Kubrick and 2001

(Published in the post-grad yearbook 'The Third Degree' Victoria University of Wellington, 2000)

Well, we're only a few months away from 2001, so how many of you told yourselves you'd be X years old in that year and couldn't quite believe how old you'd be? Disappointed that Air New Zealand still hasn't built that funky looking concorde that will take you to the space station? Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) was perceived as a masterpiece in the year it was released, which, the last time I looked, couldn't be said of any of actor Jim Carrey's performances. Kubrick's film was, and some would maintain, still is, innovative in its design and aesthetics, narrative and special effects. In many respects, the film world wouldn't see anything like it until Geiger came to prominence with the genre-bending first Alien  (Scott, 1979) film. 

Given the ideological unrest in 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, the film's general audience attracted a number of fans from both sides of the ideological camping ground (pretty much so long as they were male). In the 'Straight' vs. 'Hippie' paradigm that we're led to believe existed then from today's media, straight people could identify with Dr. Floyd's scientific detachment, conservative haircut and circa 1952 dress-sense. Younger straight people could identify and possibly project themselves onto Dave Bowman; and for the rest–who couldn't identify with Hal? Although a little slow vocally, didn't Hal seem just a bit smarter than the rest of the cast? Besides, would you relish working with such straight people all day, let alone having them make you play chess with them for the rest of the time?  

In Mel McKee's 1968 examination of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the film publication Sight and Sound,[1] McKee contends that the film significantly parallels Christian writer C.S. Lewis' The Ransom Trilogy', which large publishing house 'Macmillan' had republished in paperback that year. As well as attempting to make a convincing case for the film being tied to Lewis' Science-Fiction 'Trilogy', McKee also manages to suck out any politicisation those filthy 'Hippies' may have had. Speaking of the 'Kaleidoscope scene', McKee, keeping his ethnographic terminology correct, says  

"For the hippie the scene is strobe-lighted mind expansion…It provides them with the opportunity for a little esoteric smugness…posed as an absolute, [allowing] them to snatch the intellectual short hairs of the establishment. They can bleat ex cathedra 'Man, if you don't know what it is, you'll never know and it's no use to tell you."[2]

Of course, another interpretation is that the film is supportive of the anti-establishmentarianism of the time. McKee says that Dr. Floyd's race to the Tyco crater and the monolith screaming when the stone is touched by the sun is indicative "that man has invaded space and that the universe must act to contain his force and the killer nature that wields it."[3] Now, I don't know about you, but the last time I checked, hippies weren't too interested in the cold war race to the moon that was led by straighter people such as those in the scientific community that Dr. Floyd represents. There were just too many problems here that needed to be dealt with first.

Moreover, from what I've read in the last 18 months of my MA[4], they weren't real big on perpetrating violence either. In fact, most of the time, beginning from the early 1960's, they seemed somewhat intent on stopping violence in a small South-East Asian conflict or 'Police Action' called The Vietnam War.

 When the spectator sees Dave transform, it isn't from Dave 'the straight guy' into Dave 'The Ubermensch'. Instead, we see Dave become reconceived as a foetus, a new beginning, and a reincarnation, something that has far more to do with hippie eastern mysticism than McKee's myopic views. After Dave's 'trip' through the kaleidoscope, Dave shrugs off the material world of the riches in the mansion to become renewed and 'at one with the universe'.

Over the last 10 years, 2001: A Space Odyssey has been ripe for satire and parody. In particular, 'The Simpsons' has made great use of the film's soundtrack, repeatedly using Strauss' 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'[5] as background music for sight gags parodying the film. However, we still find it difficult to shrug off the romantic notion of space travel. In recent news, an American game show that is based on the popular 'Survivor' series is offering a top prize of a trip up to the Russian MIR station. Reported value: $30 Million (U.S.). If your Student Loan is anything like mine, it could be a while before we can afford the ticket, but then again, maybe Air New Zealand will get that funky concorde off the drawing board.


[1] McKee, Mel '2001: Out of The Silent Planet' Sight and Sound Vol. 38, No. 4, 1968. Pages 204-207.

[2] Ibid. 205.

[3] Ibid. 205.

[4] 'The Depiction of late 1960's counter culture in the 1968 films of Jean-Luc Godard.' Coming soon to support a too short table leg in a library basement near you!

[5] I wonder if someone told McKee of the irreligious connotations that Strauss' music has upon the film. The key score is named after the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who proclaimed God to be dead.