Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Released in 1968
If you don’t believe in God, you might as well believe in the movies — where you can be God. British critic Raymond Durgnat once said something to that effect, and it’s not hard to parse what he was getting at: All movies, even the bad ones, unfold before an all-seeing crowd of voyeurs, each free to judge characters when they fail and feel responsible for their success. 2001: A Space Odyssey, which will screen at Cornell Cinema tonight and Sunday evening, pitches this thesis into the infinite vastness of space, where the all-seeing viewer does not judge or relate but sees, for the first and possibly only time, through the eyes of God.
That may sound like a brooding, moralistic slog, but the genius and lasting beauty of 2001 is how light it is on its feet. For a famously accurate film that interrogates mankind’s technical progress, from the first bone-as-weapon to the spaceship that realizes our species’ ultimate Manifest Destiny, the action and ideas embedded within play like music, not polemics. Indeed, 2001 transfixes in its use of music, like when Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube turns a lengthy spaceship docking into a waltz, or when early hominids shriek at a black alien monolith as the discordant creepiness of György Ligeti’s “Requiem” gets under our skin. These moments are brimming with ideas — think about the spaceship’s lyrical movements compared to the hamster wheel dynamics of the astronauts — but you need not mine for meaning to get the full experience, which is to feel awe at the magnificent and fear at the unknown.
Director Stanley Kubrick, who wrote the script with Arthur C. Clarke, had a thing for symmetry and one-point perspective, so that staring at a corridor or wormhole is to stare down its endlessness. The forced compositions betray a meticulous mind, for one, as well as a perceptive, knowing eye behind all the space politics, antagonistic A.I. systems and otherworldly encounters. When we watch astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) navigate their spaceship, we are not looking at human movement so much as automated motion through narrow, fluorescent spaces. There is no room for choice, and thus error, in the ship’s spectacular, streamlined design, and the symmetrical cinematography drives home both the efficacy and inhumanness of this advanced technology.
This explains why Bowman and Poole are utter blanks — anyone who has a bone to pick about the “bad acting” here is missing the point — and HAL 9000, the task-managing supercomputer on board, is genteel, wise and terribly sentient. 2001 doubles as a cautionary tale for how the human brain can only process so much knowledge, and when our species hits that prophetic “singularity,” we will kneel just as the apes at the film’s beginning did before their monolithic master. Perhaps the most novel and inspiring twist in 2001’s plot involves a certain choice (which I will not spoil, if for some reason you are still reading without having seen the movie before) Bowman makes in a dazzling red room. Bowman’s decision exercises tremendous courage and agency, but its protracted, elegiac aftermath may be one of the saddest scenes in American film. How could [insert climactic event] be such a tragedy? 2001 proposes that once humans hit a point in our applied intelligence, we entrust humanity onto technology and forfeit ours in the process.
Kubrick ejects the tension between humans and technology out the thematic airlock once the final act arrives, with its most memorable title, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” The events that transpire here are unforgettable, for Kubrick and special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull discard plot in order to depict something approaching the ineffable. It’s odd how some people approach the “Star Gate” sequence as a puzzle, and are thus frustrated how it refrains from spelling out its secrets. It’s not “about” much anything, except perhaps sight itself. This acid-washed spectacle elapses over a wordless 10 minutes, and it’s worth keeping in mind the literal time of Bowman’s journey probably takes an eternity longer. This sequence and the uncanny one after approximate mankind’s final achievements, if we ever reach them, and how we will no longer just be Homo sapiens once we arrive at the other side.
Exploration has always brought with it violence and, to excuse the violence, moral hierarchies. What 2001: A Space Odyssey, an easy pick for the greatest of films, posits is that the arrogance of man sustains only by the limits of our understanding, and that when our brave rocket man clears that final hurdle, be it literal or metaphorical, the rest of us will answer not to death rays but a deafening coo.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.