Surrender to the void: Sci-fi, symbolism and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Its futuristic predictions didn’t come true, but history hasn’t tarnished the timeless appeal of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

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That was the year that was. Apple launched the iPod, scientists published their map of the complete human genome and, in the defining moment of our generation, religious extremists slammed commercial airliners into New York and Washington DC. The world felt smaller, more inward-looking and more interdependent than ever before in 2001, and the playful thrill of space exploration and astral harmony conjured up by the film of the same name seemed light years away.

Sci-fi buffs will tell you the best examples of the genre are not those films which accurately predict the future, but those which reveal most about the times in which they were made. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, at the height of the space race. The first moon landing was a year away, monolithic computers were arriving in corporate America, cult phenomenon Star Trek was entering its third season on NBC and futurology, which in 2001’s case envisioned a world of sexy space hostesses and suit-and-tie stratospheric travel, was definitely in fashion.

Progress is one of 2001’s signature themes. Shifting operatically from apes to astronauts, it’s a hugely ambitious narrative journey, powered by revolutionary special effects and the prodigious talents of a single-minded maverick director who had broken the movie-making mould, acquiring both creative independence and the financial largesse of a major Hollywood studio.

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Conventions of time

In many ways, 2001 is a film from the Sixties and for the Sixties. Marketed with the strapline ‘The Ultimate Trip’, its inspired blend of psychedelic light show and philosophical meditation entranced broad-minded hippies seeking a higher plane of consciousness, while those of a more conservative bent will have been chilled to the marrow by computer HAL 9000, a cold, red, authoritarian machine slowly taking over, at a time when Communism was engulfing south-east Asia.

An updated version of Frankenstein’s monster, HAL 9000 turns on its creator with cool, efficient menace, yet remains the film’s most sympathetic character. The panic and fear in its robotic voice during shutdown elicit far more gravitas than those two-dimensional planks of space debris, Bowman and Poole.

Time is both elongated and condensed, or, in the case of the film’s cheeky intermission, ceasing to exist altogether

Add to that the graceful, balletic movements of anthropomorphic spacecraft set to Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube – which provide some of the film’s most stirring moments and a disproportionate amount of screen time – and it’s easy to see why many people think 2001 is the work of someone more fascinated by technology than by the moral quandaries of man.

Cold, clinical and controlling have all been descriptions levelled at Stanley Kubrick. Responsible for helming the longest shoot in cinematic history (Eyes Wide Shut), and notorious for subjecting actors to hundreds of takes for seemingly minor inconsequential scenes, the director’s obsession with minutiae and his blissful disregard for the conventions of time finds full expression in 2001, his first and only science-fiction film. The narrative pace is slowed to near-tedium, technology is fetishized, humans are reduced to banal ciphers and time and perspective are blown apart.

The symphonic shift from prehistory to interplanetary exploration – breathlessly articulated by that jump-cut – coupled with the mirroring micro-dramas of the apes’ territorial face-off and the Bowman-HAL showdown, creates a dramatic tension that sees time both elongated and condensed, or, in the case of the film’s cheeky intermission, ceasing to exist altogether.

Like Bowman surging through the Stargate, we’re passengers rather than explorers in 2001,an ignorant species hurtling into the great unknown.

Spatially, Kubrick pulls us in opposite directions too. He delights in going large (the planets, the spacecraft, the grand historical sweep) and then small (the bone, the floating pen, Bowman’s bedroom), a bold combination of portentous philosophising and light satire which relishes the triviality of man within an inconceivable cosmos. Monumental significance is counterpointed by trite insignificance, and the cumulative emotional effect is one of vulnerability and wonder.

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The inscrutable void

Like Bowman surging at interstellar overdrive through the Stargate, we’re passengers rather than explorers in 2001,an  ignorant species hurtling into the great unknown. We feel like we’ve come full circle when the film ends, having spent more than two hours orbiting something we never truly understand.

In that sense, 2001 is more about revolution than evolution, a motif underscored by the recurrent circular patterns, from the spaceships and HAL’s Sauron-style eye to the interplanetary alignment and the Starchild himself, who floats serenely within a spherical womb, a not-so-subtle allusion to the continual cycle of existence.

The mystery of that existence, and of the movie itself, is visually embodied in the monolith, that eerie, implacable presence which unites the film’s disparate elements, triggers change (without changing itself) and leaves apes and astronauts equally perplexed. To some it’s the work of extra-terrestrials. To others, it represents the fingerprint of the Almighty. To this writer, this huge slab of black symbolises so much of what fascinates us about the inscrutable void of space.

In 2001’s closing moments, we’re swept along in the monolith’s trajectory for the final time and see that same void spectacularly illuminated by an image of birth. Then the screen fades to black, and we’re left with the exhilarating feeling that things have only just begun, and that we’re in the infancy of a cosmic journey that’s wonderful, baffling and pregnant with limitless possibility.

The Links

2001: A Space Odyssey, Wikipedia

‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’, YouTube

‘Close to tears, he left at the intermission’, The New Statesman, 8 January 2017

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