There may be no better time to reissue 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s 1968 elevation has rightly been appropriated as the centrepiece of BFI’s current Days of Fear and Wonder season, devoted to all things sci-fi: a touchstone for any director seeking to beam their actors up into space, here’s one of really only two SF landmarks (alongside Lang’s no less visionary Metropolis) to have broken free from genre moorings and climbed onto countless Best Film Ever lists. Secondly, it returns to cinemas at a moment when Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has been attracting rote Kubrick comparisons.
Nolan’s films – shrouded in secrecy, intricately designed, rarely laugh riots – aren’t, superficially, so very far from Kubrick’s, and a Kubrick-like fanaticism persists in the sternly maintained cults gathering around Nolan’s work: try telling the young pretender’s admirers what happens inside even Interstellar’s first hour, and see what happens. (These fundamentalists view movies like vestal virgins; they want them to go unsullied by the eyes of others.)
There are, however, considerable differences between the two filmmakers. Nolan’s narrative strategies are loop-the-loopy, consciously seeking to reproduce on an IMAX scale the sensational rollercoaster rides of those old Cinerama flicks. Kubrick’s are more linear – he was, after all, a child of the studio era – yet sentiment-free and resolutely uncommercial about their pacing: back in ‘68, it took stoners, with their deadheaded response times, to turn 2001 into a box-office phenomenon.
Space Odyssey breaks down into three acts of problem-solving on a spectacular, cosmic scale. In a prologue, a tribe of apes realise they can ward off predators by picking the bones from their food; then, as we arrive at the space age – via that matchless match cut – man overcomes a machine getting ideas above its station by simply unplugging it. (The IT age awaits.)
Lastly, that same astronaut – now stranded in the ether, having transcended his initial mission – elects not to go back, but to push on towards infinity and beyond. This final section is story enough for a movie in itself, but such was Kubrick’s ambition that he elected to take us another step beyond, with a concluding son-et-lumière that imagines what the mysteries of the universe might look like – and how we might best pass from this world to the next.
These turning points all follow the appearance of the towering black monolith – what may be crucial, though this remains a site of some debate, is that it forces all present at these scenes to look up, rather than down: the sky’s the limit here. Kubrick’s interest lies in the process of evolution: how far we’ve progressed, and how far we might still go, if we could maintain our childhood reserves of curiosity, imagination and resourcefulness.
There are, in fact, flickers of humour: you wouldn’t toss Leonard Rossiter into orbit if you weren’t possessed of some kind of funny bone (there should have been a spin-off: High Rising Damp), and Kubrick’s technological leaps create their own ripples of amusement. It’s still a gas to see William Sylvester’s Dr. Heywood Floyd furrowing his brow at a zero-gravity toilet’s instructions: “Passengers are advised to read before use.” (I’ll say.)
Mostly, though, it’s the music that moves us, a upwardly mobile selection (Ligeti, the Strausses) capable of nudging even the functional sight of docking spaceships to something touching the sublime. Without it, the film might appear coldly scientific, even paranoiac: Kubrick, who at one point kills off half his supporting cast while poring over a screen of computer readings, perceives threat everywhere, and evolution as the ultimate form of risk management. (This is the same director who prevented A Clockwork Orange from being circulated in his adopted country out of fears for his family’s wellbeing.)
Yet it’s this uningratiating sensibility that finally sets Kubrick on another astral plain from Nolan. With Interstellar, Nolan gives his followers the wild ride they expect before landing everybody back at the family ranch: it’s an odyssey in that respect, but one whose final movements diminish the adventure that came before it. Kubrick instead keeps pushing and searching, turning 2001 into its own form of gleaming monolith. Each segment here is one small step forwards, an exhortation to get smarter, sharper, better still.
(MovieMail, November 2014)
2001: a Space Odyssey screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.