The first landing on the moon – a moment of human grace amidst the otherwise tempestuous doings of the decade — was still a year away when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in select American widescreen cinemas in 1968. The film brought little enlightenment to the darkness of the era and almost came and went with little real fanfare, except among sci-fi aficionados, some of whom, along with others, were zonked out on psychedelics and puff-the-magic-dragon (wink).
The year 1968 was a particularly ugly snapshot of the human condition: Russian tanks rolled into Prague and installed the Iron Curtain that would stay drawn until the Velvet Revolution two decades later; Paris was consumed with fiery protests, screaming it seemed ‘existence precedes essence’; teenaged soldier Conrad Schumann was making his iconic leap into freedom at the Berlin Wall; the massacre of innocents at My Lai happened; political (RFK) and civil rights (MLK) leaders were assassinated; the police brutality of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed the world American Exceptionalism at war with the Ugly American; and the children of ‘free’ world cryed out loud for an end to the war in Viet Nam (that Nobel Peace-prize winner Henry Kissinger had extended for political reasons) . With so much rage consuming the collective consciousness it’s easy to see how a cerebral film like 2001: A Space Odyssey could have gone neglected by the masses busy ‘doing democracy’ in the streets.
Though a Czech sat on the jury of the Moscow Film Festival in 1969 and considered 2001 for a prize, the film didn’t arrive in Prague until a few years later, and there are no ready reports (in English, at any rate) on how it was received in the Kafka-esque environment of the era. Worldwide interest picked up after the film won the 1969 Academy Award for special effects (it was also nominated for screenwriting). Though dated by today’s digital standards, the special effects continue to be the driving force of the film’s appeal as it performs its 50thanniversary victory lap around the globe. It can still be viewed in select cinemas nationwide.
Stanley Kubrick collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on the screenplay for the film, with the latter’s story, “Sentinel of Eternity,” being the original source of the film’s principal motif. This sentinel is what Asimov describes as a crystalline “signal-sending pyramid” in the tale, a kind of channel-marker that awakens when touched by biological life, with the signal presumably passed back to the Maker. Kubrick altered the sentinel in the story to a black monolith when he couldn’t get the visual effect he desired. The title of the story refers to the archetypal Hero genre passed down to us from Homer – the historical quest for human meaning in the face of the Void, both the cosmos within and the cosmos without. And that is in essence how the story plays out on the screen. You might argue the film begins with the birth of consciousness and ends with its transcendence, a theme totally in keeping with ego experiments of the time.
Structurally, the film has three distinct sections or acts, as well as an intermission toward the end of the second section, before the film’s famous psychedelic effects kick in and the viewer’s mind for a spin. The German philosopher Nietzsche once said (I paraphrase): Man is a bridge between beasts and the Superman, the latter a fully-realized consciousness to be reached sometime in an indeterminate future. Similarly, the film begins with what Kubrick describes as the Dawn of Man: In a kind of wasteland, we see missing-link apes, neither all animal, nor quite yet human, exhibiting little more than a safety-in-numbers pack behaviour to protect an oasis-like watering hole against outsiders. After discovering a black monolith (sentinel) the ape-men appear to be awakened in some mysterious way. One of these apes discovers a tool for smashing heads, both beast and ape, leading to the first domination of others by technology. The sapient ape tosses his bone in the air in jubilant moment of discovery and power.
In Act Two, the airborne bone segues into a spaceship, going from pre-history to Earth-orbiting humans in one fell swoop, cleverly leaving the presumably educated movie-viewer to fill in the wide historical gap unaccounted for, while also seeming to imply that all that millennial bosh of historical events is mere detritus for the human voyage through time. This second section strikes one as a mere bridge to get to Act Three. We’re shown advanced human civilization, man living comfortably in space, but interestingly there is little engaging dialogue, the characters are wooden, the section seemingly in a hurry to sketch a picture of advanced technology on the cusp of the final leg of the human journey. Only one character,Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester),has any life, but he seems to exist simply to lead a lunar expedition, where once again the sentinel is (re-)discovered and the response is transformative, the act ending on a kind of high-pitched wake-up call. So, in a sense, Kubrick returns us back to the original discovery of the sentinel.
The third act moves the viewer further along the technological continuum, humans now travelling in a spaceship hurtling towards Jupiter. While two astronauts lie in hibernation, Frank (Gary Lockwood) and Dave (Keir Dullea) play and converse with HAL, a 9000 series AI system that boasts of its computational perfection, while peering from behind a persona that will soon prove to be psychopathic. HAL lip-reads the men talking about shutting ‘him’ down after he shows signs of potentially-catastrophic judgement lapses. Then an intermission suspends the action. Upon return, let’s just say that one thing turns into another, and Dave is left alone to pass through the “Star Gate” into a kaleidoscopic free-fall toward Übermenschen consciousness.
The Acts are powered by an excellent soundtrack, featuring two Strausses – Richard and Johann. The former’s outstandingly chosen piece, Also Sprach Zarathustra perfectly provides the vibe during the depiction of the ascent of Man. And it’s no mistake that the piece is Strauss’ musical vision of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, a kind of guide or Sherpa in the transition from the Last all-too-human Man to the self-overcoming super-man of the future. Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz is introduced at the moment the thrown-bone becomes a rocket making its way in the starlight toward the waltz-spinning space station, suggesting a bourgeois embracing of technological achievement, not unlike what the Silicon Valley neo-liberals promise humans today.
Many have pondered the meaning of the movie, especially the closing dream-like scenes, ending in a kind of apotheosis or human transfiguration. Kubrick himself, fielding such questions, has likened his film to a Mona Lisa smile, evocative and open-ended, the more you gaze at it, the more it gazes back at you, as Nietzsche might say. The Star Child at the end suggests rebirth. One recalls Carl Sagan’s assertion in a Cosmos segment, a long time ago now, that we humans are literally star stuff. However, one also recalls Nietzsche’s super-human notion of the ‘eternal recurrence’ of all things and his proposed super-human response to something so seemingly dismal – ‘amor fati’. But maybe T.S. Eliot puts it most lyrically and succinctly at the close of his poem “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
One wonders whether Kubrick would have considered that going too far or not far enough.
If nothing else, 2001: A Space Odyssey suggests the usual cautionary predicaments humans face today as we gain almost phantasmagorical momentum heading toward the convergence with digital machines and the mind-blowing, perhaps super-human consciousness we will need to deal with a quantum future and the concept of multiverses. Of course, all such vision-thinging presupposes that humans can reverse the many excesses of our journey, such as climate change and endless power struggles and lurking pandemics. At times it seems we are closer to a transition back to the First Man than the Last Man, with a soundtrack that features an orchestra made up of a thousand sour kazoos. T. S. Eliot writes about returning to the Beginning again, but he also suggests elsewhere that we end not with a bang but a whimper. The jury’s still out, the bone’s still in the air.
John Kendall Hawkins is a writer who currently resides in Australia.