2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick and I don’t usually get along: A Clockwork Orange terrified me in ways I have yet to fully process, and Eyes Wide Shut bored me to tears. So I wasn’t exactly looking forward to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for my postmodern film class, but it turns out the movie is pretty awesome. And I use that word purposefully to take full advantage of the root word “awe.”
When I wrote about Spielberg’s confidence directing War of the Worlds, I had no idea what I was talking about. Kubrick’s daring with a film that contains very little dialogue, impressive technology, and some incredibly trippy visuals (movies like this make me wish I do drugs) startled me. Also consider that I was sitting in a classroom alone on campus at 10 p.m. A movie like this can mess with your mind.
2001 examines humanity’s relationship with technology, starting with the origins of man and ending with a journey to Jupiter to encounter alien life. As a feminist, the film offers few entry points for analysis. As my teacher commented when he came to claim the DVD, there aren’t a lot of women in this movie.
He ain’t kidding: the main actors are all men, with women participating in certain scenes for brief moments only. For instance, at one point, Dr. Floyd talks with his young daughter (and yes, she’s played by Kubrick’s own daughter), apologizing for missing her birthday. Shortly thereafter he visits with a few old friends, including a woman named Elena whom he apparently knows socially.
Despite the fact that Dr. Floyd speaks to his daughter with the same careful, professional tone he uses with his co-workers, Floyd’s interaction with her cheered me a bit. This scene adds a touch of normality to a foreign, sterile setting. Floyd, you see, is waiting at a space station for his destination flight to the moon. Yet in talking with his daughter, he reveals himself to be a typical dad, possibly in trouble with Mom for his career-obsessed ways, trying to connect with his daughter.
The other “prominent” female character, Elena, sits with Dr. Smyslov and two foreign women. These latter two women barely speak, and when they do, they employ a foreign language. Elena, however, chats freely with Floyd, though it is Smyslov who challenges Floyd about the rumors of an epidemic on the moon. Elena’s relationship to Smyslov is unclear, though she seems to defer to him for anything but small talk. She proves herself to be elegant, gracious, and articulate, but otherwise fails to impress the audience with any sort of distinction.
Other than that, female actresses appear as flight attendants or silent passers by. During one scene, Floyd gives an inspirational speech about his project on the moon, but, dang it, I can’t for the life of me remember if there were any women in the room. Oh wait, later in the film, Dr. Poole’s parents chat with him on his birthday: again an attempt to show normalcy amidst an entirely abnormal situation.
As a feminist critic, I can usually review a movie portraying only male characters because in some way women will play a role, even if only in how the men talk about the women they know. Sometimes it is their absence that gives the film great meaning. So what does it mean that a film that concludes with a birth, including a journey through a birth canal made of an electric light show, gives so little thought to the role of women?
The female characters who appear in the film tend to add a sense of domestic peacefulness: their presence amid a cold, clinical world softens the moment. Yet they do not appear as decision makers—rather, it tends to be men who act.
The climactic actions in this film portray a character touching the mysterious black monolith and suffering the results. 2001 poses questions about violence, power, technology, and simple curiosity, filtering these issues through a masculine point of view. I can’t help but wonder what additional layers a female perspective might have added—or would a female in the same position make the same choices and suffer the same fate? Both are interesting options. But I’m not Kubrick—I don’t get to choose what story he wants to tell.
Truthfully, I little considered the lack of female characters while watching this movie because Kubrick’s luscious visuals so enthralled me. It was like I was in a sort of trance, unable to move my eyes from the screen. In some ways I shared the shocked look of the character Dr. Dave Bowman as he traveled through the light show canal, unable to close my eyes or turn away.
Kubrick’s imagination populates this world with delightful images of spaceships of all size and shapes, playful and eerie music, and bold camera angles. He evidences tremendous control of his film, especially with respect to pacing. Kubrick takes his time, toying with the audience’s anxiety and expectation. Events are carefully plotted, characters speak with precision, and the entire design demonstrates an impressive attention to detail. The movie isn’t scary: rather, it is deeply unsettling (way creepier than a scary movie).
Most unsettling, however, were the deep thoughts this film prompted in my own mind. I suspect each person watching this movie will take something different from it, but I came face to face with my deeply rooted anxiety about the meaning of life. Watching Dave and Frank on the space ship traveling to Jupiter freaked me out. Running in circles, viewing meaningless and repetitive computer screens, acting at the mercy of a computer’s will—the purposelessness of life stood in stark relief.
The film exposes a harsh idea that though we suspect we are in charge of our own lives, someone else in fact makes the decisions for us. I don’t mean this in a Matrix type way; rather, we choose to allow ourselves to be incapacitated, like the hibernating men. Perhaps this is an extreme view, but the film imposed a feeling of dread, as if there was no escape from the mundane parts of life.
I could take this farther, drawing a metaphor between the film and the never-ending routine of domestic or professional life, but perhaps the simple fact that the film made me feel not only strong emotion, but also suffer through deeper questions about the basis of my hopes for life, justifies the consistent acclaim enjoyed by the movie all these years.