Harsh Texture

2001: A Space Odyssey

In three vignettes, a mysterious obelisk prods mankind's evolution and ultimately a treacherous trip to Jupiter.

We’ve moved past 2001.  Every man, woman, and child carries a personal computing device with capabilities Stanley Kubrick could barely imagine. In geo politics too, the Soviet Union is long gone, nuclear war (thankfully) has remained a fools errand since WW2. In terms of film technique, CGI effects are available to even low budget films that could allow any wannabe Kubrick to create their own space environs.

Yet 2001 remains, somehow, as important as ever.

I think the key, despite all of the progress achieved in the real world, we’re no closer to perfection than we were in 1968. And that’s what 2001 promises, the triumph of perfection, of man reaching the pinnacle afforded by evolution.  

It’s all there in that dance as the shuttle carrying Dr. Lockwood docks with the space station.  The Straus piece that underlays the action takes its time building to a climax, its first bars sound quaint, almost low key, but confidence undergirds the piece. As the theme redoubles it shows its strength, Lockwood’s Pan Am flight matches the space station’s rotation in a weightless dance. Kubrick lingers on the sequence for a full rotation, underscoring the ease of the synchronized motion.More than a decade after the stated date of the film, can any of our modern travel means claim such grace?

Isn’t the great sin of HAL that it erred at all? The crew were ready to disconnect their emotive computer companion upon discovering its first error. Imagine that in the world today! What if we junked Siri or Cortana the first time it misunderstood a command.  

We now have things like satellites, passenger space travel, and permanent space stations.  All of them pale next to the idealized constructions in 2001. Our space stations are built piecemeal, with broad solar panels, desperate for sunlight. In 2001 the Orbital space station is built to a master plan, only one ring seems to be completed as Lockwood arrives. No solar panels are visible, as if the massive structure doesn’t need to beg the sun for energy.

In our reality, hitching a ride to the stars costs millions, in 2001 Lockwood sleeps through most of the voyage, opting to watch an inflight movie and sit in an aisle seat rather than regard the cosmos. NASA’s Apollo program may have left a lunar rover on the moon, but here there’s a full base, complete with a well-apportioned conference room. Every piece of furniture seemingly straight out of the Eames studio.

Much has been made of the set design, and the cold greys of the various vehicles, but the compositions tip their hat to their psychedelic era. The color scheme owes much to Peter Max and similar artists of the day. Characters will be bathed in turquoise and crimson, the interiors of the space vessels seem to glow with vibrant hues.  

2001 can claim a distinguished place among certain cinephiles, those restless with the medium of film. For the entire history of the artform, almost all of mainstream cinema has been devoted to the straightforward narrative. Beginning, Middle, End. Conflict and resolution.  2001 eschews this, the only clearly defined narrative occurs in the middle section. A lackadaisical opening sequence makes a larger, pessimistic, point about mankind, and the final third is big budget abstraction. None of the sequences tie together in any specific sense. Themes reverberate, but the audience is left to draw their own connections, and its an open question whether anyone’s truly centered in on Kubrick’s intent.

Published: Jan. 28, 2017, 5:33 p.m.
Updated: Jan. 28, 2017, 5:33 p.m.