Megan’s Movie Night: 2001: A Space Odyssey

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, April 20th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Next up on The World and Everything in It: A milestone anniversary for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And no, it’s not the 17th anniversary.

It’s been around since 1968, and filmmaker Christopher Nolan plans to present a new, mastered 70 mm print at the Cannes Film Festival next month. That cut will play at select theaters across the country beginning May the 18th.

REICHARD: WORLD Radio’s Megan Basham now on the cultural phenomenon that has hit the half-century mark.

AUDIO: 2001: A Space Odyssey theme

MEGAN BASHAM, ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR: With the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey comes the 50th anniversary of people asking, “What on Earth was going on in that ending?!”

AUDIO: I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning.

I actually don’t think the answer is as esoteric as some film buffs and Stanley Kubrick himself seemed to believe, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Because there are really two movies contained within 2001. The indulgent, mystical elements of the first sandwich a middle narrative that tells a tense, universal tale of horror executed to perfection by a master storyteller. Not coincidentally, it is this part of the movie—the part that contains a recognizable protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution—that most people remember.  It’s also the part that has had the most obvious impact on the work of later filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan.

In it, an astronaut on a mission to Jupiter matches wits with a sentient computer system known as HAL.

AUDIO: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission. You’re the brain and central nervous system of the ship. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence? No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

Famous last words. Because when HAL does appear to make a mistake, Dr. Dave Bowman finds himself at the mercy of a supposedly superior intellect that has grown self-aware and will stop at nothing to protect itself.

AUDIO: Open the pod bay doors HAL. I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

Doubt audiences of yesteryear could understand our modern fear of the created thing turning on its creator?  Then recall that Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein long before the first computer.  And like Shelley, Kubrick gives us a weird empathy for a twisted, uncanny creature that should never have existed.

AUDIO: I’m afraid Dave. I’m afraid Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.

But if the best part of the film is built on an age-old fear, the worst is built on an age-old lie, dressed up in sci-fi trappings.  It revolves around three black box-like objects that appear throughout the film. The first enters the scene during what Kubrick calls “The Dawn of Man” when an ape-like creature is inspired to use a bone as a weapon. The second arrives 18 months before the main narrative when a team of Americans excavate a black object near their moon base.

AUDIO: Here’s what started the whole thing. When we first found it we thought it might be an outcrop of magnetic rock, but all the geological evidence was against it. The evidence seems pretty conclusive that it hasn’t been covered up by natural erosion or other forces. It seems to have been deliberately buried.

The third comes during the film’s final act when Dave continues his mission to Jupiter and encounters a black object hovering in space.  For these 30 minutes, so popular with sixties acid trippers, very little of what is shown on screen makes sense. But Kubrick’s collaborator, the late sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, revealed in his novel that the three objects are alien tools for prodding evolution.  The final one turns Dave into a new, vast celestial being with knowledge so far advanced beyond humanity as to render him a god.

Kubrick commented to Rolling Stone in 1972 that the movie “finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God…and the realistic hardware and the documentary feeling about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept. ”

In other words, all that mystical language and Nietzsche symbolism boils down to little more than the most pedestrian kind of druggie pondering–“What if like God were really like just a super advanced alien, man.”

In the end, Kubrick was working with a pretty played out premise, seeing as it’s been around since the Garden of Eden. Satan sells a lie that mankind can be as knowledgeable as God. 2001 tells a hypothetical story of how that process might work.

It’s ironic though that the work Kubrick and Clarke—both atheists—were best known for betrays an inherent understanding that the bodies we inhabit now are not ultimately the end for us. Even they can see we contain the potential for a higher destiny.  They call it “starchild.” We call it “glorification.”

So by all means go to one of the 2001: A Space Odyssey anniversary showings in theaters for the riveting cat and mouse game between HAL and Dave. But feel free to skip out on the psychedelic light show. It’s just a lot of color and fireworks signifying nothing. Or, at least, nothing new.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Warner Bros. via AP) This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Keir Dullea in a scene from the 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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