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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Back to Kubrick's Future: Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Because the broad remit of my research allows such things, since Christmas I have gone beyond the infinite universe of books to write on science fiction film, with my current focus being Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Watching this in 2008, and reading about its reception at the time, is a slightly bemusing experience.

As Jerome Agel's contemporary edited collection, The Making of Kubrick's 2001 reports, critics at the time were less than complementary about Kubrick's ten million dollar baby (the contrast with the universal acclaim for Grand Theft Auto IV released today could not be more striking). Some excerpts from the more damning reviews:
You could see it a dozen times and still not understand it. But then, you didn't really expect to understand a movie that took $10.5 million and four years to make, did you?
The guesses of Messrs. Kubrick and Clarke must be as good as ours.
Were 2001 cut in half it would be a pithy and potent film, with an impact that might resolve the "enigma" of its point and preclude our wondering why exactly Mr. Kubrick has brought us to outer space in the year 2001...We hope he sticks to his cameras and stays down to earth - for that is where his triumph remains.
Granted: 2001 is the head flick of all time. Note the faintly resinous spoor of the audience, the people fighting at intermission to get those 50-cent chocolate bars, the spaced-out few who contemplate the curtain for long minutes after the movie ends.
The tedium is the message.
That last piece of pithy genius is from Joseph Gelmis, but in a second review, having watched the film again, he acknowledges one of the problems reviewers of the film at the time faced:
When a film of such extraordinary originality as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey comes along it upsets the members of the critical establishment because it exists outside their framework of apprehending and describing movies. They are threatened. Their most polished puns and witticisms are useless because the conventional standards don't apply. They need an innocent eye, an inconditioned reflex and a flexible vocabulary. With one exception (The New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt), the daily and weekly reviewers offhandedly dismissed the film as a disappointment or found it an ambitious failure.
Gelmis's first review in Newsday (April 4, 1968) classified it precisely in these terms. However, his second review admired the fact that it "uncompromisingly demands acceptance on its own unique terms." Unfortunately, as Gelmis noted, such a refusal to buckle to the audience's demands for simple plot and exegesis meant that its stark originality did not make sense except on a second or third viewing.

But this is precisely why I am so surprised by all the negative reviews from 1968. Because, in 2008, one can only ever watch 2001 for the first time having already seen it many times before. This is to say that anyone who has ever played Frontier Elite to the soundtrack of the Blue Danube Waltz, or seen adverts for the Apple Macintosh, or watched Star Wars or Star Trek or last year's science fiction hit Sunshine has already experienced Kubrick's vision. It is hard to overemphasise how odd seeing 2001 retrospectively is; its visual coinage has been in the cinematic economy for four decades now, and numerous shots first witnessed in 1968 set off echoes in the head today. It is therefore impossible to read the contemporary reviews objectively, without a sense of historical irony: unless, like Gelmis, they were prepared to watch it a second time, they would all be proved wrong.

However, before one gets too heady with schadenfreude, one is brought down to earth with a bump. Kubrick's aesthetics may have survived in the cinematic medium, but the vision of science has not been realised by 2008 in reality. At the time, that famous dissolve in which the spinning bone morphs into a rotating space satellite signified the compression of technological development. A year before man actually did land on the moon, space travel and intelligent computers must have seemed a mere frame in history in the future. Looking back today, we are reminded that 2001 did not see the rise of artificial intelligence nor space exploration.

Indeed, a year earlier we'd all been terrified by millennium bugs infecting cranky dumb machines. That AI has failed to come to fruition as Kubrick and Clarke anticipated can be seen not as endorsing the fact that the human mind is so advanced no machine can match it, but that the human mind is so limited that it never can invent a machine to match it. For the twenty-first-century spectator of 2001, perhaps the most profound message is that Clarke and Kubrick, writing in the heyday of the space race and the Eliza chatbot, wrongly judged the acceleration of scientific development. In the twenty-first century the chronology of history and the future-time of the novel have switched places. Thus HAL becomes not so much the potential nightmare we want to avoid, but more symbolises the dream we may not ever realise, due to our own limited knowledge in comparison with that represented in his omniscient but fictional mind.

A similarly depressing story is told by 2001's vision of space travel. Famously, this is presented as being entirely mundane. It involves talk about freeze dried sandwiches ("What's that? Chicken?" "Something like that. Tastes the same anyway."), inane birthday greetings from mum and dad, lounging on sun beds. However, as we know from the Columbia disaster, space remains a risky and colossally expensive business. It is the specialist enterprise of big government, not space tourists (though Virgin Galactic may be seeking to change that).

Space science today is mundane, but in a significantly different way to that which Kubrick imagined. Until it was taken over by images of galaxies colliding - admittedly a pretty exciting firework, though not of our making - the BBC space section was reporting news of the Galileo satellite launch. Space is going to give us better sat nav so that we don't get stranded down country lanes on the way to the Dog and Duck. In comparison, the grand voyages to Jupiter and beyond the infinite seem - in the finite historical timeframe that separates 1968, 2001 and 2008 - a sorry world away.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:00 am

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