2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Kubrick's 2001 seems borne from beyond the infinite. Not a single cut is wasted, not a single shot that doesn't pulsate with the blood of meticulous planning, and not an instant that feels as anything less than divinely inspired. In Kubrick's dichotomy we linger for languid shots of great hulking triumphs in man's material construction, spending most of our screen-time in a landscape of technological precision, and yet the film's core is a vibrant abstraction. Kubrick has crafted a visual journey of consciousness itself, in this case our consciousness, the human being, as we grew from our moment of dawning to our moment of transcendence into higher planes of existence; The entry point and exit point in the story of man's manifest in the material world. 2001's strengths are its universalities, its simplicity, its wordless communication. At no point are our thoughts contained, our imagination hindered by any box, 2001 is a canvas for our mind to paint with and Kubrick's cinematic journey is the paint kit. How telling that he pinpoints the 'Dawn of Man' as being that moment in which we developed the inclination to use tools to accomplish our goals; the moment we first looked at one thing and saw its potential for becoming something else. How telling, also, that the potential we saw was to turn it into a weapon. Kubrick no doubt, fresh off the production of Dr. Strangelove, saw that bone-turned-bludgeoning-club as man's relationship with nuclear energy and the atomic age; before we thought of any other use for it, we first thought that we could kill with it, exact revenge, acquire the resources we need for the people of our tribe. Man, scraping in the dirt, hairy mammals grunting and bleating at one another for control of the watering hole and prey to beasts who outmatch them. Suddenly, with the deafening song of those screaming human voices, somehow hellish and angelic at the same time, we see it: the monolith; Kubrick's visual representation of inspiration itself. We first are drawn to it, then fear it, cautiously nearing it and then backing away, but eventually, we fall under its spell and are changed forever.
The 'Dawn of Man' segment itself contains all that we ever needed to know about 2001, a beginning chapter of the story as well as a microcosm of all we'll come to see throughout. The monolith, that blank canvas for our imagination, divine inspiration, the spark of creative energy, transcendence, the source of all life that we reach for and perhaps never touch. How haunting is the image of the old man in his dying breath extending a hand toward it, toward the mystery of life as it towers over him, somehow benign and menacing all at once. The monolith is the catalyst for rapid evolution acted out in front of us. It is the sheer scope of Kubrick's storytelling that give 2001 its power. Its prologue and epilogue taking up similar lengths of screen time, its center section is enraptured by details both micro and macro, in fact not seeing a difference, in tune with the sub-atomic as much as the galactic. Man, over the eons, has developed the creation of tools beyond merely repurposing and has transcended into synthesizing. Creating the ultimate, a moment of closing the circle, an artificial human mind. Where the central point of Kubrick's spinning of the mysteries of existence for us, in this interplanetary tapestry, lies is his demarcation line between creator and created, where he chooses to fold this cinematic ink blot: the ambiguity of the machine intelligence HAL 9000. HAL is shown to be flawless in its operation, containing all the knowledge and strategy of the human race combined with the power to process it at a rate far outpacing a human mind. The ambiguity comes from the emotion, not the intellect, the unnamable, intangible elements of organic consciousness that HAL may or may not possess. Where does intelligence end and consciousness begin? What are the limits of a life form? What parameters define it? HAL is objective-oriented, displaying the capacity to emote in pursuit of its aims when drawing up a crew psychology report on Dave. One of 2001's central mysteries (one where Kubrick, as in the rest of the film, wisely leaves the answers in our hands), lies in whether HAL's coup and resulting offensive toward the crew represent a genuine drive toward self-preservation or whether it has calculated that the death of the crew is the only way to serve its prime directive and carry out the mission. Kubrick does tip his hand more in the nature of self-preservation as murdering the hibernating crew members would have been unnecessary otherwise. 2001's most haunting scene results from HAL's deactivation, once again leaving us to wonder if the display of emotion is objective-based fabrication or some genuine fear of death (or the closest facsimile of death a machine can experience). HAL's reboot back to his earliest memory just before he expires blurs the line even further between machine and organic intelligence, HAL's life flashes before its electronic eyes. In the act of death that springs forth from of our creation, we learn something deep about ourselves. By contrast, the human figures in our film are entirely enamored with their creation and seek to emulate it. Such a love they have for the tools that they themselves constructed that they even wish to be like them and mimic their attributes in pursuit of competing with them in a contest of efficiency. The humans in Kubrick's film seem to believe that the key to the next evolution of their species lies in their left brain. The astronauts and scientists we encounter are cold, emotionless, calculating and trying their damndest to behave as machines. Kubrick's epilogue, however, shows us the error of their assumptions.
As we plunge past Jupiter, becoming one with the monolith itself and following it 'Beyond the Infinite' we see the true nature of the next evolution of mankind: right brain intuiting rather than left brain logic. Dave is assaulted by all manner of visual abstraction, stimuli that his mind cannot process, becoming one with the limits of his own self and the higher plane he can now access. In an instant, in a baroque living space, we witness the life of man, seeing himself, some hinting at the mystery around him interrupting his supper, dismissing it just as quickly to return to his feeding. All those moments of avoiding the void coming to a climax on the death bed itself, reaching out for it when we can no longer dismiss it. How tragic the life of mortal man. Kubrick shows us, in a ballet of the cosmos, of man and machine, the life cycle of a species and its eventual rebirth. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, energy and consciousness are not destroyed, but reborn. Kubrick's film reaches a point of intersection between the finite and eternal, the major and the minor. The great mechanical inventions of the human race adrift in the cosmos, all set to the greatest symphonic works that a human mind has conceived. Kubrick's dance in the stars is concluded by man becoming one such celestial body. We've watched as the planets and spacecraft rotated and travelled among the stars, now we see Dave reborn as a new being in deeper harmony with the universal movements. Kubrick's film responds to those movements as well, a grand intersection of man's creations set against the stars, the story of a species, the great mysteries of existence. 2001, like no other film, is in tune with the mysteries of beyond, of life itself, and of the harmonies by which eternity rotates.