2001: A Space Odyssey is a unique cinematic experience, a kind of recursive mystery that can never be solved, yet one that demands constant re-analysis. It’s like a game where you answer each question with a question, because it lies so far outside our traditional understanding of narrative, but it also falls perfectly in line with how director Stanley Kubrick viewed cinema:
“A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
Conventional wisdom says “story is king” and while that’s true for many films and filmmakers, Kubrick believed every piece of the puzzle ought to be in service of an experience, however one defines it. My personal relationship with the film is complicated. It’s one I’ve seen several times over the last five years – a significant five years at my age – and each new viewing has brought with it a deeper - or, rather, a different - understanding, a variation I’ve found to be dependent on my changing worldview. Regardless, 2001 is a symphony, and its influence on the design and visual effects of Star Wars notwithstanding, it’s quite simply one-of-a-kind.
As much as each Kubrick film feels like his singular vision, the film’s conception can be attributed to both him and to author Arthur C. Clarke, his co-conspirator on the project. The reclusive writer penned a book of the same name, but neither version can clearly be called an adaptation of the other since they both came into being simultaneously. The biggest difference, however, is that Kubrick’s version forgoes any explicit depictions of alien life and technology, and offers no explanation for the "Stargate" that Dave Bowman travels through, leaving it up to the viewer to simply experience it as a beautiful, uncomfortable medley of light and sound. It’s the kind of thing best absorbed when you let it wash over you, just as the scene that follows can fill you with dread if you leave your pondering of its logistics for later. And of course the film’s final sequence – Bowman returning to Earth as the "Star Child" – is just as ponderous, a conclusion that has resulted in all forms of religious and literary interpretation.
At its simplest, the majority of 2001 can be viewed as an allegory for conception, a simple biological process projected on a larger-than-life canvas, but the film also unearths the sheer mystique behind the creation of life, connecting us as beings of biology and consciousness with unknown elements, and the fabric of space-time itself. Despite the year in its title having elapsed fourteen years ago, it’s still representative of a future where we holiday on the Moon, but also of a present where technology is something people fear is disconnecting us from one another. This prescient paranoia is made all too real in the form of the film’s astronauts, who have left Earth as part of a higher calling concerning our evolution, as they appear detatched from the human emotions that you or I would ordinarily feel in their situation. Where Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper bawled upon seeing video messages from his loved ones back on Earth in Interstellar, Dr. Frank Poole remains cold as his parents wish him a happy birthday, clinically asking HAL to adjust the angle of his bed for him. Even Bowman, whose mission it is to save Poole as he’s spinning further out into space, is withheld. There’s something uncanny about the way they each go about things, and it’s ultimately HAL, the artificial intelligence we created to help us reach our next stage of evolution, who picks up where we left off, as he’s the first to show real fear during the mission.
Bowman’s rebirth as the Star Child sees him returning to Earth, seemingly enlightened after having experienced whatever the alien beings put him through, be it observation, experimentation, or some otherworldy metaphysical process beyond our comprehension. At the center of it all are the monoliths, the black rectangles that Kubrick used to quantify the unquantifiable while still maintaining an air of mystery around who or what these beings are, and how they interact with us. Shortly after the appearance of the first monolith, millions of years ago, (what would become) humankind was fascinated by it, and it even seemed to nudge them in the direction of using tools – however this advancement also brought with it destruction and violence. Millions of years later, as Kubrick famously cuts from a primitive bone-tool to the apex of human space-travel, we’re still building and innovating, but we’re also still deceiving each other.
Our spacecrafts and space stations dance like celestial bodies. We’ve created our own life and our own planets and we’ve enjoyed the spoils of such creation, but we’re only now dealing with the fallout of playing God, as the hand(s) that guide us begin to show themselves. It’s our innovation that allows us to go to the Moon, and beyond to Jupiter, but we were guided there by something else. Eventually, when Bowman ventures out of Discovery One, alone as we come into this world and as we leave it, it’s as if the shuttle is impregnating the giant monolith, creating a vast ocean of unknowns and abstracts, and at the center of it is Bowman himself, tasked with exploring space but forced to explore creation itself – of life, and of the universe.
The Stargate sequence doesn’t make logical sense, and one might even describe it as mere shapes and colors (if one wishes to be reductive), but here is where our travels have led us. It’s where the audience’s logic-based questioning usually falls apart, my own included, but it’s also the perfect juncture for such stylistic audacity. Humankind questions and questions and questions, only to get sucked into a whirlwind of abstracts, answers that are far beyond our capacity for understanding. And yet, something about it makes sense. Every time I watch this film (five of them in theatres, one of which was alongside a gentleman who’d seen it theatrically sixty times), the audience submits to this greater power just as Bowman does, and lets the shapes and sounds and colours wash over them, regardless of whether or not it makes "sense" in a way that can be explained in words. It’s the truest possible representation of Kubrick’s theory of cinema, that it should be “a progression of moods and feelings” above all else, with all other factors existing to support this progression.
We have words to describe what we feel and experience. We have terms to describe how cinematic narratives tend to function. But these words, these things we’ve invented to explain processes that are intrinsic to us, cease to matter when that process is harmonious to the point of wonder. For some, this sort of abstract experience can be frustating. After all, it’s how we’re conditioned to interpret stories, and for many filmmakers, abstraction becomes a texture that seldom works in tandem with all the other necessary elements. However 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those films that, if you let it, can transcend the need for a concrete explanation beyond what you bring to it. It’s in our nature to question, and we’ll always walk out of the theatre buzzing and theorizing about the things that tickled our brain, but in the moment – a moment that lasts 161 minutes here – switching off and tuning in become one and the same.
The Star Wars films are a different kind of animal, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is most certainly a film that inspired George Lucas on a visual and technical level, something he even admitted to in 1977. Of it, he said:
"Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie, and it is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I'm concerned. On a technical level, it can be compared, but personally I think that '2001' is far superior."
And while the saga in a galaxy far, far away is the furthest thing from abstract, you can clearly see how these two works of technical and artistic precision are connected across time. And they will both outlast us, as they should, for cinema is our own Star Child, enlightened and infinite.