Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, 1968
#5 of 28 in the 20th century series
The first three movies in this series I watched for classes in college, and the fourth I caught on cable during my year off before grad school. I have no idea when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. I know we had the VHS tape kicking around the house for a while—the official one, not a copy we taped off Cinemax. I think my father bought it around the time we got our first VCR. I vaguely remember seeing bits of it and finding those bits pretty boring. And yet I do know that during my senior year of high school I was enough of a fan of it that when we got to the question of artificial intelligence in philosophy class, I eagerly asked whether I could bring the tape in, and Mr. Sawaya agreed to devote an entire class period to screening the HAL segment (and as the bell rang, he gave me a wry look and asked, “So, what have we learned?”). Meaning that at some point between ages eleven and fifteen I must have sat and watched 2001 and moved it onto my list of favorites, but I have no memory of this. It occurs to me that this forgotten moment actually shaped my life to no small degree! Matt Bowman was my Secret Santa in our school newspaper’s holiday gift exchange senior year, and presumably on the basis of my having shown 2001 in philosophy class, he got me a book about 2001 and a book about all of Stanley Kubrick’s films up to 1975. Reading the latter book made me want to watch all those films, but I thought that before I watched Lolita, I should probably read the novel. And reading Lolita was the main thing that inspired me to become an English major. I’d applied to Berkeley because it had a top department in every subject and I had no idea what I wanted to pursue, so maybe without 2001, I would never have gotten into literature and would today be an appellate judge or a chemical engineer or something. Which in turn suggests that maybe that VHS tape was my anti‐monolith. Oh well.
2001 is one of the most celebrated movies in history—it placed second of all time in this decade’s Sight & Sound directors’ poll, for instance—so even before I saw it for the first time (whenever that was) I was familiar with the main talking points about it. I knew that it was heralded for its special effects: majestic shots of the solar system, Escheresque scenes of weightlessness, and of course the psychedelic “star gate” sequence. Those effects remain impressive today, though back then the question was “Whoa, how did they do that?”, while nowadays the question is “Whoa, how did they do that without computers?” The fact that these effects were achieved through models and huge rotating sets and in‐camera techniques such as front projection and slit‐scan photography rather than through computers is kind of ironic given that 2001 features probably the most famous fictional computer in history, the HAL 9000. That’s the other big thing I’d heard about 2001 back in the day—the standard line that Hal is the most human character in the film, the one who expresses pride and anxiety and fear while the astronauts are stiff and robotic, one of them watching his parents’ birthday greeting video as if it were a test pattern. Rewatching the movie from start to finish for the first time in the 21st century, I wondered whether anything new would jump out at me or whether I would just end up recapitulating the above and calling it a day.
As it turns out, something new did jump out at me. To wit: I was struck by how much of 2001 is about eating. When we first meet the apemen, that’s what they’re doing—specifically, they’re digging up and chewing on clumps of grass. When the monolith inspires one of them to use a bone as a club, inventing the concept of weapons, the first thing he does with it is kill a tapir and gnaw at the organs of his choice, then share the rest of the meat with the others in his group. And the battle that group conducts against the enemy apemen is over a watering hole. Cut to millions of years later. Dr. Floyd arrives on Space Station #5, and his first words after getting through security are “I got time for breakfast?” The head of security has already booked a table for him at the station’s restaurant, but on the way there he runs into some Soviet scientists; the moment he sits down, one of them asks whether he’d like a drink. Next up is Floyd’s flight to the American moon base, and the very first thing we see when we cut to the inside of the shuttle is a stewardess arriving in the cabin with trays of food. We even get a closeup of the eight‐course meal. After a meeting where everyone’s place setting includes a glass of water, Floyd hops onto a hovercraft to see the monolith that has just been dug up in Tycho Crater. The first words we hear in the hovercraft: “Well, anybody hungry?” And out come the sandwiches, along with thirty seconds of discussion of said sandwiches. Then some chatter about the monolith… and then “Well, how about a little coffee?” A few moments later the monolith is going “EEEEEEE”, and we cut to the Jupiter mission eighteen months later. The first interior scene is Frank exercising—and the second is of him eating, as Dave arrives and orders up a meal of his own from the onboard vending machine. Four rectangular trays of food paste apiece. And we’re still not done with eating, for during the bedroom sequence at the end, the camera lingers over elderly Dave’s last meal. You could be forgiven for overhearing “Food, Glorious Food” coming from the next theater over and assuming it was part of the 2001 soundtrack.
So what’s all the eating about? Well, it’s not just eating. There is, of course, the eventual sequel to eating, and not only do we see Floyd spend a long moment studying the instructions to the zero gravity toilet, but the first thing Dave does upon leaving the pod in the bedroom is to walk into the bathroom, which proves to be equipped with a bench‐style toilet with a padded lavender lid over the seat. And while Dave is exploring the little apartment where he will spend the remainder of his accelerated life eating and shitting, we hear him breathing. 2001 is famous for being scored with classical music, but frequently there is no score at all: in the vacuum of space we hear absolute silence; when machines are operating we hear them whir and beep; and when humans are in pods or spacesuits we are treated to a deafening inhale ‐ exhale ‐ inhale ‐ exhale. Put it all together and I think the message is this: in the future, we may have built machines whose intelligence rivals our own, and we may encounter sentients who have ascended into beings of pure energy, but even as we venture out to the stars, every one of us remains a biological organism, breathing, eating, and shitting. Note that when Dave is transformed by the monolith, he doesn’t become a robot or a hyperintelligent shade of the color blue—he becomes a celestial fetus, a creature that looks like it’s been drawn straight out of a biology textbook. In a universe full of sterile white spaceships driven by silicon superminds, riddled with lightshow spacewarps engineered by numinous cosmic guardians, we’re still made of meat, defined by what the spaceship’s hibernation system terms our “life functions”.
Two appendices here. I’ve read that in its early drafts, 2001 placed much more emphasis on the expansion of the Cold War into space—that instead of space stations we would have seen orbital weapons platforms, and that when the Star Child returns to Earth (the aliens having transformed Dave into a deva, so to speak) he arrives just in time to interrupt a nuclear war. I understand that Kubrick was worried about being seen as rehashing Dr. Strangelove, but I do think this works better than the released film does. “Bone club to nuclear missile” is a better match cut than “Bone club to spaceship”—it’d mean the evolution of weapons, not just the evolution of technology in general—and the nuclear war is likewise a thematic match for the battle over the watering hole. And since I like movies with plots more than cinematic tone poems, the idea that the Star Child solves the problem set up in the first shots of Earth orbit appeals to me more than concluding the film by having the Star Child stare at us, the aliens having uplifted humanity for no particular reason.
Second, I suppose another objection to the nuclear war plot is that by the real 2001, the Soviet Union was extinct and the Cold War was over, so the less emphasis on those elements, the better. But 2001 is already firmly grounded in the 1960s. Yes, the film portrays some technological advances—some of which are almost invisible now because they’ve come true, like seatback TVs on flights and computer monitors capable of rendering typeset fonts—but this is not an exercise in painting a picture of the future. It might seem unfair to ding the filmmakers for spotlighting companies that were defunct by the real 2001, like Pan Am and Ma Bell, but they didn’t even update any of the logos. Clearly this was a deliberate choice—it would not have escaped someone as obsessed with detail as Stanley Kubrick that in 33 years companies might freshen up their trademarks. The women’s haircuts are all straight out of the ’60s as well—as are, y’know, the gender roles. So while 2001 works as a title insofar as it evokes the inauguration of a new millennium, the bulk of this story pretty clearly takes place in an alternate‐universe 1968. And there’s a logic to that decision, because you can’t keep your work from becoming dated. After all, even if through some miracle 2001 had matched 2001, all it would mean is that Floyd would have flown to the space station on America West and talked to his daughter via Cingular.