2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick

A richly allegorical and visually striking masterwork, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey is for some, pretentious and uneventful, and yet for others, it is the ultimate work of art which deals with some of the most fundamental philosophical questions.

2001-a-space-odyssey-2Since The Killing, his breakthrough movie, Stanley Kubrick could not put a foot wrong. He made one great film after the other. Just a few other filmmakers (perhaps, auteurs like Tarkovsky or Malick) can rival his ratio of masterpieces-to-films-made. In other words, it is hard to decide on his ultimate masterwork: the movie that defines his legacy. So, as 2001: A Space Odyssey stands tall in his oeuvre, maybe elbowing past Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining to the top, it deserves to be called a special film indeed.

The story is told in four distinct parts. ‘The Dawn of Man’ showcases the learning curve of a herbivorous tribe of hominids and its progression into efficient murderous predators. The untitled second part tells of Man’s hegemony over the animal kingdom and how it propels his ambitions to the moon and beyond. ‘Jupiter Mission’ is probably the better known sequence of the movie with its two astronauts and their struggle with the spacecraft’s quasi-conscious computer HAL 9000. Finally, ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ takes David Bowman (Keir Dullea), one of the astronauts from the precedent part, to a room where he ages and is reborn into a star-child. All four parts are dominated by the appearance of a black monolith, which influence the evolution of Man.

The allegory of the cave, described by Plato in The Republic, goes a long way to teach us not only about our illusions but also about our own humanity. It is difficult for human beings to recognise that reason, this god-like ability, is incapable of understanding its own limitations. Just because at some point in our evolution we crossed a chimerical line and transcended our animal selves, it does not follow that now we are masters of our destinies. The history of our species, with its bloody massacres and shameless human subjugation, is enough proof of Man’s irrational tendency to violence.

.2001: A Space Odyssey. The Genius of Stanley Kubrick.

When HAL 9000, the semi-conscious computer aboard the spacecraft on the mission to Jupiter, refuses to open the outer door to an astronaut floating in space, it raises the question of how to reconcile the interests of the individual against those of the group. Usually, Man solves the practical aspect of the problem by appointing leaders to positions of power. Since the survival of the whole is of the ultimate importance, certain people are more ‘worthy’ than others. In war times, the army deals with the need for quick commands through a system of hierarchy. If necessary, the organization sacrifices low-ranking men for the sake of keeping higher-ranking officers safe. There’s always a helicopter waiting for the president.

However, in theoretical terms, the dilemma remains. We save the president because without leadership the community collapses. But it does not follow that it is the best thing to do. Some might argue that, in fact, it is, as such action saves the group, which we cannot survive without. Perhaps. But try telling this to the guy who is going to die. Try justifying such logic to the condemned person’s family. We usually refuse to do so, when lecturing other nations about the righteous path we built for ourselves. If they argue that the cutting of trees or the lack of workers’ rights is the sacrifice they’re willing to take to propel their country to the developed world, we usually refuse to see their point.

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Because the problem of balancing the interests of the individual and the interests of the community has no solution, then we reach for compromises and trade-offs. Sometimes we favour the singular; sometimes, the plural. However, even when we do understand what’s at stake, we let our prejudices run wind. Suppose we agree with the premise that the whole must be preserved no matter what. Then the lives of people interfering with such premise ought not to be taken as relevant. It is exactly what happens when HAL 9000 takes control of the situation.

What does exactly bother us when it stops obeying human commands? Isn’t what the humans in the film designed the computer for? To uphold certain procedures in case anything goes wrong. Is it the fact that this precocious cinematic artificial intelligence displays so much impertinence and arrogance? Does this computer with such typical human traits shock and frighten us, for we see ourselves and our flaws reflected in the machines we have created? Just more invincible!!… Just more dangerous!!

Why are we complaining when it was us who have opened this Pandora’s Box? It is clear that the two astronauts who have to deal with HAL 9000’s rebellious behaviour are puppets for the system. Unable to see the bigger picture, they were ready to jeopardise the whole mission. Misguided by their human agency, they were truly sure of their superior reasoning ability and decided to act on those mistakes. Even the final part of the film does not prove Bowman’s ultimate importance. For all I can see, the psychedelic trip is further proof that he was just witnessing shadows on the wall.

For those out of the cave, 2001: A Space Odyssey serves perfectly as Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic legacy: visually compelling and philosophically profound.

4 thoughts on “2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick

  1. You didn’t mention Dr. Strangelove in the list of Kubrick masterpieces, but I’d put it above all but this one (which still looks fresh and visually striking, all these years later).

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa. You’re right… I didn’t mention Dr. Strangelove with the other films because every single time that I watch the film it fails to engage with my sense of humour. I know that this fact says more about myself than about this acknowledged masterpiece, but if I’m totally honest I have to confess that the movie leaves me cold. Kubrick was a genius and Dr. Strangelove is surely one of his great films, but not one of my favourites. Cheers. Ricardo.

  2. 4th paragraph…mission to Jupiter…not to Mars…

    Anyway, I love the movie…The second part is so mundane. It’s amazing how Kubrick perfectly describes how bureaucracy would deal with the discovery of an extraterrestrial artifact. Anyone who had ever attanded to a boring hypocritical business meeting knows exactly what he meant…

    • Great Marcão!! Thanks for the correction. The film is so many things for so many people. What I love most is the fact that ambiguity pervades over the whole story. Because several parts are left without a precise explanation (‘What’s the reason for the appearance of the monolith?’ ‘Is mankind a prelude for a more advanced race?’ etc) the movie creates different meanings for different people. Stanley Kubrick is in the Top 5 Directors of all time. I worship his films as the apes do the big black stone. Valeu, my brother! Cheers. Ricardo.

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