In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can feel Stanley Kubrick straining mightily to push cinema forward a step or three. After a decade or so spent telling cracking good tales without a whiff of pretension, he approached the Monolith and touched it, and came away with new tools and a new style — drawn-out, static-symmetrical, stately and pompous in a way that inspires awe and giggles in roughly equal measure. This was the Kubrick that would persist for the 31-year (and five-film) remainder of his career.
There is something alien and stressful in the very fabric — or emulsion — of 2001, starting with the often-dissonant classical music on the soundtrack (lots of teeth-grinding Ligeti as well as the two Strausses), joined now and then by dismaying machine noise, harsh breathing, the epileptic-unfriendly wail of the Monolith on the moon when astronauts get near it. 2001 is a workout. The “plot,” having to do with a government cover-up of the Monolith and a malfunctioning computer’s efforts to preserve the integrity of the mission, is completely beside the point. Kubrick, here, was after nothing less than a grand statement on the evolution of mankind — and “evolution” is an arguable term, given what we see.
The ape-men in the prologue, already somewhat humanoid and probably just a few rungs down from us on the evolutionary ladder, content themselves with bugs and plant life, and gesticulating loudly at a rival tribe, before the Monolith appears to them and pushes them forward a step or three. Or does it? One ape goes off by himself and discovers that a bone can be used to break, bludgeon, kill. The apes become meat-eaters, then murderers. It’s a short step to Alex in A Clockwork Orange wielding his cane, Jack Torrance in The Shining swinging his ax, the Marines in Full Metal Jacket grabbing their balls and their rifles with equal gusto. For Kubrick, data programmed into the human animal produces violence. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Famously, the bone thrown into the sky becomes a satellite, skipping forward millions of years — all the advances of the centuries have meant nothing, it’s all about the stages of enlightenment, and here comes the next one. A second Monolith has been discovered on the moon; under a cloud of secrecy, Earthlings investigate it. Before that, though, we get endless dialogue scenes that say nothing in particular. (Kubrick, primarily visual, enjoyed what one critic called “phatic dialogue” — talk with little or no information content.) There are a great deal of rote pleasantries between Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) and various colleagues aboard Space Station 5, much gladhanding, and a beautifully pointless conference in which various men get up, walk around the big room to the podium while other men return from the podium and take a seat — Kubrick is tweaking us a bit here. We came for a transcendent experience and he’s giving us monkeys and meetings.
We spend so much time with Floyd that it’s a bit odd when, after the moon sequence, he’s never seen again and our identification — such as it is — shifts to two other space jockeys, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). They’re on a mission to Jupiter, for reasons to be revealed to Dave — and us — only much later. Running things aboard the ship is HAL 9000 (the lethally placid voice of Douglas Rain), who has been programmed with a semblance of emotion “to make him easier to talk to.” Computers in this particular HAL series are supposed to be infallible, and perhaps this one is, too, and is driven mad by the conflicts in his directive — to stay the course even if it means sacrificing the humans on board. HAL has been given emotions without empathy.
In long stretches, 2001 gets sublimely dull, near-trancelike. Everything slows down in space, and we get to watch as an allegedly faulty communications unit is painstakingly investigated not once but twice. There’s no adventure in space exploration; it’s all button-pushing and chores that take ten times as long as they would on Earth. The men on the ship seem to have regressed from the apes: rather than feasting on meat that they hunted and killed themselves, they sip nutrients through straws and pick at paste-like space meals while watching themselves on TV. Experience is less brutal and desperate now, but also less authentic and more plasticized. The men communicate with their families via videophone or prerecorded messages, again not saying much (Floyd tells his daughter to tell her mother he called; that’s the extent of his statement to his wife). Technology may have enabled long-distance communication, but hasn’t improved its human quality at all. We’re essentially still apes grunting at each other, albeit with fancier enunciation. 2001 is funnier and more satirical than a lot of people give it credit for.
The literal-minded will point and laugh at the stuff in 2001 that least resembles what we know of the actual 2001 and thereafter: the foxy stewardesses with bulbous headgear who seem to have stepped out of a ’60s issue of Vogue; the furniture aboard the space station, also very late-’60s. Kubrick, I think, never meant to predict, in so many words (or images), “This is what it’ll be like 33 years from now.” He meant 2001 the way Orwell meant 1984: it’s a number, that’s all (neither work originally had a date as its title anyway), and it’s more about when the book/movie came out than when the story is supposedly set. Despite Kubrick’s marshalling an army of consultants to make this “futuristic” vision as accurate as possible, the film’s concerns are a good deal more timeless than mere speculative conjecture.
After Dave passes through “the infinite,” he winds up in a holding place furnished with items from the 17th century — maybe from his imagination, maybe just his mind trying to process alien territory and coming up with these surroundings as an approximation to keep him from going insane. Once again we see eating — an older Dave sitting at the table — but his wizened hand knocks over his glass. Soon he will evolve beyond the need for food. 2001 is an experimental film about an experiment — conducted by a superior alien race on mankind over the course of millennia. The glacial pace thus makes sense. Kubrick never includes anything inessential — the movie trains us how to watch it, how to process it. Each prolonged scene, particularly the dialogue between humans, leaves us with one idea or one bit of information surrounded by immense dead air. But this is what it’s been like for the aliens who have been monitoring us, waiting for us to move up to the next level until finally they get frustrated and drop a Monolith somewhere to speed things along. The dawdling, detail-fixated pace of 2001 isn’t just its style — it’s its point. The camera eye — Kubrick — we are godlike aliens staring at the dawn and twilight of man through transfixed, sometimes impatient eyes.
The “trip” promised by the ads is not the physical journey from planet to planet, or even the light-spattered bath of special effects meant to suggest “the infinite.” It’s seeing through an inhuman consciousness in a buzzy trance of tedium that passes over, if we let it, into fascination, the way humans respond to an anthill or an aquarium. We humans are boring and our machines are boring. But both can always be counted on to fail entertainingly, and out of failure come revelation and evolution. Kubrick set out to make “the proverbial good science-fiction film,” but he came out the other side with something far more ornery and profound — an epic that says we’re babies cocooned in plastic and metal. 2001, the metaphorical date of the movie, hasn’t rolled around yet. Maybe it won’t, and maybe we won’t know it when and if it does.