Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
‘2001- A Space Odyssey’ is fifty years old. It remains for me the pinnacle of movie production. Although, I realise, not everyone agrees. It’s painfully slow at times, with no dialogue for the first and last 20 minutes. Depending on which view you take, 2001 is either an adaptation of ‘The Odyssey’ or a pretentious and self-indulgent art house film. Others see it as a bold statement about mankind’s evolution. Some argue its a propaganda film arising from the Cold War. The list of options is endless. Take your pick.
Watching it again last evening, I'm struck by how well the special effects stand-up. Even in the digital age, it sets the benchmark by which others get judged. Frank Poole jogging in the renowned tracking-shot remains an unchallenged technical achievement. Enacted and then filmed, the camera takes us inside the upside-down world of space travel. Likewise, the stunning moment when Dave Bowman ejects from the capsule to enter the airlock.
Yet, 2001 nearly never existed as we see it today. Original drafts proposed the date as 1987. Also, Arthur C Clarke’s first draft reveals a tone that is somewhat different. The story is one of political intrigue as a US Senator seeks to establish the origins of a strange signal from space. Even the Monolith changed shape at the last minute. The drafts had it as a tetrahedron, mirroring the pyramids.
Then Clarke, working with Kubrick, evolved the themes that appear in the final version. The movie took four years to make, to then receive lacklustre reviews on release. Kubrick expressed disappointment. Nonetheless, he knew it would gain recognition and declined to make major revisions. He did edit 19 minutes of footage, acknowledging it didn't help the narrative.
Throughout the arc of the story the Monolith is pivotal. Acting as a catalyst. It makes four appearances that herald a transformation in the fortunes of humankind. Each defines the four acts of the story.
On the first appearance, it imparts something to our ape ancestors. They realise the utility of bones as tools, including weapons. Having defeated an opposing group with 'weapons' the apes secure a waterhole. Jubilant, one hurls a bone sky-ward. In a short cross-cut we pass through millions years of human history. In a sudden we are in space above Earth on the way to the Moon. This is audacious.
The Monolith next surfaces on the Moon, buried in a pit. As sunlight strikes it for the first time, a signal goes forth to the heavens.
Now we are deeper in space, heading towards Jupiter on a massive spacecraft Discovery One. On board are a crew in stasis, except for two rather unemotional chaps, who are monitoring systems. Watching over everything is our main protagonist, HAL 9000. A sentient computer, with a secret.
HAL, tasked with getting the crew to Jupiter, must also keep his secret under-wraps. As HAL’s algorithms dwell on this, suspicions grow as his thoughts turn neurotic. HAL then goes on a killing spree. The one survivor, Dave Bowman, manages to disconnect HAL's higher functions. At this point we witness the single emotional outburst in the whole movie. HAL pleads to remain conscious, before reverting to a child-like nature. His systems shut-down.
The Monolith appears again as Bowman approaches Jupiter. Hanging in space, it beckons him forward. What happens next is open to interpretation. Bowman passes through a portal of sorts, but to where is unclear. He finds himself in a room. The furnishings are modern renderings of the post-enlightenment period. Bowman then ages, although he remains stoic and unflustered. The Monolith makes it's final outing by appearing at Bowman's deathbed. Bowman reaches for it, mimicking his ape ancestors millions of years distant. His finger is pointing to God in a nod to Da Vinci’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ Sistine Chapel painting. Transformed, Dave is a star child, hanging above Earth.
What does this all mean? Is anyone bothered? Well, it's generally accepted the movie is exploring themes of evolution, gods and how we humans transition. There is a ‘circle-of-life’ narrative with loads of other stuff going on. Someone pointed out that even the spaceship resembles a giant sperm. It trundles through space taking the seeds of our future.
I'm certain the Monolith is the product of a higher intelligence. The makers are so advanced they appear god-like to us. What form they take or indeed if they have form we don't know. Bowman in the room may well be in captivity, held in a zoo or lab as part of an experiment. The surroundings seek to meet his every needs including fine dining with wine. Thus, I'd surmise whoever is holding him has benign intent.
Throughout the movie, HAL is the only entity who displays strong emotions. The others come across as understated, unfeeling and even cold at times. Poole and Bowman are ultra-rational; devoid of feeling. A touching birthday message from parents millions of miles away fails to stir any feelings.
Programmed by us, HAL manifests our worse human qualities especially when conflicted. This interpretation is personal. And, I suspect that Kubrick meant for each viewer to draw their own conclusions.
There a couple of things that are notable. Women only play support roles. Even the Russian female scientists are subordinate to their male colleague. Is Kubrick signaling that male aggression drives change in human culture. Anthropologists believe that to be true. The restlessness of young men, the desire for dominance and power, pushing our evolution.
HAL remains my favourite character. He’s not Frankensteins monster, nor is he evil. He’s a refection of human frailty. Unable to tell the truth his moral compass goes off kilter. There is a message in this. When we play god by imprinting our values on a smart machine, our imperfections also get transferred.
People will still be arguing about the meaning of 2001 in another fifty years.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.