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Gary Lockwood inside the spaceship
Gary Lockwood inside the spaceship

The film director David Lean, responsible for such classics as Brief Encounter (1945), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), once suggested that cinema had yet to produce a Shakespeare or a Beethoven. Film does not have as lengthy a pedigree as literature or music, of course, and Lean may have been right. But there is one director whose perfectionism, roaming intelligence, and impeccable craftsmanship are legendary, and to whom it would be apt to apply the moniker of genius: Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999).

In the 1950s and 1960s, Kubrick directed a number of powerful films about crime and war, ranging from The Killing (1956) to Dr. Strangelove (1964). Shortly after the success of the latter, he turned his attention to science fiction, and the result was arguably the greatest film ever made: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film’s opening sequence is set millions of years ago, depicting the brutish struggle for existence of hominids who are the ancestors of mankind. One day a tall black rectangular monolith appears and causes something to change — one of the man-apes picks up a bone and discovers its use as a weapon. This new technology allows the man-apes to hunt for meat instead of foraging for plants. But they are also able to commit murder.

In one of the most famous cuts in film history, a man-ape who has fended off rivals to a waterhole triumphantly tosses his bone in the air; the camera follows its trajectory upwards to the apex of its journey, and as the bone begins to fall the camera abruptly cuts to a similarly-shaped spacecraft floating down millions of years in the future.

Arguably the greatest film ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey eloquently brought to the screen questions regarding the very origins and destiny of mankind

The film’s second sequence now explores the beauty of spaceflight, with the classical music of Johann Strauss II accompanying the balletic movements of spacecraft. More than 20 minutes into the film and the first dialogue appears, as scientists discuss the purpose of a monolith that has recently been uncovered on the moon. The monolith sends a piercing radio signal to Jupiter, and the next segment of the film occurs 18 months later aboard Discovery One, a spacecraft whose mission it is to investigate Jupiter. The ship is populated by astronauts Frank Poole, David Bowman, and some hibernating scientists, attended by the artificially intelligent HAL 9000 computer. But HAL malfunctions, murdering everyone except Bowman, who manages to disconnect him. Bowman then ventures out of the spacecraft to approach another monolith near Jupiter, where he is taken through a tremendous cosmic journey, only to end up in a strange bedroom. There he ages, and upon the moment of death a monolith appears again and transforms him into a new being; the film ends with this “Star Child” orbiting the Earth.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a sensory experience
2001: A Space Odyssey is a sensory experience

“What is man? And how did he come to be man?” asked the historian Oswald Spengler in his book Man and Technics. His answer was: “through the genesis of the hand”. But what was the catalyst for this evolutionary development? Chance, as many modern biologists would have it? Directed evolution from some cosmic entity, as astronomer Fred Hoyle theorised? And what lies in store for man? Will he merge with the technology he has created? Evolve until he permeates the universe itself, as inventor Ray Kurzweil has predicted? Man, wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is only a bridge between ape and superman.

Kubrick was familiar with this sentiment — it is no accident that the most powerful music in 2001 is Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, which was inspired by Nietzsche’s book of the same name (usually translated as Thus Spoke Zarathustra). In 2001, Kubrick eloquently brought to the screen questions regarding the origins and destiny of mankind.

Kubrick once said that he could film anything that could be written down, but the reverse is not always true: a literary summary of 2001 does little to convey its power. Sparse on dialogue, explanation, and plot, with mysterious and mystical images to inspire wonder, 2001 is beyond description. This was intentional: Kubrick was endeavouring to bypass traditional filmmaking techniques and create something that would affect the viewer on a subconscious and emotional level. Doing so would require the utilisation of film as an essentially visual medium. For despite its ostensibly visual nature, cinema is highly dependent on language. A film’s title, its credit sequences, its intertitles, its dialogue, its screenplay, and often its source material — all utilise language; a purely cinematic creation relying solely on images and symbols would be a difficult affair, and perhaps not even desirable.

But many did not understand Kubrick’s aspiration, and 2001 elicited polarised reviews upon its release in 1968. Several prominent sci-fi writers had little positive to say about the film. Ray Bradbury, for instance, acknowledged 2001’s technological excellence and visual beauty, but was irked by its “banal” dialogue, adding that “the test of the film is whether or not we care when one of the astronauts dies. We do not...” But the banal dialogue in the film was deliberate, and footage from actual space missions demonstrates Kubrick’s accurate prognostication in this regard. In respect to the supposition that the film’s test is whether or not we sympathise with the characters, one can ask: why? Why is this the test? Are no other criteria possible? Bradbury perhaps failed to recognise that 2001 — akin to the ancient myths from which it drew some inspiration — is not so much about any single human being as it is about all of humanity.

Because Kubrick was reluctant to explain 2001, it is unsurprising that interpretations of his “mythological documentary” were varied. Some found it ironical, while others thought it humourless. Some thought the film atheistic, others religious. Some understood what it had to say about the human condition as pessimistic, others thought it was optimistic. Conjecture regarding the film’s meanings ranges from the erudite to the ridiculous, and reveal more about the reviewers than they do about the film itself. Thus one can find speculation on HAL being gay, on spacecraft being shaped like a spermatozon, and so on. Not without reason did Kubrick rarely give interviews to critics, and dismissed their opinions as irrelevant. Of all the interpretations of the film, the one that Kubrick respected the most was written by a 17-year-old schoolgirl. The youth of that time seem to have been inclined to embrace a cinematic experience without a pat resolution. Those of an older generation were either unable or unwilling to accept 2001 on its own terms, and judged the film with preconceived notions.

Daniel Richter as a humanoid
Daniel Richter as a humanoid

When Kubrick set out to produce 2001, he enlisted the aid of Arthur C. Clarke, one of the masters of 20th century sci-fi. Taking inspiration from some of Clarke’s short stories, the pair worked simultaneously on the screenplay and the novel. In order to create a plausible vision of the future, Kubrick conferred with some of the most scientifically advanced minds available. He had meetings with astronomer Carl Sagan and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky. NASA advisers aided in the design of spacecraft. Experts in simian behaviour were consulted for a realistic depiction of the hominids. Dozens of scientific institutes, military organisations and corporations provided schematics, design concepts, documentation and expertise. And all the while Kubrick and Clarke, both brilliant and well-read men, traded ideas back and forth while an army of technicians under Kubrick’s command developed new methods in make-up, film projection and special effects. This level of effort was unprecedented; the sci-fi genre was rarely taken seriously because of the carelessness of its fancy. Kubrick’s knowledgeable approach was so grounded in hard science that an impressed Minsky suspected that Kubrick knew more about certain subjects than he himself did. Clarke thought that Kubrick was a genius, and one of the most intelligent people he had ever met.

In a 2013 interview for Entertainment Weekly, Christopher Nolan discussed the differences between Kubrick’s magnum opus and his own Interstellar (2014): “There is such an inherent calm and inherent trust of the one powerful image, that he makes me embarrassed with my own work, in terms of how many different shots, how many different sound effects, how many different things we’ll throw at an audience to make an impression. […] You look at the cut in 2001, this vast jump forward — the confidence that takes to do that is actually enormous. Would I love to do things like that in my own work? Yes. But I don’t think I have the confidence to do that. Which is why there is only one Stanley Kubrick.”

Indeed, and only one 2001. Before Kubrick reinvented sci-fi, he surveyed a large number of films and literature in the genre, finding most of them poor. It is not difficult to understand why, for sci-fi films of that period are almost laughable in their conceptualisations, their effect partly nullified by the simplicity or implausibility of their futurism. 2001, however, has dated very little even after 50 years. When cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov saw the film, he told Clarke: “Now I feel I’ve been in space twice.”

Unfortunately, 2001 did not lead to a plethora of imitation, at least not on the same cerebral level; instead, some have blamed it for inspiring big budget, special effects-driven sci-fi blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), neither of which are particularly intellectual films.

Kubrick’s bold fusion of art and science, of imagination and verity, of spirituality and technology, of the sublime and the banal, of the classic and the modern, of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, would arguably remain unrivalled until Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1986) and the Wachowski brothers’ ambitious Matrix saga (1999-2003).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these works, and other intelligent sci-fi such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), discuss the co-evolution of man and technology, and all of them possess ambiguous endings.

The Dawn of Man
The Dawn of Man

For all too many film directors — and not a few viewers — cinema is mere entertainment. But Kubrick regarded film as the most powerful art form ever invented, and acknowledged the duty of art to elevate. Combining these perspectives with his intellect and knowledge, it is not an exaggeration to label Kubrick as a philosopher, a “conceptual illustrator of the human condition”, as Spielberg described him. As such, 2001 can be seen as a work of philosophy, not just because of its musings, but also for the manner in which it ponders. By creating a non-verbal experience that deliberately contravened traditional narrative structures, the film challenged the very nature of communication and of art. With its thoughtful use of the technological to convey the spiritual and induce the emotional, 2001 is itself a conflation of the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

In this the film bears resemblance to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the introduction to his translation of that book, Graham Parkes has highlighted the book’s resistance to simple categorisation as either art or philosophy: “whereas a treatise that articulates ideas or theories in terms of concepts asks that the reader assent to (or refute) their validity, a text like Zarathustra invites the reader to follow a train of thought through fields of imagery, and to participate in a play of imagination that engages the whole psyche rather than the intellect alone.”

As much could be said about Kubrick’s films, a philosophical body of work that few Hollywood directors would dare to match in its ambiguity. Consequently, 2001 is not easy to digest, especially for modern film-goers routinely subjected to busy, swiftly-paced films with fast-cutting techniques and uncomplicated conclusions. Filmmaker Terry Gilliam, in an interview with Turner Classic Movies, observed the differences between Kubrick and a director like Steven Spielberg; the latter’s films “are comforting — they give you answers […] and I don’t think they’re very clever answers”, whereas a director like Kubrick and a film like 2001 generates discussion and makes one think.

This gulf between Kubrick and other directors may partly be due to Kubrick’s power: he was relatively unique in that he had full artistic control over his films. The rise of digital technology may also help to explain why there are no filmmakers like Kubrick today: with the ability to digitally insert or alter scenes with comparative ease, few directors are as fastidious or as technically creative as Kubrick was. But one suspects that his commitment to film as an art form was also a significant factor, for he often took years to develop a project, and involved himself in every stage of a film’s production, from the script and editing, to poster design and theatre projection.

2001’s impact on culture is too vast to adequately summarise. In terms of its influence on the film form, it ranks with works such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Welles thought Kubrick to be a giant. George Lucas regarded 2001 as the greatest sci-fi film ever made. In the documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese said, “Every frame of 2001 made you aware that the possibilities for cinematic manipulations are indeed infinite […] it was at once a super-production, an experimental film, and a visionary poem.”

In Michael Herr’s short book Kubrick, there is an anecdote in which John Calley, a friend of Kubrick’s, was pressed by the great director to read the unabridged edition of Sir James George Frazer’s monumental The Golden Bough. Calley said that he didn’t have time for mythology. Kubrick’s response could equally apply to his own films, and to 2001 in particular. “It isn’t mythology, John,” said Kubrick. “It’s your life.”

The author is an antiquarian and freelance writer

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 23rd, 2018