Blowin' Your Mind

film 4 of 5

2001: A Space Odyssey

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke worked very closely and harmoniously together on the creation of this story. The book and the movie that resulted from their work were meant to be taken in tandem, and they remain as especially happy and rewarding complements, as well as being studies in the positive possibilities of adaptation. We often think, having so often been told as much, that the essence of a good adaptation is faithfulness to, even congruence with an original source. Here’s evidence of a valid alternative. 2001 pretty well proves that in adaptation you can also make a selection of only some parts from a whole, that you can make significant departures from, or perhaps play variations on original themes, or that you can consider ideas suggested but not fully explored by a source. To do so is not so much a betrayal as a reworking of artistic raw material, something Kubrick does here with great confidence and distinction. (Consider also his stunning version/variation of W.M. Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon [1975], or his effective, somewhat radical re-imagining of Steven King’s The Shining. [For my part, the egregious A Clockwork Orange, from Anthony Burgess’s fine and troubling book of the same name, is another matter. It should be noted that none of these last named films are for children.]) Viewers can easily benefit from and enjoy this course, if they’ll only allow it.

2001 has a reputation of being difficult, and it is true that if we like everything spelled out for us—and commercial film tends to do an awful lot of spelling out—there may be disorientation in store for us as we watch it. But this is the point at which Clarke’s book provides, if not ease of interpretation, then plenty of concrete ideas and plot events to give us direction. And if we see it without benefit of the book, the film also provides a great lesson in the challenges and pleasures of symbol. Far from being meaningless, this elusive movie actually has a surfeit of meaning. There are many ways to interpret and apply its roomy symbols, and out of this exercise comes a very helpful, liberating lesson for the viewer. Stories aren’t only what the creators intend them to be, but what we apprehend them to be. (Kids are good at this. See below.) Instead of being nervous about drawing our own interpretations, we might actually enjoy ourselves and participate in the making and communicating of meaning.

This story is about the evolutionary spark in man, or maybe the divine spark, or perhaps the possibility of the two being identical. Human, and pre-human kind—by the way, interesting conversations about theories of evolution will be pretty well unavoidable when you watch this with the youngsters—are portrayed at several key points in their development. In each episode the infamous obelisk plays a direct or indirect part, signaling the intervention and assistance of superior intelligence and power. The nature of these forces is quite wondrous to reflect upon. (Clarke intimates that they are man evolved unto exaltation [cf. his superb, rather terrifying Childhood’s End, 1953], reaching across the eons to assist his rising relatives). The film’s extremely leisurely pace—often criticized as being cruel to, or even scornful of audiences—is actually ideal for the kind of reflection required.

In addition to its meaning, another of the things that you will feel to reflect upon is the film itself: cinematically, 2001 is really quite awe-inspiring. We are accustomed these days to require our special effects to be completely convincing, and many of us are hastily—and regrettably—dismissive of any perceived falling short. As we have seen elsewhere (cf. Jason and the Argonauts), this can be an unfortunate (closed, killjoy) attitude. On the other hand, newer doesn’t always mean better: in terms of strict verisimilitude, the effects in Kubrick’s nearly 40 year old film are still unmatched. (Effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull deserves special mention in this regard.) This is true both in their execution, and in the way they remind us of the reason we have effects in the first place. They are not just for dazzling, but can also contribute to the setting—meaning, message, milieu, etc.—in which they occur. The special effects in 2001 are integrated into just such a bigger design.

The film convincingly creates a pre-historic past and an astronomical future/present. The resultant grandeur also suggests, or even leads to the domination and overwhelming of the film’s characters, as well as the story in which they appear. While subservience like this would normally be a shortcoming—compare Disney’s historically important but not especially well balanced Tron (1981)—here it becomes a conceptual masterstroke. Again, to say that this film is awe-inspiring is not so much to invoke a cliché as to describe its real effects, very consciously created. Here is a meditation on the unfathomability of time and space, and of a masterful overseeing power, and so complete is this mastery that the puny human participants, actors and viewers alike, can only tremble when jeopardized, and take the rest in humble gratitude.

These are religious reflections, far out of the ordinary reach or intent of commercial film. No wonder that many still find Kubrick’s piece to be such an unusual, even trying experience. With these stakes and issues, it should be. So—should you show it to your kids? Will it all be too much for them? Is it even appropriate? Well, the violence portrayed in the prehistoric sections is glancing, but striking. If it is not debatable that things in the natural world really are this way, that still doesn’t mean that a guardian wants or needs to subscribe to their portraying. More to the point, there is toward the end of the film’s wondrous ship-board section a very suspenseful bit of mechanical jeopardy, climaxed by one—actually two—of cinema’s most vivid and frightening deaths. Elsewhere, there is much that is ambiguous to the point of opaqueness. If clarity and being oriented are the core requirements of a child’s sense of well-being, then this is probably not the best place to find them, or it.

Having admitted all this, I would conclude by suggesting that this is a wonderful film for children, including very young ones. Your humble correspondent saw it on its initial release at the age of four, and remembers clearly a number of vivid images and sounds, as well as the vivid feelings and questions that they generated—and learned something very important from the experience, as well as from the experience of contemplating it all from some years’ distance. We always talk about the dangers to children of too much TV. We celebrate books, play, and the life of the mind. And yet we forget that young children aren’t always equipped for the reading and playing and thinking we expect of them. The notion of platforming—explored, among others, by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky—reminds us that kids need help, that they won’t think of every needful thing on their own, that they need older children or grown-ups to model certain techniques of play, interaction, communication. In addition, imaginative, creative play cannot take place in a vacuum. It is up to us not only to protect children from harm (including harm from the media), but to provide them with the concepts, as well as the supportive and just plain wondrous words and sounds and images from which playing, and living are built.

2001: A Space Odyssey is full of precious sights and sounds, ideas and feelings. Parents, friends and older kids will find it a real brainfull, a source maybe of frustration, but also of great profit, of great thinking and talking and interacting. As for the little ones, they won’t be able to respond as sophisticatedly, but they may just know how to respond more directly, more profoundly than the grown-ups. Where we may find conundrums, or a mere mental challenge, they may see God.