Brow Beat

2001 Is Still Teaching Us How to Pay Attention to Movies

Your mind need not be going.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

It always feels like a cop-out when people sidle up to you as you’re discussing any overtly creative work of art and intone, “Well, people don’t have the attention span for that kind of thing nowadays, do they?”

The thinking is that anything that requires sustained concentration couldn’t possibly hold the collective focus of a group, which is in part why I’m fascinated when I watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is commemorating its 50th anniversary at a time when we most need to be reminded of its potency.

Under the aegis of Christopher Nolan, a new “unrestored” 70 mm version of 2001 has been making the rounds this summer, and Warner Brothers is putting out a Blu-ray version in the fall that will likely stand as definitive, so now is the time for this movie to teach us a lesson all over again.

According to Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey, which was published in April, Kubrick told a friend he wanted 2001 to be “the first science-fiction film which isn’t considered trash,” which was why Kubrick roped Clarke into working on the screenplay, which then led to Clarke composing a novel so he’d have something to base the script on. (Pauline Kael ended up dismissing the movie as “trash masquerading as art” all the same.) Kubrick’s disdain for sci-fi’s history wasn’t entirely fair, but even its best exemplars came cloaked in the robes of the genre: atomic bugs munching their way through civilization, pissed-off aliens deciding to get the jump on Earth folk before the latter took to space and screwed up a lot of stuff for a lot of races unlike our own. 2001, though, was the thinking person’s sci-fi film.

The opening “Dawn of Man” sequence, which has us looking in on our evolutionary antecedents, signals that this is not a movie that is going to be rending its garments to beg your involvement; where modern films pile up the histrionics of CGI, volume, jackhammer cuts, and breakneck pacing, 2001 unfurls at its own speed. The apes have this added-on human element, as if they’re more than apes but not quite us. They eye each other suspiciously, or they beat their fellows, then beat them some more when captivated by the odd sound sticks make on skulls. Even though this is Earth, everything is so fraught with the unknown that that theme of having to know is immediately ingratiated in us as we watch.

That’s one of the keys of keeping an audience on your side: Make people need to know why something is happening. This is the same compulsion, the same curiosity that always engages us as humans, in those moments of our daily life that stand out a touch from the others, or even in the petty drama at work. That makes the transition, via that bone hurled by an ape skyward, to the meat of this film—the outer-space bit, of course—entirely natural, when it easily could have been incongruous. By the time that hurled bone is match cut with a space station, we are all but zipped up in our spacesuits and buckled in—and not a word has yet been said. That opening space sequence functions as supernal ballet, with various vessels spinning, rotating along unfamiliar axes, pirouetting in a post-atmospheric dance of grace against a backdrop of penumbras. You can’t look away, even if you’re the sort of person who normally can’t go longer than seven seconds without glancing at your phone.

Let’s be frank: The space sets for 2001 have never been bettered. This was the “used universe” before George Lucas came along, and Kubrick and Co. must have worked their asses off to make this space station, where Keir Dullea’s David Bowman will be pitted against a rogue HAL 9000 computer—HAL, simply, to every fan of this film ever since—as believable, as visually relatable as your apartment that needs cleaning. It’s another way for us to become and feel immersed in this creator’s world. Everything is a touch off. The astronauts aren’t British, but they also don’t sound convincingly American, due to the pacing of their words, a certain trans-Atlanticness. Then there is HAL’s voice, performed by Douglas Rain; he coos, like a parent to a protesting child, singsong tones hypnotizing the viewer so that your very brain waves seem to take on HAL-like contours, that cadence lodging in your head.

Fifty years later, are we all morphing into human versions of HAL? It’s tempting to say yes, save that actual HAL has an uncurbed individuality. We admire HAL, to a degree, in 2001, even as we don’t want him to win—he’s a murderous baddie, after all—because of a certain wish fulfillment. He fights in ways we often do not, and if a computer can have courage, HAL certainly does, and that gives him a kind of nobility even in defeat. The free-beat poetry of HAL’s apparent last words, when Dave defeats his adversary by slowly shutting down HAL’s “brain” functions, is nearly tear-inducing:

My mind is going.

There is no question about it.

I can feel it.

I’m afraid.

It’s also jarring, because it encapsulates what so many of us feel right now, in our echo chambers of compromised minds, self-enabling propensities, and fear—so much rampant, warring fear. At least we don’t struggle to be engrossed by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps our minds aren’t going, or at least not as fast as we might think; we just need a work of art that makes us feel duty-bound to it, as it is to us.