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This spring marks the 50th anniversary and the return to theaters of what is widely considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also marks the 50th anniversary of people asking, as Rock Hudson reportedly did at the premiere, “Will someone tell me what the [profanity] this is about?”
I don’t think the answer is as esoteric as some film buffs and director Stanley Kubrick himself seemed to believe, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Because there are really two movies contained within 2001. The indulgent, mystical elements of the first sandwich a middle narrative that tells a tense, universal tale of horror executed to perfection by a master storyteller. Not coincidentally, it is this part of the movie—the part that contains a recognizable protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution—that most people remember. It’s also the part that has had the most obvious impact on the work of later filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan.
In it, astronaut Dave Bowman is on a mission to Jupiter when he finds himself at the mercy of a sentient computer known as HAL. Such is Kubrick’s skill and patience building up to the showdown between man and machine, even though we already suspect HAL has gone rogue, that the moment of revelation is utterly chilling and taps into a timeless dread. Do you doubt audiences of yesteryear could understand our modern fear of the created thing turning on its creator? Then recall that Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein long before the first computer. And like Shelley, Kubrick gives us a weird empathy for a twisted, uncanny creature that should never have existed.
But if the best part of the film is built on an age-old fear, the worst is built on an age-old lie, dressed up in sci-fi trappings. It revolves around three black boxlike objects that appear throughout the film. The first enters the scene during what Kubrick calls “The Dawn of Man” when an apelike creature is inspired to use a bone as a weapon. The second arrives 18 months before the main narrative when a team of Americans excavates one near their moon base.
The third comes during the film’s final act when astronaut Dave continues his mission to Jupiter and encounters one hovering in space. For these 30 minutes, so popular with ’60s acid trippers, very little of what is shown on screen makes sense. But Kubrick’s collaborator, the late sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, revealed in his novel that the three objects are alien tools for prodding evolution. The final one turns Dave into a vast celestial being with knowledge so far advanced beyond humanity as to render him a god.
Kubrick told Rolling Stone in 1972 that the movie “finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God … and the realistic hardware and the documentary feeling about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.” In other words, all that mystical imagery and Nietzsche symbolism boils down to little more than the most pedestrian kind of druggie pondering—What if, like, God were really, like, just a super-advanced alien, man.
In the end, Kubrick was working with a pretty played-out premise, seeing as it’s been around since the Garden of Eden. Satan sells a lie that mankind can be as knowledgeable as God. 2001 tells a hypothetical story of how that process might work. It’s ironic, though, that the work Kubrick and Clarke, both atheists, were best known for betrays an inherent understanding that the bodies we inhabit now are not ultimately the end for us—we contain the potential for a higher destiny. They call it “starchild.” We call it “glorification.”
So when 2001: A Space Odyssey returns to theaters starting May 18, you can go and enjoy the riveting cat-and-mouse game between HAL and Dave. But feel free to skip out on the psychedelic light show. It’s just a lot of color and fireworks signifying nothing. Or, at least, nothing new.