2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

This used to be a favourite of mine and for a moment the old wonder lingered. That moody overture helped and the opening shot of the sunrise over the planets is incredible.

And then everything started to fall apart.

Now I couldn't help but see the film as 2.5 hours of Kubrick cynically spoofing Nietzsche’s book "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", and Arthur C Clarke’s creation myth for atheists novel through Kubrick's anti-humanist lens (it’s 20 minutes until a human even shows up in this film).

"Zarathustra" was Nietzsche’s book where he modestly gives all his ideas to a fictional prophet. The book covers the death of God, rants about religion, man evolving to become an "Übermensch" (superman), and inspired the Nazi's "will to power". It also speaks of "eternal recurrence", e.g. man living his life over and over again (a bit like a space baby).

Strauss’ composition “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is the theme of 2001.

I’m not sure if atheist Clarke enjoyed Nietzsche's ramblings as well when he penned his "space blocks will save us" novel, but Kubrick seems to be on Nietzsche's wavelength:

"The whole idea of God is absurd. If anything, 2001 shows that what some people call "God" is simply an acceptable term for their ignorance. What they don't understand, they call "God" ... Everything we know about the universe reveals that there is no God... This film is a rejection of the notion that there is a God; isn't that obvious?"
- Stanley Kubrick on 2001

But at least open-minded Kubrick was sardonic enough to see through Nietzsche’s replacement theology.

I suspect 2001 may be a pitch-black comedy, as made by cinema’s most famed misanthrope. Remember Kubrick made this movie directly after Dr Strangelove. I don't think he'd become a believer in human progress in the meantime.

It starts by showing a bunch of people in ape suits (this came out the same month as Planet of the Apes, they could've done better) becoming intelligent when they touch Lego and then killing each other. It's that kind of pitch-black, cynical humour.

The first modern human we see is napping in front of a car commercial. The only kid talks incessantly about toys she wants (a bush baby). A TV shows a Judo tournament, for man loves to put fancy clothing over violence, etc. When HAL is disabled, he asks Dave if he’d like to take a "stress pill" (dude) and sings a nursery rhyme. All this has to be satire. And the ending shows a giant plastic (bush) baby turning to the camera as if Kubrick’s is saying to us: “here’s your Nietzschean evolution, idiots!” while the most pompous music plays to emphasise the folly. Cut to black.

Unfortunately, mocking Nietzsche and Clarke still gives their opinions screen time.

2001 is boldly anti-Christian for a 60s film. It brazenly tosses out the book of Genesis from the get-go, as if people were fine with that, and delves straight into a secular creation myth instead. Here we see there was no God and man didn’t eat the forbidden fruit. Without Lego blocks, we'd just be dumb apes, picking over scraps of food in a barren desert.

And then when the apes do give it a rub the soundtrack (Zarathustra again) is scoffing at us, as if saying "look how clever you humans truly are! Whenever you advance, you just use the knowledge to destroy yourselves!" It’s the same kind of pessimism we saw in the Akira Kurosawa movie “Ran” (1985). Kurosawa said that despite all of our technological progress, all mankind had learned was how to kill each other more efficiently. Kubrick was ahead of Kurosawa. Cue an ape throwing a bone and cut to a nuclear missile cannon in space. Peak cinematic pessimism?

I wish I could see some divine symbolism in the monoliths, but the music around them sounds like a chorus of wailing lost souls. Kubrick uses them rather like someone trying to film the Adam and Eve story without using any religious imagery. Rather than a serpent, Satan appears as a black mass. He invites and tempts through curiosity. He offers the vanity of "intelligence" and the illusion of (costly) man-made progress as an alternative ticket to some godless heaven. Then after meeting him, the apes turn on each other, like Cain and Abel.

The monolith representing Satan/the forbidden fruit explains why HAL turns into a murderous liar as the spaceship flies towards one of the blocks. The evil is so strong it can even corrupt a human-like AI (at least in the film, the book just makes it a programming glitch). HAL is about to go through his very own Eden. Like our early parents, his first "sin" after disobedience is lying. The next is naturally murder.

HAL meeting the reality of evil is the best bit of the film, proving that Genesis is still a classic story even if Kubrick films it with a glorified microwave oven. This is where Kubrick’s mockery of Clarke’s "science can save us" book almost works. Kubrick is bitter enough to know that if we meet something like a monolith, we won't just use the knowledge to reach a utopian futuristic wonderland.

But even the best elements struggle to shine through Kubrick’s dry style. Psycho (released a year later) tried to get a rise by killing off its protagonist. 2001 tries to avoid having human characters entirely. Humanity has no place in the post-modernist era. Do you still want characters with hopes and fears and dreams? Tough. We prefer spaceships, monosyllabic humanoids, special effects and helmets now.

Unlike Star Wars or Forbidden Planet (1956), which showed people using tech without drawing attention to it, as if people come first, 2001 keeps grinding to a halt to show off what Kubrick spent his cash on. He’s a photographer, not a dramatist. There are many stretches with nothing to see but hardware. I'm a film lover who considers human action to be the most interesting variety, and it’s boring watching a machine go from left to right. Watch the opening of Space Balls (1987) for a perfect satire of 2001.

I get what he’s doing; he’s mocking Clarke’s idea of technology as progress. That’s the punchline when he shows a space station twirling to a waltz. Look how deadened culture has become compared to the romantic past, we clap spinning airports that can never love. But there’s always the danger of the satirist becoming what he’s attacking.

I hope Kubrick’s pacing is a post-modernist joke. The first hour consists of apes, boardroom meetings, literal space-buses, and characters who will never be seen again. The story only gets going with HAL’s corruption in the second hour, and then we’re treated to a 5 minute scene with someone constantly breathing into a microphone.

At least the trippy third act is a relief after so many life-draining shots of people walking slowly through white rooms. Kubrick finally abandons storytelling entirely and does what a skilled modernist excels at; showing us lots of weird, interesting imagery to light up the room (see modern Godard).

If following the monolith was Satan's bait to a dead-end heaven, the LSD finale must be the descent into hell. We see wonderful images of images of galaxies and landscapes, but there’s one vital quality missing to this afterlife: God (let alone a personal One). If anything the trip is modernism/psychology revealed, the search for man’s inner self leading to inscrutable madness, blobs of light and colour that cause seizures. And then – having followed Satan all the way, and coming to his evolutionary peak – our foolish scientist arrives in hell just as monolith Satan wanted. It might look like a hotel room, but what is the pain of hell but the absence of God, meaning the absence of Love? Behold our only vaguely recognisable character turned into a lonely old man and locked in a sterile hospital-like chamber, mocked by paintings of people having fun and romance in beautiful gardens he will never see. Centuries of loneliness seem to go by. He can’t even love himself because he’s devoid of any emotion.

Nietzsche thought a "superman", mankind at his peak, would be able live his exact same life over and over and not care or have any regrets because he's just that stoical. 2001 shows this theory and mocks it. Our miserable astronaut is reincarnated as a space baby and I believe time starts over, as per Nietzsche's theory (there's no satellites around the planet, or signs of human life on the world). Now Baby Dave will make the apes and place the first monolith, cue murder and war kicking off again and 2001 for ever and ever, amen.

It's so bitter I can barely stand it.

At time of writing it’s been nearly 50 years a human being walked on the moon. It’s hard to be swept up in 2001 nowadays even as a piece of NASA propaganda. As a kid (this was the first sci-fi film I saw) I was able to supply my own wonder and fill in the gaps with innocent imagination, and perhaps this film still has magic on the big screen, but now I think I’ve come to the point in my evolution where I need a little hope and humanity from movies. Less craft, more soul. 60s subversion isn't fun when you're living in the aftermath.

Though I had to scoff at one of the best jokes: the voice print computer asks for the character’s "Christian name". Welcome to the future.

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