What is man without machines? Don’t they ultimately separate us from animals? How am I writing this? How are you reading this? In my latest enjoyment of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), who did the most work, me for watching it, Kubrick for having directed and produced it, or the screen that showed it to me? These are the questions at the center of the movie and they can often be unsettling. True, human beings made all the machines, but what gave us that initial spark of understanding?
Few films have been this ambitious, fewer still have been as upfront in those ambitions, and even fewer still have paid them off. It quite literally reaches for the stars. It seems to want to be everything at all times, content only to examine every element of art, technology, sexuality, society, and on and on. It’s aggressively ambitious. If it has pretense, as it has been suggested, it hides it from me. Pretension suggests the glory goes to the author; 2001 feels as if it wants us all to share in the glory, like the gift of understanding. If that sounds effusive, it’s because this movie doesn’t accept modesty, only grandeur.
The movie begins at the dawn of man on the barren crags of prehistory when apes and oreodonts live in fear of panthers and other beasts naturally suited to eat them. One day, among the ubiquitous imperfections of the landscape, the endless combinations of unique and differing angles and curves of nature, comes a black smooth monolith, a sleek and perfect rectangle, stretching up to the sky. The apes are startled, they know it’s foreign, and they must build up their courage just to touch it. Soon after, it is discovered how tools, like a discarded bone, can be used for the apes to assert their dominion over the creatures on their own level of the food chain and even the one above them. Not soon after that, it is learned that whoever wields these tools best can dominate even the other apes. Such began man’s relationships with technology, both as a way to better himself and as a way to destroy his fellows.
Kubrick now takes us to outer space in a brilliant flash-forward that must encompass tens of thousands of years. We are on a ship bound for the moon where another monolith has been found buried beneath the lunar surface. Throughout the movie, Kubrick will remind us of the duplicitous nature of man’s creations that he hinted at during the ape sequence. A scientist (William Sylvester) talks to his daughter on a video phone from space. Technology has allowed him to communicate with his family even this far away, but it also is actively taking him away from them as he sits in the ship, hardly noticing the majesty of the planets outside his window.
Kubrick stages his famous spacecraft ballet as ships dock with each other under the strains of Johan Strauss’s Waltz of the Blue Danube. That special effects now could make the spaceships that Kubrick and consultant Douglas Trumbull created look more realistic and move faster is doubtless, but they’ve yet to surpass these images’ ability to inspire our awe. If nature in the previous sequence could create an infinity of geological shapes, then man can now design an endless parade of crafts.
Research shows that the monolith on the moon is sending a signal beyond Jupiter, and a mission is organized to send a manned ship there. The crew consists of a number of sleeping members, kept in hibernation to save supplies; two scientists who must have pulled the short string to stay conscious during the flight, Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood); and the computer that controls the ship, HAL 9000, personified by a red light in the walls of every chamber and voiced by Douglas Rain. A reporter jokingly introduces HAL as the hardest worker on the ship; his tone is subtly condescending, but it’s true. The two officers seem to be mostly embroiled in leisure activities; they seem almost like the dogs and monkeys sent up in the earliest space missions. It doesn’t take long, however, for HAL to realize that the meat sacks on board are beneath it’s perfection and are redundant to the mission so it starts to pick them off.
In another movie (and there have been plenty since), this would represent a malfunction in HAL’s programming, but the real chills from 2001 result from realizing that HAL’s conclusion is flawlessly logical. HAL has been given the tools to surpass us. We are the poor oreodonts now. Bowman and Poole start to realize that HAL is cutting them out of the mission, and they move to a HAL-free chamber to discuss what should be done. In a bravura sequence that never fails to chill me, Kubrick reveals, through close-ups and editing, how HAL reads their lips. During the movie’s great confrontation (“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”), HAL, who has been programmed to emulate human behavior, betrays, through Rain’s remarkable voice, a range of, dare I say, emotions, all while keeping its monotone timbre and calm cadence.
When HAL tells Bowman that it knows what he and Poole were planning to do, is that hurt we hear? When HAL tells Bowman that he wouldn’t enjoy braving space without his helmet, is HAL mocking him? When the tides turn against HAL, its human programming allows it to lie to save itself, using pitiful rationales, like a wage slave begging to keep his job (“I know I’ve made some poor decisions lately, Dave.”). When Bowman pulls the plug, we get a disturbing reminder of both how far humans and their machines remain apart and yet how close they are as HAL begs for its life (“I’m afraid,” chillingly, in the same monotone) before being reset, causing HAL to recite the first thing it learned, to sing “Daisy.” Once again, Kubrick reinforces technologies’ progression from benign to dangerous.
In the final act man grows beyond his machines (in what other movie is it so clear that the actors in it represent us, en masse?), as Bowman crosses some cosmic plane and returns to a childlike state, albeit infinitely more advanced. The optimism of this sequence stands in stark contrast to the legions of science-fiction movies that followed and that considered the height of scientific achievement to be how best to destroy the planet. That many of its details remain mysteries is part of the point. We may never know where the monoliths came from or why they spark a push forward toward understanding. We may never comprehend man’s grand transformation at the end of the immaculate room that seems to exist beyond Jupiter, made up just for Bowman. These details are inconsequential to the feeling that discovery will lead to enlightenment.
2001 was made at a time when special effects were liberating, the synthesis of imagination and handiwork. Perhaps the final irony of 2001 is that when it was made, anything we could dream could be created for the movies; now that computers can literally create whatever we imagine, our imaginations have dried up. In 2001 there is a breathless feeling of possibility, the exhilaration of discovery. A year after it was released, we would land on the moon to find there was no monolith up there, and it’s been over ten years from when we were supposed to travel beyond infinity and become star children. How disappointing. Will there ever be a time again when our limitless potential as a civilization feels as intensely optimistic? 2001 is a tower to how we used to feel and the spark that could lead us to feeling that way again.