The 20th Century produced two updated versions of Homer’s Odyssey. The first was the James Joyce novel Ulysses, which compressed Odysseus’s decade of wandering down to an arbitrary day, June 16 1904, & a single city, Dublin. The other was Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C Clarke’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the islands of the south eastern Mediterranean became the solar system’s planets & moons, and the wine-dark sea the pitiless black void of interplanetary, interstellar, & even intergalactic space. 2001ASO was produced & directed by Kubrick & conceived in collaboration with Clarke – one of the leading authors of science fiction’s “golden age”. It was shot in large format panoramic 65 millimetre negative & initially projected on giant, curving Cinerama screens in specially modified theatres, & premiered April 2 1968. Such was the driven genius of Kubrick that it presented a level of sophistication in futuristic set & props that still look acceptably fresh today, some 50+ years on.
2001 ASO encompassed some 4 million years of human evolution, from pre human man-apes struggling to survive in Southern Africa, through to twenty first century Space faring man, then onto the birth & rebirth of their Odysseus astronaut Dave Bowman as an eerily post human “Star Child”. In 2001 ASO, the interfering gods of the ancients have become an inscrutable prying alien super-race. Never seen directly, they descend periodically from their galactic Olympus to interfere in human affairs. The instrument of their power, a rectangular black monolith, appears at key turning points in human destiny. First seen in a parched African landscape at the “Dawn of Man”, the monolith sparks the idea among starving man-apes that the bones scattered on the plain could be weaponised to harvest the animal protein grazing plentifully around them. This prompting toward tool use channels the species towards survival & eventually technological global dominance. After vaulting into the future in a cut that has acquired the reputation of the single most astonishing transition in cinema history, 2001 ASO leads us to understand that a lunar survey team has discovered another monolith, this one seemingly deliberately buried under the surface of the Moon eons before. When excavated & exposed to sunlight for the first time in millions of years, it fires a powerful radio pulse in the direction of Jupiter. This is evidently a signal to its’ makers that a species capable of space travel has arisen on Earth. A massive spacecraft, Discovery, is sent to investigate….
Parallels with The Odyssey continue throughout the film. Seemingly on account of flawed programming, the supercomputer on board Discovery – HAL9000 – goes rogue & kills off most of the crew. The sole surviving astronaut, mission commander Dave Bowman, then has to fight the computer to the death. The one-eyed HAL references Cyclops, and Bowman kills HAL by inserting a small key, just as Odysseus blinds the Cyclops with a stake. Bowmans’ name references Odysseus, who in the Odyssey returns from Ithaca, strings the bow of Apollo, shoots an arrow through twelve axe shafts, & proceeds to slaughter his wifes suitors. Kubrick & Clarke, however, took parallels with Homer as a starting point, not the final word. They introduced into the mix Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a thousand Faces) & Nietzsche (Also Sprach Zarathustra) with the concept of mankind a mere transitional species – self aware enough to understand its animal origins, but not yet truly civilized.
As with Ulysses, 2001ASO was greeted with varying degrees of incomprehension, dismissal, & scorn. In retrospect this can be understood as a result of the film’s radical innovations in technique & structure, but subsequent re-appraisals (by some) & a grudging understanding that a truly significant work of art had materialised. 2001 ASO is now recognised as one of the exceedingly rare works that will define its historical period. In Ulysses, the reader was asked to accept new ways of receiving narrative. Of course, Joyce didn’t invent stream of consciousness & inner monologue as literary devices, but he brought them to stunning levels of proficiency & complexity. Similarly, Kubrick didn’t create plot misdirection & dialogue free storytelling (the film has less than 40 minutes of spoken words in its 142 minutes of running time) but by transposing them into the science fiction arena & setting it into the vast expanse of space & time, he turbocharged the format of an art film & challenged audiences to “pay attention with their eyes”. Joyce’s portrait of provincial Dublin encouraged us to sample previously untapped internal currents of human thought & feeling. Kubrick & Clarke, in 2001 ASO, present a troubling vision of human transformation via technology & evoke an existence of ETs so powerful as to be godlike. Each was highly influential, with innumerable imitators striving to equal their breadth of scope & technical virtuosity. Neither has yet been surpassed.
© DJM 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file