What the hell is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey about? I’m sure I don’t know.
I’m really, really sure I don’t know. At least, I think I am. I’ve seen the film three times now, and I’ve read Arthur C. Clarke’s book — albeit a long time ago — but I still can’t get my head round it.
However, that won’t stop me trying and I had another go on Thursday night, attending what was the most exciting performance of the film that I have ever experienced. I hadn’t exactly set myself a high threshold since previous viewings were on an old TV set with a 4:3 aspect ratio and, more recently, on my iPhone, the viewing divided over several commutes.
I know that’s not giving a cinematic masterpiece a fair chance and am relieved I never had to account for myself to Mr Kubrick. Now I have finally managed to make amends. I had long wanted to see the film on a big screen but the showing on Thursday went even further since it was accompanied by an orchestra and choir. That lent a thrilling live dimension to Kubrick’s on-screen artistry.
Many who have seen 2001:A Space Odyssey contend that nothing happens. It’s certainly true that, on one level, not much happens. Some prehistoric primates encounter a smooth black monolith and are taught to use bones as weapons. Fast forward 4 million years and humans re-discover the monolith on the moon. It directs a signal to Jupiter and a mission is sent to investigate. On the way the spaceship’s computer — the HAL9000 — malfunctions and turns against the crew, killing four of them before being de-activated by the surviving commander, Dr Dave Bowman, just as the spaceship arrives at its destination. Bowman leaves the ship and is taken through a mysterious portal to another planet where he lives out his days in a room furnished in the 18th century French style. On what seems to be his death-bed, he transforms into a foetal star-child who returns to Earth and, in the film’s final frames, is seen gazing at the planet in contemplation. And that’s it.
How on Earth does this simple plot take 141 minutes? That’s probably the wrong question because, apart from the prehistoric opening, none of the action takes place on Earth. Or perhaps I should say the inaction since large passages of the movie are taken up by the slow, balletic movements of various space-craft accompanied by classical music, most famously Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, richly and deliberately layered onto the moving images, on this occasion by the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir. A shuttle manoeuvres towards a slowly rotating space-station in Earth orbit, gradually twisting its motion to match the steady turn of the docking bay; another makes the long transit to the moon, landing sedately in a sunken base; a third transports an investigative team over the surface of the moon to the site where the monolith has been re-discovered; the gigantic Discovery One space-ship taking Bowman and his crew to Jupiter to find the source of the mysterious black slab glides with glacial momentum past the camera; and then there is the slow, slow manoeuvring of the EVA pod to repair the the ship’s antenna.
These sequences of pure, banal movement are interspersed by small snatches of dialogue, almost all of it lacking any strong emotion. Surprisingly perhaps, the greatest feeling is expressed — paradoxically with minimal intonation — by HAL in a gripping scene where Bowman, addressed throughout using his first name by the computer (“Stop Dave. Stop, will you? Stop Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going.”), determinedly, slowly and methodically disables the computer that has killed his crew and sabotaged the mission.
The overall lack of emotion expressed seems strange, given the immensity of the themes in the film — nothing less than the origin and evolution of humankind and the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe — but the film is still a powerful experience. Against the backdrop of ultimate meaning human life is rendered as a series of simple actions. The images and scenes are almost hypnotic; human life is kept in the foreground, but abstracted so as not to be too… distracting. It is left to the viewer to reflect on what it is all about.
Survival of the fittest? Is that it? Is that all that matters? Since seeing the film this week I have read that the computer may have been in competition with the crew, seeing itself — machine intelligence — as the more worthy recipient of the attentions of the creators of the monolith. I must admit this possibility had never occurred to me. Kubrick was always reticent on the question of meaning in the film, deliberately whittling away the dialogue (Clarke’s book is more explanatory), to leave room for the imagination. And for questions. What do the aliens know? What is in the mind of the star-child at the end of the film?
I still don’t know what to make of 2001 but I enjoy trying. Why does it have such fascinating force? It’s partly the space-ships, which were created with such loving detail (Kubrick hired NASA engineers to help with their design): the drama of this science fiction is grounded in reality. But the music and the movement and the stripping of the story to its barest elements gives the piece a meditative, mysterious grandeur that somehow satisfies without providing answers.
I think I’m going to watch it again.