Friday, July 10, 1998

2001 A Space Odyssey - A Cynic's View

The conventional interpretation of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" goes something like this: there's this monolith, and it is a symbol for mankind's progress, or a force for the advancement of intellect, or something,
and it keeps showing up when there is a great advance. So, the first great leap was at "The Dawn of Man" when the apes figured out how to use tools to get dinner and also to kill each other. The next great leap was to build a colony on the moon, thus man had moved to colonise a place beyond the earth. So the monolith shows up there, too. The great leap after that happens near Jupiter, where we are dealing with a computer smarter than men, another great leap, and where the monolith seems to be hanging out again. Ok, this is where things really start to get interesting. We are treated to a sequence of psychedelia and end up in the eighteenth century. The conventional interpretation says this is all about man's eventual evolution to something beyond even what man himself can comprehend. The leap of man's consciousness melding into the cosmos. So "2001" advocates and junkies (whom I will refer to as "2001-ies") think this movie is about how we must explore space to evolve through next great leaps of mankind. To this I say:
I think "2001" is a movie of great irony. That irony is: space flight, depicted by such incredible special effects, is not really very incredible at all for the characters or for the society in the story. You'd think a film about space flight released in 1968 would be full of the excitement and romance we were feeling about it back then. But instead, "2001" is really about the pessimism we were feeling. I don't care what the "2001"-ies say: A good deal of the space stuff in the film is fucking boring. And Kubrick meant it to be boring.
Consider the food they were eating in space. Identical little square sandwiches, slurry you have to suck through straws, and unidentifiable portions that look like baby food. The best meal in the whole film was when the apes figured out they could use their tools to get dinner and had a beast feast. The blandness of the food reflected the blandness of life in space. The exterior shots of the various space ships were cinematically astonishing, but inside life was colorless and antiseptic. Art had devolved to Dave's lame little drawings. Humankind had "progressed" to become a space traveller, but it hadn't done anyone much good.
Shortly after the apes used their tools for food, they used them to kill their neighbors. And while we may have used our tools to go to Jupiter and make artificial intelligence, we hadn't become more humane. ("Dr Strangelove" took us in a slightly different direction, showing us our ultimate machine, the A-bomb.) The most "human" character in the film, of course, was HAL, the computer. He exhibited delight, anger, jealousy, confusion, and deception. He even committed murder in his quest to satisfy his mission requirements. Meanwhile, the humans didn't give a single hoot about being on this amazing space flight, or a birthday greeting from earth, or the crappy food they had to eat. Dave hardly even blinked an eye when Frank died.
Dave was sent back by Kubrick to the 18th century, before the Industrial Revolution. ( "2001"-ies say that Dave was transported to a "higher" plane created by the monolithic force, who created it as something familiar to Dave. I don't buy it. Why would 18th century stuff be familiar to Dave ?? ) Maybe the monolith ( or whoever it was that planted it ) was saying HUMANS REALLY SCREWED UP and we can't hope to right our wrongs unless we go back to before the technological age, and try over again. The "star child" at the end is the glimmer of optimism that says we can find our innocence again and use our tools to do good things.
Maybe "2001" is self-referential. We have astounding technology and what do we do with it ?  Amuse ourselves with mindless video games and movies. When the Monolith, this astounding object, (maybe even God himself) shows up on the moon, what did these guys do ?:  Make it a photo op. (If I'm not mistaken, the photographer was Kubrick himself).
Maybe the joke's on us! Maybe what we should do is stop spending so much time analyzing this silly film and go out there and contribute to some true progress.