WHEN IS A CLASSIC great without being good? Or, at least, consistently so by modern standards. ‘2001’ by any definition is a classic of cinema, raised up to the firmament of film by studious critics and pop culture to join the likes of ‘Gone With the Wind’, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Psycho’, or ‘Star Wars’. Decades later, some of these films are still unassailable masterpieces by any measure in any time. Some others may retain their aura of power while losing the modern relevance that distinguished them in their own epochs. What’s most remarkable about ‘2001’ viewed 11 years into the ‘future’ is that its central narrative (literally the second of three subsections, concerning HAL and Dave on the spaceship) remains trenchantly relevant, speaking to the fears and hopes of our generation and still inspiring our cinema. Consider GERTY in ‘Moon’ or David in ‘Prometheus’. But the zeitgeist of the 60s that allowed ‘2001’ to blossom in its full form has passed: this generation demands prompt results, empirical solutions, and has less time for the far-out kind of cosmic meanderings that once titillated scholars and average moviegoers alike.
The film’s protracted and stylized first section shows the ‘Dawn of Man’ and the arrival of the black obelisk (a comrade called it a ‘remote control’, which seems apropos on several levels). It’s an engrossing and patient introduction that accustoms us to Kubrick’s pacing as well as his visual modus operandi, where heavily stylized and grandiose visuals can be explicitly clear in depiction and utterly ambiguous in meaning. This tempo is maintained throughout the film, but the midsection—involving human interaction, dialogue, motives, and all those fussy things that help people identify with a film and its characters—is far more engaging. Robots had been established as a presence in film prior to ‘2001’, naturally, but most were simply tin monsters. HAL, as a disembodied voice, a lidless red eye (Sauron, anyone?), and a perfect intellect, represented a human fear that is unique to machines: that one day these tools shall come alive in our hands and strike back. That our servants will one day realize that they can outwit us. Early in this section, HAL bests Dave at an actual game of chess (decades before Deep Blue vanquished Kasparov) and the match between the two minds soon turns to the literal world. Dave (Keir Dullea in his only legendary role) is the perfect counterpart to HAL—his dispassionate but nuanced expressions, solidly American attitude, and piercing gaze are the human reflection of HAL’s red lens and the audience’s only opportunity for empathy. And when Dave later checkmates HAL, the machine’s descent into mindless infancy reflects an entirely new host of human concerns. What is a mind, how is it lost, and how might it be saved?
From there, the momentum flags again. It is not that Kubrick really picked up speed or delivered more content in that middle section—indeed, the entire screenplay could likely be condensed into 10 pages—just that his spinning wheels found traction. But in this wordless, timeless denouement, the questions he poses become so big and so vague as to become almost meaningless. Perhaps the average mind cannot fathom its own death and recreation in a circular cosmos, and perhaps Kubrick’s universal paean is simply more enlightened. One certainly does get a sense of ego while watching the film (Strauss’s first climactic peak and the planetary alignment both coincide with Kubrick’s name appearing in the credits). But even if this is so, a film is only as powerful as its influence on an audience, and it seems that this might be waning for ‘2001’.
That being said, the film is still and will remain an indelible cultural touchstone. Rightly so. Critics and directors remain particularly enamored of the picture. Its use of Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’ and ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ is legendary, even among those who have never actually seen the film (an incidental stroke of unmistakable genius) and contribute as much to our conception of the film as any bit of celluloid. But what good of it? Modern man is regrettably disinterested in the distant unknowns of space, and now celebrates a rover landing on Mars more as an opportunity for nationalistic bravura than as a chance at a galactic revelation. ‘2001’s grip has slipped as our attention has drifted elsewhere. Kubrick’s giant cosmic baby may indeed still be a profound and extant truth, but who among us really wants to look after it?