2001: A Space Odyssey

(Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1968)


Some retch and others laugh as Anthony Hopkins removes and cooks the brains of a still awake but increasingly incoherent Ray Liotta in Hannibal (2001). It's a good scene, but not a patch on its model: the slow, inexorable descent of the computer HAL into childlike babbling and singing as the irate Bowman (Keir Dullea) unscrews his circuitry in Stanley Kubrick's immortal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Kubrick was notorious for planning and controlling every aspect of the theatrical release of his films. He is no longer around to continue the campaign, but at least the title of this futuristic extravaganza ensured its re-appearance at the appropriate date. In any time, it is a welcome big-screen event.

2001 has sometimes been bemusedly or angrily described as an obscure work. It certainly makes demands on the audience, and its finale (situated physically on Jupiter but metaphysically "beyond the infinite") is a seriously trippy violation of every rational law of time and space.

Its basic outline, however, is easy to follow. The ambition of Kubrick and famed SF writer Arthur C. Clarke is frankly grandiloquent: they propose a version of the evolution of humankind, from the primitive ape stage to our current mastery of technology, and then past this to the result of our encounter with alien life forms. The cherished notion of our free will holds little sway in this mind-boggling odyssey.

Indeed, just about any reassuring form of humanist philosophy is displaced by Kubrick, who takes a cosmic view of proceedings. Although not quite as cold as some have charged, 2001 is definitely a paean to the poetry of machines. Lovely scenes of spacecraft hovering and docking are the closest we get to old-fashioned sexual congress.

More important than anything it shows or suggests, however, is 2001's status in 1968 and still today. Quite simply, it is the most expensive avant-garde movie ever to storm the mainstream. Kubrick's risk in making it was immense: this long, slow, often silent movie whose most intriguing character is a sneaky computer, and whose plot lurches from one epoch or planet to another, plays by none of Hollywood's rules then or now.

As a purely visionary experience, it is up there with the greatest works of Andrei Tarkovsky or Sergei Paradjanov. Its special effects have not aged, and most of the superficial aspects of its futuristic prediction pass muster. Only in one major area has the Kubrick-Clarke knack for seeing into our present badly failed. Their imagined world is a quaintly Anglo-centric place, and also one in which women play virtually no role.

In a sense, this is part and parcel of Kubrick's particular mind-set in the '60s and '70s. It is not incorrect to speak of 2001, in the old-fashioned way, as a film about the fate of Man. Its guiding image of an erect monolith, and its central hero who passes through death in order to be mystically reborn, is a boy's-own fantasy on an awesome scale.

But who are we, today, to deny Kubrick his right to this fantasy? When the result is this great, then grumbling ideologues must retire to the shadows and let the artists do their stuff at centre stage.

MORE Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Full Metal Jacket

© Adrian Martin March 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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