Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opens, magisterially, with “The Dawn of Man,” moving from sunrise over an African veldt, to a series of desert animals, to a society of hominids who spend the first act of the film becoming human. The critical moment occurs when they fashion the first tool, which quickly becomes the first weapon, as Kubrick condenses the entire history of mankind to one battle scene, before the iconic jump cut to a post-human future in which we have started to colonise the solar system. Apart from spaceships themselves, the first free-floating object we see is a pen – an apt symbol for one of the most dramatic auteurist gestures in the history of cinema, and Kubrick’s masterpiece.
From the perspective of modern science fiction, what’s most striking in this second sequence is Kubrick’s vision of outer space as cosmopolitan, elegant and refined, driven by the lyrical curvatures of sun, moon, earth and spacecraft, and famously scored to The Blue Danube, by Johan Strauss II. All the space vessels we see apotheosises 60s décor, which was always gently gesturing towards gravity-free conditions anyway, as Kubrick evokes a future so au fait with space that there’s time for urbane comedy along the way, such as gravity-free toilet etiquette.
Gilles Deleuze speculated that the post-war period exhausted movement in cinema, leaving us with situations where looking and watching didn’t have any bodily outlet. That situation is perhaps more eloquent in Kubrick than in any other American director – and more eloquent in 2001 especially, since what we’re effectively witnessing in these opening scenes is the end of movement. In the veldt scenes, we witness the hominids becoming human by learning how to harness mechanical movement to their advantage, and in the space scenes, Kubrick shows the end of this process: no friction, no abrasive gestures, no sudden shudders or disruptions.
Instead, the space scenes play as a gently gradated curve that gathers everything into its wake. Kubrick continuously fuses sight and movement into this curve – to see a curve in this film is to move with it, much as Kubruck’s camera leans into every curve it sees. Even the title – 2001 – is treated as a source of curvature, as the two zeroes in the middle of the millennial date become the prototypes for all the circular trajectories that follow. If the hominids become human by discovering mechanical movement, then humans become post-human by perfecting this mechanical movement to such an extent that movement itself ceases to be.
The result is movement without movement – movement so stately, elegant and serene that it doesn’t even register as movement. Like the waltz of the Blue Danube, Kubrick’s camera might ebb and flow, move back and forth, but always sticking to the same lilting trajectory, and precluding any real net movement. This culminates with the fourth act of the film, which introduces us to the crew of a spaceship as they run and work round and round a continuously rotating wheel, participating in the flow and lilt of the curve in everything they do. Deleuze speculated that this exhaustion of movement would produce “pure optical situations” in which sight was untethered from movement, and that’s exactly what occurs here, in the shape of HAL, the artificial intelligence unit that keeps this ship humming and moving along.
We first meet HAL as a culmination of the curve – a perfectly spherical “eye” that both centres the circular wheel of the ship and intensifies its curves further in its own convex surface. In effect, HAL looks like a new kind of camera, or the camera Kubrick aspires to, seeing everything that is occurring within the ship on a continuously curving surface. This mitigates against movement in two key ways – first, by ensuring that none of the astronauts on the ship can move without HAL knowing (even moving their lips turns out to be risky), and second, by removing HAL from any single action, and instead equating “him” with the entire visual apparatus of the spaceship, both as it appears to the astronauts and to Kubrick’s own camera.
All the shots on the ship seem to hang suspended between Kubrick’s camera and HAL, who marks the start of a series of disembodied eyes and vantage points in Kubrick’s work. After HAL’s decisions prove deadly, one of the astronauts, Dave, decides to disconnect him, and so restore the connection between human sight and movement. In doing so, however, he discovers the real purpose of the ship’s mission – to investigate a plinth that seems to be hanging in space above Jupiter, where it is emitting electromagnetic signals at a fever pitch.
We have seen this plinth twice before in the film – in the first act, when it appears in the veldt to cause havoc amongst the hominids, and then in the second act, when it appears on the surface of the moon, where it disrupts Kubrick’s cosmopolitan curvature with a ringing so loud that it is almost unbearable in a theatre. In both cases, the angular geometry of the plinth disrupts the steady evolution of the curve that marks the transition from hominid to human to post-human, so it makes sense that it recurs right as Dave tries to wrest back his humanity from the post-human perceptual apparatus commandeered by HAL’s oversight of the ship.
Kubrick now segues into the final act of the film – easily the most abstract sequence in any mainstream Hollywood release up to this point. He starts by bringing the two aesthetic tendencies of the film together in an abstract state – the curved surfaces of the film, which gather over the surface of Jupiter, as the sun rises behind them to add its glowing orb to this compounded curvature; and the sharp edges of the monolith, which simply hangs in open space over this endless ring of concentric circles and correspondences. The cacophonous noise of the plinth returns, bringing the film to a figurative crisis that forces it into a extended passage of pure abstraction, as Dave appears to transition through a different dimension(s).
This sequence still looks incredible now, so it must have been mind-blowing in 1968. At times, the abstractions look like early digital gaming, much as the plinth forces Kubrick to adopt a more hand-held, camcorder style of filming. At other times, the film stock seems to be deteriorating and degrading, culminating with a series of landscapes that could equally be other planets or corroded film itself. Both of those tendencies are proto-digital – a dissolution of analog stock for something as yet unformulated – as Kubrick outdoes even Deleuze, reaching past image and movement for the digital revolution that would change it all again.
This culminates with a final sequence that takes place in the strangest scene of the film – both futuristic and historical, and totally atemporal, as Dave seems to live out his entire life in both slow motion and accelerated motion before the final image rediscovers the image of the embryo in the final curvature of the film’s trajectory. Anticipating the extreme wide perspectives of A Clockwork Orange – the next evolution of this disembodied eye – it’s the perfect ending for a film that takes us to the end of movement, asks what it would take to return to movement, and then finds something surreal, unnameable, light years beyond it.
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