2001: 'You are free to speculate'

By Kirby Pringle
The News-Gazette

     Ape men discover the use of bones as weapons as they bash other ape men over the head.
     A thinking, talking computer - made in bucolic Urbana, no less - runs amok and tries to kill all the humans aboard a spaceship.
     Space and time are twisted in a mystical cycle-of-life scene, with the rebirth of man to a higher level of existence.
     All the above are tied together by mysterious monoliths that have been placed on Earth, the moon and Jupiter by unseen aliens.
     But what does it mean?
     Don't look for an explanation from director Stanley Kubrick, whose 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" has been called everything from a masterpiece to a 21/2-hour muddle. The film is the focal point of the University of Illinois Cyberfest, which runs March 10 through March 15. It will be shown at 6:30 p.m. March 13 in its 70 mm wide-screen glory at downtown Champaign's Virginia Theatre.
     "I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing with an emotional and philosophical content. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does," Kubrick once said of "2001."
     "You are free to speculate," he added, "as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film."
     An enormous sum of brainpower - far more than ever possessed by HAL, the semi-villainous computer in the movie - has been spent in trying to figure out the message behind "2001." The movie has spawned books, seminars, film classes, discussion groups, World Wide Web sites.
     In the end, you have to take Kubrick for his word: this grand enigma of a movie takes on a different meaning with each individual who views it. In that way, "2001" really is like a great musical score or an impressionistic painting.
     "The viewer has to make deductions or assertions that are not typical of the filmgoing experience," said Richard Leskosky, assistant director of the Unit for Cinema Studies at the UI. "There are a couple of things going on: Kubrick is trying to tell the story on almost an entirely visual level and that forces the viewer to make his or her assumptions as to what's going on.
     "There aren't many guideposts or guidelines in '2001.' It's a good film for classes because there are challenging elements to it and it gets discussion going."
     Kubrick made "2001" between two other powerful films: 1964's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" and "A Clockwork Orange," released in 1971. Kubrick is known for his attention to details and his ambitious, powerful filmmaking, and a common thread seems to run through many of his movies: the dehumanization of mankind.
     He started work on "2001" immediately after the release of "Dr. Strangelove." Several elements originally intended for the film - a voiceover narration and a more obvious United States-Soviet Union conflict in outer space - were jettisoned for various reasons, most of them artistic.
     The movie was released to great fanfare in April 1968. "2001" didn't open in Champaign-Urbana, however, until Sept. 27, 1968, when it played at the Co-Ed II Theater - back in the days when there were only two screens at the Campustown moviehouse - for 12 weeks.
     "I don't think anyone who has lived through the '60s can forget about the impact of that film," said Paula Treichler, a professor at the UI who holds concurrent appointments at the College of Medicine, the Institute of Communications Research, the Women's Studies Program and the Campus Honors Program.
     "It was heralded as a masterpiece and the movie came out at such a peculiar time for our country," she added. "It was incredible to get someone with this long view" of mankind and existence.
     "2001" works on several levels for Treichler. She finds the scheming HAL - a computer made and programmed by humans - particularly intriguing.
     "There's the diabolical nature of HAL, yet this is a product of a bureaucratic system, and that works for me in lots and lots of ways. ... It's really interesting, all these differences where HAL leaves off and man starts," Treichler said.
     Viewers learn during the movie that only HAL knows the purpose of the mission to Jupiter. The fact that the astronauts and crew are left out of the loop points to a government that doesn't always share information with its citizens.
     "I think about Tuskegee (when the government withheld treatment for syphilis in black men so researchers could study how the disease spread and killed), about the Nuremberg trials, about medical ethics. ... What's interesting to me is the bureaucratization of evil in the form of the whole computer system in the movie," Treichler said.
     "You see the loss of direction, the loss of the mission. This great perversion is just amazing to me," she added.
     Michael Berube, a professor of English at the UI, has been fascinated by "2001" since seeing it as a kid growing up in Queens.
     "What I really like about the movie is that it manages to be profoundly optimistic and profoundly pessimistic at the same time," Berube said.
     The first sequence in the movie, with the ape men, suggests that man has poor survival skills and that technology is inseparable from murderous aggression. On the other hand, the mysterious monoliths that tie the various segments together were clearly created by superior, advanced beings who are apparently shepherding the human race.
     "So there is reason to hope," Berube said.
     The aliens are never seen in the movie, only suggested.
     "No other movie had dared to do that ... Any contact with the aliens would have been anticlimactic. Kubrick deliberately kept the aliens out of the film, and instead gave you that incredibly weird hotel room (in the last segment) where you keep seeing weird versions of yourself," Berube said. "The movie left so much to the imagination."
     The movie is "full of little puzzles," said Edwin Jahiel, director of the Unit for Cinema Studies at the UI. "Kubrick gives you 50 percent of the plan and the other 50 percent is ambiguities."
     There is no doubt that "2001" is among the most thought-provoking films ever made. But its influence on other films, according to Jahiel and Leskosky, has more to do with technical advances than content.
     "You don't see many movies tied to '2001,' otherwise we would have more thought-provoking films. Its influences are more technical than ideological," Leskosky said. "It demonstrated that a sci-fi film could draw large audiences and started filmmakers on the road of being more intensive in special effects ...
     "If you took a poll of filmmakers roughly ages 40 to 55, they would probably say, yes, '2001' was a very influential film in their lives. It opened their minds up to things you can do to make a movie," he added.
     Jahiel calls "2001" "a clean, modern, uncluttered film. Its special effects at the time were the best. I think the lasting legacy, perhaps, of '2001' is that it had a kind of elegance about it. What has followed has not been so elegant. I think it definitely holds up better than the 'Star Wars' trilogy. It is just as valid today."
     Turner Entertainment Distribution Services now owns the rights to "2001." A spokeswoman said that the amazingly successful re-release of the "Star Wars" trilogy had Turner officials thinking that a theatrical re-release of "2001" would also fare well.
     "It is on the docket for a big re-release - but not until the year 2001. In fact, all the prints of the film are being pulled right now. The University of Illinois will be allowed to show it because it's such a big part of their Cyberfest celebration," the spokeswoman said.
     No matter the year - 1968, 1997 or 2001 - "2001" is a movie that "has aged surprisingly well," Leskosky said. "If you made '2001' today, it would look pretty much the same. The challenge it presents to viewers hasn't really changed, either."

This article has been electronically republished with permission from The News-Gazette.
©1997 The News-Gazette