'2001: A Space Odyssey'

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Perhaps the first lesson of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is that crossing time and space is a profoundly difficult experience. As if by design, viewing it from end to end is a quite literal challenge of the same order. It is a long film. The dialogue is sparse. The story is told in four parts, each only loosely connected to the other. The main character, at least nominally, is a rectangular black monolith that pops up across the eons and displays a kind of power that is incomprehensible to humans. The ending especially requires multiple viewings simply to get over the did-that-just-happen first impression it leaves.

It becomes easy to understand how, after receiving a mixed batch of reviews initial, it gathered momentum both critically and at the box office, egged on by the tendrils of marijuana smoke rising off of an audience seeing it for the third, fourth or fifth time.

Even if you find it to be maddening more than anything else, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film you end up wanting to talk about with everyone. You might just drag a friend to the theater and force them to sit through all 149 minutes just to be able to break down every frustrating, mind-blowing piece with someone else.

Kubrick’s thematic strokes are as broad as they can possibly be, which is one of two reasons the film practically mandates extensive discussion. The monolith prompts consideration of extra-terrestrial life – its existence, the nature of that existence and the (likely) prospect that we humans are primitive relative to whomever or whatever we share the universe with.

One of the vessels in 2001 A Space Odyssey
One of the vessels in 2001 A Space Odyssey

Dr. David Bowman’s life-and-death tangle with the HAL 9000 computer offers the film’s only quotable moments – and, boy, are they quotable – but it is also a meditation on the links between technology and evolution – one established when the hominids in the film’s opening end up using bones as weapons, and carried forth over many millennia.

Our technology makes interplanetary travel and video calls possible. It can set the movement of a hulking space vessel to Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz” and make it all seem beautiful – as if the sum of human achievements can be encapsulated in this little ballet and those achievements can seem impossibly large. And yet it is a pittance when compared with the monolith.

Kubrick is careful to point out that humanity’s technical achievements come at a price and have their limits. The space plane that takes Bowman’s nominal predecessor, Dr. Heywood Floyd, to the Clavius Base on the Moon has a Pan Am logo slapped on its side. Even space travel requires corporate sponsorship I guess. On board, pens float and crew members take measured, ginger steps. We’ve gotten off our home planet but are still very much bound by the laws of gravity -- the basics of nature. The story’s darker moments reveal the more sinister effects of technology. It is blood-soaked from the very beginning, when the hominids in the film’s first part turn bones in to deadly weapons. And even in the far more civilized future, it has fatal power. The notion of a world filled with HAL 9000 supercomputers gone bad represents an existential threat. The better the technology, the bigger the danger when it is turned against you. That’s evolution, baby, to invoke Eddie Vedder.

Or, to quote Kubrick himself on the themes of the film, “I do believe a scientific concept of God is possible.”

And: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent.”

Anyway, here I am having gone on about the heady themes of this film for several paragraphs. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and what I have touched on is the territory of astrophysicists and philosophers, not amateur film critics. Kubrick is in good company, and, for a filmmaker, in rarefied air. And I’ve made no mention of the technical brilliance and prescience of his films – the accuracy of his depiction of space travel a full year before we landed on the Moon and his decades-long influence on the space films that followed, from Star Wars all the way to Interstellar.

I could keep going. And I will keep considering the impact 2001: A Space Odyssey as I watch other films. I'll be discussing its finer points with fellow cinema nerds for as long as I'm around. I’ll even pause and watch parts of it when I come across it on cable.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all, though, is that it’s hard for me to imagine sitting down and watching it again from start to finish. 2001: A Space Odyssey feels bigger than the label “film” itself, its impact on subsequent films notwithstanding. It is not meant to be digested like a conventional film. It is a philosophical essay, presented in visual form, about humanity itself.

It seems purposefully intended to make you feel small, a fitting emotion for a film about all of human history set against the backdrop of an incomprehensibly vast universe. If that was indeed his intention, Kubrick succeeded in grand fashion. 2001: A Space Odyssey is awesome enough that it ends up reducing its viewers. Or at least it cut me down to size. I could (and can) only handle so much of it at once.