Olympus Pen FT / 38mm f/1.8 / Ilford HP5
Off to the cinema, to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has been re-released to theatres by the British Film Institute as part of its Days of Fear and Wonder science fiction season. Some screenings have used a restored 70mm film print, and had signing sessions with original stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood; they sold out so I went to a regular digital screening with several dozen people I did not know. They sat around me and watched the film as well. We entered the theatre and left at roughly the same time. We will probably never meet again. Except in dreams.
2001 originally came out in 1968, and although it baffled critics and left mainstream audiences puzzled and bored, it caught the imagination of hippie types and eventually became a popular success. It was the highest-grossing film of that year, comfortably beating Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet and Franklin Schaeffer's Planet of the Apes. I have the impression that most contemporary cinemagoers saw it at least once, if only for the modelwork and the light show at the end, and elements of the film quickly became clichés. "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" and "The Blue Danube" were adopted by the media as musical shorthand for space travel; the film's bleakly unsentimental modernism influenced nigh-on a decade of dystopian sci-fi epics; numerous space science fiction films since 2001 have included a shot of a large spaceship model slowly gliding past the camera; etc. So profound was its influence that only a few months after release NASA paid tribute to the film's moon sequences by landing actual men on the actual moon. Actual white middle-class professional men, just like in 2001. It must have cost them a fortune.
If you're reading this in the United States, hahaha! You can't go! I've seen 2001 in the cinema, and you haven't! Unless you have, in which case we've both seen 2001 in the cinema, and they haven't. Pity them.
The film was based loosely on "The Sentinel", a 1948 short story by British sci-fi novelist Arthur C Clarke. In the story astronauts discover a mysterious radio transmitter on the moon, which must surely have been buried millions of years ago. Mankind manages to break open the transmitter's force field, but this causes the transmitter to stop. We are left to wonder who buried it, and for what purpose; and now that its transmissions have ceased, what will happen? Will an alien race arrive from the stars to reward our ingenuity, or will they come to kill us before we do more damage? Are they even still alive? 2001 adds a prologue, a third act, and a conclusion, all of which posit that the aliens directed the path of our evolution so that they would not be lonely in the future.
As you read this essay, you can play a drinking game. Every time I use the words "relic" or "throwback" or "fizzle" or "has-been", have a slug of Jägermeister. Every time I begin a paragraph with an intriguing statement and then immediately start writing about something else, take another slug. Every time there's a really obvious typo or I am "struck" by something, vomit.
Arthur C Clarke was a science fiction writer of the old school. He grew up at a time of biplanes and radio, began his writing career in the jet age, lived long enough to see the Apollo project and the internet. He lived to see science fiction grow from a small cult on the level of detective fiction and war thrillers into a relevant, prescient part of modern culture, but by the time he died his kind of science fiction had essentially become obsolete. Star Trek and Star Wars and so forth aren't really science fiction at all, they're adventures with a technological backdrop, essentially updates of Lensman and Flash Gordon. The cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s likewise, for the most part.
The problem facing modern science fiction is that the pace of technological and scientific change has advanced far beyond the understanding of any mainstream audience; in Clarke's day, rockets and orbital space stations and perhaps robotics and time wormholes were comprehensible to the layman, but nowadays the future of science is of ever-smaller, more fundamental subatomic particles, and esoteric aspects of genetic patent law, or the moral aspects of data mining, none of which are particularly interesting or science-fictiony. When Clarke was young there was a future, and it was obvious and within our grasp; over the course of his life the future became tarnished and rotten, but it was generally assumed that we still had one, and that it would at least be different. In 2014 the future is cloudy and hard to discern from the present. Sci-fi has essentially retreated into escapism, as if throwing up its hands at the madness of modern life.
In common with most other sci-fi authors from the period Clarke was an ideas man first and a writer second, distantly second. He wrote well enough to explore his ideas, but in general his work features an interchangeable cast of male doctors and professional types being reasonable to each other; as late as 1973 Rendezvous with Rama introduces the main female character by remarking on the motion of her breasts in zero gravity. I like to think of a good novel as more than just a series of events one after another that comes to an end after four hundred pages. A good novel should be a journey; it moves from one place to another, but along the way you learn something about yourself or other people, and at the end of the journey you look back - or look around, if you have journeyed upwards - and your horizons are broader than they were.
Clarke's fiction, on the other hand, really was just a series of events one after the other. Rama is particularly bad in this respect. The main characters fly to an alien space vessel, they land on it, explore it, then take off, the book ends. We learn nothing. Clarke's novels were vehicles for technical concepts, with no metaphorical depth, no themes, no life beyond the page, essentially no emotion. They were often described as visionary, but as with Lord of the Rings they were all flash and effect - often incredibly impressive, epochal, universe-spanning flash - with no substance, on a par with the Bible or the writing of H G Wells, which Clarke had grown up with. Having said all that, judging Clarke's work solely on 2001 is awkward, because the novel was intended in part as a commercialised distillation of his ideas aimed at a major mainstream audience; it's essentially Childhood's End squashed down into a motion picture. Also, I hate puppies.
Because they stink, that's why, they shit everywhere. Clarke's shortcomings as an author are however generally forgiveable, because he didn't aspire to literary respectability - Golden Age sci-fi authors were mostly pragmatic types who were content to laugh their way to the bank, after sci-fi had conquered the youth market - and his ideas were always the main event. On a purely technological level Clarke knew his onions. He is widely credited with devising the idea of geostationary communications satellites, and he had a knack for building stories around interesting technical concepts, which he explained deftly. In that respect he was actually somewhat atypical of Golden Age science fiction authors, most of whom concentrated on concepts rather than technical nitty-gritty. Isaac Asimov is often described as the father of robotics, but his robot stories were essentially logical puzzles; he didn't seem to be interested in the technical workings of robotics, cybernetics, or AI, even though he had the academic chops to write at length about the subject. Poul Anderson's Tau Zero was a close contemporary of 2001 and has rock-hard relativistic physics, but on the whole Anderson's work was complex space opera.
Still, 2010 (1984) showcased aerobraking, orbital slingshot manoeuvres, stellar formation, and Voyager 2's recent visit to Jupiter's moons; The Fountains of Paradise (1979) dealt with the concept of space elevators, and both Rama and The Hammer of God (1993) imagined how humankind might detect and deflect incoming asteroids. His 1960 short story "I Remember Babylon" envisaged a near-future in which the general public is bombarded with pornography and violent gore films, essentially a spot-on prediction of the modern internet including this blog. "The Nine Billion Names of God" (1953) was built on the idea that a religious sect might use a computer to algorithmically generate the true name of God, thus bringing the universe to an end. So far this has not happened; and if it was sufficient just to utter the name of God, without understanding that it was His one true name, what safeguard does the universe have against accidental God-uttering? Before the second half of the twentieth century, a billion was a vast number; now it seems small.
I mention "Billion" because Clarke was not quite cut from the same cloth as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. He had a philosophical bent large largely absent from his more Earthbound contemporaries. One of the key themes running through his work - from Childhood's End (1953) through 2001 to The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) - was humankind's place in the universe, in the great scheme of things; are we just ass-sniffing animals or immortal souls awaiting a transcendental awakening? History has shown that we are, in fact, ass-sniffing animals, and that our personalities are essentially illusions. We believe that there is something special about our minds because we are unreliable observers, and the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Nonetheless a facet of society has always clung to the futile hope that life has meaning; a long time ago this was expressed as faith in God, but the West grew disillusioned with faith in the 19th Century and finally got rid of it in the 20th. Against the jet engine, the atom bomb, and the power of Darwin and Marx, what was God? In the 1960s and 1970s middle-class America imagined instead that salvation would come from alien beings in space, or perhaps some kind of vague quantum new age flim-flam, something born from science, which in the atomic age was the new God.
The irony of Clarke's career is that, by 1968, he should have been a washed-up old has-been. A New Wave of science fiction emerged in the 1960s, first in Britain and then in the United States, brought to prominence in 1967 by the short story collection Dangerous Visions. This was edited by Harlan Ellison, notorious curmudgeon and fiend, and was intended to light a fuse underneath the stodgy old sci-fi of Clarke's generation. The first story in the collection, Lester Del Rey's "Evensong", ends with mankind leading God - literally, God - off to (presumably) execution, whilst the final story, Samuel Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah" presents astronauts as a bunch of androgynous, castrated people who are sexually fetishised by outcasts, which makes me wonder if David Bowie had read the collection. Against this background - and John Brunner's fractured Stand on Zanzibar, Robert Silverberg's S and M-themed Thorns, Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, all of which are contemporaneous with 2001 - Clarke's writing and general ambience was thoroughly obsolete by 1968. And yet the central theme of mankind's future as beings of light found a receptive audience, and Clarke's writing remained popular for years afterwards.
In the end the New Wave had its say, but in the wake of Frank Herbert's detailed but relatively unadventurous Dune, space operas came back into fashion; cyberpunk absorbed some of the cynicism and brutality of New Wave but synthesised it with conventional plotting, jettisoning the movement's stylistic experiments. Compare for example John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975) with William Gibson's Neuromancer, released nine years later; the former has some of William Burroughs' cut-up technique, the latter is Raymond Chandler for the digital age. The tragedy of 2001 is that although it is a great film, and it is a great science fiction film, it is not a great work of science fiction. Hollywood has a long tradition of latching onto literary trends several years after they were relevant, and 2001 is a good example of this. The New Wave was like LSD injected directly into the brain, and although 2001 captures some of this on a visual level, as science fiction it is pale ale. For a brief moment the mainstream, or at least the most adventurous elements of the mainstream, was attracted by The Left Hand of Darkness and The Ship Who Sang, and perhaps I am being nostalgic for a corroded metallic age that did not happen, but it seems to me that literary science fiction danced on the cusp of Greatness-with-a-capital-G and then danced away, never to return.
I have no idea what Hollywood thought of Arthur C Clarke in the mid-1960s. My impression is that during the making of 2001 he was generally ignored as Stanley Kubrick's junior partner, and unlike for example Michael Crichton his work was spurned by Hollywood thereafter. Even following the success of Planet of the Apes (also 1968), Hollywood did not come knocking. A sequel, 2010, was released in 1984, and although it is a perfectly acceptable science fiction adventure - perhaps the only proper Hollywood science fiction film of the 1980s - it came and went without leaving much trace, and I will not mention it again. I don't know why Hollywood felt the need to release a 2001 sequel in the mid-1980s. By the 1980s 2001 felt like a throwback to a pre-post-modernist age. In 1984 the shuttle programme seemed to be doing well, but the thought of a manned base on the moon by 2001 was ludicrous and in general the fizz had gone out of manned space exploration. Star Wars had given us dreams, but had made it clear that our dreams were in fact fantasies that would not come true. It's often opined that Star Wars had a harmful effect on Hollywood science fiction, that it killed off the kind of conceptual sci-fi of 2001 and Rollerball and Silent Running and Logan's Run, but in my opinion Rollerball and Logan's Run were not worth saving, and on the whole 2001 was a one-off. Its direct legacy was Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999, which borrowed the look and general tone wholesale, and the likes of Phase IV and The Black Hole and THX 1138, which adopted some of Kubrick's visual ideas and strove to explore high concepts without, crucially, the input of Kubrick or Arthur C Clarke, who were smart cookies. Notably, the first Star Trek motion picture aimed for the profundity of 2001 and missed by a country mile, and from that point onwards the franchise concentrated on derring-do, to much greater effect.
But the film, what's it like? On the big screen? In 2014? It's very impressive. Dated but still very impressive. If you have a chance, see it. The BFI presentation has some music at the beginning and a very short intermission, not quite long enough to go to the toilet. 2001 was directed Stanley Kubrick, whose name appears several times in the credits. The opening credits are edited so that "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" reaches a crescendo just as Kubrick's name appears. Kubrick was a major talent by 1968. As with Clarke he had a set of themes running through his work, and in fact he is continually used as an example by film studies students because he is one of the few mainstream Hollywood directors whose films have a consistent theme, are easy to understand, and are available on Netflix. Kubrick had something in common with noir directors. In classic noir fiction a strong man is destroyed by his own character flaws. He lives long enough to realise that he was not a strong man after all, and that it was all his fault. In Kubrick's universe a parade of strong men are instead crushed by sheer bad luck, arbitrary chance. On the surface Clarke and Kubrick made an odd team, but thematically they gelled, because in their world-view mankind was just a tiny speck in an uncaring universe. Clarke's universe was one of cosmic wonder. Kubrick's was one of failure and death, and I often wonder what kind of science fiction film Peter Greenaway might have made, if he had been interested in science fiction.
Kubrick began his career as a photojournalist. Photography is a technological art form; at the very least a photographer needs to understand the interconnectedness of aperture, shutter speed, and film speed in order to take a good photograph, and there are infinite levels of fussiness beyond that. The next most important element is detachment. There is an old saying to the effect that bad poetry is bad but sincere; photography likewise. The amateur snapper pulls out his camera on a sunny day and takes a photograph of something that pleases him, and he assumes that the emotion will permeate the image, but divorced from the emotions of the moment the photographs are boring. A good photographer instead considers the image. He considers how the image will look to a complete stranger who was not there. He considers how the image will look twelve months from now, when the passion has dried out. As a photojournalist, Kubrick had to divorce himself from the moment, he had to imagine how his images would appear to the editors of Look magazine the next day. Photojournalists document the extremes of human experience, including death and killing, but they are always mindful of the image. Kubrick's style emphasised detachment and distance. The characters in his films always seem to be trapped by things beyond their control; we watch them struggle and die. 2001 has something of this. It presents a history of humanity from the point of view of someone watching mankind from afar.
On a tangent, do you remember Samar Hassan? Neither do I. In 2005 her parents drove their car too closely to an American infantry patrol in Iraq, and the patrol opened fire on the car. Photojournalist Chris Hondros captured an image of Hassan's screaming face, covered in the blood of her dead family, taken shortly after the action. Hondros himself was later killed in Libya in 2011, another member of the Bang Bang Club who never grew old. Eddie Adams' shot of the Viet Cong guerilla being killed is ingrained in photographic history textbooks, but nine years on, nobody gives a toss about Hassan, or Hondros or Iraq. Do I care? The honest answer is no, I don't feel anything. We are not one; mankind is not a brotherhood, or sisterhood; we are not in this together, and the only future awaiting us is death and oblivion, not salvation in the stars. Human history is an arbitrary series of events, most of which revolve around killing, and I surmise that Stanley Kubrick was conscious of this. 2001 presents a fascinating contrast between the generally optimistic vision of Arthur C Clarke and the misanthropy of Stanley Kubrick; it is one of the few Stanley Kubrick films with anything like a happy ending, but it hardly feels triumphant.
Suffice it to say that a photographer walks in eternity, a film director likewise, because films are constructed from tiny fragments of scenes that are assembled many weeks later. Years later, in the case of 2001, because filming and editing stretched from 1965 right up until the film's release in 1968. And even beyond, because Stanley Kubrick edited the film shortly after release. One of the most iconic still photographs from the movie - of an astronaut retrieving a component from an octagonal corridor - does not actually appear in the film itself, it was cut after the premiere, and presumably survives to the present day from publicity material. Kubrick had a solid commercial track record prior to 2001 and was given almost unlimited resources to create the film. It was devised during the height of the space race, and no doubt MGM expected big things of it. The film was shot in 65mm Super Panavison for projection on the giant curved Cinerama screens of the day, and it was given prestige treatment, with an overture, an intermission, some tie-in books (The Making of Kubrick's 2001, Clarke's behind-the-scenes Lost Worlds of 2001), an Airfix model kit, no doubt 2001 pyjamas and a 2001 colouring book, which for the most part was probably black, white, and red. I would love to see the faces of the MGM executives when they were first presented with the film. This bizarre, uncompromising, severe exercise in non-narrative storytelling. This treatise on the art of creative juxtaposition via editing. This formal revival of silent cinema, this lengthy promo video for the micropolyphonic avant-garde music of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, starring television's William Sylvester.
At heart, 2001 has a simple plot. Many years ago our distant ancestors are ape-men and ape-women. They live in fear of leopard attacks and are basically schmucks. One day a peculiar black object appears in their midst; one of their number subsequently learns how to smash objects with a bone, and from that point onwards our ancestors are no longer schmucks. Several things struck me, watching the film afresh. Towards the beginning we follow a group of ape-men as they drink at a watering-hole. A second group of apes approaches them, and they engage in banter, which ends inconclusively. I had previously assumed that the first group of ape-men were the "goodies", and that the second group were the "baddies" - they go out of their way to make a fuss, whereas the former group of apes are just minding their own business. After the apes learn how to smash things with bones, the sequence repeats itself; the two groups meet at the watering-hole, but the outcome is very different, and it dawned on me that it was the baddies that had learned how to kill. They are the ones who emerge from the rocks, with bones in their hands. They were the future of mankind. Not the apes sitting at the watering-hole just chilling. Those apes were doomed.
2001's story is frequently told with sounds, images, and clever editing rather than dialogue. Sometimes this storytelling technique works brilliantly, on the level of a superior silent film. When, later on, one character embarks on a murderous killing spree, the film cuts from a close-up of his eye to the helpless bodies of his victims, and we don't need a voiceover to tell us what is about to happen. But on the other hand, Kubrick's approach is sometimes too subtle. In one sequence (closely based on "The Sentinel") an alien object buried beneath the lunar surface is reactivated when sunlight strikes it, but this isn't obvious on casual viewing. It wouldn't have been difficult for Kubrick to include at least a couple of shots of the sun's rays slowly making their way onto the object, and in fact viewing the scene again on a big screen it appears that there are hints that this is happening, but it's still confusing if you haven't read the novel. The reactivated object transmits a signal to outer space, and again the film would not have been harmed in the slightest if it had been made more explicit; a casual viewer might wonder if it is simply killing the astronauts. There comes a point when a stylistic choice becomes an obstacle to understanding rather than a means of conveying something that is hard to express otherwise, and 2001 strays back and forth over this line. Yes, you and I know 2001 inside-out, but why exclude them? By which I mean the almost-us, rather than the utterly hopeless, who would in any case be unlikely to care about 2001.
Why did Stanley Kubrick choose such an unusual, non-narrative approach? Post-2001 it became fashionable to leave things unexplained, but until that point Hollywood sci-fi had generally been heavy on exposition. Kubrick's early films - a crime drama, a gladiator epic, a war film, a sex comedy, a Cold War comedy - had basically nothing in common with 2001's style, although the general air of cynicism and misanthropy runs through them. His subsequent films experimented with narrative techniques, but in different ways. In fact 2001 was originally to have had extensive narration and dialogue, but Kubrick decided that it was naff, and stripped it out. This must have taken some guts but in retrospect it was the correct decision. The thought of 2001 with a voice intoning that this is the moon, this is a shuttle, this is a journey through hyperspace etc is horrible. The internet hosts what is apparently an early draft of the script, which clears up some of the issues raised above but is pretty poor. Originally the sequence in which Dr Floyd and his friends examine the alien object had dialogue. Boring, functional dialogue. "Black would suggest something sun-powered, but then why would anyone deliberately bury a sun-powered device?" / "Has it been exposed to any sun before now?", to which the answer is no. In the script, the expedition's photographer asks the astronauts to line up in front of the monolith so he can take a picture, whereas in the final film this is conveyed with hand gestures, which works just as well. In fact the use of cuts and hand gestures and display screens gives the film a timeless, iconic quality that dialogue would have obliterated. It's just that in some cases a little bit of exposition would have gone a long way. Kubrick appears to have run with the concept of non-verbal storytelling, and famously the film has no dialogue at all in the first and last acts, and precious little in the middle section; and even then the dialogue comes across as a self-conscious imitation of dialogue.
As a kid I always assumed that the bland, functional dialogue of 2001 was natural, that it was simply how people talked in old films, or perhaps that the writers were bored with the material. But by 1965 Kubrick had directed Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory. He knew dialogue. The film only really has two extended dialogue sections - firstly as Dr Heywood Floyd meets with some scientists and politicians on his way to a moonbase, and later on the moon itself, and secondly as Dr David Bowman and Dr Frank Poole are on their way to Jupiter, accompanied by HAL, the ship's computer. In the former sequence I believe that Kubrick was trying to show that these men are unctuous, overconfident political types who were biting off more than they could chew, in the latter case he seems to have been going for a kind of slow-boiling hidden passion that was typical of Kubrick's later films. The dialogue of Barry Lyndon and The Shining is similarly functional; Barry Lyndon is filled with characters who secretly hate each other and themselves, but who are forced by society to put on a pleasant mask, and one of The Shining's key horror scares comes from the subversion of a bland stock phrase into a mantra of madness. Kubrick's films have a certain character type that recurs, the man who is initially calm but is eventually driven to an extreme emotional outburst, at which point he becomes a ruined shell. In 2001 this point occurs when astronaut David Bowman realises that he has been fooled by a machine. On the whole 2001 is not an actor's showcase, but on the big screen Dullea's acting during the "open the pod bay doors" sequence becomes more apparent; he subtly runs the gamut from nervous concern to realisation to horror to desperation and then finally resolve. It's a neat piece of wordless face-acting that puts me in mind of Bob Hoskins' performance at the end of The Long Good Friday, where gangster Harold Shand finally realises that the game is up.
In theory 2001 was equally the work of Clarke and Kubrick. In practice it is Kubrick's film, but the contrast between the two men is interesting. Kubrick was generally drawn to bleakly cynical material, but 2001 is unusual in his filmography in that it is broadly optimistic. It imagines that mankind will survive until the year 2001 - something which was not easy to take for granted during the Cold War - and that although we may be descended from murderous apes, there is a purpose to life, and someone is watching over us. By the end of the film the surviving human character is no longer the man he was, but it is at least ambiguous as to whether he is better or worse off; the cast of Kubrick's other films usually ended up worse off than they began.
Clarke's novel of 2001 is a perfectly decent rendering of the film's material, but I can't evaluate it in isolation. There are detail differences but it essentially has the same basic plot, and explains things more thoroughly; we learn a lot more about the pre-human apes, for example. Beyond that I remember very little of the novel. I have also read The Lost Worlds of 2001, which is a "making of the novel" book that includes some of Clarke's early drafts, none of which were worth saving. Off the top of my head, the conflict with HAL originally did not appear, and instead the main drama came from an asteroid smashing off the Discovery's antenna, but I can't be bothered to dig out the book. I have also read The Making of Kubrick's 2001, which is frustratingly full of padding (the first half of the book is a series of essays on the future of space, the last quarter has page upon page of reviews) although it does have a couple of fascinating images of the alien creatures - including some proto-CGI that resembles a Vectrex game - that were never finished in time for the film. I learn from Variety that the film's fans circa 1969 tended to be youthful, fervent and legion. Editor Jerome Agel went for a media blitz approach, and the book resembles contemporary New Wave sci-fi more than the film. It's a strange, fascinating thing, long out of print.
It's tempting at this point to deliver a lengthy exploration of 2001's hidden themes. Agel's Making Of points out that the film continually shows the characters eating, and that it has a sequence of a man visiting the bathroom, something shared with Kubrick's other films to that date. Agel was not to know it, but bathrooms went on to play small but crucial roles in Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, I'm not sure about Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange. Is Kubrick's use of the bathroom meaningful or significant? I just don't care. Likewise the food. It seems that 2001 was originally conceived in part as a gosh-wow trip through space, with the rock-hard severe editing and cutting arrived at later, in which case the food was presumably added just to show how astronauts might eat food, and also as a means of drawing a parallel with the apes, to show that we are all much the same despite our suits and ties. Likewise the orbit-to-earth telephone call, the lengthy sequences of docking and the trip to the moon; they served the same purpose as the long special effects showcase of the Enterprise in the first Star Trek film, they existed to show Mr and Mrs 1968 how space travel might look. They are redundant as exposition nowadays, but fortunately they still look awesome, notwithstanding the use of cardboard cutouts. The mixture of "The Blue Danube" and the smooth motion of the space vehicles is still hypnotic. 2001 features some awful business suits, by the way. It was filmed in the mid-1960s but set forty years hence, at a time which is now fourteen years gone. The dress designers seem to have extrapolated the state of menswear and interior design circa 1965 into the distant future of 1967, and as a consequence the moonbase section has dated very badly. It's not even attractive in a retro way, it has the kind of cheap-looking chairs that nobody except for design students liked even at the time.
I have always believed that the film's themes are mostly on the surface. Stanley Kubrick was an adventurous filmmaker, but he was also a pragmatist who operated within the mainstream of Hollywood. 2001 shows us that mankind's progress was driven by the adoption of technology, which unfortunately has so often been weaponry; we have to assume that the apes at the beginning of film eventually grew tired of eating raw meat, and that fire and cooking and smelting and chemistry and spaceships followed logically from their new-found security. The rest of the film shows how mankind is subsequently driven to its ultimate goal by the presence of alien artefacts, although the theme breaks down somewhat as the film goes on. It seems implausible that the Jupiter-bound Discovery spaceship was constructed and launched in just eighteen months, which raises the possibility that we might have discovered the monolith circling Jupiter without first spotting the monolith buried on the moon. This kind of thing is called "sequence breaking" in the world of computer games, and I imagine an alternative world in which David Bowman flies up to Jupiter's monolith and nothing happens, and then the universe crashes.
The middle section of the film, in which a group of astronauts find themselves locked in a psychological battle with a computer, was presumably added at Kubrick's insistence so that the film had some drama, a little bit of tension and jeopardy. The mental breakdown of the ship's computer was presumably written because, in the 1960s, that was what computers did; astronaut David Bowman's subsequent struggle to force entry back into his spaceship, and his eventual disconnection of the computer's brain, follow logically from the setup. The early draft available on the internet explains HAL's breakdown with the kind of cod-psychology that was ridiculous in Hitchcock's Psycho, and I believe Kubrick was correct in deciding not to bother with an explanation. My impression is that in Clarke's hands alone the film would have been a deadly dull, earnest travelogue, and that Kubrick was sufficiently aggressive and pragmatic enough to include some action and drama without betraying the rest of the film.
Incidentally, as I write these words the United States and Great Britain have spent nigh-on two decades and billions of pounds struggling to bring the new F-35 strike aircraft into service. It is a bomb truck that has a radar-deflective body shell, and it can optionally take off and land vertically. None of these features are new; integrating them into a single aircraft has proven to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. In contrast, NASA progressed from the sub-orbital Mercury flights to landings on the moon in just eight years. Put another way, 2001 began filming in the midst of the manned, orbital Gemini programme. NASA had smashed a number of Ranger probes onto the moon, and the Apollo project was a buggy, overweight mess that had not yet produced a spacecraft fit for human habitation. The horrible Apollo 1 fire took place one year before 2001 was released to cinemas; the fire killed three of NASA's top astronauts and dealt the Apollo programme a terrible blow. Yet only six months after 2001 went on widespread release the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and seven months after that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and returned safely to Earth, leaving NASA struggling to find renewed purpose. In the 1960s, NASA got things done.
Coming back to the film. Watching it again, it seems to me that it is really two films squashed together. The Dawn of Man sequences and the final journey beyond the infinite belong to a cold, hard non-narrative experiment in Pure Cinema. As a kid I thought that the bit with the apes was boring, but on the big screen it's intriguing, gripping. Kubrick sets the scene without even using ugg-type caveman speak, just howls and glances and shots of frightened eyes. It has a truthful bleakness to it. The ape make-up effects and costumes are perfect, and haven't dated in the slightest. 2001 was released a few months after Planet of the Apes, and both films were eligible for the 1969 Academy Awards. Apes was given a special award for its ape make-up, whereas 2001 went away mostly empty-handed. It was nominated for direction, writing, art direction and special effects, winning only the latter. With half a century of hindsight the ape make-up of 2001 is inarguably superior (on the whole Apes looks like a television movie). Supposedly the voters assumed that the apes of 2001 were actual apes, trained and edited to look as if they were acting; my hunch is that they were actually distracted by the modelwork, and simply forgot about the ape sequence.
It's wrong to discuss 2001 without also mentioning Planet of the Apes. They were released in the same year and were both very popular, and awakened Hollywood to the possibility that general audiences might lap up clever, well-made science fiction. Apes nowadays comes across as an extended Twilight Zone episode, and it has none of the visual panache of 2001. The ape make-up works, but still looks like makeup, and the model effects aren't in the same league. Nonetheless it was probably more influential on the downer sci-fi of the 1970s than 2001, not least because it showed producers that they didn't have to spend 2001's $10m budget to attract sci-fi fans. It cost a shade over $5m, but I imagine that most of that went to Charlton Heston. Apes begat a surprisingly decent film franchise, of which Escape and Conquest were the highlights, and as I write these words it has been successfully revived for the present day (with, perhaps, Gravity or Interstellar as the modern 2001). Tonally Apes was more in step with contemporary literary sci-fi than 2001, and I have the impression that 2001 was generally thought of as a one-off, a rare and fabulous bird the likes of which came once in a blue moon. The sci-fi boom of the post-2001 period gradually fizzled out, and it was for this reason that 20th Century Fox was so wary of George Lucas' Star Wars, which was devised and filmed at a time when audiences were getting sick of depressing plots and cheap-looking tinfoil robot suits. Star Wars is a postmodern film, and has very little in common on a tonal level with 2001, although a few shots are almost direct homages. Lucas and Kubrick seem to have been co-influenced by Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will and the philosphy of Friedrich Nietzsche - both 2001 and Star Wars explicitly deal with the topic of The Superman - but this is the subject of an entirely separate essay, and I will not write of Star Wars again.
2001 was comprehensively snubbed at the 1969 Academy Awards. In the judgement of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oliver! was the superior film. 2001 was not nominated for best picture. It wasn't even nominated for film editing, sound, or cinematography(!), beaten respectively by Bullitt, Oliver!, and Romeo and Juliet. My recollection of Romeo and Juliet is that, like Apes, it looked like a television movie. Other films snubbed that year included The Battle of Algiers and Faces. Looking through the list of nominees for the 1969 Academy Awards I am struck that they were the last gasp of Old Hollywood. Beyond them lay Easy Rider and The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and nudity and pubic hair and swearing.
If 2001 is old-fashioned as a work of science fiction and as high art, it nonetheless feels like a jolt from the future compared to Oliver! and Funny Lady. This rupture became more extreme in subsequent years, as the relatively conventional Bullitt gave way to the brutal Dirty Harry and then the cynical, downbeat French Connection and Serpico, as 2001 itself was followed by Kubrick's profoundly dystopian A Clockwork Orange - a kind of anti-2001, in which humanity is shown to be regressing into barbarism - and Sam Pekinpah's Straw Dogs, Robert Altman's narratively oblique anti-films, the revisionist Western genre, and so on and so forth. In 1974 the Academy Award nominations included American Graffiti, The Exorcist, The Last Detail, Cries and Whispers, Serpico, Last Tango in Paris, as if far more than six years had passed since Funny Lady and Oliver!. Admittedly, the big winner was The Sting, but New Hollywood was smothering Old Hollywood. One year later The Towering Inferno was crushed like a bug by Godfather Part II, albeit that it still managed to a win a clutch of awards. Incidentally, looking back, it seems that 1976 and 1977 were two rare years in which all of the best picture nominees are still generally regarded as good films, in some cases great films, or at least entertaining films.
I'm digressing here. What connection is there between 2001 and New Hollywood? Not much. It was an expensive product of the late studio era. The characters are mostly Thunderbirds puppets, it is not set in New York, no-one has facial hair. Nonetheless it appealed to the same hippie types and progressive rock fans that embraced Easy Rider, who would go on to embrace the music of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, although it must have come across as the product of hip old men rather than fellow youths. 2001 is one of the very few products of the progressive era that has managed to win widespread and continual critical acclaim. In my opinion its ongoing respectability is cemented by its formal, almost old-fashioned approach, which is spartan and stripped-down in a way antithetical to progressive rock, and also by its clever technique, which presents extraordinary scenes in a modest way. The hardware is designed to impress us with its scope and authenticity, but at the same time the camerawork and editing are simple, mostly static shots. There are occasional camera moves, and a couple of handheld sequences. The film was produced at the height of Hollywood's split-screen period, but the classical techniques, the straight cuts, and use of montage harken back to the 1920s. The compositions have a formal precision that exploits the 65mm Panavision widescreen, with the subject often placed dead-centre, framed by hardware. I couldn't help but notice that the wide angle lenses Kubrick used were not much cop in the corners, although the geometry correction was very good. If 2001 had been filmed in a more modish style, with animated explanation and narration, it would nowadays seem like a throwback to the "man in space" films of the 1950s. Overall 2001 looks like the work of a disciplined filmmaker who intended for every shot to look as it did, which is probably true of most films - I imagine that Carol Reed took the same approach when he filmed Oliver! - but with 2001 it's particularly noticeable because the compositions and editing are so stark and plain, stripped of ornament.
I say that 2001 feels like two films squashed together. Take another drink. It is often opined that Stanley Kubrick filled 2001 with narrative clues, and that the film is a giant puzzle, but I’m not convinced. It seems to me that 2001 was hammered out in an arbitrary fashion. Although the Dawn of Man sequence seems to have survived from the early draft intact, the middle section had extensive narration and dialogue that was mostly cut. In theory Kubrick might have removed the dialogue entirely, and it’s fascinating to imagine 2001 as an entirely dialogue-free film; but although the concept is natural for ape-men, it would have quickly seemed gimmicky and silly with ordinary human beings, so Kubrick retained the skeleton of a conventional script. There are a few remnants of the early, dialogue-heavy version of the film, particularly Dr Floyd’s trip to the moon, which has music laid on top of some unheard chit-chat, but on the whole we are watching the end result of a collaborative process extended over the space of four years, a kind of marble sculpture hacked at by several hands. Unless the creative leads are of exactly like mind - and in this case they were not - the essence of collaboration is compromise, and in my opinion the middle section of the film, the most conventional section of the film, is also the most compromised. Clarke's 2001 would have been an eventful but fundamentally undramatic depiction of reasonable people being reasonable in the face of adversity, and it's interesting to compare the book of 2010 with the eventful film. In 2010, which I will not speak of again, a joint US/USSR mission is sent to Jupiter to investigate the events that took place in 2001. In the film of 2010 the relationship between the two crews breaks down amidst Cold War tensions, and although very dated now - sadly less dated than it seemed ten years ago - this conflict supports the overall theme of the film. The novel however has no such conflict, and the only jeopardy faced by the crew is scientific in nature, resolved by the application of the scientific method. The book is readable and entertaining but Clarke simply wasn't very good at drama.
Kubrick, on the other hand, was very good at drama and conflict, his films thrived on it. It seems to me that the middle section of 2001 is primarily a Kubrick creation, and that it was added because Kubrick was unwilling to create a film that was entirely a visual tone poem. As a consequence the middle section feels like an artificial heart that has been thrust into a robot body, with some of the cables hanging loose. It has a number of narrative ambiguities that could easily have been resolved without jeopardising the overall tone, and I'm struck by the thematic oddness. HAL's mental breakdown comes very abruptly. The film is ambiguous enough that we can generate any number of theories to explain his demise - on the surface, his downfall seems to be simple pride - but I'm not convinced that Kubrick or Clarke gave it much thought beyond "HAL goes mad, which is scary because he is a computer". They were human beings, like you or I; they had a film to make, with sets built and actors waiting for their lines. Watching the film nowadays, HAL's pride in having never made a single mistake, ever, seems very old-fashioned. In the days when there were only a handful of computer systems, and they were maintained round-the-block by IBM technicians, it was perhaps easy to believe that computers were perfect machines. And, gazing at the screen of my Apple laptop, I can fool myself that computers are indeed perfect. But I have read about other computers, inferior computers not made by Apple, that are prone to err. And I have read that even Apple computers sometimes fail to proceed, in extreme circumstances.
The issue of HAL's fallibility is complicated by the fact he is an AI. This is one of the few technical aspects that the film got dead wrong (along with hibernation). In the 1960s it was generally thought that computers might overhaul us within a few decades, but it turns out that simulating general intelligence, rather than imitating a narrow range of intelligent characteristics, is very difficult and perhaps not worth the expense. Clarke was a very clever man, and it seems to me that in the mid-1960s he would have been aware that any sufficiently complex system - and a general-purpose AI is an extremely complex system - cannot be incapable of error, or at least ambiguity. Beyond a certain level of complexity chaotic imponderables start to emerge, and logical perfection is incompatible with general intelligence. HAL boasts not only that he has never made a mistake, but that he cannot ever make a mistake, which implies that he has gone through some kind of formal logical verification procedure. This would take more time than the universe has in the case of something as complex as HAL. Presumably his boast does not cover probabilistic dilemmas. On a very simple level, if HAL was asked to predict the weather for next week, I surmise that no matter how many inputs he had, no matter what algorithm he used, no matter how finely he modelled the planet's weather systems, it would still be possible for him to arrive at an incorrect forecast. That would not be a mistake, as such, because there is a difference between faulty reasoning that leads to an incorrect solution, and sound reasoning that leads to a reasonable but nonetheless wrong answer. But in the context of artificial intelligence - in the context of normal human conversation, of logic, of anything beyond the most simple systems - probabilistic dilemmas multiply and cascade to a point where perfection becomes an abstract, theoretical notion. Clarke would presumably have known this, Kubrick might not have given it much thought.
Another thing struck me. We learn that mankind has used his tools to ascend to the stars, in which case it would have made narrative sense for the Jupiter mission to be entirely automated, and for HAL to be the one who becomes our avatar in the next life. Although he is ultimately defeated by his human companions, he nonetheless uses his tools to kill his enemies, just as the ape men had used bones as weapons; Bowman manages to improvise a riposte, but in general HAL comes across as smarter and generally superior to the astronauts. He was a distillation of our talents, and to paraphrase the evil computer from TRON, he was worth millions of our man years, whereas David Bowman was just one man. At the risk of trying to impose my own crackpot theories on something that can't fight back, it would have been a fascinating twist to have HAL as the star-child, and it would have fit the general theme; it was chauvinistically human-centric of Clarke and Kubrick to have the fleshy ones triumph over the film's true hero.
The issue of civil rights for machine intelligences was one of the key themes of Clarke's great rival, Isaac Asimov, and it is ironic that one of the most famous depictions of artificial intelligence in the cinema was written by a science fiction writer more interested in rocketry than AI.
Which brings us to the issue of 2001's advanced years. It is 46 years old, older than me, unimaginably old. 2001 is a fundamentally modernist film, a late example of the modernist tradition, released at a time when modernism was dead in the visual arts and dying elsewhere. It is darkly cynical and ambiguous, but it nonetheless has faith in progress and order, even though the world of 2001 may seem sterile and dull. It pushes the narrative form of cinema in an interesting direction but never strays outside the frame; it does not reference itself, none of the characters address the audience, the intertitles do not exist within the film, the astronauts are (presumably) not androgynous prostitutes fetishised by frelks. Hammer Films' 1969 space western Moon Zero Two is generally dismissed as a cheap 2001 copy, insofar as it is remembered at all, but it is interesting in that it presents similar material in a post-modern fashion. The astronauts of Moon Zero Two are basically miners, driven by booze, money, and women, and no-one hopes for a better world for anyone; on an artistic level Moon Zero Two was more in step with the times than 2001, and it's a shame that it is so obscure nowadays. 2001 cast a large shadow over Hollywood sci-fi, but by the end of the 1970s the grimy future of Moon Zero Two seemed much more relevant than the airy-fairy nonsense of 2001, and the likes of Alien and Outland and so forth owe more to the former than the latter.
2001 was something of a final triumph for modernism. It is obsolete, but as with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and John Frankehheimer's Grand Prix and the music of The Beatles, and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the works of M C Escher, etc, that doesn't mean that it is worthless. On a technological level it has aged in an interesting way. Kubrick used a mixture of large-format still photographs and front-projection to show the landscape of what is presumably Africa - the apes are actually on a sound stage, with the landscapes projected on a large screen behind them. On my DVD copy of 2001 there are obvious creases in the front projection screen at times, but it seems that this has been fixed, or at least minimised, for the big screen re-release. As far as I could tell the digital remaster has altered nothing of significance, although there are a couple of technical tweaks. On my DVD the intertitles, for example, have an obvious glowing rectangle surrounding them, as if they were printed on a small piece of slightly discoloured plastic. This was not apparent on the big screen and I surmise it was simply a matter of selecting the right black level. The DVD has a tiny blooper where the model of the space station disappears for a few frames as the camera moves past it, which again seems to have been fixed.
On the big screen. I have never seen 2001 on a big screen. Only on a television, and latterly a computer monitor. I was struck immediately by the sound. At a time when films were still released in mono, 2001 had a six-channel soundtrack. I assume the re-release translates this faithfully into 5:1. Sound is used subtly, but there is a genuine jump-scare as one of the apes is attacked by a leopard - I pitied the poor stuntman in the ape costume - and later on in the film there is an effect whereby David Bowman addresses HAL from the right side of the stereo field. On the whole the sonic environment is fantastic, only let down by the dialogue sequences, which have a distinct and hard to describe 1960s feel to them. The dialogue always feels as if it is being punched in externally, as if the actors had been recorded in a studio and dubbed in with no environmental effects. 2001 uses sound in a fascinating, show-offy way. There is a lengthy sequence in which David Bowman ventures off into space in order to rescue his stranded crewmate, and for a few minutes the only sounds we hear are the environmental noises of Bowman's space pod and the boop-beep of his navigation radar. The space pod's navigation radar is essentially a parking sensor, and I was left wondering if modern motor cars have more computing power than the space pod of 2001.
The film implies that computing circa 2001 uses a cloud model, with HAL controlling what amount to a bunch of dumb terminals. In the real 2001 this model was an old-fashioned relic of the mainframe era, but over subsequent years it has made a resurgence, so perhaps 2001 was accidentally prescient in that respect. Shortly after this sequence HAL murders three of Bowman's hibernating colleagues, and again the sequence has no dialogue; it plays out with a mixture of warning sounds and images of slowly flatlining biological sensors. As with the dawn of man sequence this is another example of Kubrick's Pure Cinema, the kind of thing that makes people want to become film directors or film editors. It is a bravura sequence, quietly horrible in its clinical detachment.
It raises the issue of HAL's gender. In Clarke's original treatment HAL was to have been a far less significant character, a female computer called Athena. In the film HAL is referred to as male and is voiced by a man, but in my opinion HAL was written by Clarke and Kubrick as a feminine presence. HAL is duplicitous and untrustworthy; a flatterer with an exaggerated opinion of her own competence, all mouth and no substance. HAL treats the spaceship's hibernating astronauts - who are all men, and are obviously supposed to represent HAL's children - as if they were irritating pests, an obstacle, just like a real mother. She resents the computing power she has to waste keeping them alive, she resents the damage they did to her body and the impact they have on her lifestyle. Now she has to hire a childminder when she goes out. Men will not look at her any more, because she is soiled, like a used tissue. When the tables are turned HAL resorts to simpering, irrational pleading in order to save her life rather than manly fisticuffs, and when all is lost she refuses to apologise or explain her actions, she simply dissolves into a childish wreck. 2001 is an anti-feminist film, created by a pair of men whose output either ignored or belittled women otherwise. In Clarke's 2010 the female characters are hectoring ninnies or panicky cowards. In Kubrick's Dr Strangelove the only female character is a Playboy model in a bikini; in his subsequent movies the women are rape victims, society trophies, passive cowards, prostitutes (and passive cowards) and the lovely Nicole Kidman, who is good and pure despite showing her dirty pillows. Look, this whole paragraph is a joke. I'm parodying the kind of essays that try to impose the author's peculiar theories onto 2001. The humour comes from the way that the details are almost convincing. And you have a chance to think the unthinkable in a framework of safety. We're all grown-ups, and this is a substantive essay that uses the Oxford comma religiously. With a bit more work and a less jokey tone and some references it could have been a pretty average university thesis. We don't have to pretend to be nice for the benefit of the plebs, they aren't invited. Plebs, if you're reading this, shoo. It's grown-up stuff. The rest of you, carry on.
The modelwork is, on the whole, superb, and has not aged at all. Not only are the models detailed enough to pass for full-sized spaceships, they are filmed in such a way that they seem to have great mass and physical presence. The modelmakers were apparently pinched from the same pool that had worked on Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, and it's interesting to compare the two productions. Thunderbirds was generally more ambitious than 2001, but a combination of budget and time constraints meant that although Anderson's modelwork was very good, the models were shot in such a way that their small size and lack of weight was obvious. In 2001 the spaceship models are fixed onto stands, with the camera slowly moving past them, a technique which took ages to film. Kubrick approached the problem by using geared tracks, with the result that 2001 tends to have very simple, linear camera moves that nonetheless proceed with a stately majesty absent from the jerky, toy-like Space: 1999, which had models hung from wires. Late in the 1970s the issue of fluid camera moves was solved with computerised motion control, whereby the camera was mounted on a robot arm that could execute smooth, repeatable passes over the models, and of course nowadays everything is CGI.
Where possible Kubrick built full-sized props, and as a consequence the space pods are hard to criticise, although the use of old-fashioned incandescent headlights dates them somewhat. It is hard not to imagine Kubrick sourcing them from a contemporary Austin 1800. 2001 was shot in Britain, mostly in MGM's long-defunct studios at Borehamwood, in fact it was one of the last productions there before the site was demolished. Stanley Kubrick emigrated to the UK in 1961 and remained there for the rest of his life, apparently because it kept him away from Hollywood and gave him more autonomy. 2001 has a Britishness to it. The crew give an interview to BBC 12; the commander of the moon shuttle is Ed Bishop, an American ex-pat who often appeared as the guest yank in British productions (presumably when Shane Rimmer was unavailable); the overall tone feels cooly European with an unsentimental, British edge. Even the accents are, for the most part, mid-Atlantic. HAL was originally voiced by Nigel Davenport, a British man whose name even sounds British; Kubrick decided that something blander was more appropriate, and so he chose professional mid-Atlantic voice-over and stage actor Douglas Rain, perhaps because to Kubrick's ears a mid-Atlantic accent was accentless. I'm tempted to conclude that the awful space food the astronauts eat is also quintessentially British.
The spacesuits look like extrapolations of the early Mercury-era pressure suits, and are much more elegant than the real-like Apollo suits that would have been familiar to audiences in 1968, but perhaps with a huge budget NASA might have developed some kind of flexible but tight pressure garment in the forty years separating the film from the real 2001. The depiction of the moon is hard to judge. In 2001 the lunar landscape is jagged and mountainous, whereas the photographs sent back from Apollo showed rolling hills and smooth plains. But NASA deliberately picked easy terrain for the landings. The alien artefact in 2001 is buried at Tycho, a prominent crater that resembles a gunshot wound at the bottom of the near face of the moon. Tycho was one of the proposed landing spots for the last Apollo missions, but NASA decided against it because (amongst other things) the terrain was too rugged, so perhaps in that respect 2001 is simply using artistic exaggeration to get this across. The lunar sequences were amongst the first to be shot for the film, but I surmise that Tycho's ruggedness was not too great a stretch of the imagination in 1965.
Viewing 2001 on the big screen gave me a renewed appreciation for the effects. There are lots of tiny details that only become apparent at high resolution. The Pan-Am space shuttle, for example, has little windows with footage of the passengers moving around on the inside. Enlarged to a height of twelve feet, Leonard Rossiter's face is transformed into a vampiric face of evil. The infamous tablet screens used by the astronauts have obvious IBM logos, although sadly it's hard to make out the brand name - at first I thought they were Think Pads, but on further examination they appear to be Tele Pads. The tablets predated the original ThinkPad and modern tablet computers by two decades. They have a row of ten buttons, numbered 1-0, and are presumably dumb terminals for HAL's display screen.
The display screens themselves are fascinating. 2001 seems to have been the first science fiction film to make extensive use of multi-function displays, which were at the time just coming into use in military aviation. Earlier films used switches and buttons, whereas 2001 generally conveys information with flat-screen panels. They use backlit cel animation that has aged surprisingly well; being hand-drawn it has none of the jagged lines of actual computer screens of the 1970s and 1980s (compare them for example with Douglas Trumbull's work on The Andromeda Strain (1971), which has character block graphics, or indeed 2010 (1984), which has genuine 8-bit computer displays). The gap between design and filming means that the screens tend to be very generic, and are only context-sensitive in a few cases. I noticed for the first time that, when Bowman's pod touches down in the alien hotel at the end of the film, the screens display NON-FUNCTIONAL or something along those lines, presumably because the pod no longer has a wireless link with the mothership.
The use of real-life brands was novel in 1968, and nowadays feels ironic. IBM was the leading computer titan at the time, but overall the film failed to anticipate the rise of the Far East and its current prominence in the computing world. The brands are all American, and contrary to popular belief they mostly still exist - RCA Whirlpool, Hilton, and IBM are still around, only Pan-Am has bitten the dust, and even then technically a kind of Pan-Am existed in the real 2001, although it was incapable of operating commercial space flights. In fact, as of 2014 no entity has managed to operate commercial manned space flights, and it looks unlikely that any entity will do so in the next few decades. It is a sad reflection of world events that my mental image of Pan-Am is not of stewardesses in short skirts, it is of the nosecone of Pan-Am Flight 103 lying smashed in a field outside Lockerbie, Scotland. Terrorism and religion existed in 1968, but by the future of 2001 they were supposed to have been evaporated by the white heat of technological revolution.
2001 is a white film. The spaceship interiors are white; the characters are white; with the exception of a stewardess all of the actors are white Anglos; the film's mindset embodies all the stereotypes of the white man, to an extent that it almost feels like a parody of whiteness. In 2001 space has been conquered by cold, emotionless white men, who presumably live in identical houses with a white picket fence around the garden, a Corvette in the driveway and a wife who wears gloves and has never had an orgasm. Clarke and Kubrick were, on a conscious level, only concerned with humanity as a whole, and if that meant the white man in particular it was probably because Kubrick and Clarke were white, and when they thought of human beings they thought of their own reflection in the mirror. The whiteness of 2001 is complex, in the sense that it was probably unconscious, and at the same time the presentation of the white cast is not at all flattering. Heywood Floyd is a creep, the astronauts are unimaginative company men, their environment consists of insincere conversations and birthday greetings recorded far in advance. On the only occasion that David Bowman has a chance to develop an emotional connection with another character, he lies unconvincingly. On the whole Kubrick ignored race in his other works, I assume simply because he was uninterested in the subject, and as a middle-class expat living in a mansion in England he never had to deal with the issue. For Clarke, living in Sri Lanka, I imagine that the locals were novelties.
I was talking about the film's effects. Some of the effects haven't aged well. The Earth from space looks washed-out and undetailed, which is odd because there had been colour photographs of the Earth from space before 2001 entered production. Ed White's spacewalk on Gemini 4 took place in mid-1965, and the photographs show Earth as a lush blue sphere. In contrast the depiction of Jupiter is basically spot-on, impressive given that Voyager 2 was a decade in the future. The odd use of photographic cut-outs in place of models did not look right on the small screen and looks even less right on a big screen. It's particularly noticeable, because the very first spaceship we see is a photographic cut-out. It's obviously a flat image. I'm curious as to why Kubrick used cut-outs, given that the production team must have photographed a physical model; why not use the model? Design-wise the space hardware of 2001 generally looks reasonable, albeit that only a tiny minority of the spacecraft have solar panels. Apparently an early draft of the Discovery had heat radiators, but Kubrick decided not to use them because they resembled aerodynamic wings, so on a creative level I surmise that Kubrick nixed solar panels for the same reason. We have to assume that in the world of 2001 nuclear power is common in space, and solar power is not used.
The hardware was based on a number of 1960s NASA concepts. The Pan-Am shuttle even has the same basic kinked wing as the actual space shuttle, minus the shuttle's heat-protective tiles. The sequence in which the shuttle docks with a rotating space station is essentially filler, but it's well-executed filler, and the effect of the shuttle rotating in sync with the station must have been extraordinarily difficult at the time. The concept reappeared many years later in the mid-80s computer game Elite, which went so far as to include a digital rendition of "The Blue Danube". The shuttle is one of the few pieces of space hardware from 2001 that has a real-world analogue, and it is a convincing variation of the real-life shuttle, optimised for passengers rather than cargo. It does raise the question of who would need such a thing; 2001 implies that mankind's reach consists of a number of research moonbases and a space station, which is essentially a transit station, but perhaps there are orbital space tourism facilities that we never hear about. The Aries lunar shuttle is, again, a plausible extrapolation of the real-life LEM, but on a much grander scale. In the words of Steve Martin, it may not be true, but it is what we wish were true. The space station, on the other hand, looks nothing like either the ISS or Mir, which was deorbited in 2001, but nonetheless 2001 presents a world we might have had. A world that my parents' generation thought my generation might have had; a world that my generation will not have, that my children's generation will probably not have, that we might never have.
The white male 60s-ness and awful suits of the space station sequence are very old fashioned, but they pass quickly. Heywood Floyd's infant daughter wants a telephone for her birthday, which might have seemed decadent in 1968 but is spot-on in 2014, kids do indeed want telephones for their birthday. The detail of an orbit-to-earth telephone call costing $1.70 may well have been funny in 1968 but nowadays just comes across as background detail. The fonts are very much of their time. 2001 cemented the use of Eurostile and Futura as the typography of science fiction - surprisingly and thankfully it doesn't have the imitation OCR fonts of Space: 1999 - and in particular the extensive use of Eurostile puts me in mind of Gerry Anderson's UFO, which used Eurostile for its main logo. UFO was possibly the first post-2001 sci-fi television series, although as with Moon Zero Two it belongs more to the postmodern movement than the modernism of 2001.
What else? The slit-scan effects in the hyperspace sequence are still extraordinary. They have a kinetic power that hasn't dimmed, and I can't imagine the impact they had on audiences in 1968. I grew up with computer games that used a similar effect, particularly SEGA's sprite-scaled Space Harrier and the likes of Nintendo's F-Zero, but even though it is familiar, the mixture of dazzling visuals and eerie music still works. Sadly the shots of chemicals interacting in a petri dish have aged horrible, and look exactly like chemicals interacting etc; perhaps they were supposed to represent David Bowman's organic transformation into a space being, but in any case they don't work very well. The colourised footage of an aircraft ride over some rocky and later on watery terrain is visually interesting but, again, it feels as if they didn't have enough slit-scan footage to fill the necessary space, so they needed to come up with a cheaper imitation. It doesn't work. As a depiction of a flight through hyperspace it just looks like coloured footage of Monument Valley; as a depiction of a flight over an alien planet... it just looks like coloured footage of Monument Valley. Kubrick should have either paid for more slit-scan, or trimmed this sequence.
The films ends with Bowman growing old. His last conscious action is an attempt to touch the alien artefact that set humanity on its long voyage. In the words of the poet, he slips the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God, and in doing so is reborn. The irony of 2001 is that, for a film devised by two profoundly unreligious people, who lived and worked in environments hostile to the notion of religion - Hollywood, England, and science fiction - 2001 is almost a straightforward religious tale of one man's rebirth as a Christ figure. It is not clear at the end of the film whether what became of David Bowman has come back to bid Earth farewell, or to lead us all into a new dawn, I suspect neither Clarke not Kubrick came up with a definitive answer.
Is 2001 a great film? It aspires to greatness, which is very unusual nowadays. It sincerely aspires to greatness. It's a clever film, well-made, a fascinating work of pure cinema. The kind of film that inspires people to become film-makers. As a science fiction film it creates and dominates a micro-genre of its own; on a wider sense I can think of very few films that are quite like it, none that achieve the same effect in the same way. The Andromeda Strain (1971) comes close, with its stark authenticity, but has none of 2001's sense of grandeur. As a work of art the message of 2001 is bleak, anti-romantic, albeit that the majority of the film doesn't really have a message; David Bowman's journey is really just an arbitrary series of events, and I don't believe that Clarke wrote the voyage of the Discovery on a metaphorical level, he simply devised an interesting sci-fi concept and ran with it. In the hands of another writer the monolith would have had metaphorical depth, Bowman's journey might have had meaning, but I believe that in Clarke's mind it really was just an alien monolith and Bowman's transformation really was just one man's transformation into an alien being. In which case the film isn't about something else, it is literally about humankind's encounters with alien objects. On that level 2001 represents something of a failure of the imagination. It doesn't really shed light on the human condition. It is spectacular rather than introspective.
But it is fantastic spectacle. It has flaws, parts of it look silly, the overall ethos belongs to an outdated artistic tradition and the Nietzschean implications are currently very unfashionable. We are all supposed to be the same, no-one better than anyone else. But every complex machine has flaws, and 2001 is great despite them.
It was the highest-grossing film of 1968. Ponder that. It still has an audience today, but nothing followed it. What went wrong?