Return of the Monolith

'2001' brings its enormous mysteries into the third millennium

 

Seeing the film again after nearly 30 years, I was struck, too, by the unity that Kubrick's vision brings to the story's four movements, which, tonally speaking, are quite disparate. The initial "Dawn of Man" sequence, a peek at humanity's ape ancestors four million years ago, plays like the subtlest parody of a National Geographic special; the lunar mission of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) coolly balances wonder at 21st-century space flight with a satiric take on the routine banalities of the human future; the unfolding battle of wills between astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the HAL-9000 computer, as they hurtle toward Jupiter on a mission to discover the source of mysterious radio signals, injects a passage of torturously intimate, almost marital drama (cf. Kubrick's The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut); and, finally, the interstellar light show and eerie transformation of Bowman into an old man, and then (apparently) into a newborn "Star Child," pushes conventional screen narrative to its "experimental"/apophatic breaking point, giving expressive form to the all-but-inexpressible.

But what does all of this mean? At the age of 17, I was too dazzled by the myriad possibilities of the film to do anything other than endorse Kubrick's unarguable assertion that every viewer can supply his or her own interpretation. Now, I'm more inclined to share a few of the thoughts that decades of musing on 2001 have left me with.

Born again: The Star Child of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'
Warner Bros.
Born again: The Star Child of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'

First, a bit of perspective that, surprisingly, was seldom a part of the original discussions of the film: Whatever else transpires in human history, the 20th Century will remain known as the point at which humankind attained the technological ability to both/either destroy the planet and/or leap beyond it. Future generations may well wonder that this development didn't give every artist the thematic focus of Stanley Kubrick, who brilliantly treated the suicidal and transcendent possibilities of the age in a pair of related masterpieces, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Second: Only the most banally literal minds will see 2001 as a set of predictions that didn't turn out to be accurate. The film's third act is a cautionary fable that points directly to the heart of this new century, warning that humanity will have to battle its most extraordinary creations--intelligent machines--over its own survival. (Check back in 2101 to see if that prediction isn't dead-on.)

Third: 2001--which of course owes much to the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick--implicitly identifies humanity's current crisis as a function of the split between scientific and religious modes of thought. More startling still, it proposes to bridge that chasm. In effect, it starts out endorsing the Darwinian view that humans evolved from lower life forms, but then proposes that the capacity that separated humanoid apes from other animals--the tool-making smarts of homo faber--came from Above, from intelligent extraterrestrials who return at the onset of the space age to usher humanity toward the next phase of evolution: transformation from earthbound beings into an interstellar life form.

Though this view of the human trajectory may be called "science fiction," from another angle it ventures a reconciliation that philosophy has searched for at least since the golden age of Islam. (A sidelight: Islam wasn't much on Western filmgoers' minds in 1968, which presumably is why no one noted the black monolith's kinship to the Kaaba.) In this sense, the scientific/rationalistic side of the equation descends from Aristotle, and the religious/mystical side primarily from Plato.

In 1968, one reviewer found that Kubrick's vision didn't equal "Rossellini's radiant religious films or Bresson's meditative asceticism." No doubt that has a lot to do with the fact that Rossellini's and Bresson's films are relatively conventional, both in being rooted in orthodox Christian thought and in telling stories in a more or less straightforward manner. 2001's metaphysic, in contrast, is most accurately described as Neo-Platonic, from its vision of "beings of light" descending from a higher order of existence to its sense of humanity "ascending" toward its true, macrocosmic Home.

More unconventional and daring still, the film's form amplifies its philosophic thrust, the final act's resort to pure light and symbol being proffered as a "higher" form of understanding than the earlier sequences' more rational (indeed, Aristotelean) dramatic approaches. To be sure, this climactic cognitive/formal leap on Kubrick's part is extraordinarily audacious, as the carping puzzlement of many earthbound viewers attests.

But really--who doesn't "get" the image of the Star Child? Like all great mystical art, it is at once ineffable and undeniable, sublime and utterly simple. Beyond offering a vision of the human race saved from (literally) its own devices, the image promises the imaginative rebirth/evolution of anyone who takes 2001's dare and leaps beyond the ordinary limits of his or her own understanding.

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