2001: A Space Odyssey
A few times in Pascal’s Pensees, the reader runs across this thoughtful refrain: “It is an image of the condition of man.” Regardless of one’s response to the end of Kubrick’s 2001, it is bound to have the same universal tone that Pascal attempted to evoke in his philosophical imagery.
The condition of man in 2001, however, has been a matter of debate ever since the film was released. Do we see in the film an image of mankind groping blindly through the cosmos toward an encounter with a technicolor Something that can explain who and what we are? Do we see in the film a poetic recitation of the evolutionary process by which mankind emerged, gene by gene, from a complex miracle of chance? Perhaps the film is about something more specific, in that 2001 is the tale of mankind’s first contact with bona fide extraterrestrials.
In part, the film inspires such varied readings because of the way Kubrick embeds such cosmic imagery in long, thoughtful takes that prize the sensation of time and space over narrative detail. The rudiments of a plot are scattered throughout 2001, signaled by the appearance of a gleaming black monolith at key intervals.
It first appears, brimming with significance, amidst a clan of Pleistocene era ape-men that have just learned how to use the bones of their ancestors to clobber neighboring pedigrees. Again we see it poking through the dust of the moon, signaling space travel-era mankind toward a point in the darkness just around the lip of Jupiter. It is between this appearance and the next that the film spends most of its time, as we track the journey of three scientists sent to investigate the terminus of this galactic vibrato.
During this movement of the film we meet Drs. Bowman and Poole, and HAL 9000, the impeccable computer directing their extended flight. The chamber drama that unfolds between these voyagers fated with all the tension of a Greek epic plays out with alarming precision until the third appearance of the monolith. Here we find Bowman, in a fulfillment of every possible science-fiction fantasy, hurtling through flickering panes of light toward a baffling sequence of set pieces that have haunted film culture ever since.
2001 was released at the height of the US vs. USSR space race. A manned Apollo capsule was circuiting the earth, anticipating a full-on run at the moon. These were exciting times for a world finally coming to grips with its ability to, as Reagan would say while memorializing the Challenger disaster, “touch the face of God.”
However you parse the abstractions, 2001 features what may be one of the best conversion experiences caught on film. The coordinating points of this conversion are obscure, but it is an experience that makes us grapple in a revelatory way with the raw facts of human progress.