2001: A Space Odyssey

Words: James Ekron
Images: Sourced
“At what point would it be immoral to unplug a computer?”

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Anyone alive in 1999 will remember that thousands hid underground and waited for the personal computer to tweak out at starting on a year which ended in a zero. In 2014, we laugh at our former selves and safely remove our flash drives, every day, comfortable with and increasingly in need of technology. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the self-described “proverbial good science fiction movie” which does away with gimmicky costumes and aliens exploding from chests to interrogate our need for screens. It’s an unsettling and visceral experience which will either keep you up all night tossing over it or, just like 241 people did during the premiere screening, get up and walk out wondering what the hell it was all about.

There is one hope you must forego in watching 2001 and that is a definitive plotline. Whilst recurring symbols and characters create a form of the plot to follow, Kubrick demands that you draw your own conclusions. The film’s McGuffin is an onyx slab which passes from early hominids to the present moon and future Jupiter.

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From each period, this ominous dark block challenges each group to explain its sudden placement and ambivalent nature. Astronauts and austrolapitheceus alike grapple with its meaning in a splendour which even George Lucas admits that “On a technical level, [Star Wars] can be compared, but personally I think that 2001 is far superior.”

Even more impressive is its release in 1968 – a year before Apollo 11, in fact, the astronaut’s would later claim that being weightless in space was just like watching 2001.

Kubrick has imagined a world of retrospectively ambitious predictions for life a mere year past the millennium. He was speculatively confident that airline carriers would colonise space travel with in-flight, liquid food. At a time when space exploration was trending like no hashtag has, or ever will, the human population thought it would surely reach Jupiter by 2001. As we can attest to in 2014, just as Orwell’s prediction of what 1984 could be like proved false, Kubrick’s vision of our pale blue dot is quite divorced from our fiscal reality with the film being more of a moral discussion of a human’s relationship to technology than a technical prediction for space travel.

As two scientists are sent to examine the unexplainable monolith, the story does most of its telling through musical set pieces and minimalist dialogue. The first 5 minutes are pitch black with nothing but slowly strangled violins and the most recognisable intro to a movie you have ever heard – even if you don’t think you know the intro: you’re wrong. You’ve heard it before. The precisely timed movements which glacially match the Blue Danube Waltz, for example, are a testament to Kubrick’s meticulousness – he once ordered that certain buildings be specifically demolished a certain way whilst directing Platoon. It took two months. The man is a machine.

Undoubtedly, the scariest bulb in the bunch is the HAL 9000. As the accelerated intelligence of Kubrick’s nightmare’s, it is our astronaut’s back-seat spaceship driver, existing as something of a cross between Tony Stark’s Jarvis and the Decepticons. One credible enough story worth googling is the idea that HAL was IBM to Kubrick – being both a letter away in name and, essentially, one big, computerised brain. In HD versions of the film the letters ‘IBM’ can be seen on HAL’s screen, suggesting Kubrick may have wanted to keep a private joke rather than expose his assault on the inherent danger in creating machines built to tower above our own intelligence.

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The film received the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the total footage shot was still 200 times the length of the final cut. It also contributed to the spike in movie goers dropping acid in the 1960’s to increase the hallucinatory audio-visual experience they would have during the films zenith.

Spielberg is quoted as saying that it was considered a “drug movie” and watching its final scenes he went, “in there clean as a whistle and came out of there altered. That film was the drug.” Steven Spielberg has never been to Burning Man.

The film is an Odyssey for the modern age and this is Kubrick’s own Iliad. His warning against becoming parallelists in a society absorbed by the artificial intelligence before us is deeply resonant and allegorical. The astronaut’s suits may look like the Power Rangers outfits and that weird screeching may stay in your head for long after you hear it but, as has been said of Kubrick, he is “a force of supernatural intelligence, appearing at great intervals amid high-pitched shrieks, who gives the world a violent kick up the next rung of the evolutionary ladder.”