People often remember 2001: A Space Odyssey as being divided into three. It’s actually in four parts. The first part sees us in the depths of our prehistory. And it’s a pretty accurate summary of what was then known about our origins in the mid 1960s.
We began as part ape part man, slightly more the latter than the former, living as one amongst many animals, some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed upon us.
But our ability to fashion tools, and our understanding that this is was sets up apart began the process by which we soon came to dominate the planet. It also – though much later – introduces rivalry between us and our neighbouring clans. And that means drama.
Predictably, the one element that Kubrick leaves out of our prehistoric evolution is reproduction, because that requires sex. Despite the fact that sex is the source of all the best drama, Kubrick avoids it. Because sex leads to emotion, and Kubrick doesn’t do emotion – see earlier review here.
The second section moves to the future, where an astronaut is sent into space to investigate a curious discovery on a nearby moon. And when that goes wrong, we move further into the future for the third section, as another pair of astronauts have been sent into space to investigate that.
This then becomes a battle of wits between one of them and the on board computer, HAL. And when then the bedraggled astronaut speeds off into space for the fourth section we are flung further forward into the future and what seems to be a new dimension.
What happens when we get there is instructive. In appearance impressively enigmatic, it’s actually fairly easy to break down. The fourth section is basically an exercise in subject displacement.
He, the subject, looks over at a doorway. Cut to his POV of the doorway, the object. Then the object has become the subject, and we now find ourselves at the doorway. He, the new subject, is looking over at: Our POV of an old man eating at a table, the new object. Then once again, we are now at the table, where the old man, who was the object but is now the subject, is looking around at: our POV of another old man in a bed. And once again we are over with the man in the bed, who is looking up at: our POV of the granite slab that links all four sections, suggesting so much yet saying so little.
The response to all of which is, so what? It’s all wonderfully evocative, but it’s not actually about anything. Neither philosophically, intellectually nor narratively. And that goes for the whole film. The only section of the film that is, is the third, where fairly standard fears about machines taking over the world are explored. Other than that, none of it is about anything. But that’s not the point.
What it is instead is a sequence of beautifully composed, imagistic tableaux, painstakingly constructed and all meticulously framed by brilliantly chosen pieces of complimentary classical music.
When the spaceship docs in part 2 to the tune of the Blue Danube, for a full six minutes(!), that’s not what space looks or sounds like. That’s what we’d like it to look and sound like in our imaginations. Unfettered by the constraints of conventional narrative, Kubrick let his imagination roam. And it’s ravishing.
If all films were like this of course, none of us would ever bother watching any of them. But as a lone beacon that stands proudly in contrast to every other great film, with its dismissal of narrative and therefore of emotional engagement, and its celebration instead of pure images set to sublime music, verily its vision to behold.
It’s on for a week at the Light House in Dublin, and elsewhere, and here’s the 2001 trailer.
Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!