Wednesday 29 January 2020

Film - Wild odyssey: the divine madness of '2001'

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

All this week, the IFI are showing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in a new 70mm print as part of their 'Futures Past' season. The season focuses on films that tried to imagine mankind's future, and surely no movie fills that brief more completely than 2001. Kubrick spent five long years writing, developing, designing and shooting his immense and unprecedented space epic with the help of Arthur C Clarke and others, and was hurt by the general befuddlement that initially greeted it.

He was particularly unhappy about Pauline Kael's assessment: for her, 2001 was "the biggest amateur movie of them all", a hopelessly grandiose vanity project in which Kubrick's studio had allowed him to do "every really dumb thing he ever wanted to do". But Ms Kael's criticisms were often agenda-driven, and her assertion that Kubrick's film is "a monumentally unimaginative movie" suggests an underlying malice: 2001 is many things, but 'unimaginative' it is certainly not.

And while other contemporary critics were almost as damning, there were some, like Philip French and Roger Ebert, who appreciated Kubrick's vision, and the film's record-breaking importance. And it is their arguments that have ultimately won the day, because 2001 now regularly appears on lists of great movies, and has been acclaimed by everyone from Spielberg and Lucas to Scorsese and Friedkin.

It's remarkable, all right, but it's not very easy to love. I remember, the first time I saw it as a child of 12 or 13, being impressed by the terrifying sensations of the vastness of space, but totally confused as to what was going on. How were those alien monolith things directing us, and to what end? How and why was Keir Dullea sent careering off through time and space at the end, and if he's reborn, does that mean Kubrick believed in God?

It's not supposed to make perfect sense, of course: Arthur C Clarke, who collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay, famously said that "if you understand 2001 completely, we failed - we wanted to raise far more questions than we answered".

They certainly did that, and Kubrick's few pronouncements on the matter only added to the mystery.

But to get lost in the meaning of 2001 is to miss its point entirely. First and foremost, it's an austerely pure piece of cinema, as pure in its way as the silent classics of Abel Gance and FW Murnau. And while people complain about the lack of dialogue in the film (none for the first 25 minutes), I reckon we're lucky we got any at all. Because Kubrick had thought so long and hard about how to visually render his high-concept themes that what words there are (with the exception of one key scene we'll come to shortly) could easily have been dispensed with.

To put it simply, Kubrick's film took us on a whistle-stop tour through man's past and possible futures, pondering along the way such dizzying questions as consciousness, the nature of the universe, and the existence - or not - of God. He did all this and still managed to make his film a box-office hit, though some have suggested he got a bit of help in this regard from the drug-addled counter-culture. Some folks liked to watch it stoned.

In 1964, Kubrick had just completed Dr Strangelove and was well settled in the English countryside, far away from his real and imagined enemies and detractors in Hollywood. He had lately become fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and decided he'd like to make "the proverbial good science fiction movie". Up to that point, with very few exceptions, sci-fi films were trashy and exploitative B-pictures with rubber monsters and scantily clad heroines.

Kubrick realised that good source material would be essential to a high-quality finished film, and was very impressed by the stories of English writer Arthur C Clarke. He wanted to meet him but was intimidated, having heard that Clarke was "a recluse, a nut, who lives in a tree".

He lived in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but turned out to be very amenable to the idea of working with the "enfant terrible" as he called Kubrick, and when the two men met in New York in the late spring of 1964, they got on surprisingly well.

Kubrick told Clarke he wanted to make a film about "man's relationship with the universe", and while he could hardly have pitched a broader concept, it all made perfect sense to Clarke. They used his 1948 short story The Sentinel as a starting point, but would spend the next two years researching and developing that slender idea into first a novel, then a screenplay. The title was entirely Kubrick's idea, and was inspired by Homer's Odyssey. "It occurred to us," he said later, "that for the Greeks, the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation."

He originally intended using actors to play aliens, but when he asked astronomer Carl Sagan for advice, he was told that such a move would make the film seem false, as extraterrestrials, should they exist, were unlikely to look anything like us. And so Kubrick and Clarke persisted with those huge, shiny black monoliths, which suggest a hidden alien intelligence that's overseeing our development at crucial stages. The first one appears near the start of the film, after a group of man-apes have been driven from their watering hole by a rival tribe. Presumably under the influence of the monolith, one ape suddenly figures out how to use a bone as a weapon, kills the rival leader and regains their lost territory. In one of cinema's most famous shots, he then throws the bone into the air and it turns into a spaceship.

We are now in the near future, aboard a Pam Am space plane ­carrying a scientist to an orbiting space station from which he'll be flown to the moon. Dr Heywood Floyd is on a secret mission to examine a black monolith recently found on the moon but buried four million years ago. It's those aliens again, and when sunlight strikes it, a high-pitched radio signal is heard.

We then flash forward 18 months, and follow the crew of Discovery One, a spaceship bound for Jupiter to find out why the monolith's radio signal was beamed to that planet. The astronauts talk regularly with the on-board computer, Hal, a gleaming, super-intelligent and supposedly sentient machine which at one point modestly describes itself as "foolproof and incapable of error". Capable of tautology, however.

But when Hal's advice about a defective piece of on-board equipment turns out to be wrong, he has a sort of breakdown, and starts knocking off the astronauts.

2001's coldness and lack of ­humanity have often been criticised. Human characters are comically dwarfed by the vastness of space, and Kubrick seems to have deliberately chosen bland and little-known actors who were not likely to get in the way of his grand ideas. But the film does have one very emotional and genuinely disturbing moment - the death of Hal. As Dave quietly begins to cut his power, Hal moans pitifully, pleads "don't do that", and says quietly, "my mind is going, I can feel it", before breaking into a childish song. It's one of the great death scenes in film.

The end of 2001 is problematic for some, and reminds one of some of the bizarre and stagy guignol asides that turn up in later films like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. But how else could a film like this have ended other than wildly, crazily? And here's a thought for you - does 2001 actually come to an end at all?

Kubrick's life did, of course, on March 7, 1999, but not before he'd carefully burnt all the prints and out-takes from his films so as to avoid posthumous messing about with them.

And in the case of 2001, he was absolutely right, because in a strange way this mad, inspired and endlessly inspiring film could not possibly be improved upon.

Kubrick's  other films

It often surprises people to learn that Stanley Kubrick only made 13 feature films during his 50-odd year career, but then again, he almost always made good ones. Kubrick announced himself in Hollywood with his third feature, a noir thriller called The Killing (1956), starring Sterling Hayden as a veteran robber planning one last heist. He followed it with my favourite Kubrick film, Paths of Glory (1957), a dark moral drama set in the trenches of northern France.

Spartacus (1960) established Kubrick as a major Hollywood player, but also put him off working there for good. He retreated to England to make Lolita (1962), and stayed. After Dr Strangelove and 2001 came Clockwork Orange, a nightmarish dystopian fantasy which caused such controversy in England that Kubrick removed it from circulation himself. His 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon is now recognised as a slow masterpiece, and The Shining (1981) is among the finest horror films ever made. Kubrick's output diminished sharply after 1980, but his 1987 war epic Full Metal Jacket displayed his usual boldness and originality.

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