Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has become so iconic and cemented in its status as a classic that it’s easy to forget that it originally opened to very mixed reviews, with as many critics finding it a pretentious mess as those who found it brilliant. And I think this divisiveness accurately reflects how it continues to be received among audiences today. I have yet to find someone who thinks 2001 is merely ok; everyone seems either convinced that it is one of cinema’s supreme masterpieces or else finds it one of the most boring, self-indulgent spectacles put to film.
The way in which 2001 functions as a sort of aesthetic wedge seems to go right down to its very inception: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on loosely adapting one of Clarke’s own short stories (“The Sentinel”) into the 2001 screenplay. Then they went their separate ways, with Clarke writing the novel and Kubrick directing the film.
The result is one of the purest examples of how the exact same story can change depending on who’s telling it (and, aside from some minor details, the book and the novel have an almost identical plot). Clarke, as befits a hard sci-fi writer, is methodical and rationalistic in explaining everything: the opening segment with the apes is given a sort of nature documentary style narration, the programming error behind HAL’s seeming nervous breakdown is illustrated, the trippy finale is thoroughly understandable, etc. Clarke treats the story as a thought experiment about man’s ultimate destiny.
Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, contains perhaps a few minutes of exposition at most, and much of that exposition consists of stuff the perceptive viewer has likely already pieced together. The story is presented as an opaque series of events in which the viewer is provided with no cipher by which to decode their significance thereof. The characters are entirely viewed from the outside inasmuch as their motives or interior lives are never made accessible to the viewer. Even the soundtrack, in its use of classical music, fails to provide the specific emotional cues we often expect. Kubrick treats the story as a sort of tone-poem that suggests many ideas about man’s ultimate destiny without interpreting them for the audience.
At this point it’s worth pausing to recap the actual plot of 2001, as unnecessary as it may be. The first act, the Dawn of Man, takes place millions of years in the past, where some apes encounter an alien monolith which somehow inspires them to discover the use of tools. One famous jump-cut later and we’re in the untitled second act, which details a trip Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) takes to the moon in the year 2000. It gradually becomes clear that this visit is due to the discovery of another alien monolith buried beneath the lunar surface. Things start to pick up when said monolith suddenly gives off a very powerful radio emission.
But before that can go anywhere we’ve already jump-cut to our third act, Jupiter Mission, which respectively portrays the voyage of the spaceship Discovery to the planet Jupiter a year or so later. During the mission, HAL 9000 – the ship’s central AI – makes an error that causes him to get paranoid and murder everyone onboard except for Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), who manages to pull the plug on him. At this point he finds out by an ironically timed briefing that the actual purpose of his mission is to investigate the destination of the lunar monolith’s emission, which it turns out was aimed at Jupiter (incidentally, waiting until this late to tell the crew they may be meeting aliens strikes me as a little bit boneheaded even if you’re trying to keep the thing under wraps). This leads directly into the final act, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, where Dave encounters a third monolith in orbit around Jupiter. Said monolith seemingly whisks him away to another dimension where the aliens who created it translate Dave’s fleshly existence into one of pure intellect.
The idea of precursor aliens who turn out to have a guiding hand in human evolution was already a bit old by the late sixties – and Clarke’s take on it in particular is really just some reheated Gnosticism with a glaze of materialist metaphysics. Even the idea of a killer robot was old enough that Asimov’s three laws of robotics were in part crafted as a response to it. 2001 isn’t particularly novel or even really profound in its choice of narrative tropes. Its brilliance rather lies elsewhere.
Given my exceedingly long history with the movie, I run the risk of rambling on and on about every last jot and tittle of it. And, given that 2001 is easily in the top 10 list of the most discussed and analyzed movies ever, I run the risk of boring my readers in doing so. So instead I’m going to zero in on a few points that seem particularly salient to me at the moment.
1. Transcendence and the cinematic frame
It’s often mentioned that the edges of the frame in a movie are also the edges of what we consider to be real in the movie. When the T-Rex suddenly reappears at the climax of Jurassic Park, the characters should have seen and heard it coming already. But in the realm of movie logic we intuitively accept that before the T-Rex steps into the frame it has no real existence. And so the surprise of the characters seems as natural as our own surprise, and it takes at least a few moments for critical reflection to cut in and realize something doesn’t make sense.
2001 on the other hand is one of those movies that I’ve seen people describe as having a “look behind you” quality, where the viewer is uncannily made aware of the existence of things that the frame is not showing, the evocation of an invisible presence – an accomplishment which given the right atmosphere and the right mindset can produce the feeling of being watched.
This gets going from the moment that first monolith appears. The opening minutes of the movie go out of their way to create a purely natural, animal setting free even from any sort of narration or even anything resembling a protagonist. And then suddenly the audience is abruptly confronted with the most artificial-looking thing ever and the best thing about is that nothing aside from the audience is capable of grasping the significance of that. The apes are spooked but they’re just animals. There isn’t any narrator to have the film acknowledge that “yep some aliens left this here.” And then the film jump cuts out of the scene and we’re back in our nature documentary footage as if nothing happened, with only a brief flash-frame recollecting the effect.
The result is that the first appearance of the monolith isn’t so much a disruption for the (nonexistent) characters as it is for the audience itself – something alien to the kind of narrative they were initially watching has briefly invaded the scene. Alien things in the movie have a tendency of disruption. The sound of the radio emission from the second monolith even interrupts the movie’s soundtrack by introducing a sound effect into what was until that point a silent scene. Instances like these a sort of movie-logic where the aliens are not merely unseen but also seem to be acting upon the narrative from without.
And this dovetails with an important artistic question: how the hell do you represent the transcendent, the things that are beyond human comprehension or are otherwise by definition unrepresentable? How quickly does the deepest mystery suddenly seem so small and paltry once it’s reduced to the level of the human intellect (and herein I also sum up Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s interpretation of Christianity).
And this is where Clarke’s novel completely fails for me: that hotel room at the end is a real, literal location at some remote part of the universe, a sort of cage where Dave chills out for his last day as a human. Contrast that with the movie, which runs in the opposite direction. The hotel room sequence where we’re seeing Dave see other copies of himself who are nonetheless the exact same Dave as the previous Dave looking at him makes no sense on a literal level. At this point nothing in the frame is really real and the metaphorical level has completely replace the literal level, because the literal level is so beyond us that it can’t be represented. If we take the visible world of the frame to be the natural world, and the invisible to be the supernatural, then in the final act the natural has been completely taken up into the supernatural.
This vision of transcendence is ultimately alien to the Judeo-Christian one, which sees the human form glorified rather than abandoned. And I’d go so far as to venture the perhaps unpopular opinion that a movie like Interstellar, in positing love as the most powerful agent in the universe, is more thematically profound. But in its depiction of the numinous, 2001 is more profound as a film. Like John Keats’ famous “Ode to a Nightingale,” its success is less in its attempted identification of the source of sacred things than it is in its representation of the experience of being in the presence of the sacred.
Although 2001’s use of music by Richard and Johann Strauss (no relation) gets more mention the composer who makes the most appearances on the soundtrack is the (then) contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. The very first piece heard during the overture is an excerpt from Ligeti’s “Atmospheres.”
Alex Ross, in his book, The Rest is Noise, gives a quick description of the piece: “One of Ligeti’s characteristic techniques is called micropolyphony; large structures grow from an insectoid buzz of activity, each instrument playing the same material at its own pace. That sound first surfaces in the last part of Apparitions and reappears in the famous Atmospheres of 1961. The opening chord of the latter work has fifty-nine notes spread over five and a half octaves: the effect is mysterious rather than assaultive, a seductive threshold to an alien world. Later, half-familiar entities, quasi- or crypto-tonal chorts, are glimpsed in the sonic haze. The dominant process in Ligeti’s music is one of emergence-shapes come out of the shadows, dark cedes to light.”
Aside from being an astute choice for 2001’s narrative, at a young age it impressed upon me the possibilities of what music is capable of doing. Atmospheres represented the alien and unknown with alien and unknown soundscapes. At the far opposite end of the spectrum is Johann Strauss Jr.’s waltz, On the Blue Danube,” whose regularity seems to be keeping the measure of the classical world of Newtonian physics. Music for the first time seemed to be a universe unto itself.
2001 is a very lonely movie. The action progressively moves further and further away from the earth as the story unfolds. Through a combination of the movie’s own commitment to the hardest of hard sci-fi, excellent sound design (for instance, those long passages in space where you can only hear the hiss of air and the astronaut’s own breathing) and the overall ambience it creates, its depiction of the vastness of the cosmos, and how small humans are in it, is unparalleled in film.
The opening of the final act where we see Jupiter for the first time is the only moment where it felt like I grasped the sheer magnitude of Jupiter, and how both awe inspiring and crushing it would be to be the only pair of human eyes gazing upon it.