2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is an open-ended film that allows people to interpret it in different ways that are personal to them. What I saw when I watched it this time was music. Not in a synaesthesia sense of seeing when hearing, but in a structural and thematic sense, as if it were a symphony composed for film. Kubrick was one of the best directors when it came to using music, he seemed to understand it better than most. But here I feel he went further, effectively building his film as he might a musical composition. He breaks his film down into three parts, but the long third section effectively plays out as two and is even followed by a brief coda that links it back to the start. The structure is very similar to the typical shape of a symphony: a kind of expositional/developmental first section; a dance-like second; a long and slow, tragic third; and a dramatic, resolving allegro fourth, capped by a brief reprise of the opening, tying it all together. My sense of this symphonic structure is made more pronounced by the way Kubrick’s sound design supports it. Each part (or movement) is marked by its own musical theme and supported by its soundscape. I’ve no idea if Kubrick deliberately set out with this musical model in mind, or whether it was a subconscious choice, or even not at all. But for me, as someone who loves symphonic repertoire, he has made something that is the film equivalent of a symphonic masterpiece by Beethoven or Mahler, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

There’s a clue to this reading at the very start of the film, with an extended pitch black screen over which György Ligeti’s Atmospheres challenges us with its extraordinary shifting, microtonal clouds of sound, spread over five octaves. Kubrick is effectively tuning us up to listen, at the same time as tempting thematic dawn of time analogies within the shape of the film’s grand arc. And then we launch into the first part/movement proper. And it starts with a glorious fanfare in the form of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. I love how the climaxes in the music introduce Kubrick’s name and the title of the film. Such confidence! After the fanfare Kubrick gives us a soundscape of windswept desolation. This Dawn of Man section is expositional in that it introduces us to the theme of evolution and, by showing us clear stages of evolution, it is also developmental. The section is filled out with the primitive sounds of apes screaming; and it’s only this cacophony that fills the void of the vast spaces. But then we hear the monolith’s theme (Ligeti again, this time from his Requiem), and the monolith sounds as it looks, impossibly alien and advanced. It seems to embody intelligence, and we watch as it gives birth to religion - with the apes congregated around its base - as well as to insight - with the quick discovery of tools, the shift to becoming carnivorous, and with the harnessing of power, a thirst for war. And then, with a sudden match-cut / key-change we are into the second movement. 

This second part is like a symphony’s scherzo. It plays out like an extended dance to the jaunty tune of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz. At first the dance is between celestial objects and man-made spaceships. And then it centres on man’s innovations, with our gizmos and gravity games. And then it centres on man’s arrogance, from the specific dance of Cold War stand-offs - urbanely echoing the more physical conflicts seen previously between the apes - to the dance of communication between people, more generally. The dialogue throughout this section is like a cultured variation of the apes’ grunting - a waltz of niceties, polite evasions, small talk and committee speak - by men who think they are at the cutting edge of things.

I love in this second section how the film intersects with our own stage of evolution. It’s fascinating how the film’s futuristic longueurs collide with our own trajectory in ways that are both wildly inaccurate and surprisingly close. The future seen through the eyes of the 1960’s can’t help but appear dated, but the clarity with which it shows the ubiquity of technology and the arrogance of man is as prescient as prescience comes. 

The movement ends abruptly as the men are posing for a photograph in front of the monolith, like narcissus admiring himself in the pond. The monolith’s terrifying, ear-shredding Ligeti returns, much as a movement in a symphony might end abruptly with sudden dissonance, signalling a dramatic change of direction. 

And the third section is very different. We are dropped into a slow, mournful and terribly lonely place, set to an adagio from Aram Khatchaturian’s ballet Gayane. The shift from the Ligeti to the Khatchaturian is as stark as the earlier cut from the spinning bone to the spaceship. The immediate sense is one of grief - that things have not gone well. Perhaps it’s the human cost of progress, perhaps it’s our existential loneliness, perhaps it’s the foretelling of the tragedy that is about to unfold. I am comfortable with all of these readings. And what an extraordinary section of the film this is. Kubrick settles us into the lonely place of deep space and manages to sustain the mournful mood established initially by the music. And he does so with an astonishing use of sound. There is the backdrop of the hums, beeps and static from the spaceship, and there is the extended focus on breath, and best of all there is the mellifluous voice of Hal. It’s stunning how Kubrick makes Hal appear to speak from inside your head. It is a deeply unnerving effect and it is all achieved through sound. 

I love how confident this section is in its slow pacing. I love how Kubrick plays on our fear of machines, and specifically on our fear of self-destruction through the creation of artificial intelligence. It hits home harder than ever. And I love how the tragedy established from the first moments of this section/movement are played out through the death of Hal, with his pleading for life and the clinical, almost robotic way Dave gives him a series of lethal injections. The section feels like the turning point in our evolution. A kind of switch signalling the beginning of the end. 

The fourth section/movement emerges suddenly out of the stasis of the third. With a breathtaking acceleration the film propels us into an allegro movement with extended use of music from Ligeti’s Requiem. It’s a terrifying, headlong funeral march, that comes closest to being pure synaesthesia. This is image as music, music as image, and it seems to open up the entire film/symphony into a new thing: a kind of meta lifecycle story, that spans the birth of the universe with its amniotic fluid, to the birth of planet Earth, with the colour negatives of primal landscapes, before finally coming to rest on Dave’s blinking eye as he struggles to comprehend the end of his life. 

In this final movement, in a purely abstracted form, the film has reached for the stars in positioning a human life. It has shown us the end of the cycle of human life, within the lifecycle of the universe. This is audacious in design, but it is also poignant, as the film ends with a coda that suggests through the star-child foetus, that a re-set is due, and that everything that ends, marks the beginning of another chapter. The reprise at the close, of the Zarathustra theme, seals this re-set, bringing us full cycle across an extraordinary span. 

2001: A Space Odyssey is open-ended and abstract like music. Like music, you can let it wash over you, and leave its meanings out of reach. But if you choose to listen carefully, the themes are there, carefully laid out. And like the way the monolith appears in contrast to its surroundings, so too does the spatial relationship of the film’s structure yield insights. And much like the monolith, the meanings can be hard to decipher, even hovering on the edge of being unknowable; but while they are elusive, I find their effect as profound as listening to a great piece of music. I am sadly not a musician, so the language of music is hard for me to decipher, but I sense its meaning, and I feel it deeply, and that’s how I am too, in relation to this great film.

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