Thursday, July 21, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If you accept the conventional wisdom regarding the late Stanley Kubrick, your worst suspicions will be confirmed by his crowning achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You think Kubrick was an egomaniacal control freak? OK, maybe he was. But it’s hard to see how a modest Mr. Nice Guy could have convinced a major Hollywood studio – Metro Goldwyn Mayer, no less! -- to bankroll something this intellectually ambitious, tauntingly ambiguous and budget-bustingly expensive back in 1968. As Norman Kagan notes in The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, the director spent a year and a half shooting 205 special effects shots, “many of them possible only because of technical processes Kubrick himself invented.” Compared to this guy, even James Cameron seems like a meek under-achiever.

You say you’ve always heard Kubrick was a dour misanthrope with a sour view of humankind? Then check out the scene that signals the dawn of civilization: Man-apes learn how to kill more efficiently by reconfiguring animal bones as lethal weapons. And while you’re at it, fast-forward a bit, and contemplate the insufferable blandness of supposedly more advanced homo sapiens. Time and again, 2001 underscores the ironic contrast between the miraculous and the mundane, between the panoramic splendors of outer space and the narrow-focused behavior of smaller-than-life humans. There’s something borderline-sadistic about the way Kubrick caricatures a white-bread, charm-free scientist who gets his first glimpse at hard evidence of intelligent life on other planets. “Well,” he remarks with the empty cheer of a Kiwanis Club luncheon speaker, “I must say – you guys have certainly come up with something.”

Do you find yourself agreeing with Calder Willingham, co-screenwriter of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, who accused the director of “a near-psychotic indifference to and coldness toward the human beings” in his movies? Then consider this: HAL 9000, the soft-spoken super-computer, seems a lot more human than its flesh-and-blood traveling companions aboard a Jupiter-bound spacecraft. It’s so affecting, even tragic, when an astronaut (another personality-challenged human, played by Keir Dullea) disables HAL, you’re almost willing to forgive the digital paranoid for causing the deaths of every other crew member. Indeed, with the arguable exception of Tom Cruise’s obsessive seeker in Eyes Wide Shut, Hal is the closest thing to a genuinely charismatic and sympathetic character in any movie Kubrick made after Spartacus (1960).

Despite the absence of a significant human protagonist to generate a rooting interest, 2001 was a huge commercial success during its first theatrical run. (And not just because many chemically-enhanced viewers repeatedly savored it as a widescreen head trip.) More than four decades later, it is widely viewed as a masterpiece, even by some critics who expressed serious misgivings in their initial reviews. That it was, and continues to be, one of the past century’s most influential films is beyond dispute. And it is so firmly affixed in our collective pop-culture consciousness that even people who have never actually seen 2001 get the joke when someone makes a wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusion to the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra (perhaps the most inspired musical choice ever made by a filmmaker) or the arrival of those imposing black Monoliths that encourage human beings to transcend themselves.

Trouble is, much of 2001 hasn’t aged very well. The mystifying climax of what one critic described as the film’s “shaggy God story” (concocted by Kubrick and visionary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke) seems more than ever like a precocious sophomore’s idea of deep-dish philosophizing. (It doesn’t help that, when Dullea awakens after a dazzling sound-and-light show, he finds himself trapped inside what looks like the spectacularly garish luxury suite of a Las Vegas hotel.) Worse, Kubrick’s intricately and interminably detailed depiction of extra-terrestrial travel – meant to convey shock and awe at the miracle of space flight -- now seems, compared to more recent displays of high-tech wizardry, almost quaint.

Of course, some things – titles, for instance -- never go out of date. And just as 1984 continues to serve as shorthand for a dystopian vision of technologically-enhanced totalitarianism, 2001 retains its mythic resonance – an optimistic prediction of first contact with other, presumably wiser, life forms -- long after people stopped scribbling that cluster of numbers in checkbooks. Instead of inspiring awe, however, the film itself now is more likely to evoke a kind of wistful melancholy that Kubrick never intended. It’s sad, but true: These days, we simply don’t view interstellar exploration with the same wonder-fueled enthusiasm shared by Kubrick and millions of others back in 1968.

To be sure, there’s the occasional media frenzy about images beamed from Mars by unmanned spacecraft. And there’s always a ready audience for every new chapter of the Star Wars franchise. But with each passing year, it’s increasingly more difficult to imagine that anything short of a real-world appearance by a beckoning Monolith would re-ignite our intergalactic wanderlust. All you have to do is read news accounts of petty Congressional squabbling over NASA funding, and you’ll realize that, never mind what the calendar might tell you, we’re still a long, long way from the bold new age of discovery we were promised all those years ago.