Space Aging

The 30-Year 'Quest | Parachute | 2001: A Space Odyssey | The Mark of Zorro | Fest Bets

GOOD MORNING, DAVE: Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Spacey Odyssey' screens at 10am on March 15.

With typical ambition, Stanley Kubrick set out in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to chart out the Age of Man from start to finish. It commences roughly 4 million years in the past, with our hairy hominid ancestors' first use of a tool.

The technological shift was triggered by a strange alien artifact, a towering slab that materialized among them. The tool was a weapon, of course—a projectile made out of a tapir bone. In the moment it is hurled, we're on the path that leads to the arrival of the Starchild. When he comes, our glittering blue world will be just a bauble for him to observe. That's according to writer Arthur C. Clarke's version, which doesn't completely gel with what Kubrick had in mind ... not that the director handed out keys to the film.

This post-human is heralded by the Richard Strauss theme music, "Also sprach Zarathustra," or "Thus Zarathustra Spoke"—a fanfare for the homo superior. From Frederick Nietzsche's book, which Strauss adapted into music: "What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Superman." A vague figure, this Superman, whose parameters range from the Nazi ideal to the Big Blue Boy Scout from Metropolis.

Kubrick's vision of the space-traveling future ahead is studiously boring, a business-class rocket to the moon, with a departure lounge plastered with advertisements: it's as dull as a New York-to-Los Angeles jet. Yet our government is up to some stealthy business.

On the moon near Tycho crater, they've found the Monolith, seemingly a trip wire to tip off some far-away aliens that we apes made it to space. The slab is starless and bible black. It is "that open void that we feel when we try to imagine that which is unimaginable" Kubrick said, as quoted in A.S. Hamrah's excellent article on 2001 in Bookforum.

As a satire of the laconic Midwestern officers of NASA, Kubrick chose bland, porelessly handsome actors such as Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea for the astronauts here. They follow the mysterious Monolith's transit to Jupiter with the help of a smooth-voiced computer called HAL 2000, whose motherly functions conceal a Caliban side.

Working in hunches, images and half-ideas, Kubrick and Clarke toiled to make science fiction mature; they contrasted routine human life with an outer space as beckoning and mysterious as human destiny itself.

Kubrick frustrated expectations throughout, as in never showing the aliens who apparently long-ago transcended bodies: a puzzle to science fiction fans who'd wondered where the rubber masks and tentacles went.

Big ideas, like harbors, silt up over the years. The bombast of the Strauss score—so thrilling once—has been leached by the music's use in lofty TV commercials. But there were always naysayers. Take Mad magazine suggesting that the Monolith was "the box the UN Building came in." The film is vacuous and full of ideas about the origins of humankind that a first-year student should be ashamed of, said critic David Thomson; Pauline Kael wrote that she preferred the excitement of the outer-space pretitles of the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice. And so do I; as Graham Greene said, the movie-loving flesh is weak.

Yet the size of Kubrick's endeavor still startles, and still influences and astonishes filmmakers. This despite its '60s detritus: light shows and alien zookeepers and—this may have something to do with Clarke's life in Sri Lanka—its thoughts about reincarnation. The early morning showtime (10am) will be a little challenging for late nighters, but there's something to be said for seeing a movie right in the middle of the day. Perhaps it's even the best way to take in the scope and subtleties of this masterwork, shown in the 'unrestored' version screened at Cannes in 2018.

March 14, 10am, California Theatre