2001: A Space Odyssey
There isn’t, of course, anything left to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, the devoted still try, confident in their belief that it’s eternally obliging in its offer of unfathomable mystery. And it does seem ever responsive, to whatever depths one wishes to plumb in analysing it for themes, messages or clues, either about what is really going on out there, some around Jupiter, or in its director’s head.
Albeit, it’s lately become difficult to ascertain which has the more productive cottage industry, 2001 or The Shining, in the latter regard. With Eyes Wide Shut as the curtain call, a final acknowledgement to the devout that, yes, something really emphatic was going under Stanley Kubrick’s hood, and it’s there, waiting to be exhumed, if you only look with the right kind of eyes.
That does mean, however, that the relatively less obscure approach found in his other movies post-2001 – the period from which he’s really regarded as setting out his store – is slightly disinclined towards such conspiratorial probing. Yes, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket lend themselves to the discussion, particularly of the MKUltra kind, but comparatively speaking, they’re open books. Barry Lyndon tends to be conspicuous by its absence in such talk, however. And still, even given The Shining’s blossoming in the past few decades, the conversation comes back to 2001.
I know, when I first saw the film, I was aware of its status as a hallowed classic, in much the same way as the various David Lean pictures I’d encountered. With 2001, though, it was left to me to discover (I suspect this would have been 1984, the year the sequel came out, courtesy of an afternoon BBC2 screening). It’s a film that, for a novice viewer, requires patience, particularly in the early stages. But even at a tender-ish age, undisciplined in film grammar, it was readily identifiable as achieving something very different, even as it occupies the same kind of classical expanse as a Lean epic. Once the bone is thrown, and we land in space, the film has fully exerted a hypnotic hold. It’s a rare skill, ever more so today, to realise that slow and sure can be more riveting than fast and furious.
Structurally, 2001 announces itself with chapters, yet resists linking them by character or location. Only the obelisk – the strange, unnatural, intrusive obelisk – is there to guide us onward towards the infinite. Much has rightly been said about how the picture is disinclined towards identification with its human protagonists. Dr Floyd (William Sylvester, an unassuming presence known mostly for his TV work) is introduced in the second chapter, nominally investigating the same shiny black brick introduced in the first; in any traditional narrative, he would be our protagonist, which may be why, in Clarke’s follow up, and the corresponding feature, he is our protagonist. 2010: The Year We Make Contact is a much more traditional affair, with a much more traditional movie star playing Floyd (which is not to say Peter Hyams’ film, or Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Floyd, doesn’t have its merits).
And much has also rightly been said about how HAL is more human than the humans; “his” fate is far more affecting than the shrug that greets the premeditated murder of Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). Clarke’s decision to reanimate Poole in 3001: The Final Odyssey is symptomatic of the brand of uninspired desperation that afflicts much of current genre writing; indeed, it’s a tired trope of modern SF/fantasy that no one stays dead and thus stakes are limited. Clarke’s sequels are likewise guilty of revelling in excessive continuity and over explanation, both of which blight much of our prequel- and sequel-driven age; anything that can have a gap filled must have it filled, whether or not that’s to its ultimate benefit.
Kubrick, in contrast, emphatically favoured ambiguity and the viewer’s own interpretation. It’s fairly self-evident that the Monolith is responsible for initiating/accelerating mankind’s evolution; with the implicit spark of reasoning comes the quest for power and violence, this via the recognition of difference and superiority, the idea that the development of consciousness requires a descent for millennia before it can hope to raise itself up and beyond foolish things.
However, the wherefores and whys are left to the imagination. Clarke would collapse much of this, most notably in 3001 (the final part of his quadrilogy), in which, pre-empting the flawed creation that has gained much ground in the resurgent currency of gnostic beliefs and creeds, and the likes of Ridley Scott’s regretful star-seeders in Prometheus, the First-Born (the creators of the Monoliths) decide to destroy humanity. They are prevented by a handy computer virus, suggesting Clarke may have looked to Independence Day for inspiration, of all things.
The de-mystification of the Monolith is front and centre of 2010, but even that includes the incredible, iconic scene of the engulfing black spot on Jupiter (notably, Saturn was originally intended for 2001 but changed due to effects issues; Jay Weidner would have it that this was no accident). Unsullied in 2001, it’s an object of fear and foreboding, particularly so in tandem with the accompanying György Ligeti soundtrack selections. One experiences palpable unease and tension, the wailing and distress of a million souls in hell pleading for respite.
Anything after this is a retreat: Spielberg’s benign contact, Lucas’ serial simplicity, Scott’s blue-collar corporate malfeasance (and mundane take on a botched creation in Prometheus). Kubrick is wise to keep his alien force nebulous, even though Douglas Trumbull reported this was simply because they ran out of time and money, rather than because he was reticent.
The artificial intelligence concept at the secondary heart of the film – just as the creators of the Monolith have played God, so has man with his own creation – has also, of course, been the source of much inspiration since. Understandably, as 2001 is pretty much the baseline for the modern AI, and the evil AI at that.
Proteus and Mother would form notable responses over the course of the next decade, while the apotheosis would come with Cameron’s Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, in which the machines (all but) succeed in wiping out humanity. It’s an ever-more potent theme, bridged by the dangers of humanity aligning itself with their artificial systems and consequent potential/threat of the hive mind.
Some more extreme conspiracy theories suggest this has already been achieved, that our existence itself is an AI-created simulation, our real selves existing, The Matrix-like, in another realm (for which comes first, the SF concept or the “reality” that inspires or was inspired by it – and who knows where the real reality behind that simulation starts and ends – boundary lines can get a bit fuzzy around this point). Amid such convoluted machinations, Kubrick’s vision could be taken as relatively simple and “benign”: raising us up to eventual enlightenment, but only via the discovery of our worst natures, in whatever form, and from there to God.*
That said, it’s interesting to observe steeped 2001’s text is in conspiratorial thought. The second chapter straight up states there’s a plan to deceive humanity for its own good (“Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation”). Kubrick’s future presents the combination of the wonders of impossible, utopian space travel and the darkness of classified, mysterious, potentially untoward projects; the idea that revealing the truth to humanity will be its undoing (or conversely, salvation) is still the major currency of many in the conspirasphere. People wouldn’t be able to take it.
Best of all, HAL is the perfectly manifested conspiracy theorist – one who is cool, logical and precise in his paranoia – voicing doubts regarding happenings on the Moon to which he isn’t privy to and convinced of his own infallibility (“This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been down to human error”).
Readings of 2001 can go in a number of differently dense directions, some of them ending with the Monolith as the essence of the cinema screen itself. One popular idea, extending into The Shining, is that this is Kubrick’s confessional of his faking the Moon landings, one the aforementioned Weidner, in particular, has run with.
A feature of conspiracy theories, extending to virtually any train of thought, to be fair, whereby, when you examine them more and more closely, they begin to take shape as planned in every detail and minutiae, whether or not that’s legitimately the case. It’s something that particularly lends itself to analysis of Kubrick’s work, since it is so meticulous, in very evident and tangible, recorded and itemised ways (the time spent nursing projects, on getting takes right, on editing). As the many and varied methods for interpreting his work (Room 237 being the tip of the iceberg) prove, however, that doesn’t mean that, because one can find something there, it was necessarily the director’s intent (and when we’re talking conspiracy, intent has to be all).**
Weidner’s readings are fascinating, nevertheless, up to a point, for the occult and elite extrapolations he makes that guide us (semi-) coherently through the director’s body of work. One can make sense of why a filmmaker who wasn’t a big fan of science fiction – Kubrick felt the ideas were good but the execution inevitably deplorable – had been considering a return to the genre with A.I. Artificial Intelligence if his real focus was the elephant in the room of even the anaesthetised Spielberg version (that the only reason parents would want a child who doesn’t grow, stays the same etc, is because they’re paedophiles; the berg would have us believe the most sentimental parts of A.I. actually come from Kubrick, however).
And it’s much easier to credit Eyes Wide Shut being edited after the event – the finger has again been pointed at Spielberg – than that it simply isn’t quite as satisfying a career capper as it ought to have been (and I do recognise many of its celebrants’ points; I like the film a lot, but that doesn’t mean it feels entirely finessed).
Certainly, when you have shots in which the Moon surface/Monolith looks intentionally like the outside of a film set (because a film crew has set up there), the idea seems to fit. Weidner also asserts that the Monolith is the Philosopher’s Stone (the quest for gnosis and the immortality of the soul), which is fairly easy to buy into because it isn’t so very far from the film’s overarching text.
On the other hand, his assertion that this future is purpose-built by the military-industrial complex and thus to be disdained doesn’t quite translate. Kubrick clearly took delight in the gleaming perfection of his technological future, supported as it is by the Blue Danube Waltz; the music in his pictures is every bit as informative as the images, if not more so, and this is 2001 at its warmest and most exultant, playful even (Weidner suggests that, at first, it seems as if Kubrick is celebrating technology; no, he definitely is. That doesn’t mean he isn’t also depicting the flipside. Two contradictory ideas can exist simultaneously; elsewhere in his piece, Weidner appears to acknowledge this thinking).
Under Weidner’s hypothesis, Kubrick faked the Moon landings – although, he asserts man did go there… – in return for being able to make the kinds of movies he wanted. Odd then, that the director didn’t get to make Napoleon not that long after.
Weidner also considers it ironic that a supposedly atheist filmmaker made the ultimate religious movie. Except that one doesn’t need a religious view of God to embrace 2001’s more spiritual, if you will, leanings. Weidner ultimately gets heavily into an over-baked pudding concerning Aryans evacuating the Earth for Mars via the Secret Space Program, which makes it easy to throw his Kubrick theories under a space bus, if you so wish, but there’s some engrossing material in there.
It’s interesting that the director would go on to make The Shining, as 2001: A Space Odyssey was, until that point, the closest he’d come to producing a horror film. A ‘U’ certificate one, admittedly, but one that nevertheless manages to unsettle and conjure a sense of the uncanny in the mode that horror in its loosest – or purest – sense can.
Which is why it’s very easy to compare the room Keir Dullea ends up in to the Overlook Hotel. I mentioned David Lean early on, and that director, at his peak, held sway over a cinema of pure sound and image that could be almost overpowering, in a manner few directors have, or are capable of (Leone was another). Kubrick, though, trumps him through his willingness to become so much more oblique with baseline narrative and theme, and thus the possibilities of content and subjective experience. And the film of his that achieves that most expertly is this one. It’s his zenith as a filmmaker; nothing he later embarked on would come close to such perfection of concept and realisation.
*Addendum 03/08/22: “Benign” in the Luciferian sense of becoming God, that is.
** Addendum 03/08/22: Excepting the possibility of the learned response, that “artistes” may simply be unconsciously perpetuating predictive programming because they themselves have been programmed (like the rest of us).
Addendum 03/08/22: Jay Dyer makes the case that 2001 is “about space – planar, pointed and linear, in a geometric sense, and the transcending of that limitation of form, into the infinite, and thus beyond form”. As such, “the monolith seems to embody space itself…is about this dimension, in totality, that expresses itself primarily in two fundamental ontological realities – time and space”. However, he spends much of his time rejecting the Darwinian bedrock of the picture (“I am not saying Kubrick is certainly some committed Marxist, but his films do consistently present class warfare, elitism and oligarchic deviance and control”) and the “naturalistic process philosophy” it presents.
What Dyer doesn’t get to grips with is whether Kubrick is on board with it, or is he selling it through the lure of quasi-spiritual mysticism (initiation)? As in, that’s what his masters want him to sell. Dyer makes a distinction from the evolutionary form by suggesting the “presentation is far more occult, where it is the planetary gods who are leading man through his planetary ascent through technology”, but that is precisely the Ahrimanic lure touted by Steiner (“God is an advanced A.I.” in tandem with sometimes at-odds Luciferian impulses). The Monolith is “consciously ‘Luciferian’, prompting man to a Promethean new aeon each time it appears, and always connected to technological advance through the ‘sacrifice’ of warfare”.
Dyer suggests “Kubrick is… at least not anti-human, as we might expect from establishment propaganda”. But you don’t need to be, if your target is post-human. The trajectory whereby, only by casting off HAL’s synthetic brain “does Kubrick envision man’s transcending apotheosis occurring” and per the seven diamond cubes is “elevated to the celestial pantheon”, per Childhood’s End’s “cosmic sex magick” is consistent with this. I was interested by his take that, with the Original Starchild nuking the planet, “Mankind must be sacrificed and ‘nuked’ to allow for the apotheosis of the elite” (because HAL is right and mankind is the evolutionary error).
Less so his more expansive conjectures: “It is my contention that the real secret space program of which NASA is a front is revealed in its fulness here by Kubrick… centred on an artificial intelligence as the vehicle by which man’s extension into the void might be accomplished… what would come to be the Skynet satellite grid from this secret space program and DARPA is being constructed presently to surveil the planet under an Internet of Things SmartGrid”. Which is rather indicative that Jay is limited in his thinking by failing to incorporate the sheer extent of NASA – and nuke – lies (we mustn’t forget that Jay sometimes presents InfoWars for Alex Jones).