Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019-06-17 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

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This essay was originally written for the premiere issue of a journal of science fiction, to have been edited by my friend Matt Buscemi, that never launched. I was elated to provide this piece, but Matt unhappily informed me that not enough stars had come into alignment to make the journal into a going concern. But the rights to the piece were returned to me (they would have reverted in time anyway; they just came back a good deal sooner), and I'm presenting it here as I wrote it, with only minor amendment. Thanks to Matt for giving me the impetus to produce it, as I found out as I was doing so how it was the culmination of over thirty years of thinking about the film.

Few movies, science fiction or otherwise, go almost directly from event-of-the-moment to monument-for-the-ages. By the time I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the early Eighties, as a wide-eyed kid not yet in his teens, it had a good decade and change to establish its cachet of timelessness. Now it has passed fifty, with me not far behind. What has dated about it, what remains timeless, what has become even more relevant—it’s easy to sit back down with the movie thinking you know what will fill all those categories, only to find you’re wrong in a good way.

For many people 2001 is cinema, not “science fiction.” This is not how it came into the world, but that is where it ended up, and I think both cinema and science fiction are better off for it, even if they both still seem at odds as to what to do about it five decades on. As Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke conceived it, it was meant to be “the proverbial good science-fiction movie,”[1] and I think the way it lives up to that promise is not by way of what story it tells, or what technical details it hinges on, but how it tells a story that of all genres science fiction seems best equipped to support.

The dawn of man, and the monolith's influence.

From the savannah to outer space

Viewers who come in cold don’t see anything remotely like SF in the first few minutes, save for the icy cosmic bombast of the title sequence. Instead, they’re at first offered something along the lines of a narration-less David Attenborough documentary. A pack of Australopithecines pick through the shrubbery for meager meals, huddle in terror from predators, are scared away from a prized watering hole by another pack that was lucky enough to get to it first. The latter may be better off than the former, but only relatively; both live at the absolute mercy of the natural world.

This ends the day something unnatural enters. It is a black slab—the Monolith, as it’s called throughout—perfectly regular, perfectly featureless, perfectly unmoving and unaffected by its surroundings, humanity included. The first pack are drawn to it, at first fearing it but then contemplating closely its impossibly regular surfaces and angles. By whatever mechanism (Kubrick purposefully does not say, but only implies), one of the hominids is inspired by the monolith to pick up the leg bone from a tapir skeleton and convert it into a weapon. Now Australopithecus is no longer at the mercy of its world; it can kill for food, murder its fellow Australopithecines when they stand in the way of the desired watering-hole.

Kubrick cross-cuts.

Four million years later, by way of Kubrick’s iconic bone-to-satellite cross-cut, the weapons of choice are now orbiting atomic bombs. Not presented with ominous fanfares or the thunder-drum tympani of Also sprach Zarathustra played over the discovery-of-weapons sequence, though. Instead, the bombs sail blithely past the camera to the lilt of the Blue Danube Waltz, perhaps the ultimate example of a cultural statement conveyed in a film by way of an aesthetic choice.

Another ship in the space ballet, an Earth-to-orbit space-plane flight, carries a single passenger, the first modern-day human we see in the film. Dr. Heywood Floyd is headed Moonwards, with a stop-over at an orbital space station, for some business that reveals itself in the same fragmented fashion as the plot of a John le Carré thriller. He must remain cordially tongue-tied with the Russian colleague he runs into, and the highly classified briefing he speaks at only hints to us at a discovery with “extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation.” Only after Floyd’s jacketed into a space suit and led to a remote dig site do we see what inspired so much secrecy: another monolith, identical to the first, “deliberately buried” on the Moon. Just before Floyd and his colleagues pose in front of it for a photo, like fishermen with a prize tuna, it becomes inert no more: it blasts out a radio signal at Jupiter.

A Moon-bound Dr. Floyd chats with "Squirt".

Where the monoliths lead, humans follow, and so eighteen months later the spermatozoic vessel Discovery 1 has closed much of the distance to Jupiter. Little about the life aboard the ship hints at earth-shaking scientific wonder in the offing; it’s mostly maintenance checks and shift changes, as its two-man crew, David Bowman and Frank Poole, serve as custodians until the ship reaches Jupiter and the other three scientists on board can be revived from cryosleep. The humans scarcely even seem to be needed, as all aspects of the ship are, in Richard Brautigan’s renewedly timely phrase, “all watched over by machines of loving grace,” chiefly the sapient supercomputer HAL 9000.

Bowman and Poole trust HAL implicitly, because they have no choice. Mankind cannot survive in space without the envelope of technology he built to go there, and HAL 9000 is an integral part of that envelope. When HAL predicts a failure in a crucial antenna component that ends up checking out perfectly, everyone, HAL included, is unnerved. If HAL’s higher decision-making processes are faulty, the astronauts decide, better to have no decisions made by HAL at all than bad ones, and so they conspire to lobotomize HAL—not realizing HAL has second-guessed them. After HAL commands one of the ship’s spacepods to assassinate Poole, murders the scientists in hibernation by shutting off their life support systems, and locks Bowman out of the ship, it falls to Bowman to revert to quasi-Australopithecine primitivism to save himself: he puts himself at the mercy of the elements to re-enter the ship by way of the emergency airlock, then “kills” HAL by unplugging the computer’s higher brain functions. (A lobotomy for a sapient computer would be as good as a death sentence, everything it might think of as “itself” being gone.)

Dr. Floyd's secret to keep.

What lies beyond, in Jupiter’s orbit, is yet another quantum human leap, The monolith he finds there, in a lazy flight reminiscent of the orbiting craft we saw before, transports him through an experience of such incommunicability that the movie dispenses with dramatic action and dialogue entirely and instead delivers pure image (Douglas Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effects) and sound (György Ligeti’s alien choral and orchestral music). And once the light-and-sound show recedes, Bowman finds himself, and us along with him, in some place where it seems he has been offered a simulacrum of half-familiar human existence to cushion him from the shock of his transcendent experiences.

We’re led to believe Bowman will live out the decades of his natural life in this human zoo, but maybe that’s only an illusion provided to keep him sane. A leaky illusion at that, as Bowman encounters himself across his own various ages, at last succumbing to death and being graced with rebirth under the eye of the monolith. Wherever Bowman has gone, whatever he has become, it’s as far beyond his life (and ours) as his was from his Australopithecine ancestors. Where he went, the rest of us are invited to follow.

Discovery, with HAL in charge.

The future isn't what it used to be

One common, if convenient, myth of popular culture is that people generally had patience for more highbrow or deliberately paced work once upon a time—say, fifty years ago. The way 2001 was received in 1968 is part refutation of that, as plenty of people then—even the critics that theoretically made the movie its darling—were stymied by its languorousness. Many brows, high and low, wrinkled at the way the movie insisted on being approached more as metaphor and allegory, less as drama and fiction. And some of the brows were those of SF luminaries:

(2001) gave us dullness and confusion. The real message, of course, is one Kubrick has used before: Intelligence is perhaps evil and certainly useless. The humanoid reaction and pointless madness of the computer shows this. Men can only be saved by some vague and unshown mystic experience by aliens. This isn't a normal science-fiction movie at all, you see. It's the first of the New Wave-Thing movies, with the usual empty symbolism. The New Thing advocates were exulting over it as a mind-blowing experience. It takes very little to blow some minds. But for the rest of us, it's a disaster. It will probably be a box-office disaster, too, and thus set major science-fiction movie-making back another ten years. —Lester del Rey[2]

Bowman and Poole confer about how HAL may be a problem.

Del Rey’s iconoclasty feels more shocking now than it would have then, if only because the movie wasn’t yet an icon to be clastied. His hostility to the movie’s open-endedness, though, was right in line with the hostility to ambiguity inherent in an I-have-seen-the-future-and-it-works version of SF. All this seems like foolishly provincial gatekeeping today, but it mattered at a time when many in the SF community still felt the genre was dismissed by the public at large, whether as pulp trash escapism or as “dullness and confusion.”

Del Rey ended up being mercifully wrong on multiple accounts. The movie was a box-office success (if not at first), and ended up becoming one of SF’s roads to mainstream legitimacy. Here was SF that was not just spectacle, but also cinema, honest-to-goodness high art with open-ended interpretations aplenty. When 2001 is namechecked today, it’s as much with the likes of Citizen Kane or The Godfather (or Last Year at Marienbad) as it is with Star Wars or The Matrix. I’m dubious as to whether 2001 legitimized SF as high art; it seems better to say it showed how high art could take the form of SF if it chose, certainly without losing legitimacy.

Bowman, locked out of Discovery, takes a desperate gamble.

What that meant for SF films in 2001’s wake was a much of a mixed bag as fantasy fiction post-Tolkien. It was too easy to assume that the best way to do honor to Tolkien was simply to copy his work with some details rearranged; likewise, it was too easy to take all the most externalized lessons from 2001—its icy design work (Space: 1999), its ventures into cryptic or non-existent narrative (Zardoz), or any number of other cues that were more homage instead of logical extension of the original (Interstellar). The best lessons of 2001 were applied by movies that eschewed action for ideas (Arrival), that explored their subjects with unhurried patience and confidence in the audience’s intelligence (Primer, Upstream Color, Solaris [although that owed at least as much to works that predated 2001]), or that showed us rather than told us about their strange new worlds or those in them (Under the Skin, Brazil, Annihilation, WALL-E). Most of what’s labeled SF in movies today is an action film with some SF elements, and so anything that hearkens back to actual science fiction is a standout.

No other work of science fiction, in film or print, provided the world with a more definitive or memorable version of artificial intelligence than 2001. HAL has become synonymous not only with AI, but with the dangers of AI—the idea that a machine will someday not only be smarter than its human creators, but conspire against it and supplant it. Today, a HAL-like general-purpose AI seems as far away as it was back then, if only because we have a better grasp of how thought and intelligence are intimidatingly complex processes. A brain is not a kind of computer and a computer is not a kind of a brain, so there seems more benefit in using machine intelligence to augment human activity, to ride sidecar with it, than to outright transcend it. Such is HAL’s purpose in the film, actually: he runs the Discovery and occupies himself with the ten thousand details of micromanagement Bowman and Poole shouldn’t have to be burdened with.

Disconnecting HAL, and learning the truth.

Where HAL seems most fitting as a cautionary tale for today is in his failure mode, one I now see informed by the failure modes of modern AI—that of algorithmic bias, of systems that mutely reflect the prejudices of their all-too-human designers. If HAL is in fact capable of error—there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?—then HAL’s human handlers are at fault for not having any more graceful way to deal with it than deciding HAL needs to be unplugged before doing any more damage. And when HAL intones, "I know everything hasn't been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it's going to be all right again," what came to mind was the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, dropping one horrible Facebook screwup after another, only to offer the same soppy, anodyne non-apology with no discernible behavioral changes. HAL speaks in the soothing tones of a clueless CEO who admits he "hears your concerns" while at the same time closing his hand around your life support plug. If those sorts of people were not HAL’s actual designers, they’d be the ones running damage control for the company after HAL melted down.

The irony of all this is further amplified by HAL being the most individuated character in the entire film. When I watched two other earlier classics of SF on film, Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936), I sensed how the one-dimensional characterizations in both films, something common to much early SF, would be a turn-off to a modern audience. 2001 is every bit as flat, but by design, not because of any actual artistic failure. Floyd, Poole, and Bowman are not intended to be fully rounded, because Kubrick’s aim is to talk of Humanity rather than any one specific human being. To me none of this wears poorly; if anything, it distills and purifies the movie’s intentions. What wears far less well now is what amounts to another sign of the then-times: the humanity we see is homogenously white, male, Western, and ostensibly heterosexual. (The only women are stewardesses and a couple of Russian scientists who have no real role in the film.)

A third monolith, and all that lies beyond it.

Another bar 2001 set for both SF and cinema was the quality and the flavor of special effects. Roger Ebert, in a retrospective review, wrote “although special effects have become more versatile in the computer age, [Douglas] Trumbull's [special effects] work remains completely convincing—more convincing, perhaps, than more sophisticated effects in later films, because it looks more plausible, more like documentary footage than like elements in a story.”[3] I agree, and I think the effects are complemented by the way Kubrick does not oversell them as effects, as something to single out as spectacular. Modern computer-generated effects can reach the same degrees of forensic realism as 2001, but rarely linger on a shot long enough to let anything register. 2001 lingered to let it all sink in, to let us feel like there was indeed a there there. Such is the cumulative strength of this effort that even the surreal lightshow of the final reels doesn’t break the illusion.

The biggest motive for the movie to stand back and watch was to make us feel like we were witnesses to a possible future. Not a future we were destined to inhabit, though; just a possible one, made alluring and exciting despite its airless and bloodless flavor. 2001’s model future inhabits roughly the same upper end of the curve where also dwelled Star Trek, where humanity could slip its earthly bonds, dwell among the stars, and raise its consciousness to match. But as the decades ticked by, the aspirational flavor of such a future seemed ever more remote, to the point where Blade Runner (or Blade Runner 2049) seemed the optimistic scenario and The Road Warrior (or Mad Max: Fury Road) the pessimistic one. The most dated thing about 2001, it would seem, is not its Pan Am logo but its optimism about humanity’s ability to elevate itself. It seems less likely than ever now that humanity will follow a path remotely like the one sketched out in the film.

But less likely does not mean impossible, and I must remind myself that in 1968 the threat of self-inflicted annihilation loomed as large in the mind then as it does now. More than that, though, is how Kubrick ultimately intended to relate all this to us as metaphor—not gospel, not dogma, not instructions, not even prophecy. 2001 was his incarnation of a belief we can all find a way to make incarnate on our own. Despite the obstacles of the natural world, despite dangers self- and other-inflicted, despite the sheer emptiness and indifference of the universe itself, humanity somehow finds a way into, and masters, things it once found impossible to even comprehend, and unknowable from where we stand now. How we get “beyond the infinite” is not as important as the fact that we do—or maybe better to say, the need that we must. That part hasn’t dated one bit. I don’t think it ever will.

Death and rebirth.

[1] Piers Bizony, 2001: Filming the Future (London, Aurum, 2000), 68.

[2] Frederik Pohl & Frederik Pohl IV, Science Fiction: Studies in Film (New York, Ace Books, 1981), 178. Pohl & Pohl cite this as being from “Galaxy Magazine, 1968” (no month), with this additional note: “I [Pohl] was editor of Galaxy when this review appeared. Nothing in the magazine’s history ever produced as much hate mail from readers, the majority of whom loved the film and two or three of whom canceled their subscriptions. FP”. (Ibid., 181)

[3] Roger Ebert, “2001: A Space Odyssey Movie Review (1968)” (1997, March 27). Retrieved from

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