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Lost in the Stars

A review of "2001: A Space Odyssey"


Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey took five years and $10 million to make, and it’s easy to see where the time and the money have gone. It’s less easy to understand how, for five years, Kubrick managed to concentrate on his ingenuity and ignore his talent. In the first 30 seconds, this film gets off on the wrong foot and, although there are plenty of clever effects and some amusing spots, it never recovers. Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is major disappointment. 

Part of the trouble is sheer distention. A short story by Arthur C. Clarke, The Sentinel, has been amplified and padded to make it bear the weight of this three-hour film. (Including intermission.) It cannot. The Sentinel, as I remember, tells of a group of astronauts who reach the moon and discover slab, clearly an artifact, that emits radio waves when they approach it. They assume it is a kind of DEW marker, set up by beings from a farther planet to signal them that men are at last able to travel this far from earth; and the astronauts sit down to await the beings who will respond to the signal. A neat little open-ended thriller. 

The screenplay by Kubrick and Clarke begins with a prologue four million years ago in which, among other things, one of those slabs is set up on earth. Then, with another set of characters, of course, it jumps to the year 2001. Pan Am is running a regular service to the moon with a way stop at an orbiting space-station, and on the moon a similar slab has been discovered, which the US is keeping secret from the Russians. (We are never told why.) Then we get the third part, with still another set of characters: a huge spaceship is sent to Jupiter to find the source or target of the slab’s radio waves. 

On this Jupiter trip there are only two astronauts. Conscious ones, that is. Three others—as in Planet of the Apes—are in suspended animation under glass. Kubrick had to fill in this lengthy trip with some sort of action, so he devised a conflict between the two men and the giant computer on the ship. It is not exactly fresh science fiction to endow a machine with a personality and voice, but Kubrick wrings the last drop out of this conflict because something has to happen during the voyage. None of this man-versus-machine rivalry has anything to do with the main story, but it goes on so long that by the time we return to the main story, the ending feels appended. It states one of Clarke’s favorite themes—that, compared with life elsewhere, man is only a child; but this theme, presumably the point of the whole long picture, is sloughed off. 

2001 tells us, perhaps, what space travel will be like, but it does so with almost none of the wit of Dr. Strangelove or Lolita and with little of the visual acuity of Paths of Glory or Spartacus. What is most shocking is that Kubrick’s sense of narrative is so feeble. Take the very opening (embarrassingly labelled The Dawn of Man). Great Cinerama landscapes of desert are plunked down in front of us, each shot held too long, with no sense of rhythm or relation. Then we see an elaborate, extremely slow charade enacted by two groups of apemen, fighting over a waterhole. Not interwoven with this but clumsily inserted is the discovery of one of those black slabs by some of the ape-men. Then one ape-man learns that he can use a bone as a weapon, pulverizes an enemy, tosses the weapon triumphantly in the air .. . and it dissolves into a spaceship 33 years from now. Already we are painfully aware that this is not the Kubrick we knew. The sharp edge, the selective intelligence, the personal mark of his best work seem swamped in Superproduction aimed at hard-ticket theatres. This prologue is just a tedious basketful of mixed materials dumped in our laps for future reference. What’s worse, we don’t need it. Nothing in the rest of the film depends on it. 

Without that heavy and homiletic prologue, we would at least open with the best moments of the film—real Kubrick. We are in space—immense blue and ghastly lunar light—and the first time we see it, it’s exciting to think that men are there. A spaceship is about to dock in a spaceport that rotates as it orbits the earth. All these vasty motions in space are accompanied by The Blue Danube, loud and stereophonic on the soundtrack. As the waltz continues, we go inside the spaceship. It is like a superjet cabin, with a discreet electric sign announcing Weightless Condition with the gentility of a seat belt sign. To prove the condition, a ballpoint pen floats in the air next to dozing passenger, US envoy. In comes a hostess wearing Pan Am Grip Shoes to keep her from floating—and also wearing that same hostess smile which hasn’t changed since 1968. When the ship docks and we enter the spaceport, there is a Howard Johnson, a Hilton, and so on. For a minute our hopes are up. Kubrick has created the future with fantastic realism, we think, but he is not content with that, he is going to do something with it. 

Not so. Very quickly we see that the gadgets are there for themselves, not for use in an artwork. We sense this as the envoy makes an utterly inane phone call back to earth just to show off the mechanism. We sense it further through the poor dialogue and acting, which make the story only trite setting for a series of exhibits from Expo ‘01. There is scene between the envoy and some Russians that would disgrace late-night TV. There is a scene with the envoy and some US officials in secret conference that is even worse. I kept hoping that the director of the War Room sequence in Dr. Strangelove was putting me on; but he wasn’t. He was so in love with his gadgets and special effects, so impatient to get to them, that he seems to have cared very little about what his actors said and did. There are only 43 minutes of dialogue in this long film, which wouldn’t matter in itself except that those 43 minutes are pretty thoroughly banal. 

He contrives some startling effects. For instance, on the Jupiter trip, one of the astronauts (Keir Dullea) returns to the ship from a small auxiliary capsule used for making exterior repairs on the craft. He doesn’t have his helmet with him and has to blow himself in through an airlock. (A scene suggested by another Clarke story, Take A Deep Breath.) Kubrick doesn’t cut away: he blows Dullea right at the camera. The detail work throughout is painstaking. For instance, we frequently see the astronauts at their controls reading an instrument panel that contains about a dozen, small screens. On each of those screens flows a series of equations, diagrams, and signals. I suppose that each of those smaller screens needed a separate roll of film, projected from behind. Multiply the number of small instrument-panel screens by the number of scenes in which we see instrument panels, and you get the number of small films of mathematical symbols that had to be prepared. And that is only one incidental part of the mechanical fireworks. 

But all for what? To make a film that is so dull, it even dulls our interest in the technical ingenuity for the sake of which Kubrick has allowed it to become dull. He is so infatuated with technology—of film and of the future—that it has numbed his formerly keen feeling for attention-span. The first few moments that we watch an astronaut jogging around the capsule for exercise—really around the tubular interior, up one side, across the top, and down the other side to the floor—it’s amusing. An earlier Kubrick would have stopped while it was still amusing. The same is true of an episode with the repair capsule, which could easily have been condensed and which is subsequently repeated without even much condensation of the first episode. High marks for Kubrick the special-effects man; but where was Kubrick the director? 

His film has one special effect which certainly he did not intend. He has clarified for me why I dislike the idea of space exploration. A few weeks ago Louis J. Halle wrote in this journal that he favors space exploration because: 

Life, as we know it within the terms of our earthly prison, makes no ultimate sense that we can discover; but I cannot, myself, escape the conviction that, in terms of a larger knowledge than is accessible to us today, it does make such sense.

I disbelieve in this sophomoric definition of “sense,” but anyway Halle’s argument disproves itself. Man’s knowledge of his world has been increasing, but life has, in Halle’s terms, made less and less sense. Why should further expansion of physical knowledge make life more sensible? Still it is not on philosophic ground that I dislike space exploration, nor even on the valid, practical ground that the money and the skills are more urgently needed on earth. (I was delighted to read recently that US space appropriations are diminishing and that there seems to be no further space program after we land men on the moon, if we do, in year or so.) Kubrick dramatizes more physical and personal objection for me. 

Space, as he shows us, is thrillingly immense, but, as he also shows us, men out there are imprisoned, have less space than on earth. The largest expanse in which men can look and live like men is his spaceport, which is rather like spending many billions and many years so that we can travel millions of miles to a celestial Kennedy Airport. Everywhere outside the spaceport, men are constricted and dehumanized. They cannot move without cumbersome suits and helmets. They have to hibernate in glass coffins. The food they eat is processed into sanitized swill. Admittedly the interior of Kubrick’s spaceship is not greatly different from that of jetliner, but at least planes go from one human environment to another. No argument that I have read for the existence of life elsewhere has maintained that other planets would be suitable for men. Imagine zooming millions of miles—all those tiresome enclosed days, even weeks—in order to live inside a space suit. 

Kubrick makes the paradox graphic. Space only seems large. For human beings, it is confining. That is why, despite the size of the starry firmament, the idea of space travel gives me claustrophobia.