The Comic Sense of 2001 (1968)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on October 1, 1969 @ Film Comment.

2001 is a film of surprising subtlety that has caused many serious critics to miss its tones. Pauline Kael (Harpers), John Simon (The New Leader), and Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic) have all misgauged the film's satire and refused to meet 2001's charm. They leapt to superficial scuttling of the film, blind to the irony and patterns at work.

2001 is a flawed masterwork; these three major critics saw it only as flawed. Kauffmann dismissed it as labored and insensitive, Simon called it a "shaggy God story," and as so often is the case Kael was the most shallow, with her usual stellar arrogance and questionable ability at perception. She came to conquer not comprehend.

There are of course reasonable ways to find valid fault with the film -- perhaps in the archness of the symbolism or even in the quietness of the satire. But these three critics weren't even aware enough of the satire at work to function validly.

Kauffmann circles around the satire sniffing it but never recognizing it for what it is. "I kept hoping that the director of the War Room sequence in Dr. Strangelove was putting me on; but he wasn't." Kauffmann wants the same satiric thrust of the previous picture or he can't recognize what lies behind the lesser emphasis. Satire must be large it seems. Kauffmann comments, "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." Which is, of course, the point.

Simon, as usual, comes closer to what is going on. "We must realize now that the dullness, as well as the commonplaces and evasions, must be satire." Hooray! ". . . the satire throughout is tepid and halfhearted, and tends to look quite unintentional stupidity.'" Again, a critic looks from the vantage point of Dr. Strangelove, and fails to realize that what appears "banal," "tepid," etc. is all the more frightening because it is so close to present reality. But, and it is a crucial realization, there is a degree between what the characters say and what director Stanley Kubrick and his co-scenarist Arthur C. Clarke suggest They are not one and the same. There is actuality with an edge of satire. Rather than debate the question of degree, the critics dismiss the question.

Of 2001 Kael peevishly declares, "In some ways it's the biggest amateur movie of them all, complete even to the amateur-movie obligatory scene -- the director's little girl (in curls) telling Daddy what kind of present she wants." No observation about the point of the scene because Kael can't discern any viewpoint but her own. She finds little fun in 2001, and she says Kubrick wasn't as satiric as was thought in Dr. Strangelove (it seems reviewers can't see beyond the directors last picture) because Kubrick has "literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb..." Nothing about ambivalence, nothing about the filing satire, a complete ignorance of the film's fun: these are the perceptions of Pauline Kael.

What is similar in the three critics' readings is a crucial obliviousness to tone, an inability to get inside the film. This ability is necessary if one is to comprehend the variety and movement of 2001. Tone leads one to recognize the fun the satire, the wild imagery. There is a comic sense, subjective and often unobtrusive, which permeates 2001 and gives it a dimension that must be realized for a full awareness of the riches of the film.

The opening section capitalizes on this last quality. The film, beautifully photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, opens with a wasteland, quiet, inhabited by apes. It is a scene of starkness undercut by a strange humor. The killing of the ape is brutal, but his fellow apes chattering and screaming, and thumping the carcass give a bizarre comic aspect. When the ape shatters the skull with a bone which he plunks experimentally from side to side like a bone metronome, the rhythm has a humor to it, and when he bashes the skeleton it is with a decided outlandish relish. The opening scene has a quality of odd experiment and bizarre discovery to it, and it is both brutal and incredible.

The apes' attraction to the monolith which appears at dawn, scattering and reproving, then touching and finally herding around it, is biting and humorous. The motion of the ape, his hairy form flowing in slow motion, as he pounds the remains of the animal, is again a fantastic exhibition -- primitive and poetic. If one is solemn during this scene he is stoic, unwilling to be dazzled.

The following scene is a visual transition as the ape in slow motion tosses the bone in the air and it becomes a 21st century spaceship, and the cosmic hardware is accompanied by sweet and rhapsodic music -- The Blue Danube.

Inside the craft a pen is floating beside the dozing traveler, Heywood R. Floyd. Don Daniels ( Film Heritage) has noted that the scene is "hilarious" as "a stewardess with slow motion fussiness" retrieves the pen. Floyd is the character who brings out the most obvious satire, not black this time as in Kubrick's Lolita or Dr. Strangelove, but a revealing of the wretched decline of language, so close to our own present jargon and conversation that the critics took it as a bad script by Clarke and Kubrick. They also attacked Kubrick for becoming enamored at the new toys he was using. What is most annoying about this is that the critics seem to be demanding that something be blatant, not near reality, in satire. And they also seem oblivious to the possibility of ambivalence, a mixture of satire and awe.

The satire in the Floyd sections is well done, because it is close to actuality. There is enough repetition and emphasis that should make the attentive viewer aware that what is going on has a point of view that is observant and critical. The bland commonplaces of the receptionist as Floyd checks in from the spacecraft introduce this. The "Howard Johnson's Earthlight Room" adds telling illustration. And, when Floyd calls his daughter back on earth, the point of view is in focus. She squirms as he talks to her, and he asks her if for her birthday there is "Anything special you want?" She answers "yes," looks down at the phone, and gives the outrageous answer "a telephone." The imagination is so dulled that all one -- a child -- can think of is the immediate, a telephone. She then decides she wants a "bush baby."

When Floyd gives his remarks at the briefing the satire of the inept language fairly leaps out. It is trite and inarticulate. But it is not Kubrick's (or Clarke's) inadequacy, it is the characters' inarticulateness, their loss of language. A parade of meagre "well"s fills the air. Halvorsen, who introduces Floyd, starts out, "Well, . . . " He sticks his hands in his pockets. If this were done once, one might assume that it didn't matter. But this stance and feeble language are the imprint of the scene, the exposing of dullness.

Floyd is no more competent in talking, "Hi, everybody, nice to be back with you," He follows this with the refrain, "Well, . . . " and then comments "Now, ah . . . " He too puts his hands in his pockets. When the floor is opened for questions, there is only one, about the danger of "cultural shock." Floyd responds, "Well, I, ah, sympathize with your point of view." (The questioner is against the cover story of an epidemic which has been used to protect the secret of the monolith on the moon.) Floyd concludes. "Well, I think that's about it. Any questions?" Halvorsen thanks Floyd, "Well, ... " "No more questions [there was only one]. We should get on with the briefing."

If the audience hasn't recognized what Kubrick is exposing about language, he reemphasizes the pathetic quality on the craft when he has one man say, "That was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood." "Certainly was," affirms a second man. The irony is explicit. Heywood's comments while friendly were anything but excellent. At this point if the viewer hasn't begun to realize the rather obvious satire, he probably is missing most of the irony, and he thinks the film foolish, instead of its characters foolish. It is dismaying to think that critics are unable to separate the characters' point of view from the creators'.

At the site of the monolith there is a further absurdity, this time visual. Six men in space suits approach the monolith. One touches it. One waves the other five in front of it like tourists or pompous hunters for a picture taking session. This is shattered by a piercing shreik emitted from the monolith. The fantastic scene with the apes, the "dull" scenes with Floyd, the rituals -- the apes, the briefing, the men at the monolith -- have set several tones, one of the most basic a tone of irony and cliche. Dullness and balletic movement interplay.

If one is aware of Floyd's and his compatriots' satiric demeanor, it is easy to recognize the similar identity of the two astronauts on the spaceship, Discovery 1, Frank Poole and David Bowman. As the section "Flight to Jupiter" begins, Poole trots around the craft shadow-boxing. It is a scene Kauffmann calls "amusing" though too extended. In the background Bowman eats. On tv there is their interview with a tv interviewer "How is everything going?" Again language f3ails. Poole offers trite sanguinity, "Marvelous," Bowman is less enthusiastic: "We have no complaints." Then there is the labored production from Poole's family. His mother, who is a teacher, says, "Frank, you're a big celebrity in the second grade." His father cries: "We wish you the very happiest of birthdays." They sing Happy Birthday. Frank lies lumpish with his sun glasses, sunning himself under a sunlamp.

Compared to the humans, HAL -- the 9000 computer -- is more articulate, more concerned. HAL is having second thoughts about the mission. His voice is ripe and soft. He picks up an alleged fault in one of the units, and predicts it will fail in 72 hours. "Mission control," says the computer, "is in error." But HAL desists; he says it can only be "attributable to human error. This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it's always attributable to human error."

There follows one of the film's nicest ironies. Poole and Bowman enclose themselves in the soundproof space pod to discuss, out of range of HAL's hearing, what should be done with the computer. Poole says if HAL is "malfunctioning" there is no choice but "disconnection." But what is uncanny and ironic about the scene is that as the spacemen talk, HAL reads their lips through the glass, first one then the other; in a priceless irony, soundless lips, language without sound, communicates and precipitates a dreadful reaction.

HAL shows his frailty, As Poole floating outside the space pod is placing the material back in the unit, HAL breaks his life line. When Bowman asks HAL what happened, HAL responds that there isn't enough evidence to know. So Bowman goes to recover the dead Poole floating in space. When he does, HAL allows the hibernauts, the sleeping crew, to die. Flashing on red letters come the messages: "Computer malfunction," "Life functions critical," "Life functions terminal." HAL also forbids Bowman, who has recovered Poole's body, to reenter the craft. He declares, "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it."

Bowman tells HAL to let him reenter, but he is ultimately met by silence. Bowman appears almost satanically intense -- with lights, colored, odd, on his lace. Bowman still possesses man's adaptability; he flies careening through the emergency airlock. He enters the capsule with a purpose. There is a bittersweet quality to HAL's death. Where Dave was intense and willful, HAL is helpless and desperate. HAL pleads for his life, "I know everything hasn't been quite right with me. . . I feel much better now I really do." "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently. I want to help you." "Dave stop. Stop, will you. Stop. Dave. Will you stop, Dave. Stop, Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave."

Marvelously HAL is the most sensitive on the craft. "Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about if. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm afraid. Good afternoon gentlemen, I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational. . . . " HAL relates the factors of his creation in Urbana, Illinois, in 1992, and he says his instructor ". . . Mr, Langley. . .taught me to sing a song . . . it's called Daisy." He sings. ". . . I'm half crazy. . . " as he falters into madness, and the clear voice of mission control breaks in on a prerecording, "Good day, gentlemen. This is a prerecorded briefing. Now that you are in Jupiter space and the entire crew has been revived, it can be told to you." Mission control tells the lone living occupant of the spaceship about the "four million year old black monolith" found on the moon sending its beams to Jupiter, "its origin and purpose a total mystery " Bowman is about to meet that mystery.

The final segment is entitled "Jupiter And Beyond the Infinite." Bowman in his space pod goes on a wild color-throbbing ride. Like a casket lid, the black monolith leads, against black star-sprinkled space. At the bottom of the screen is a planet like a pool of white fire. Orbs beyond the monolith move. An enchantment pervades the film, sometimes sly, wicked, dazzling. Bowman is affected physically by his frenetic ride. His face shakes; freezes, one eye cocked, his face is distorted in torment. His eye turns pink, blue, orange; different colors throb on it. The terrain is brown, blue, dark red, fluorescent, livid, bright. The terrain luminous. His eyes up in his head. A new map shimmering, glowing infernally. His eye blinking colors.

Then, suddenly, Bowman's capsule appears in a green-white room, whose decor is a mixture of modern and Louis XVI.* He is aged in his space suit. He roams the premises, into the lavatory. He witnesses a figure who looks like himself. The figure, who becomes himself, drinks a pale wine. He breaks the glass; its crystal cracks like life. The man, now eating, sees a further part of the cycle, an old man in bed. Ancient, bald, he reaches out toward the monolith beyond the end of the bed. Then he is transformed into a ball in the bed-crystal, luminous. Fetus on the bed, a birth. A furthering, not a finalization. A passage. There is a shot of the monolith covering the screen alone. The fetus appears in space, wide-eyed, bright, luminous, glowing, shimmering. Peering on the planet.

Man is no longer Earthbound; he is perhaps headed to shantih, the peace that passeth understanding. ** There is an essential absurdity, a clutter of expanding symbols, a metaphoric future. And amidst the incredible, is something pre-natal, a gleaming chuckle from space, a fetal vision looking at its plaything, its worlds womb, from whence it came. The world is a toy. One gags at the vision; it is too fantastic -- a cosmic, cosmic revaluation.

* This scene has caused many viewers problems. Some readers of Clarke's book have felt that by explaining the room as the offering of extraterrestrials Clarke has destroyed the sense of mystery. There is nothing that says one has to accept this concept. It also seems valid to suggest that the room might be a hallucination in the mind of the "dying" astronaut. The most rewarding way of viewing Clarke's book is to see him as the first critic, who can be extremely helpful in comprehending 2001 but not the only interpreter.

** 2001 is similar to T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland in its comic and cruel vignettes of vacuity that resolve ultimately in hope.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin