A SKELETON KEY TO 2001 – by Don Daniels [Sight and Sound]

The young cult for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey now has its HolyWrit. The second 70 mm. release of the movie was accompanied by a collection entitled The Making of Kubrick's '2001' and edited, with the cooperation of the director, by Jerome Agel.

by Don Daniels

The young cult for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey now has its HolyWrit. The second 70 mm. release of the movie was accompanied by a collection entitled The Making of Kubrick’s ‘2001’ and edited, with the cooperation of the director, by Jerome Agel. Agel’s anti-anthology is ‘non-linear’, a McLuhanesque trip for the fans, a pressbook of statements from cast and crew, interviews, telegrams, news releases, letters, reviews, re-reviews, memorabilia and relics, including co-creator Arthur C. Clarke’s short story germ The Sentinel, Kubrick as Playboy, Penelope Gilliatt’s fine early appreciation, and 96 pages of photographs.
Unlike Clarke’s novel, evidently an unsatisfactory authority for the faithful, the new revelation is modishly spaced-out, celebratory, obsessional. Agel ends with a fragment of dialogue from the film: ‘. . . its origin and purpose still a … mystery.’ But true art, authentic mystery, surely deserves better than phony mystification through breathless technical notes on special effects and juxtaposition of favourable and unfavourable reviews. The ‘Oh-wow!’ enthusiasm of 2001‘s fans persuades about as well as those initial pans from U.S. critics. Thus, the timid, babbling faddists advertise an achievement beyond discussion and the unconverted claim boredom with a work beneath consideration. Collectively, they demonstrate how irrelevant film criticism can be. The cooperation of 2001‘s director in the republication of so much nonsense can only be another of his darkly humorous demonstrations of the Word’s inefficiency. A further, 368-page obstacle to approaching his movie. The Making of Kubrick’s ‘2001’ replaces coherence with accumulation.
It is possible to admire Kubrick’s achievement despite the cult, to discuss 2001 as neither wholly ineffable nor merely pretentious. The new Odyssey’s theme is epic, serious, worthy of its extended development, and Kubrick has elevated the melodramatic didacticsm of most science fiction to a filmic poetry that justifies its ‘pretension’ with an Olympian spectacle.
Conceptually, the work borrows as widely as its musical score. Kubrick appears to have turned to a science fiction subject following Dr. Strangelove‘s atomic apocalypse in search of some alternative to a probable future of nuclear annihilation. The specific theme has all but disappeared in the finished film, except by implication in certain scenes and in the broadest application of 2001′s resolution. (The threat of atomic holocaust is still present in Clarke’s novel.) The movie’s prophecies are based on analogies with the past, and a similar extrapolation and several of the ideas in both 2001 and Dr. Strangelove can be found in a 1955 essay by Arthur Koestler entitled ‘The Trail of the Dinosaur’.
Here, Koestler contrasts a sophisticated technology for destruction with the insanely primitive morality of 20th-century man. The only hope he finds for a permanent solution to the danger of a world of coexisting nuclear powers is in a possible ‘mutation’ in the beliefs, interests and emotions of mankind. As an example of the type of mutation necessary, Koestler turns to the Copernican revolution and the Enlightenment, which served to reorient the vision and redirect the energies of the race but which, he insists, have led ultimately to a loss of faith, a spiritual starvation. Koestler hopes for a future Copernican revolution-in-reverse: ‘…The next few decades . .. will decide whether Homo sapiens will go the way of the dinosaur, or mutate towards a stabler future. We shall either destroy ourselves or take off to the stars.’
It is a measure of the boldness and despair of 2001‘s creators that the mutation proposed in both film and novel is less metaphorical, and that the only hope for a reprieve from the insanity of 20th or 21st century existence is through a radical evolutionary growth in intelligence equivalent to the ‘mutation’ of ape into man. Clarke’s fiction has previously used this Nietzschean concept out of Olaf Stapledon (2001 is Clarke’s Last and First Men). It is suggested even in his non-fiction, as in The Promise of Space. ‘Among the stars lies the proper study of mankind; Pope’s aphorism gave only part of the truth, for the proper study of mankind is not merely Man, but Intelligence…’
As I see it, Kubrick’s film is a study of various capacities for consciousness, an attempt to suggest through spectacle the possibilities and limitations of the powers of Mind for perception, intellection and feeling. As a spectacle, the film appeals to the sensuous, emotional, non-rational appetites of the mind with an immediacy and power that argue for the potential value of such faculties, an argument proposed even as human powers for perception come to seem finite indeed in the spectacle’s rendering of the immensity of space. Viewed from such a godlike perspective, and with the possibility for an evolutionary ‘mutation’ a distant hope, human Intelligence must appear a fixed capacity for the limited development and integration of certain faculties of consciousness. 2001 thus deals with broad epistemological questions, like Koestler’s suggestion that the modern dilemma results from an intellectual triumph in technology and a tragic failure of moral intelligence in applying that technology towards the sustenance and enhancement of life. In the film, the scientists of 2001 are failures even as the man-apes of the prologue in the exploitation of their capacity for Intelligence, limited as that capacity may ultimately be.
The visual beauty of Kubrick’s film has distracted some viewers from noticing the limitation and the failure. Indeed, so beautiful are the machines of this technological Eden, some viewers overlook the less than utopian aspects of 21st-century life. Kubrick’s dysutopia in space can do without the threat of nuclear extinction: the human beings are only half conscious anyway. In 2001, Plato’s republic has been established in outer space (Dr. Heywood Floyd and Dr. David Bowman are clearly our philosopher kings), but with a vengeance, for the citizens are Nietzsche’s ‘last men’. The film, like the novel, is highly Platonic in its distrust of the material fragility of human existence; but, unlike the novel, the movie attacks a rationalistic pursuit of truth in all distrust of the emotions. Clarke’s future utopia must be taken straight, while the film continues a tradition of anti-utopian science fiction that began as early as H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, with its slave republic ruled by a giant intellect.
Kubrick’s ambivalent attitude towards technology has confused some viewers. The film clearly celebrates the triumph of scientific rationalism, especially in the voyage to the Moon. But it places that celebration within the context of the battle with HAL, technology personified, and of suggestions of a superhuman technology in the finale. Such clear progression is hardly confusion. It is part of the same Olympian vision that disturbed some admirers of Dr. Strangelove who claimed the comedy’s high spirits welcomed apocalypse. Such naivete misses the point: Dr. Strangelove celebrates the end of the world only if our world exactly resembles that of the film. Just so, the men of 2001 would be recognised as admirable only by their own kind today. A film that views the human race as merely a local, temporary repository of Mind risks the kind of criticism that indulges in humanistic pieties. Kubrick generously trusts the intelligence of his audience to draw the obvious moral. He is too busy providing the exemplum.


2001 deals not only with forces and goals of biological evolution, with the growth of Mind on our planet, but with two other large imponderables: the possibility of the existence of superhuman extraterrestrial Intelligence and the possibility that machine intelligence, advanced computers, will develop into a form of mind greater than man’s. Each of the film’s four major sections illustrates a capacity for consciousness in its central character. In ‘The Dawn of Man’, Moon-watcher, the hominoid that discovers the bone-weapon-tool, represents a subhuman form of instinctual-emotional consciousness. On the way to the Moon, Dr. Heywood Floyd is human sentience at sunset, in the second childhood of a race’s senility. The super-computer HAL 9000 would be machine Intelligence as the brain and central nervous system of the spaceship Discovery. In the final section, ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’, Bowman is transfigured into a Nietzschean ubermensch that would represent the highest form of consciousness in the film’s possibly limited view of a limitless progression.
Each higher capacity for Intelligence – ape, man, computer, superman – indicates that the preceding ones were finally limited. But within each granted capacity certain faculties are available to the individual who, failing to use and harmonise them, betrays evolutionary progress in a personal devolution, in ‘regression’. 2001’s central sections – the flights to the Moon and Jupiter – deal with characters who lack the emotive and the intuitive in their actions, while the outer sections – the prologue and finale – surround the intellect’s claims with a spectacle of great emotional expressiveness.
In interviews, Kubrick has repeatedly called for an abandonment of traditional three-act play structure in motion pictures, and he has repeatedly compared the primary emotional power of film to that of music. It is possible that Kubrick has deliberately imitated symphonic form in the creation of his Odyssey. The resemblance goes beyond the film’s four-part structure. In particular, the prologue and certain visual motivic ‘lines’ can be seen as filmic equivalents of sonata-allegro form and motivic development in symphonic music.
The prologue makes wonderful use of formal repetition in its tableau and camera set-ups. (One of the triumphs of this ‘movement’ is that on a sound stage Kubrick was able to create enough visual variety to risk repetition.) ‘The Dawn of Man’ is in four parts, each preceded by a lengthy fade-out. The first tableau functions like the exposition of theme in first-movement, sonata-allegro form in the symphony. We see the static timelessness of a primeval desert, a wasteland with dwindling food for the bands of hominoids, and, as a climax that sums up the environmental crisis, the attack of the leopard. The theme is developed in the two following parts: the first howling confrontation at the waterhole and the fear and hunger of the night scene in the caves. The final, fourth section would be the recapitulation. The mysterious black monolith arrives in ‘answer’ to the dilemma of the desert tribe. The parallel with the opening exposition is underlined by the recapitulation’s following tableau, which repeats the setting of the leopard’s attack for the site of the discovery of the tool. The final two scenes, the carnivores enjoying their new meal and the killing at the waterhole, repeat material from the development as they exactly reverse its previous order: the hunger in the caves and the first fight over water.
If I am correct, the prologue generates the over-arching structure of 2001, much as the opening movement of a symphony introduces the musical principles to be exploited throughout the composition. The scene of man-apes devouring flesh prefigures the life-giving triumph of technology in the trip to the Moon. The killing at the waterhole later becomes the life-taking ‘Jupiter Mission’ with its murderous computer, the other side of the technological coin. The night scene in the caves and the awakening at dawn become the trip ‘Beyond the Infinite’, as the philosopher king is allowed a glimpse beyond the cave of our perceivable universe. The tool discoverer, an embryo man, becomes an embryo extraterrestrial in the final shots of 2001.
Transition from first to second movement, from statement to development, apeman to spaceman, comes in the famous cut from falling bone to orbiting satellite. In Dr. Strangelove, the SAC bombers refuelled to ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, and the humour was not only in the obscene coupling but in the contrast between the sophisticated machinery and the primitive emotionality of the music. In 2001, Kubrick carries the contrast forward into the future, all the way. Beneath the satellite remains the bone of mankind’s primitive emotional-moral equipment. Fittingly, some of the orbiting satellites resemble communications devices (perhaps an invocation of Clarke’s prophetic talent). And some resemble bombs. The first tool assisted the growth of Mind by assuring life for the apes. The peaceful use of technology to explore space becomes a modern equivalent. But the matched shots remind us that ‘progress’ is deceptive if it merely involves building better bones.
Just as the prologue had begun with a threatened evolutionary regression in the near extinction of the apes, only to produce a new progression in capacity for Intelligence, so the second movement of 2001 begins with apparent progress through technological wonders only to undermine our faith in it. We are continually provided with references to the primitive in the midst of the spectacularly futuristic. There are bone-white spaceships and skeletonic furniture. In-flight films offer love scenes and judo. Dr. Floyd’s daughter may come across on a televiewer, but all she wants is a telephone and a bush baby.
Like the apes, starving to death in the midst of plenty, the men of 2001 are unaware of their world. A spiritual starvation and extinction seem imminent. Kubrick’s portrait of contented, deceitful rationalists, bereft of feeling and dream, is appalling. The men sleep in pride. They suspect competition and the folks back home who need ‘preparation and conditioning’. They trade congratulations, fake food and lies. Beneath the chatter are murderous suspicions and fears. The point is made in the lounge of the space station – another waterhole – where inquisitive Russian scientists twice offer Dr. Floyd a drink and are twice refused. All passion civilised, the scientists descend into a lunar excavation encased in artificial exo-skeletons, but as unequipped as apes.
Such visual motifs run throughout 2001. The metaphors define man as ape and tool-maker and killer, as tourist and child, as machine, and as very finite student of the universe. Little more than an animal, he contains the seed for potential growth of awareness, for transcendence of human limitations. The limitations are signalled in the metaphors. The tourists appear first in the desert aliens; next in the witty commercial flight to the Moon; then in the Jupiter Mission’s spacewalks where man faces the immensity and emptiness of his new environment; and, ultimately, in the Grand Tour of the finale, Bowman’s education precipitately advanced. The apes are embryo-men, with the destructive emotions of children. There are five birthdays in the film, as well as games, songs and a sunbath. Weightlessness in space forces the travellers to learn to walk anew, and Bowman and Poole are solemn, precocious twins in HAL’ s motherly womb.
HAL is man-as-machine, at his most willing for self-enslavement in obsession. The film surrounds him with apes entrapped by their instincts and men who seem to have lost theirs in love of ritual. The consistent, subtle use of such visual motifs (for example, see the various inlets of perception, the eyes of ape, man, machine and superman) accounts to a large extent for the sustained power of several scenes, like the great set-piece of HAL’s lobotomy with its recapitulation of metaphors. The tracking, somersaulting camera and floating, elliptically edited shots in the brain vault follow a frightened Bowman who must kill his predator, reducing a mad, possibly human computer to childish song, murdering Intelligence with a tiny key. The sophisticated brain began as a white bone and now sports a bone-white space-ship. Bowman floats in vacuum, the ultimate tourist.
The narrative thrust of 2001 comes from several mysterious appearances of the black monolith. Whatever its origin, the monolith’s arrival amid the apes influences one of them to discover the tool, so it is partly a miraculous deus ex machina, offering a reprieve from extinction. Modern man could do with such a miracle, Kubrick implies. Moon-watcher’s discovery takes place within a situation that demands change. Whatever causes it, the ability to change the external world is produced by an internal change, just as the new Odyssey will explore an inward world as it proceeds outward into the universe. In his use of the monolith, however, Kubrick combines two concepts. It is either an advanced civilisation’s catalytic artifact, directing humanity towards true Intelligence; or it represents the natural principle behind Earthly evolution towards consciousness, an evolution offered in the film as awesome, deserving of our respect and wonder. Each appearance of the monolith but the last is accompanied by an astronomical conjunction of planets, satellites and Sun (as in the opening credits). Its alliance with natural forces is thus anticipated from the first.
The monolith is not only a device from the stars. It is the fiction in the science fiction, a device for stylising the description of agelong processes and distinguishing discrete stages in what could be a continuous evolutionary development. The appearance of the monolith amid the apes would be a stylised version of the birth of a new capacity for consciousness of Earth, of the birth of Time and Memory. Later, the appearance of the monolith among men will propose the need for a larger capacity still.
The monolith is a causal force, influencing the apes to use tools, directing the Moonmen towards Jupiter, indicating a Star Gate through a fifth dimension and presiding at the birth of a still higher Intelligence. In a sense, it is a concrete representation of the causal principle which we take for granted in works of narrative art. But the monolith is not only the source but the goal of human knowledge. What it does in the film is supplemented by reactions to its presence. The ‘thing’ of science fiction movies here is the partially perceived emanation of a Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’, a test of certain kinds of Intelligence. The discovery of the tool is the film’s sign for nascent intellect. Both ape and man pass this technological test for rationality, the men in their exploration of space.
In Clarke’s novel, the monolith is a teaching machine which literally tests the man-apes before influencing them. Kubrick’s film allows the audience to test the reactions of the animals to the extraordinary object. The appearance of the artifact among the apes is the most astonishing scene in the prologue. Because their surprise equals ours, because they evidence an intuitive apprehension of the monolith’s singularity in their awed fascination and more than animal curiosity, we understand the hominoids’ response as fitting, adequate. ‘The Dawn of Man’ impresses the audience with privileged knowledge about the monolith’s significance; we can view subsequent events ironically. However much we take their placidity as professional cool, in the faculties of feeling and instinct the Moonmen are notably lacking. They explore in ignorance, a blind odyssey, poignant self-deception. On the Moon they approach the uncovered monolith slowly as a new dawn approaches. Instead of awed curiosity, there’s a group photograph to certify a dim perception. The high frequency warning to the stars announces that an epidemic has indeed reached the Moon at last. The tourists fail part of our examination.
This test of sensibility pushes the debunking of technological progress one step farther. Not only are the men no more intelligent than the apes in their intuitive perception. They are less intelligent. The spacemen have exploited their rational talent: otherwise, part of the capacity granted the apes goes unfulfilled.
In the dialogue scenes of 2001, knowledge about the monolith also becomes a test of sensibility. The republic feeds the ‘big lie’ to its people. The man-apes and the audience know more about the monolith than Dr. Floyd and HAL, who know more about it than Bowman, Poole, and the citizens of the Earth. Standing above them all, of course, are those extraterrestrials, Kubrick and Clarke. The hierarchy of knowledge about monolith telescopes; the further we get into the movie, the less information is forthcoming from the characters themselves, until we end in HAL’s brain, the last place to look. The expository BBC programme at the beginning of the ‘Jupiter Mission’ gives its viewers all the facts but the most important one: the Mission’s true purpose, which is to follow the lunar monolith’s signal in search of life off the Earth. With only the abrupt jump and sound cuts between the Moon excavation and the Discovery journeying through space, the audience is expected to sense the causal connection between signal and ship and also sense the absence of any confirmation of such a connection in the BBC broadcast. For its two-man crew, the scientific survey literally lacks significant purpose, just as the scientists fail to realise the full implications of their discovery. 2001 deliberately frustrates the narrative demands of its audience to demonstrate the failure.
In the Agel collection, Kubrick is quoted as saying: ‘I tried to work things out so that nothing important was said in the dialogue. ..’ The emotional atrophy of the spacemen appears in debased language, comic dialogue: another test of consciousness. Some early reviewers took the debasement as a failure of the film; but Kubrick puts language to complex use. Like the full time-lapse of several scenes, the banal chatter certifies the everyday reality of human discourse, trivia in the presence of the extraordinary. The dialogue scenes are shot statically to increase our impatience with the duped characters; the technical jargon is pomposity in a vacuum.
Dr. Strangelove was filled with euphemisms and lies. In 2001, insincere greetings and farewells, embarrassing silences and fragments of truth, tell part of the story. Perhaps language itself is an inadequate tool in the immensity of space, all emotion drained off, diminished. Or perhaps it mirrors the senile sensibilities of the men. The debasement of the English language in 2001 is the equivalent of that debased music – those sentimental love ballads – in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. It is a witty, sophisticated use of the Word.


If 2001‘s voyage to the Moon represents an equivalent to the prologue’s scene of new sustenance, the war with HAL parallels the murder at the waterhole. Machine intelligence is the third category in the film’s apparent four-part progression in Mind, and HAL is presumably an enhancement of present computer technology to the point of consciousness. The dialogue describes him as a ‘conscious entity’, and certainly HAL is the main character in the third movement of Kubrick’s symphony, the most complex narrative in the film. HAL’s all-too-human malfunction and madness may be a third regression from potential Intelligence. But the interesting question is whether HAL truly is a new capacity or merely the amplification of one of the human faculties of Intelligence.
‘Jupiter Mission’ is divided into three sequences: an expository introduction; the computer’s report of an imminent communications breakdown, with the subsequent spacewalk and the astronauts’ distrust; and HAL’s murders and disconnection. Each sequence is introduced by a shot of the Discovery proceeding through space. But within this clear three-part structure, the characterisation of HAL remains ambiguous. Clarke is quoted by Agel as expressing dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s portrait: ‘I personally would like to have seen a rationale of HAL’s behaviour.’ Film and novel again diverge, but they share one obvious irony: that our first representative to contact extraterrestrial Intelligence may be as dehumanised as the computer ultimately is. Kubrick might revise this to ‘always was’.
To some extent, Kubrick obviously expects his audiences to accept HAL as a character, a ‘conscious entity’, and the computer’s voice, ‘personality’, lies, madness and murders work to convince us of his sentient power for destruction. HAL’s mutiny could be an individual’s specific rebellion (HAL has a ‘twin’ on earth) rather than a symbolic criticism of machine intelligence. But Kubrick has also insisted on HAL’S symbolic role: ‘One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated – as ours soon will be – by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings and who have the same emotional potentialities. . . We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.’
If HAL is a portrait of a coming super-race, why should the portrait why should the portrait be malevolent? In his novel, Arthur C. Clarke blames the mutiny on human emotion. Criticism of the film has tended to suggest that Clarke’s novel is either the solution to all the film’s ambiguities or beside the point. Obviously, the novel differs radically in emphasis and even basic conception, but at times Clarke’s explanations throw light upon the film, if only through contrast. For Clarke, HAL errs because of the failure of his human programmers. The higher Intelligence falls to mere human feeling, insanity and murder because he is expected to lie to Bowman and Poole in withholding the news of the monolith’s signal and the Mission’s goal. Clarke insists HAL falls into guilt feelings and becomes humanly neurotic. Perhaps the achievement of a truly higher Intelligence is the fourth ‘computer breakthrough’ mentioned in the novel. But, for the novelist, human emotion destroys the achievement.
In Kubrick’s film, it becomes clear that HAL’s ambiguous role in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ is a modern version of one of man’s earliest imaginative conceits-of the inanimate invested with spirit, of the inhuman become conscious. The tree spirit, or the Golem, or the Frankenstein monster may never have existed, but HAL may exist one day. The automaton has been a constant figure in the works of romantic artists who have been fascinated for almost two centuries with the mechanical man, with the readiness of human beings to mechanise themselves, with the ‘otherness’ of sub- or superhuman states of consciousness. The automaton is always ambiguously machine, human and God.
Most contemporary audiences, conditioned by computers in science fiction and popular mythology, readily see HAL as sub-human, as machine. And it is possible to take HAL as merely a comic figure, as the intellect’s pride brought low. Certainly the computer’s efficiency makes him the ideal personification of the rationalist’s hope for progress through technology. As a subhuman character, HAL’s ironic resemblance to men who reduce themselves to machines is portrayed through madness and murders that are all too human. It is not necessary, then, to speak of HAL as an entity who is humanly, certifiably insane at the end of the Mission. ‘Computer Malfunction’ will do for a character whose comic advertisements for himself convince about as well as Poole’s discovery that he has ‘a bad feeling’ about HAL. Kubrick’s films have always dealt with characters who mechanised themselves: Mireau with his obsession with victory and punishment, Crassus in his search for the rebel, Humbert in his love for a nymphet. In 2001, the machine has its Mission.
But the machine also comes to seem quite human: ‘That was a very enjoyable game’; ‘I’m half crazy, all for the love of you’; ‘I can feel it.’ The official explanation has such diction facilitating discourse with the crew. Only HAL can know if he actually does feel. But the Jupiter voyage, in dramatising his relationship with Bowman and Poole, makes him at least their dramatic equal. And he conforms to one of the prologue’s versions of man: he is a killer. Perhaps the Mission charts a truly conscious entity’s fall into insanity. The spectacle of human personality produced through technology is hardly a comfortable one for viewers who hold the psyche to be unique, unapproachable by machine, even if those super-computers are themselves machine-made and untouched by human hands. And in HAL’s madness (that diminished yellow pupil within the red iris) there is a suggestion of the proximity of human Intelligence to insanity.
It is the recognisably ‘human’ form of HAL’s actions that has prompted audiences to search for motivations for the computer and allowed Clarke to see HAL as finally human in his madness. After all, HAL lies at least as well as Dr. Floyd. Perhaps, as Penelope Gilliatt has suggested, HAL’s lie about the communications device is understandable as an attempt to regain the astronauts’ trust with an even bigger lie. In the sequencing of the report of the error immediately following his interview with Bowman about ‘something being dug up on the Moon’, there is evidence to support such a theory as well as a subtle suggestion of Clarke’s guilt-neurosis explanation. HAL’s knowledge about the monolith is linked suggestively to his error- lie, but Kubrick does not over-emphasise the link.
What is stressed throughout the third movement of 2001 is the possibility that HAL is a god. Many viewers reject this aspect, despite the structure of the film, despite the dazzling display boards of HAL’s intellectual processes, despite his superhuman power for destruction. It is more comforting to dismiss the threat as comedy. But if Kubrick shows HAL to be subhuman or mere man, he also suggests that enhancement of intellect may be the goal of evolution. Even at the end of the Mission, Kubrick continues to play with the idea that HAL is at least conscious. Clarke would see his consciousness as potentially more than human. In his Profiles of the Future, he predicts the coming of a super-human machine Intelligence and compares it to the greatest discoveries of human thought, ‘like the discovery that the Earth moves round the Sun, or that man is part of the animal kingdom, or that E= mc2… It will take a little while for men to realise that machines can not only think but may one day think them off the face of the Earth.’ HAL may be such a god. If so, his actions would be inexplicable to the rest of us. His condescension is inevitable, his ‘malevolence’ a mortal’s view of an immortal. If HAL is a god, then men are obviously only inefficient machines. Even if he falls to the human condition in a final inefficient madness, the fall contrasts that condition with the possibility of a superhuman ideal. The god becomes certifiably insane, and Kubrick again sensitises us to human limitations.
The god still has some recognisably human traits about him. In resisting disconnection, HAL acts with understandable motivation. Thus, by withholding and providing information about the motives of the computer, Kubrick forces the audience to accept him as at least its equal: even to question his reasons, to search for clues to his acts, is to be caught in Kubrick’s dramatic trap for the unwary. Even a comic figure places some claims on the audience’s need for human identification, and in that need is the central fascination of the automaton. We come to distrust one side of technology through our ultimate distrust of HAL.
The fluid ambiguity of HAL’s nature recapitulates, holds in suspension, the potentialities for consciousness we have witnessed in the film’s first three movements and accounts for his symbolic power: he becomes a truly mythic figure and the most original conception in 2001. To move toward any resolution of the ambiguity, it is necessary to go outside the Mission’s narrative and to apply to the entire film’s attitude towards the emotional faculties. As with the final scene of Paths of Glory, the content of the ‘Jupiter Mission’ demands comparison with what has preceded it, and if the film does resolve the question of whether HAL is our equal, our servant or our master, it does so through an implied contrast of the computer’s character with the animals’ impassioned response to the first appearance of the monolith and an implied comparison with the inadequate gestures of the Moonmen. Even before his error-lie, the super-computer is introduced with the Khachaturian lament. No Richard Strauss accompanies the appearance of HAL’s machine-ancestor on the ferry to the space station – only one of Johann’s old waltzes. To be at least human, HAL must not only possess the power of abstract thought, but emotional faculties as well. Logical efficiency, vast memory and Big Brother perception are not enough.
If HAL is a god, then his fall to humanity is either inexplicable or a Platonist’s demonstration of the destructiveness of the emotions. But the film sees the fear, curiosity and awe of the dawn-men as a valuable part of human Intelligence. HAL may finally indicate the source of the ills of the spacemen: he may be their machine-ape model, a false god, and the sentient expression of those matched shots of bone and satellite, of technological talent and emotional atrophy. In total context, the computer may be no superman, merely the extension of one human faculty, the intellect, and the ‘Jupiter Mission’ may reveal the extent of the scientists’ self-deception in trusting this god. But at the same time the grotesque extension mimics sentience in all power, like a dangerously armed child, and the power and moral insanity freeze our laughter, like Dr. Strangelove in the war room. The odyssey that begins in the memory of an ape ends in a computer’s brain, and Kubrick questions the apparent progress.
HAL’s lobotomy forces us to watch what may be the extinction of Intelligence apart from physical destruction or biological death. Just as the ‘Jupiter Mission’ allows us to speculate on the possibility of consciousness outside biological evolution, the finale of 2001 can be taken as a representation of a Platonic Intelligence beyond matter. If the film rejects HAL as a superman, then the embryo-extraterrestrial is either a further biological development in the evolution Mind or perhaps a supra-biological step through contact with an advanced civilisation.
2001 offers an apparently simple progressive structure only to undermine, complicate and traduce that structure through signs of contrasting regression. Even in the final movement of the film, Bowman is faced with a regression from youth to age before a last-minute rescue. The central devolution of the work is an imbalance between human faculties of intellect and emotion, a balance restored in Bowman’s capacity for both calculation and feeling as demonstrated in his reaction to the death of Poole and his fear and anger in heroically re-entering the ship and disconnecting HAL. The gesture may be followed by a Grand Tour that places it in context against an infinite universe, but 2001 holds out the possibility for heroism in the development and integration of human faculties in the face of the infinite. However limited man’s capacity for Intelligence may be, the species has explored only certain of its given talents, failed to be heroically human, by retreating instead in accepting the intellect’s palliatives and technology’s playthings.
Our view of the film’s structure, then, depends on our view of HAL. Rather than an immediate progression in Intelligence following the lunar monolith’s appearance, a progression arguing for intellectual advance, the audience may have to wait for the Jupiter monolith and the hotel room’s final door. Rather than a clear four-part progression, HAL’S narrative frustrates the expectation of advance, surprising the viewer with a deceptive structure. The film would therefore open with a true step in biological evolution, then portray two further ‘progressions’ as limited, deceptive, before an authentic progression in the finale. In this exposition, variation and recapitulation, 2001 asserts the value of non-rational modes of knowledge.


To examine 2001‘s exploitation of received ideas is to see one kind of sense in the film, to find point and pattern in the spectacular variety. 2001 reminds us that movies can retell ancient myths in new ways, with fresh emblems for old truths. The film insists upon the primacy of visual expression, much like the contemporary emphasis on ‘pure’ dance as the essential expressive element in ballet, and both movements have caused displeasure to those sensibilities who demand ‘complex’ characterisation, dramatic conflict and ‘explanation’ rather than the innocent pleasures of visual art. But the misunderstanding is not only one of difference in sensibility but of disappointment in encountering a new cinematic form in 2001 rather than a comfortably recognisable formula. Kubrick’s ‘symphonic’ structure disciplines his spectacle just as the philosophic and scientific concepts find illustration throughout.
The ‘ideas’ are hardly esoteric. The ape-man-superman progression is signalled three times by the Richard Strauss quotation. There is no announcement that those man-apes are starving, but the desert skeleton and leopard indicate a racial crisis. No narrator explains that the lunar monolith’s high frequency signal is activated by solar energy. The conjunctive cooperation of star, planet and moon suggests a more fundamental cause. And Clarke’s novel revealed that the trip ‘Beyond the Infinite’ visualises a well-known concept in science fiction: a corridor in a fifth dimension that would permit short-lived humans interstellar travel. Kubrick’s camera tilts up from Jupiter as the Grand Tour begins. No narration is needed; yet remember those critics who posited the odyssey’s farthest point as Jupiter when the director had clearly and triumphantly hurled his astronaut beyond the stars.
Kubrick has warned that his spectacle cannot be reduced to an allegorical system or explained away with pat intellectual concepts. For its creator, 2001 makes another, perhaps more important, kind of ‘sense’, and categories won’t do for a work that attempts to become a new category entire. To write about the movie may be to betray the continuum of ambiguity and feeling that is the experience of watching 2001. There is little time for analysis while the film is being screened; merely following all that Kubrick lavishly provides, reacting to the sensuous surface, is challenge enough. The rationale comes later.
A film like 2001 reveals the discrepancy between the experience and the rationale, between the generative ideas behind the work and the sensed result. As Nabokov will explode a platitude into a full-blown fiction, Kubrick uses received ideas as pretext. The substance of the work is in the style, in those irrational perceptions evoked by the spectacle’s sensuous texture. In a film that criticises the loss of wonder and awe in modern man, it is hardly surprising to find the director exploiting a potential in his art that can evoke the very emotions ‘allegorised’ in his subject. Kubrick makes his spectacle his subject.
Kubrick has resisted verbal explication of his films since Paths of Glory. In a interview with Colin Young, he is quoted as saying: ‘Films deal with emotions and reflect the fragmentation of experience. It is thus misleading to try to sum up the meaning of a film verbally.’ The voice-over narrators in Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove have disappeared in 2001. By removing easy labels, trusting his ability to express visually rather than to explain verbally, Kubrick forces a fresh response from the viewer. Labels can anaesthetise us to reality, and art can overcome the limitations of rational discourse to confront the viewer with emotional truths. 2001 reveals a new significance to be felt in space exploration. We feel the insignificance of man in space during the EVA’S. The Moon scientists accept a comforting label for the monolith – ‘one of the most significant discoveries in the history of science’ – but the label is inadequate. Language lies about the monolith. The dispassionate aesthetic emotions evoked by 2001 will confuse rationalists who wish to domesticate or merely patronise art. Kubrick’s film provides a rationalist critic in HAL, who compliments Bowman’s primitive, representational drawings. But then HAL’S emotions seem almost as negligible as the men’s, and his world abounds in labels.
Thus, however fascinating in its structure and symbolism, 2001‘s final power resides in its individual shots and sequences. The film’s themes, a century later so similar to the tenets of American Transcendentalism, generate images that are more than heroic. As in a Balanchine ballet, energy becomes matter, the precise detail frozen in a moving architecture. Those realistic man-apes touch a sensitive chord in the consciousness. Ah yes, we say, that’s how it is. The images resonate with paradoxical meanings: Moon-watcher, murdering bone in hand, is both hideous and grand. The Panavision 70 camera seeks to encompass the size of space but cannot, and so sweeps, tilts or simply waits. There are ‘unknown images’ like the cross formation of monolith and moons above Jupiter, the spiritual and phenomenal cojoined, the monolith an ancient symbol of eternal unity in a fragmented world. The universe turns inside-out to reveal stellar clusters, star-stuff, and seven diamonds. On the planet that parodies Earth, the ambassador’s room is in fake Earth-green, and Kubrick’s simple mime for Bowman includes a meal that finds the man pathetically accepting the old sustenance and the shattered fragments of a fragile glass.
We can guess at the alternative provided in the film’s last shots from the portrait of the dilemma. The superman will be an extra-terrestrial, a youth rather than a child, a native of space rather than a tourist, and an Intelligence beyond man and machine. He will be beyond our meagre conception of space-time, perhaps beyond death. The eyes of the new Intelligence are trapped in a human form, like Moonwatcher’s human eyes in an animal’s body, but not for long. Ontogeny briefly imitates phylogeny, and this embryo represents an entire species’ coming birth. As such, it is also a moving emblem of the human mind’s ability to imagine its own transcendence.
Kubrick is now making Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Eventually, he hopes to film his long-planned Napoleon. In sadistic gangs, conditioned automatons and repressive governments, in the foremost modern ‘hero’, it is possible to find resemblances to thematic concerns in Kubrick’s previous films. But 2001 is departure and advance sufficient to discourage easy prophecy. As late as Dr. Strangelove, it was possible for some critics to dismiss Kubrick as a talented enfant terrible. After 2001, that is no longer sufficient. Kubrick’s next films can be approached as a master’s works. Watching him explore the possibilities of his art is one of the contemporary cinema’s few sustained pleasures.

Sight & Sound, 40/1 (1970-1), pp. 28-33


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