The essential audacity at the core of 2001 is twofold. First, its four part structure, where each of the four short stories, “The Dawn of Man”, “Moon Mission”, “Jupiter Mission”, and “Jupiter and beyond infinity”, share truncated, unresolved endings and very loose, somewhat imperceptible, links to each other. Typical movie-goers, having expectations defined by classical cinema, must reorient themselves at least four times, starting with the very first frame, right from the jump, thrown into a prehistoric landscape when all the posters show spaceships. What do primitive man-apes, a reoccurring black rectangular slab (which isn’t always visually identifiable in the frame and creates a kind of negative space in the celluloid), and a long, abstract animation to close out the picture have to do with each other? It’s all completely unpredictable, and that Star Gate sequence comes so out of nowhere that it overwhelms your sense of what came before. It acts like a memory wipe. Kubrick provides no info dumps. The viewer is invited, or challenged, to tease out the connections for themselves. And, in the end, Kubrick’s aim is not to explain. Secondly, the film contains perhaps the most seminal edit of two filmed images. As critic Annette Michelson described, “Kubrick’s transformation of bone into spacecraft… inscribes, within the most spectacular ellipsis in cinematic history, nothing less than the entire trajectory of human history, the birth and evolution of Intelligence.” A simple, spectacular decision. Kubrick uses this choice of montage and his overall four episode structure to sketch out the existential horrors of metamorphosis and scale.
2001‘s vast influence on all science fiction since rarely includes the film’s profound dislocating weirdness. Spielberg translated the shapes, colors, and score of the Star Gate sequence into all the different spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Nolan used aspects of the Star Gate to inform the black hole sequence and the four dimensional library of Interstellar. 2001‘s sound design, the creepy heavy breathing effect, the orchestral soundtrack, all repeated in Alien, along with elements of the spacecraft and spacesuits. You’ll also find its computer displays and sound effects in Blade Runner and an almost identical set and costume design — with neon lights, reflections and everything — in the Tie Fighter interiors and Tie Pilots of Star Wars and The Force Awakens, as well as the protracted flybys of spacecraft of their opening shots. 2001‘s Escher-like playfulness with autonomous zones of gravity can be found in Inception, Gravity and Dr. Strange. But most of these films strive for clarity, for classical narrative structure and a standard emotional resonance. None of these films attempt to bend the rules of what a movie is supposed to be to the degree attempted by 2001. Even the novelist behind 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, clearly didn’t understand what Kubrick crafted from his work, or he wouldn’t have approached his abomination of a sequel, 2010, by over-explaining all which is left obscure in the original. The choice to present the head trip that is the Star Gate sequence without explanation proves the absolute essentialness of preserving mystery. Created in part by Douglas Trumbull, adapting a process of photography called the “slit screen” first developed by experimental animator John Whitney for the title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the sequence clearly represents some kind of involuntary and evolutionary metamorphosis of astronaut into Star Child. Which means what exactly?
Kubrick retains a quality of the unknown by not only choosing a specific technology but also a sphinx-like, never-explain aesthetic previously employed almost exclusively by artists in the field of experimental cinema. These art film filmmakers, the artists that animated abstract shapes before a camera or drew directly on the celluloid, include Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, and Len Lye. John Whitney and his brother James Whitney invented early computer-aided animations to achieve similar goals. Jordan Belson relied on layered light effects created by home-made machinery. Some aimed to create “visual music”, some had different concerns. Kubrick must have watched plenty of these films. No doubt he was aware of the cosmically-aligned work of Jordan Belson, whose Allures (1962), Re-entry (1964), Phenomena (1965), and Samadhi (1968) all contain proto elements of the Stargate sequence. The group might be epitomized by Norman McLaren, whose more approachable works were produced under the umbrella of the National Film Board of Canada and are free to view or download on their website. Perhaps McLaren’s best film, directed alongside Evelyn Lambart, is Begone Dull Care, a drawn-on-film mini-opus choreographed to the bebop of The Oscar Peterson Trio. The film is doing more than simply visualizing a piece of music, however. We’re watching scratches and paint become a painting in motion. We’re watching a representation of pure evolution, of metamorphosis, similar to the aims of the Star Gate or, perhaps, like a sped-up proof of Darwin’s theories, or the moment a sentient AI becomes a serial killer. It’s an ethereal/otherworldly/alien experience that creates a very pleasurable impression of dislocation. In kind, Kubrick’s career modus operandi is subtle disruption, always breaking from norms in hopes of discovering the new, especially if it leads to horror. In 2001 he does this by using these color abstractions to enhance the inherent disturbance of the enormity and deadliness of space. He took many cues from another National Film Board of Canada production, 1960’s Universe. Kubrick hired the artists behind the animations of planetary bodies in that film, hired the narrator to voice HAL, duplicated elements of the pacing and musical score, and, of course, expanded on the suggestion of interstellar travel.
In the end Universe isn’t as mind-bending as the Eames’ Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero which, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Contact after it, effectively visualizes the scale of our imperceptible little planet to that of the solar system, galaxy and universe beyond. Both Universe and Powers of Ten, like 2001, in repositioning human life as a mere blip in time and space and malleable to the whims of forces beyond our ken, either accidentally or purposively conjure up the horrors of the unknown at the core of existence.
More: Pauline Kael Eviscerates 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roger Ebert Loves 2001: A Space Odyssey, Annette Michelson via Artforum: Bodies in Space: Film as “Carnal Knowledge”, Douglas Trumbull: Slit Scan Photography, 2001: A Space Odyssey at Fifty, How 2001: A Space Odyssey Has Influenced Pop Culture, 50 Years Later, Behind the Scenes of the Strangest Blockbuster in Hollywood History, Happy 50th, HAL: Our Favorite Pop-Culture References, How Stanley Kubrick Broke the Rules of Classical Hollywood Cinema, Something Bold, Something Pure – The 50-year Long Legacy, What It Means, and How It Was Made, Sometimes a Broken Glass Is Just a Broken Glass, Typeset in the Future, 10 Great Films that Inspired Steven Spielberg, Scratches in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Senses of Cinema: Begone Dull Care