us trying to decipher the profundity of it, like lesser creatures gazing up at the black screen the way those apes gaze at the monolith? (The movie opens with minutes of nothing but pitch black, after all.)
2001 is dedicated, above all else, to acts of motion in outer space.
There’s a real chance of that, considering I often sense with a Kubrick film that he’s most interested in the form and technique. The story – the “meaning” – is for the rest of us, the ones whose minds can’t help but make such pithy demands on the cinema. And so 2001 is dedicated, above all else, to acts of motion in outer space, to ways mankind has attempted to control the formless void. Here Kubrick and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull place the minutiae of other science-fiction films in the foreground, and elevate it to the realm of art. Surely Johan Strauss’ “Blue Danube” was composed to accompany the docking of a space shuttle, so elegantly paired are the two elements here. Other patiently rendered sequences recreate the effect of zero gravity, as when a flight attendant carries her tray with poise while walking up a wall. Later, an astronaut jogs in a circle that takes him upside down, calmly accomplishing what daredevil motorcyclists risk their lives trying to do in sphere cages (Kubrick’s penchant for tracking shots is crucial here).
Kubrick’s camera revels in the recreating of such technical marvels, even as it seems supremely disinterested in the robotic humans who engage in them. Notice the indifference with which Gary Lockwood’s astronaut receives an interplanetary birthday greeting from Earth, as well as the perfunctory birthday call William Sylvester’s scientist makes to his young daughter while en route to the moon. Both men engender far less empathy than HAL (impeccably voiced by Douglas Rain), especially when the plug is pulled and we can hear his (expanded) mind going.
Kubrick’s movies worship the technical – both the technology on the screen and the way filmmaking technology enables him to depict it – but they scoff at the humans operating the gears. Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory are war movies, and as such easy targets for Kubrick – weaponry and the excuse to use it only brings out the worst in us. To cherry pick further from his career, The Killing is a crime movie that emphasizes the inevitability of man’s fallibility, while Eyes Wide Shut reveals the many ways we’ve gotten sexuality wrong. 2001 traces this deeply pessimistic observation – the irredeemable nature of humankind – across epochs, revealing that we were corrupted at the very beginning and haven’t changed much since.
It’s this thematic through-line in Kubrick’s work that makes me think that the climactic transformation of Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) from Jupiter-bound astronaut to looming Star Child does not signify a culmination, as it’s often described, but is rather the latest step in humanity’s gaffe-ridden evolution. The monolith – whether it represents a divine being or an alien intelligence – bestowed tools upon the prehistoric humans, and they proceeded to kill each other. It bestowed consciousness on HAL, who gives in to paranoia and commits murder. It bestowed a metaphysical rebirth on Bowman, who we last see as a giant baby floating towards earth. An ambassador of peace? Maybe if you watch the movie under the influence, as was the habit when the film came out in 1968. But if you watch with the clear, cold eye of Kubrick – and if you read the pattern that his movie had set in place – that Star Child isn’t about to bless earth. He’s going to gobble it up.