Stanley Kubrick. Was he a genius? An idiot? It’s difficult to say. All we know for certain about that man is that he’s very definitely dead. Frustratingly, the body of work he left behind doesn’t really provide the answer to that great mystery, veering wildly as it does between “horrid” and “stupendous.” Case in point? 2001, his now clearly inaccurate vision of our current century, a film which is either a visionary masterpiece or an indulgent load of horse puckey.
The movie begins a long time ago on a veldt far, far away, where a lot of ape-men scream at weaker ape-men whenever the weaklings try to drink. “Angry monkeys” definitely kicks off things with a big plus mark on the “genius” side of the ledger. But soon some of the monkey people find a very large black thing which blasts them with high-pitched sounds, turning them into vicious killers. After slaughtering the big bully monkey people who kept them from drinking the muddy water they so longed for, the newly-murderous apes throw a bone into the air, which gets such good hang time that when it comes down again, time has advanced tens of thousands of years into the future, and the bone has transformed into a spaceship docking with an orbital Howard Johnson’s.
Product placement is a pretty new concept in movies, something that didn’t truly hit its stride until Steven Spielberg prostituted his touching tale of a mutated Debra Winger from space and the boy who loved her in return for a little kickback from the Reese’s candy corporation. That was 1982, and here’s 2001 (a movie from 1968) shilling for HoJo. As Dave Bowman later explains, “HoJo’s was the only survivor of the great hotel chains war of the late 20th century” – a hollow jest intended to explain the lack of competitors in the film, which fell deadeningly flat. Film connoisseurs found the joke even more offensive, since it was blatantly stolen from the 1953 Stallone/Snipes cult classic “Demolition Man.”
You can’t deny that the brain stroke which led Kubrick to cheapen the integrity of his film in return for having HAL’s burning red eye emblazoned on plastic cups and lobby cards in hotels throughout the country was innovative, but it’s the wrong kind of genius. The sort of viral genius that invents “hamster dance” websites and feathered hair and breakdancing and then fools other people into thinking they’re good ideas. Kubrick’s bold sell-out in the ’60s ultimately led to the modern trend of infomercials thinly disguised as movies (see: Pokemon, Castaway, any Meg Ryan flick), and frankly those suck. So that’s one strike against him.
After a few loving shots of the HoJo’s logo, some scientists take a leisurely cruise to the moon and check out another black monolith, exactly like the one in the opening sequence. Unfortunately, these explorers were stuck in the concession line waiting to buy the King-Sized Jujubees and missed the first ten minutes of the movie, so they don’t know that the monolith thingee will make them turn into violent, bone-wielding savages. Which of course it does, but unfortunately the lunar surface is tragically devoid of large animal femurs, and the scene cuts away shortly before the scientists’ heads explode with frustration at being unable to violently ossify one another to death.
Suddenly the movie changes gears and becomes the longest space movie ever devised. Forget those 15-hour PBS documentaries; although it’s only two and a half actual hours in length – half the length of the average Costner movie – 2001 manages nevertheless to clock in as the longest movie ever created about space, and possibly the longest movie ever. It’s approx. 321.5 perceptual hours long. Kubrick wisely wished to distance himself from Lost in Space and Star Trek, and chose an accurate depiction of the stultifying lethargy of life in space as his claim to artistic individualism. “Hey kids,” he was saying. “Space isn’t really about pitched phaser cannon battles with improbable physics, bare-chested wrestling with guys in alien costumes, and steamy love scenes with green alien slave girls. It’s actually about jogging slowly around a ring, using awkward manipulator servos to maneuver objects, and lots and lots of deep-sleeping.” Then, with a saucy wink, he added, “Also, deranged on-board computers.”
In truth, 2001 is less a science fiction film and more a love-letter to the hippie culture of the late ’60s. For the most part, hippies had to settle for horrible trash long the lines of nauseatingly awfulMST3K fodder Hellcats and that tearfully dull Pink Floyd vehicle La Valleé, but Kubrick was in tune with the times and subtly reworked Arthur C. Clarke’s famous novel to offer the love children in the audience a reassuring pat that said, “Hey, you groovy bra-burners, keep the faith. I’m, like, totally on your side, man.” If nothing else, Kubrick understood that true subversion comes not from loudly decrying The Man and getting your face pounded into a gooey red paste by the Pigs at Kent State, but rather from putting a bold, acceptable façade on the unthinkable. So while 2001 appears to be a deep, profound look into the future, it’s actually a parable of how the hippies will rise and… do… something. It’s sort of unclear, because Kubrick was obviously partaking himself, and the ending of the movie fizzles out into a morass of incoherence and way-spacey effects.
Don’t believe it? The evidence is all there. The monolith is actually a metaphor for rock music: like Cream or The Who, the monolith generates a massive wall of piercing white noise which causes both the monkey people and scientists to writhe in something between agony and joy; then they go out and riot, freely seeking revenge against the establishment which had been keeping them down, grinding them beneath its bourgeois middle-class heel. HAL-9000’s descent into madness is, perhaps a little too blatantly, a parable for the evils of technology and an endorsement of sitting around naked in upstate New York’s mud, listening to folk rock (preferably while griping about how Dylan sold out and went electric). The final 20 minutes of the movie – a sequence of psychadelic imagery and free-form surrealism in which Bowman transforms from astronaut to geezer and finally to giant fetus after defeating the ship’s psychopathically polite computer in mortal combat – was designed specifically as a payoff to the audients who had come properly prepared with the appropriate THC count in their bloodstream.
It was a nice gesture, but unfortunately Kubrick failed to balance the duration of the movie with the habits of the dedicated drug users he was reaching out to. 2001 is two and a half hours long, and researchers say the average marijuana high lasts 2-3 hours. Already the final bits of the film run the risk of missing the necessary window for maximum impact – and when you factor in the probability that most of the film’s viewers stumbled around in a cheerful haze for at least an hour before even venturing to the theatre, looking for the car keys, trying to clean up the bongwater they accidentally spilled all over the threadbare Persian rug in front of the hi-fi, spacing out and giggling while looking at Nixon’s ghoulish face on TV… well, the fact that 2001 is a 90-minute movie trapped in the body of a 156-minute movie causes problems. By the time the trippy stuff started, everyone in the audience was always past their high and could only stare in a red-eyed, bleary confusion, wondering groggily if there was maybe anything to munch on and if those scientist dudes from the start of the movie left behind their King-Sized Jujubees before their heads exploded.
It’s an unfortunate oversight; even Cecil B. DeMille had the courtesy to respect his largely doped-up audiences with lengthy mid-movie intermissions so they could sneak out to the parking lot for a refresher. Then again, perhaps it was another example of Kubrick’s prescience. Maybe he somehow predicted that someday bedraggled stoner dudes would someday have access to home video systems so they could toke up in the privacy of their homes, allowing them to maintain their buzzes for the duration of both that Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz combo and 2001.
And there’s just no way to know. Because, as we all realize, the man is dead, and it’s pretty difficult to ask him what he was thinking. So we’ll all watch 2001 time and again, unable to decide if we should be regarding it as an artistic vision of a possible future, or if we should just be saturated with pot. And we’ll wonder if he was a genius or an idiot. It confuses me, and that makes me very angry. If only I had a femur handy, I’d go club someone to death.
Originally published in, yes, 2001