Fly Me to the Moon

Why Kubrick's 2001 was a cosmic dirty movie

So where's the giant fetus?

In 1968, we were promised a giant space-fetus floating above our heads this year. It's not in evidence at this writing, nor is there any sign of the film that ends with the image -- the seminal science-fiction movie of its decade and maybe of the 20th century, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where's the big rerelease with the digitally remastered sound and all the other see-it-again-for-the-first-time crap that's become customary?

It's coming in October, says Warner Bros., though earlier special showings in London and Berlin are being chatted about online. The studio decided against a previous plan to open the film on what would seem to be an obvious date: New Year's Eve. Maybe it occurred to someone, not unreasonably, that choosing to ring in the new year by sitting through a slowly paced two-hour-plus metaphysical sci-fi epic with very little dialogue and no romance -- in the current sense of the word -- is simply more blatant an avowal of geekiness than most people are willing to make.

You big baby: The star-child in 2001.
You big baby: The star-child in 2001.

But while the film is dead out of fashion (and never really has been very admired by many critics), it still bears discussion as we begin this, its namesake year. Like such diverse works as Potemkin and The Blair Witch Project, 2001 can lay claim to classic status merely by virtue of the degree to which it has been parodied. Something in the film's imagery, its use of music, and even its austere dramatics has made it archetypal, even if no one likes it much.

Actually, I do like it. Kubrick turned the blare of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" into a musical shorthand for human inspiration, and in a film in which the humans are technocrat ciphers, he gave us a machine as a great character: HAL, the unctuous, treacherous electronic mind that many of us suspect lurks in our own computers. Plenty of critics have never gotten this joke, or even recognized -- as audiences around the world did -- that it was a joke.

I screened 2001 a while back for a discussion group I was moderating. I hadn't seen it in many years and was surprised at how funny a lot of it was, and how deliberate a lot of that humor seemed. It's not the best science-fiction movie ever made, not even close. Forbidden Planet, Metropolis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the original Flash Gordon serial are all, in their own ways, probably better. While the visuals are still lovely to look at, as "hard" sci-fi it's long since become preposterously dated -- more so, perhaps, than any film has ever been, dated by its very title. On the one hand, we haven't colonized the moon or sent astronauts to Jupiter yet; on the other hand, I'm writing this on a very ordinary PC that, all by itself, would make most of Kubrick's technological prophecy seem quaint.

But to complain about or smirk at all this is to miss the point of 2001. The sci-fi elements, exhaustively crafted though they are, finally serve as window dressing. The real business of the film was an exploration of what constitutes human identity. And here, as in most of the other films that Kubrick made, his answer is that being human is about sex and killing. By the time he got to 2001, however, Kubrick's style had grown so weirdly prudish that the sex is hard to spot. It's there, though, and in some ways it may be less grim than it is anywhere else in his canon.

Recently, after years of searching, I was able to see Kubrick's self-produced, extremely low-budget first film of 1953, Fear and Desire. This story of four soldiers marooned behind enemy lines is pretty terrible (often unintentionally laughable) thanks to Howard Sackler's painfully pretentious script. But Sackler came up with one terrific, mythic line -- the first line of the film's narration -- which could almost be called a summation of Kubrick's thematic concerns: "There is a war in this forest."

Though Kubrick's compositional eye is already in evidence, Fear and Desire has only one genuinely compelling sequence: the horrifying passage wherein a soldier (the very young Paul Mazursky) who has been left in charge of a captured local woman (Virginia Leith) goes nuts, assaulting, then killing her. Kubrick seemed to scare himself with this, and the titles of his next two features are significant: Killer's Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). Throughout Kubrick's work, sexuality is repeatedly associated with rape -- statutory in Lolita, where it also leads to murder; overtly violent in A Clockwork Orange; planetary via the phallic bombs of Dr. Strangelove. He could be Andrea Dworkin's favorite filmmaker, when you think about it. Only at the end of his career, with Eyes Wide Shut, did he make a belated stab at a straightforward treatment of sexuality as an ordinary human need, and the result, crushingly, wasn't much less inept than Fear and Desire.

All this brings us back to 2001. At a glance, it seems entirely asexual. There's no missing the movie's fixation with the human capacity to use tools to willfully kill, certainly, since both an ape and a computer acquire it in the course of the film. Kubrick seems almost to be defining the tendency to slaughter as the natural result of attaining human consciousness.

But there's another side to the film. Kubrick endowed the spaceships themselves with an almost tender sexual nature. The docking of the passenger craft with the space station, to the "Blue Danube Waltz," feels like a courtship, and Jung-minded commentators are quick to point out that the spaceship on which the heroes (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) and HAL travel toward Jupiter resembles a giant sperm cell heading toward an enormous cosmic ovum.

The result of this "conception" is ambiguous -- it could be just a higher form of killer, after all -- but it's at least potentially redemptive and optimistic: that aforementioned fetus, drifting toward Earth, eyes wide open.

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