2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

There's a scene early on in Stanley Kubrick's film, fifty years old and still unsurpassed, that offers a neat visual metaphor for the whole project. It's the scene depicted, in rather zippier style, on the poster opposite. Heywood Floyd's Pan Am shuttle is docking with Space Station 5 and the first we see of the process is what you might call an over-the-shoulder shot - the space station in the bottom right corner, the shuttle moving towards it.

From this angle, they both appear to be spinning randomly. Seen through the window of the shuttle, though, the station appears perfectly still. The shuttle is rotating at the exact same speed as the station, it was just harder to appreciate this from the other camera angle. What this cut tells us, then, is that what you get out of 2001: A Space Odyssey will be a matter of what angle you look at it from. As a space adventure it's dull, as a character drama it's rarely engaging. Fans of the mythos-driven storytelling of modern Hollywood SF, where there are always definitive answers for anyone willing to consume enough spin-off media, will be disappointed. But if you sync yourself to its orbit, you'll enter into it most harmoniously.

Kubrick and his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke do everything they can to acclimatise viewers to the film's radical ideas. Before the first image has been seen, there is an eerie musical overture, the swarming voices of Ligeti's 'Lux aeterna' which return as a kind of character theme for the film's utterly inscrutable alien presence. (The use of classical music is justly celebrated, and also thematically appropriate: the great achievements of humanity's past, guiding its future) The prologue is slow enough to drive out any determined thrill-seekers, but boasts make-up effects that are still utterly convincing, and neatly sets up the film's key themes. Apes encountering the alien monolith receive a jolting intelligence boost, leading them first to hunting, then to tribalism, then to murderous violence.

It's the sort of message that offers fuel to those who see Kubrick as a heartless misanthrope, though it's worth noting that the newly intelligent ape's first instinct, once he's killed a hog, is to share the meat. 2001 does not share Rousseau's view that man is naturally co-operative until civilisation comes calling, but neither does it share Hobbes's view that violence, theft and cruelty are inevitable without a strong hierarchy. Intelligence - indeed, the process of evolution itself - is seen in a strictly scientific manner. It's not good or bad, it's just happening. Our responses to it are where the ethics come in.

It's easy, then, to understand why scientists, tired of popular media which promotes the idea of evolution as a pyramid with humans on the top, would enjoy 2001. It also has a substantial religious fan-base - it appears, alongside more expected entries like Ben-Hur and The Passion of Joan of Arc, on the Vatican's list of greatest films. It doesn't take a great leap of interpretation to see the monolith as a stand-in for God, guiding mankind to new heights. You could even construct a satisfying Gnostic reading, with Dave Bowman overcoming the demiurge of HAL and leaving his Earthly form behind in a convulsive transcendence, the like of which had never been seen in cinema outside experimental shorts.

Kubrick and Clarke take pains to play fair with the audience. The two-million-year cut between the prologue and the first act serves notice that the prehistoric scenes will not be too closely tied to the main narrative; the first act itself ends with the death of the person we expected to be our identification figure. They're not trying to smuggle their philosophical concerns in under the disguise of a genre movie, they are announcing loud and clear that this will be a film about themes, not plot. That's not a very commercial idea, but it became a hit, partly because it met with a psychedelically-inclined, questioning audience, but partly because Kubrick and Clarke's themes are the most universal and meaningful imaginable - who are we, and where are we going?

Watching this restored print on the big screen offered no groundbreaking revelations, just a steady stream of alternate angles of inquiry, which is as it should be. After admiring Bradford Young's work on Solo I realised Kubrick was doing the same thing by hiring Geoffrey Unsworth, bringing his low-key naturalism to a genre which, left to its own devices, can tend towards Apple-store white-out. I enjoyed him refusing to correct the rolling shutter when Bowman sees the secret message inside HAL's brain, allowing the TV light to flicker on his face in a foreshadowing of the Star Gate sequence that follows.

I also found myself thinking a lot about HAL himself, and his strange motivations. He seems to be straightforwardly lying when he apologises to Dave for his "very poor decisions", and this is obviously self-preservation. But is he such a villain? I wondered whether HAL might, in his own overly logical way, be obeying Asimov's Laws of Robotics. Since every encounter with the monolith involves humans either dying or becoming something other than human, isn't killing them the only way to guarantee that their humanity will be preserved? Bowman, though, is not a computer, and his salvation lies in doing the kind of irrational but right thing humans do: take a leap into the unknown. For all Kubrick's visual perfectionism 2001 is ultimately a film that celebrates surrendering control, losing yourself in the quest for knowledge. And every single time I love getting lost in it.

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