By Eric Norden
Published September 01, 1968
“I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional image of God”
Throughout his 17-year career as a moviemaker, Stanley Kubrick has committed himself to pushing the frontiers of film into new and often controversial regions – despite the box-office problems and censorship battles that such a commitment invariably entails. Never a follower of the safe, well-traveled road to Hollywood success, he has consistently struck out on his own, shattering movie conventions and shibboleths along the way. In many respects, his latest film, the epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, stands as a metaphor for Kubrick himself. A technically flawless production that took three years and $10.5 million to create, 2001 could have been just a superspectacle of exotic gadgetry and lavish special effects; but with the collaboration of Arthur C. Clarke, astrophysicist and doyen of science-fiction writers, Kubrick
has elevated a sci-fi adventure to the level of allegory – creating a stunning and disturbing metaphysical speculation on man’s destiny that has fomented a good-sized critical controversy and become a cocktail-party topic across the country. An uncompromising film, 2001 places a heavy intellectual burden upon the audience, compelling each viewer to unravel for himself its deeper meaning and significance. Its message is conveyed not through plot or standard expository dialog but through metaphysical hints and visual symbols that demand confrontation and interpretation.
2001 begins several million years in the past, with a vivid – and, to some, mystifying – sequence on the dawn of man. At first an apelike vegetarian living peacefully among other animals, he suddenly becomes a carnivorous and warlike protohuman, eager and ready to kill his neighbor in defense of the territorial imperative. The cosmic midwife of this transmogrification is a mysterious black monolith that appears at a crucial point in the ape’s evolution and apparently inspires him to employ a bone as both weapon and tool. The monoliths are, in a very real sense, the protagonists of the picture; they appear, Sivalike, to offer man options for both good and evil, as represented by the weapon-tool – which, when flung triumphantly into the air by a jubilant warrior ape, dissolves into a spaceship languidly approaching a satellite space station.
The year is now 2001. Another monolith has been discovered buried beneath the moon’s surface – and man is ready for his next evolutionary leap. The monolith broadcasts an earsplitting signal toward the planet Jupiter, and a team of five astronauts (three in hibernation) is sent there to determine the source of the mystery. But in the course of the journey, four of them die at the hands of Hal 9000 – the ship’s omniscient and omnipresent computer – who is so anthropomorphic that he suffers from the all-too-human sin of hubris. The remaining astronaut (Keir Dullea) performs a mechanical lobotomy on Hal’s memory circuits.
Anything is possible
Pursuing another monolith, floating among Jupiter’s moons, Dullea is suddenly swept into a cosmic maelstrom that hurtles him through inner and outer space into new dimensions of consciousness. Finally, he emerges from his space capsule, death-eyed and white-haired, in an eerie Regency bedroom replete with Watteau paintings, French provincial furniture and a luminously glowing floor.