Stanley Kubrick “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
One of the great crowning glories of 20th century cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” deserves its reputation as one of the greatest science-fiction films and is one of few films that successfully combine a traditional story-telling narrative with daring experimentation in sound and visuals. It is a film that addresses universal human desires: the desire to reach out beyond one’s own comfort zone and to know one’s place and the place of humanity in a wide and apparently indifferent cosmos. It is a film that explores the relationships between humans and their technology, and how technology shapes humans and their evolution as much as external forces and internal motivations, both represented by the mysterious black monolith object that appears in the film, do.
The narrative is split into four movements in the manner of a classical music symphony, of which some famous examples play in snippets throughout the film. In the opening movement “The Dawn of Man”, two groups of early hominid primates fight for possession of a water-hole. One of the two groups, driven away by the other, finds a black monolith stuck in the desert and starts touching it. The monolith appears to radiate invisible energy that results in rapid mental evolution in the primates. They discover the use of bones as tools and weapons; with this knowledge the creatures reclaim the water-hole from their rivals and the group leader triumphantly tosses his bone high into the air. In the classic jump-cut sequence, the bone transforms into a space satellite and the film makes clear that human discovery and innovation leading to further evolution and technology which in turn enhance human life, intelligence and endeavour have brought humans from a hand-to-mouth foraging existence to the point where they are now sending ships into space to explore its outer reaches.
The second movement concerns a researcher from Earth who stops at a space station for rest and refreshment before continuing on his way to an outpost on the moon where a black monolith has been found. He and other scientists ride a bus to the object and try to investigate it but it emits an annoying high-pitched squeal drone and the researchers are forced to back away.
The third movement takes place 18 months after the second movement and involves a spaceship in which two men Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea) are caretakers of a crew of three in cryogenic hibernation. Helping them out is a sophisticated computer HAL-9000 (voice: Douglas Rain). Initially the men watch a BBC news report about themselves and HAL-9000: in the report all three are interviewed and HAL-9000 states that he is infallible, enjoys his work and loves working with humans. These statements eventually turn out to be lies.
The computer queries Bowman about the puzzlingly mysterious nature of their mission and then reports that a device outside the craft is malfunctioning. The men investigate the problem and refer to mission control who advise there may be a problem with HAL. The men withhold information from HAL who discovers it anyway by spying on them. HAL gradually assumes control of the spacecraft, kills the astronauts in cryogenic suspension and boots Poole into space by cutting his connection while he is out on a spacewalk to repair the device. HAL also tries to get rid of Bowman but Bowman manages to disconnect HAL’s functions and shut down the computer. HAL regresses to a child-like state in the world’s first known case of cyber-Alzheimer’s. As HAL dies, Bowman hears its epitaph: it’s a pre-recorded briefing made by the researcher we saw in the film’s second movement advising Bowman of the mission that so worried HAL – the mission to find and discover the true nature of the black monoliths that have been infesting the solar system of late.
In the final movement “Jupiter … and Beyond the Infinite”, Bowman takes the craft to Jupiter to investigate the black monolith found orbiting the planet. He flies a space pod out of the craft to check out the object further. It pulls him into a tunnel that in turn forces him to traverse zillions of kilometres in a strange psychedelic dream universe. Having aged rapidly during this ultimate trippy trip of trippy trips, Bowman finds himself taken into a series of worlds, described in visual forms drawn perhaps from his memories, in which he sees older versions of himself. At the very end, when he sees himself as an aged man in bed, he is pulled towards a monolith that has suddenly materialised in front of him and transforms him into a startled wide-eyed foetus to float in space and gaze down upon Earth.
Various religious and philosophical interpretations of the film have been given over the years in which the narrative has been seen as symbolic of the cycle of life, death and rebirth or of humanity’s evolution over several million years. I see the events of the film as Kubrick’s interrogation of the complicated relationship that humans have had with their technology: humans have come to rely very heavily on technologies to transport them, to communicate with others, and to measure, make calculations and report results that will be used as the basis for further research and technology developments. Our reliance on technologies leaves us vulnerable to biases and deficiencies in them as exemplified by HAL’s behaviour towards Poole and Bowman once it realises the men do not trust it. Humans also rely on technology to wage war on their own kind and to try to understand and know something with the aim of controlling it and forcing it to work on their behalf. At the same time, we often disavow responsibility for errors that our machines make, especially if they result in human deaths, and this may lead to terrible consequences further down the track. Because HAL is thwarted in its desire to learn more about the goal of Bowman and Poole’s mission, the computer resorts to subtle means to undermine it and kills when it believes it has to. The irony being that the mission’s goal has been embedded by a human engineer so deeply in the machine’s circuits that HAL does not know it’s there and so is unable to retrieve it. Had this been intentional on the engineer’s part, that HAL should never know the purpose for which it was made in case the machine should try to take over the mission and dispense with the humans, or was it an unfortunate accident arising from continuous updating of computer memory circuits and additional software and hardware being loaded onto HAL over the years by successive generations of IT scientists and engineers?
Curiously HAL appears the most human-like of its crew; Poole and Bowman speak and act like robots. Indeed, all the adult actors who appear in the film are emotionless and robotic in their speech and actions. This may say something about the effect that hyper-technologisation of human culture and society might have on human beings themselves; that the more we give in to our human desire to know and master the world by creating machines, the more machine-like we ourselves become. Significantly HAL speaks as though its voice, masculine as it is, might be that of a woman or an effeminate man. (I hasten to add that I don’t think of HAL as gay and Kubrick himself knocked down suggestions that HAL was intended to be gay.) Eager to please its masters back on Earth and desiring to know what it was made for, the computer displays a cold-blooded villainy bordering on psychopathy as it tries to dispose of all its human crew; but in a way that can be very moving, the machine pleads for its “life” as Bowman disconnects its circuits and reduces it to a helpless infantile state before it finally dies. Kubrick was to revisit the theme of humans and their relationships with their creations time and again.
The film’s technical virtuosity, visually and sonically, cannot be faulted: “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the most beautiful films to watch for its vistas and stunning technology, and to hear for its mix of orchestral compositional music from Johann Strauss, Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti. At the same time, the film can be easy on the eye and the ear: Kubrick seems to have taken care not to overload audiences too much with visual spectacle and audio clash and thunder. The film’s pace is steady and graceful. Dialogue is kept to a strict necessary minimum. There is much use of space in both audio and visual senses to convey mystery and majesty. The highlight of the film is in its fourth movement when Bowman’s pod races through time and space inside the monolith and viewers follow him through a virtual star-gate of brilliant hues and patterns.
The film’s final scenes in which Bowman wanders about in scenes derived from his memories or imagination are the most mind-boggling of all and are open to many interpretations. One simple interpretation is that Bowman has been captured by unseen aliens who keep him in a zoo made up of his memories. In this sense, Bowman is now no different from HAL who itself was made a prisoner by its circuitry and whatever data humans fed into it and how the machine interpreted it. At the end of his life, having served his purpose and knowing what it is to be at the mercy of control by technology, Bowman perhaps joins the space aliens (some of whom may also have been captured humans in previous lives) and finds himself contemplating and even guiding the next stage of human evolution.
This is one film that truly transcends the boundaries of its genres (science fiction, experimental, art house) and becomes a film for all audiences. There are slow, almost annoyingly tedious moments, very sparse dialogue and listless acting but these all serve a purpose within the film and nothing in it seems out of place. Since its making, “2001 …” has had a profound impact on other science fiction films, particularly in its visual effects and emphasis on advanced technology yet because most other SF movies have turned away from exploring philosophical themes and following them to their logical ends, and concentrated instead on spectacle and melodrama, “2001 …” retains a freshness that its imitators strive for but never achieve.