This month marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I’m the furthest thing from a reviewer– and this isn’t by any means a review– but 2001 (which is also a novel) has always been one of my personal favorite movies. I first saw it as a kid, and while I didn’t wholly understand the plot, from the famous spaceborne shots set to Also sprach Zarathustra, to the surface of the Moon (seen over a year before Apollo 11), to the austere interiors of Discovery One, to the split-screen rainbow fantasia and dreamlike interiors of “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” 2001 was several hours of pure eye candy.
That eye candy is a large part of why 2001 has so much lasting appeal. In 2018, in a world whose news cycles are dominated by extreme fear mongering, oppressively inescapable politics based on lies, nationalism and hatred and an incessant black comedy of international tensions, that eye candy represents a future that might have been. In this future of days past, Pan Am space planes carry passengers to orbital habitats, and humans live on the Moon and have begun plying their way to the outer solar system and suspended animation has become reality. And HAL 9000 is a self-aware computer of a romantic sort that simply doesn’t exist in 2018, in a world whose all-pervasive technology is dominated by social media and toxic Silicon Valley culture.
Yet, for all its glitter, the future in 2001 is far from perfect. Its majestic and universal vision is inseparable from the biases of its bygone time and its Anglo-American origins; nearly all of its characters are white men, and the few visible women are relegated to subservient or service roles. The subtle background intrigue and mentions of the Soviet Union heavily imply that the Cold War and its threat of radioactive doom are still ongoing. Much of 2001’s vaunted scientific accuracy was proven obsolete within the 1970s as unmanned probes began exploring the outer solar system. And HAL 9000, in the precise vein of a gothic horror tragedienne, is a murderer.
Most of all, it is a Stanley Kubrick film. 2001 was shot by the same cynical mind as Doctor Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. In stark contrast with its starry glamor, 2001’s view of humanity is, on the surface, exceedingly dim. Sentient life would not even exist on 2001’s Earth were it not for the meddling of alien forces whose true nature Homo sapiens is utterly incapable of understanding.
But what 2001 does represent is a sense of grand ambition. 2001 is a microcosm of a time when science and dreams seemed to promise an optimistic and eternal future for humankind. That time isn’t at all worth holding nostalgia for– I think I speak for the vast majority of the world in saying that humanity in 2018 is astronomically better off than humanity in 1968– but even the tiniest amount of that promise and optimism seems missing from our world.
Under the cynical surface, that ambition is readily apparent in 2001. It shows us, both then and now, that there are other worlds out there. Perhaps 2001 posits that humans cannot understand those other worlds now, but 2001 also challenges humans to open their minds, for perhaps humans could understand them, one day.