The Monolith: 2001 returns

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LAST YEAR, A FRIEND OF MINE SAT DOWN with his nine-year-old son to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The pair, joined by his younger son, aged five, were having a week of movie nights in their living room – The Thing From Another World, 1951’s classic of claustrophobic sci-fi, had already proved a hit. Kubrick’s monumental 1968 film was next on the list because the kid had heard something about it somewhere, and was curious.

All the same, I figured the selection was something of a gamble. The Thing From Another World is, essentially, a quick 80 minutes about a violent alien vegetable monster wreaking bloody havoc at an isolated arctic science base. 2001, on the other hand, clocking in at 143-minutes, of which less than 40 feature any dialogue, is a meditative, metaphysical attempt at creating a provocative new myth on mankind’s origins and destiny, wrapped around hard questions about our relationships with technology, in which the most human character in sight is a prissy computer who has gone mad – a plot itself constructed as Trojan Horse for the movie’s real mission: introducing an abstract new anti-narrative language into mainstream cinema, at once minimal and overwhelming in its sensory assault.

Wishing him luck, I asked him to let me know how the screening went.

That evening, a message arrived. “2001 going surprisingly well so far. Nine-year-old asks: ‘Did they actually film this in space?’”

Stanley Kubrick never got to see 2001. The actual year, I mean. He died unexpectedly in March 1999, one week after completing his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut; until the very end, he refused to relinquish control of a film until he was ready. But 46 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey first arrived in cinemas to stun, bore, challenge, infuriate, possess, obsess, unsettle and inspire moviegoers, he would surely have relished that the 20th century technology and techniques he pushed beyond their limits to make its space-stations and shuttles dance their spinning, waltzing ballets were still holding up, fit-for-purpose enough to transport 21st-century boys today.

The illusion that this film is taking the audience out into the stars is one of the most basic, fundamental results the director set out to achieve. The influence of its ideas and effects on the blockbusting wave of Hollywood sci-fi that exploded a decade later with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Star Wars is incalculable. Like almost all of Kubrick’s films, however, 2001 was received badly by the critical establishment on initial release: “it’s a monumentally unimaginative movie,” the New Yorker’s celebrated opinion-maker Pauline Kael concluded in her spectacularly catty review. But Kubrick perhaps cared less about that reaction to his film than this one, from Alexei Leonov, the Soviet cosmonaut who, in March 1965, had exited the capsule of the Voskhod 2 to become the first man to walk in space: “Now I feel I’ve been in space twice.”

It pays to remember that, after two years shooting on soundstages in leafy corners of England, 2001 opened in New York in April 1968, some eight months before Apollo 8 became the first manned mission to orbit the moon and return. During that trip, on Christmas Eve 1968, astronaut Bill Anders snapped from the window of his craft a photograph later dubbed “Earthrise,” depicting our planet as seen above the desolate horizon of the moon: small, blue and devastatingly alone against a cosmic black infinity.

Anders’s unprecedented, epochal photograph did two immediate things. First, it profoundly, if briefly, altered mankind’s conception of our fragile place in the universe. Second, it proved that Stanley Kurbick and his effects team had been pretty much on the money.

WATCHING 2001 AT HOME IS ONE THING. But this month, you have the opportunity to go on the odyssey the way it was intended, as the film is rereleased in cinemas across the UK as part of the BFI’s sci-fi season, Days Of Fear And Wonder. “You need to see it on the big screen” has long been the mantra of the film snob, but there are movies that really do demand the full, immersive cinema setting. That opening, as the first notes of Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ sound out, has been endlessly parodied. But to feel the music slam into you and all the strangers in the dark as a remastered 70mm print spreads out before you is still to feel the goose bumps rise, a spine-tingling, experience that just can’t be replicated at home, no matter how wide your wide-screen.

True, we can’t quite recapture today the context that helped blow audiences’ minds when the film was first released. The flurry of excitement stirred up this month by the Rosetta satellite’s landmark mission to land the Philae probe on a comet is only a dim echo of the clamour in the air when 2001 appeared. The heat of the space race was at its most intense, the Cold War was at its most deeply-frozen, and new horizons for mankind seemed to be opening daily, alongside new ways for us to wipe ourselves out. Simultaneously, the counterculture was busy being born, and the smoke that wreathed cinema auditoriums wasn’t just tobacco.

But in common with Ben Hur, Lawrence Of Arabia, the charged, empty architectures of Michelangelo Antonioni and the vivid spaghetti operas of Sergio Leone, 2001 remains a different entity when it surrounds you and you surrender to it. And surround you it does. With 2001, Kubrick consciously set out to create a new kind of film, and, from the first, he signals that you are about to see something different, more akin to music. In fact, from before the first, because this is a film that actually begins before it begins: the curtains part, but the screen stays blank. A dense, discordant, disconcerting slab of music commences, and for almost three minutes, the towering blackness and the uncanny music’s rise and fall– the piece is ‘Atmospherès,’ composed in 1961 by the Hungarian avant gardist Györy Ligeti – are all there is.

Like astronauts cast into the void, we have nothing to hang on to. When, finally, the tingling music fades, everything is changed. The MGM studio’s trademark appears, but it is not the footage of the roaring lion we are familiar with; Kubrick refused to allow mangy old Leo to appear and spoil his atmospheres. Instead, a cool, static graphic of an abstracted lion’s head, a corporate logo fit for the streamlined tomorrow the film will present.

(It becomes the first in a series of corporate logos glimpsed throughout: Kubrick seduced companies from IBM and Bell Telephone to Hilton hotels and Howard Johnson’s diners to contribute designs and ideas about how tomorrow might look, in return for having their names featured. Among its other firsts, 2001 was a trailblazer in the art of product placement.)

After this, the moon, the earth and the sun come into alignment, Zarathustra sprachs, and we are cast down among the hungry apes for The Dawn Of Man. It will be another three million years (or approximately 24 minutes of screen time) before the first line of dialogue is uttered.

When it first appeared, baffled, bewitched, audience members sat up all night in intense coffeehouse debates, trying to figure out the plot and meaning of 2001. Co-authored with the great science-fiction seer Arthur C Clarke, however, the story is simple enough: A few million years ago, alien intelligences had a look at Earth, and, for their own mysterious reasons, decided to help us evolve. Via a towering, jet-black monolith, they jump-start intelligence in an ape, so he suddenly, unaccountably, realises the bones lying around him in the desert could be used as tools, and weapons. For the next three million years, nothing much really happens, except we beat each others’ brains out and eat. Eventually, we evolve enough to get to the moon, where we discover another ancient, enigmatic black monolith buried, waiting for us to discover it, and it provides the divine spark that points us toward our next rendezvous – a mission to Jupiter aboard the spaceship Discovery, for a transformative date with destiny.

What continues to perplex us about 2001, and what draw us to it, however, is not really that plot. When it comes to the question of extraterrestrial life, Kubrick and Clarke could have gone either way: “Two possibilities exist,” as Clarke famously said. “Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Rather than a story about aliens and apes, 2001 is an attempt at making a movie about humankind’s relationship to the universe, but its true power lies in the cinematic approach Kubrick took. “Stanley was determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe – even, if appropriate, terror,” Clarke said.

“I don’t like to talk about 2001 much,” Kubrick told writer Jerome Agel. “Because it’s essentially a nonverbal experience. It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect.”

It’s in the way it communicates, and what it communicates, that 2001 still stands apart. For this release, the BFI has put together a stunning new trailer for the film, featuring laudatory quotes from Alfonso Cuarón and Christopher Nolan, the directors of Gravity and Interstellar, the two most recent blockbusters that have drawn comparisons with Kubrick’s masterpiece.

But while those films are unimaginable without 2001, they are very different in intention. Gravity, for all its technical genius, boils down to a don’t-give-up self-help parable; Interstellar tells us love is all you need. Both are products of the age of social media and reality TV that teaches us we are all special snowflakes. Their fundamental message is: it’s all about you.

This, it’s fair to say, is not the sentiment of 2001. In that transcendent match-cut between the savage ape’s bone and the spaceship, Kubrick wipes out the entire history of human civilisation as not mattering much. If there is a message, it is: surely, one day, we might do better than this. Whether that is pessimism or hope is hard to say, and it is why the film is often described as cold and unemotional. But 2001 is alive with emotion: in its sheer music and vision; in the greatest death scene of 1960s cinema (albeit the death of a computer); and in the constant, dark, sardonic humour that pulses throughout – just consider the long moment depicting a high-ranking scientist considering the impications of a sign that reads ZERO GRAVITY TOILET.

2001 IS ITSELF LIKE one of those monumental monoliths. It is jet-black, towering, awesome, entirely mysterious, and if you get up close and touch it, it leaves you somehow changed. The day after my friend watched it with his sons, I got in touch to ask what the five-year-old had made of it. During the scene where the monolith first appears to the apes, he had offered this critique: “That ginormous domino is going to fall on the monkeys.”

46 years since it first appeared, I don’t think anyone has summed it up more succinctly.

A version of this story first appeared in The Herald November 22 2014.