This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Simon Ramshaw’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I once heard a fleeting reference to a theory about what 2001 is actually all about. I heard that the Monolith is supposedly a cinema screen, and switched off at that point, because, frankly, such a literalisation is ridiculous. But tonight, it has all fallen into place as to what that mad bastard Kubrick was actually saying to us in his awe-inspiring science-fiction.
The Monolith is indeed the cinema screen. In fact, it's the cinema screen that you're watching 2001 on as Kubrick is showing his spectacular wares. But at the beginning of the film, the Dawn of Man section, the apes are confronted with the Monolith. The apes eventually become humans as we know ourselves today, but imagine the same situation fast-forwarded four million years. The late 1890s. Humanity is still an ape-like race, confined to its menial existence by its own self-imposed rules and didacticism. Cinema arrives on the scene. Like that amusing scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, the hordes of people watching the moving image of a train heading towards the camera are absolutely terrified, thinking the train is going to burst out of the projection and run them over. The train's effect is pure visceral emotion to its audience. The moment is captured, the effect is pervasive on them. The apes are filled with awe. Frantically circling and whooping at the Monolith, they are terrified, then tentative, then adoring of its pure, unblemished majesty. Its replies are without coherent sense, epitomised in Kubrick's wonderfully disorientating use of Requiem For Soprano, a recurring motif throughout the film.
The Monolith leaves, but the apes are irreversibly affected by it. So, they interpret its message as a call for spectacle, for the mundanity of their existence to be vanquished. So, they revert to violence. Cinema must inspire them to replicate this wonderful new moving image with the stuff the average ape/human has never encountered before: explicit, carnal experience. Kubrick was making 2001 on the cusp of those notorious early 70s years, containing the male anal rape of Deliverance and the senseless kangaroo slaughter of Wake In Fright. Kubrick, god-like prophet that he was, decides to make 2001.
Match cut to 2001. Apes are now humans, and have rediscovered the Monolith. The audience (actual physical us watching 2001) are subjected to a poetic spaceship ballet of revolutionary visual effects, scored by humanity’s own Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube. A beautiful piece of music, it is as close to aural art form as we have ever gotten…thus far. But this music and movement is simply a structured means of expression by the apes who have developed far enough to become humans. And what started all of this? The Monolith. And what are they going to unwittingly find again? The Monolith.
At this point, the Monolith’s cinema-screen shows nothing else other than 2001. Kubrick knows its self-reflective genius. Yet he does not expect you to understand it at this point. In fact, our frontiering adventurers on the Moon are killed by the blaring white noise it gives off, preluded by (you guessed it) Requiem for Soprano. Humans have reached a point where they know they have reached something new entirely, and it is 2001: A Space Odyssey: the modern, transcendental frontier of cinema.
So, a smaller group of intrepid explorers set off in the direction of the Monolith's radio message, which is of course 2001's message. At this point, both to the astronauts and the audience are left befuddled as to what the message is, so Kubrick fills it out with something both parties can understand: the classic B-movie sci-fi plot where technology goes bad and nearly kills humanity. It is nothing other than a masterclass in gripping, sweaty-palmed tension as HAL9000's attempts to stop Dave from completing his mission. HAL's logic is a mystery to me, which leads me to tell you that HAL is another allegorical figure: the esteemed film critic, making cinema exclusive for the elite of film enthusiasts. Dave (a very earthy, everyman name) is the average cinema-goer, a member of the audience sitting alongside you, nibbling at his bucket of popcorn nicely until Kubrick tazes him on his jaxie and says, "Look at this." Dave perks up, puts HAL's dictatorial opinion to one side (or kills him; whatever, same difference) and Kubrick takes him on the ride of his life.
A new title card gives us an idea of what is about to come. Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. Consider 'infinite' a moment. I had'’t. Not until I was reminded that cinema started off as an experience for those amazed souls back in front of that train projection. If there's one thing that Christopher Nolan's Interstellar got right, it's the reminder that human endeavour is far from dead. Only Kubrick reminded us beforehand of this fact.
We glimpse the Monolith yet again, floating in space; the real 2001 has come back to greet us. I was talking to a friend tonight who referred to the following sequence as "purely film, and cinema", going on to say "in over 100 years, only a tiny, tiny fragment of cinematic gold has been mined, and that an infinity of potential has not been realised yet". And you know what? I think he's right. It might be a little harsh to say that only such a miniscule amount of "cinematic gold" has been found, but he is most definitely on the right track.
Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite is nothing other than Kubrick communicating to us what cinema can achieve. The journey that Dave is taken on might be through space and time, or it might be to a space-zoo where the Monoliths give certain species altruistic viewpoints on the true meaning of existence, but ultimately, all that matters is Kubrick's pioneering sequence of light and visceral sound.
Dave ages, ages and ages until he comes face-to-face with the Monolith, living for an eternity before he finally evolves into the Starchild. The Starchild hovers above the Earth, observing all of humanity's structured existence below him. Dave has experienced pure cinema and transcended the limitations of narrative, dialogue, character; all of the brutal, traditionalised cinema that the Monolith, the natural concept of cinema, was misinterpreted as. The apes didn't know what they were really on about with their vicious, primitive cinema, with their shock value and carnal thrills. Kubrick is showing us the blank canvas. Or, should I say the black canvas? The blank and black Monolith that is displaying to us what we can achieve. We can do anything we want with cinema, and we just can't understand what Kubrick is saying. He's talking to us via Requiem for Soprano, a terrifying, chaotic bit of music that we can't understand.
But it’s OK. No need to worry. Kubrick might be called 'cold', 'sterile' and other superlative derogatory statements, but what he is saying here is magical. It is alright that we don’t understand 2001, because that’s the whole point. It is simply a message that cinema’s potential is yet untapped and that we can, no, will get to the point where we can exploit its mysteries, become the Starchild, and get cinema in its purest form.
And I don't think I've heard such a wonderful, heart-warming hug of a message from a filmmaker ever. Come here, Stanley, hug it out…