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2001: A Space Odyssey still gets better as it goes along, 50 years on

The critics who disliked 2001 on its initial release found the characters empty and the plot thin — but it’s their criticism that has dated badly

September 7, 2018

7:39 AM

7 September 2018

7:39 AM

It’s been fifty years since 2001. Not fifty years since the start of the second Bush presidency — though that was long ago too — but a half-century since the release of Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece 2001. A new ‘unrestored’ version of the film, made by Christopher Nolan from the original film negatives and sound recordings, has been in theaters this summer, including select IMAX theaters. I caught the final showing at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum cinema — the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, as it’s naturally called — this week. How does it hold up after five decades?

Not well, is my first impression. Or rather my second: the overture that plays before the lights go down and the film begins is impressive — it’s taken from György Ligeti’s Atmosphères and establishes a suitably grand and ominous mood. But the film itself begins with a sequence titled ‘The Dawn of Man,’ and it shows its age. Mimes in chimpanzee suits gnaw roots and are howled away from a watering hole by a rival tribe. The exiles awake one day, however, to find a mysterious black monolith has appeared before them. Soon one of these anthropoids has gained an insight into using bones as tools. And as weapons: killing prey becomes easy; the tribe starts to eat meat. In the segment’s climax, a fight over the watering hole ends with the leader of the rival tribe of ape men being bludgeoned to death with bone clubs.

It’s not a bad scenario, although neither tool-use nor warfare is considered uniquely human anymore. One could say that these scenes represent the first use of such things by ape or man, but that’s not what the Kubrick intended: he didn’t title this ‘The Dawn of Anthropoid Tool Use.’ In any event, the bigger problem is that the ape suits look like a gorilla costumes bought at an after-Halloween clearance sale. The makeup that goes with the costumes is very good in places — the ape men’s faces, their most human feature (for obvious reasons), do blend in well with their furry heads. And I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer even the saddest chimp suit to a weightless CGI rendering. But it’s still a little jarring to be reminded of the technical limitations that even Kubrick was up against in 1968. The big IMAX screen makes matters worse.

But every scene gets progressively better. The famous waltz of the whirling space station and the Pan-Am spacejet to Johann Strauss II’s ‘Blue Danube’ and the subsequent space-age kitsch scenes inside the space station hotel — a Hilton, adjacent to a Howard Johnson’s — only disappoint because they have become overfamiliar in the decades since the movie’s release. The kitsch is deliberate: in Kubrick’s 2001, unlike George W. Bush’s, space travel has become almost mundane, as casually commercial as air travel already was in 1968. (Though the flight that brings scientist Heywood Floyd to the space station is curiously empty, as for the most part is the station itself.) The aesthetic changes on the next leg of Floyd’s journey, when he arrives at the Clavius moonbase, whose gigantic elevators for landing craft are nakedly industrial, worn in places, and highly detailed in contrast to the smooth minimalism inside the space station.

These first two passages of the film are almost a separate work from what follows. They have Kubrick’s direction going for them, but they are not the stuff of cinematic transcendence. What comes next is. Eighteen months after Floyd’s visit to the moon to inspect an apparently alien artifact millions of years old — the monolith, buried in the lunar crust — a five-man expedition is on its way to Jupiter orbit aboard a ship called the Discovery One. But only two of the five men (and yes, they are all men) are awake and active: the other three are in hibernation. There is a sixth crew member as well, not a man but a machine: the HAL 9000 supercomputer. Poor HAL is a byword for evil AI today, but watching 2001 again forces a re-evaluation: HAL is more sinned against than sinning. The supercomputer makes a mistake, which leads the astronauts to contemplate disconnecting it — or rather, killing him. HAL acts defensively. 2001 is legendary for being a boring film, if you don’t have a tolerance for the slow pace. But rewatching it for the first time in my adult life — I’d last seen it as a youngster more interested in sci-fi space opera — I found the development of the HAL plot much faster than I had remembered, to the point of its seeming hasty. But fast or slow, it’s suspenseful — a perfect little murder plot in space, and if not a profound meditation on artificial intelligence (a subject that may not, in fact, call for profundity), nonetheless a poetic examination of what man would mean to a machine that could think, and what such a machine might mean for men in a lonely and hostile environment.

The two-part conclusion of the film is something else again, a phantasmagoria of abstract images leading to a completely unexpected setting. It’s a cosmic LSD trip, but it’s also a sequence that shows the metaphysical potential of cinema, which can use sound (Ligeti again) and images without words to suggest what a man might know but language cannot say. The mundane explanation for the lightshow the surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman, experiences is that he has gone through some kind of stargate while attempting to reach another monolith in space, the bizarre lights and unearthly landscapes he sees are other dimensions and worlds and perhaps intelligences. But he winds up in a room: not a room in an alien spaceship, or a human one, but a room whose aesthetic is like nothing else in the film, as minimalist as the midcentury kitsch of the spinning space station but more elegant and older — a room decorated in a French neoclassical style. Bowman is alone there but encounters a series of figures that brings him to the edge of death and an apparent rebirth.

Kubrick at one point gave a mundane explanation for these twists, too: Bowman had wound up in a zoo or Petri dish, where his life would be studied by alien minds that took the best guess they could as to what kind of setting he would find comfortable. But the images stand in their own right without need of explanation. What Kubrick has tried to show is transcendence, first through abstraction and finally with the strange yet familiar — from glowing op-art to the Venus de Milo, or thereabouts. You could say that when the human mind has to grapple with the beyond, it has to return to idioms it knows — in other contexts, language — which take on a different significance in the light of the ineffable. Abstraction by itself is a lower level of experience.

A painting, unlike a story, is an invitation to such speculations, and the best films are paintings — though they are also operas or symphonies, as 2001 is. And it’s not that plot or character is anything to sneer at: the critics who disliked 2001 on its initial release found the characters empty, their dialogue banal, and the plot thin or incomprehensible. Kubrick’s film isn’t really deficient in any of those features, but it doesn’t play them the way narrow-minded critics expect. If Kubrick really did say, as the Hollywood Reporter has claimed, that the film’s detractors were ‘dogmatically atheistic and materialistic and earthbound,’ he chose his words well. He made a film that isn’t for people who don’t have a sense that there’s more to life than fashion and physics.

It’s a justly revered film, and if it gets better as it goes along, from ape suits to the sublime, that’s only to say that after fifty years, the art mirrors the artist’s ambition.


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