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A cosmic destiny

Stanley Kubrick's influential cinematic rumination '2001: A Space Odyssey' has turned 50

Stanley Kubrick on the sets of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Photo: Alamy
Stanley Kubrick on the sets of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Photo: Alamy

What did those pioneers feel—the people who were the first to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey when it released 50 years ago, in April 1968? As the hall lights go down, they find themselves suddenly marooned in deep space—the screen is pitch-black for the first 3 minutes, with eerie music slowly getting louder, filled with foreboding, before the MGM logo appears. And then, the majestic sounds of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra well up, as, from the surface of the moon, the audience watches the sun rise from behind Earth. It is 21 minutes before a human being appears on screen. Another 5 minutes before a word is spoken. And the next 2 hours are a journey of pure awe and wonder.

2001 would certainly have been unlike any film experience these viewers had had before. Most of them must have left the hall with their heads reeling.

Fifty years on, Stanley Kubrick’s epic remains one of the most visionary films ever made. And also one of the most mysterious.

What’s it about? The basic plot is as follows. Four million years ago, extraterrestrial explorers leave behind an artefact, a jet-black slab, the “monolith", on Earth to aid man-apes’ evolutionary progress. Apemen touch it and suddenly something clicks in their brains—they discover tools. In the year 2001, a second monolith is discovered, buried under the lunar surface, “programmed", in Kubrick’s words, “to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe—a kind of cosmic burglar alarm". When scientists touch it, it sends off a powerful radio signal towards Jupiter.

A spaceship with five astronauts (three of them in hibernation) and a supercomputer is sent to Jupiter, but only one astronaut, David Bowman, manages to reach, finding a third monolith in orbit around the planet, “waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system". As he nears the monolith, he is swept through a “stargate" into another universe or meta-universe, where he is reborn as an enhanced being, “the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny".

“This is what happens," said Kubrick, “on the film’s simplest level."

What about the other levels? Kubrick steadfastly refused to discuss this. “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film," he told an interviewer. But he also said that if his film penetrated the subconscious of the viewer and gripped him “at a very deep level", then he would think he had succeeded.

However, any close reading of the film reveals Kubrick’s true intentions.

Under its ice-cold science-fiction packaging (the only time anyone expresses any emotions in the film is when the supercomputer HAL pleads for life as Bowman goes about shutting it down), this is a profoundly religious film.

Here’s a clue. On some negative reviews for 2001, Kubrick said in an interview published in the September 1968 issue of Playboy magazine: “Perhaps there is a certain element of the lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema." The keyword here, of course, is “atheist".

The last 20 minutes of the film are a mind-warping hallucinatory trip. As we enter the stargate with Bowman, we hurtle through psychedelic grids. We see magnificent galaxies, supernovas, stars birthing and dying, blood-red opalescent womb-like shapes, renegade comets or sperms careening to their fates, primordial ooze coalescing into landscapes in unearthly colours—deserts, canyons, tundras, archipelagos, the creation of entire worlds…

…and then suddenly Bowman’s space pod is in an ornate Louis XVI apartment. He steps out of the pod. In the next room, a much older Bowman is having a meal. The next moment—or at the same moment—he is incredibly aged, on his death bed, and at the foot of the bed stands the monolith. He reaches out to the monolith, and is transformed into a wide-eyed foetus inside a glowing amniotic sac floating above the bed.

The camera zooms in slowly on the monolith and we seem to enter it and exit millions of light years away—if light years is a measure of what we have travelled—near Earth. The foetus, which is unmistakably Bowman, hovers in space in its luminous sac, above our blue planet, and turns towards the camera, staring enigmatically at the viewer, its hands seemingly folded in a posture of prayer. The screen goes dark, as the stately notes of Thus Spake Zarathustra rise again (Strauss’ tone poem is based on the book of the same name by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which postulated three evolutionary stages for humans—ape, man and superman).

The idea of a race of beings who nudge along humans on their evolutionary path lies at the heart of 2001. “They (could have emerged) from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit," Kubrick told an interviewer. “Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans…. These entities might be…aware of everything that occurs (throughout the cosmos)…they might not be limited by the speed of light and their presence could penetrate to the farthest corners of the universe; they might possess complete mastery over matter and energy; and in their final evolutionary stage, they might develop into an integrated collective immortal consciousness."

That sounds pretty much like a description of God, except that Kubrick (and his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke) is reaching this metaphysical thesis from a pure-science starting point—that it is very probable that in a universe comprising billions of galaxies, with billions of stars in each of them, there would be life forms out there somewhere compared to which we would be like microbes.

They would be gods to us. And they would help us on our way, when they decide we are ready to go forward. In 2001, Bowman is transmuted into the first being of the radiant next stage of our evolutionary journey. As he stares at us with his infant hands folded in prayer, Kubrick’s masterpiece becomes a paean of faith in a higher cosmic destiny.

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