by John Simon
A regrettable failure, though not a total one, is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This long film, five years and ten million dollars in the making, is fascinating when it concentrates on apes or machines (though there is too much of this, too) and dreadful when dealing with the in-between: human beings. Absolute dreadfulness, however, is reserved for the metaphysical, the (gasp!) Divine, which appears in the form of a large slab that mysteriously materializes whenever mankind is about to launch on a stage of higher development. Looking like a Mies van der Rohe version of one-half of the Tables of the Law, this Pentalogue has no writing on it, but can emit a mystagogic buzz.
The Slab appears first to a bunch of prehistoric apes. These men in ape costumes are so convincing and terrifying that by comparison the ones in Planet of the Apes (a set of costumes—and film—I quite enjoyed) are pussycats. They behave perfectly brutishly to some friendly tapirs, and fight over territorial rights with a neighboring bunch of apes as if they had read their Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, which they probably have. Things go badly with them until the Slab appears, whereupon one of them thinks of using a bone as an offensive weapon and, behold, they slay the leader of their rival apes. After he is thoroughly dead, one of the victors hits him once more viciously, which is a nice human touch, and sets the stage for the next stage of history.
A triumphant ape hurls a bone into the air; by a clever matching shot, it becomes a space ship circling (somewhat interminably, but twenty minutes are about to be cut from the film) a space station to the tune of The Blue Danube. The music throughout is eclectic to the point of ecumenicity: when it isn’t Johann Strauss, it’s Richard, and Beethoven and Khachaturian also get their licks in.
The section begins with a Dr. Floyd stopping off at a space Hilton (trade names are often, and no doubt remuneratively, made use of) on a secret mission to the Moon. We get some mildly amusing scenes involving space stewardesses (they can walk upside down, as in an Ingmar Bergman film), space food (it’s all liquid and only the picture on the container tells you what you’re imbibing), and space toilets (where were you when it hit weightlessness?). At the Hilton there is some dull verbal fencing with quasi-friendly Russians, and Dr. Floyd has a dull (Bell) telephone conversation with his daughter on Earth. When he gets to Moon Station Clavius, he conducts a dull briefing session about why quarantine has been imposed on Clavius.
We realize now that the dullness, as well as the commonplaces and evasions, must be satire. Kubrick and his co-scenarist, Arthur C. Clarke, must be trying to ridicule the naivete, disingenuousness, and benighted bureaucracy of creatures who handle all that mighty heavenly hardware. Apparently, though, one is allowed to be truly satirical in Hollywood only on a low-budget film such as Dr. Strangelove; when millions are at stake, we don’t gamble on an art form Americans do not understand. So the satire throughout is tepid and halfhearted, and tends to look like quite unintentional stupidity.
Anyway, the Slab has been discovered on the Moon! It is emitting signals ad astra; to be specific, toward Jupiter. So the next and main section of the film shows us an expedition to that planet in an interplanetary spacecraft, a hydrocephalic electronic caterpillar the length of an average street. It carries several astronauts in sarcophaguses in a state of hibernation, two others who conduct the craft, and a supercomputer called Hal 9000, of the famous 9000 series that can do everything except go wrong.
Here the point is to show the astronauts as completely efficient machines in mind and body, and Hal as a solicitous, omniscient den mother, patronizing, quite pompous, and, as it turns out, eager to assert his superiority. In other words, men have become computerized and computers humanized, with bad consequences for both. Unfortunately, neither of them is an interesting enough species to keep us interested in their ensuing struggle for supremacy and survival.
I won’t go into the details of this astral agon, but let me say that one astronaut finally makes it to Jupiter, or the fourth dimension, or whatever it is that is represented by fifteen minutes (at any rate, it feels like a mauvais quart d’heure) of fancy yet not quite fancy enough trick photography. Oh, I forgot to tell you: we saw the Slab precede him thither! Some very odd things then happen in the Beverly Hills-Louis XVI apartment the astronaut ends up in: he discovers himself there, old, older, and, as the Slab appears, dying and being reborn as a kind of Buck Rogersy Superbaby, a new and presumably better species. Actually, there’s no presumably about it: after the ones we have spent the film’s two and three-quarter hours with, any species would be an improvement. The Slab, of course, is never explained, leaving 2001, for all its lively visual and mechanical spectacle, a kind of space-Spartacus and, more pretentious still, a shaggy God story.
The New Leader, May, 1968