When people say that 2001 is a film on different "levels," what do they mean?

[From THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, by John Allen]

Whenever the thunder of critical controversy rips through the air, one 
thing is certain: Lightning has struck. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE 
ODYSSEY is just such a bolt of brilliant, high-voltage cinema.

Like any sudden flash accompanied by a loud noise, the film is both 
startling and illuminating -- if it has temporarily left viewers more 
dazed and curious than enlightened, this is perhaps intentional. The 
evocation of wonder and awe is perhaps the primary aim of the film.

Whether one wonders what the black metallic monoliths are or what the 
surrealistic end of the film is supposed to mean or what the opening 
prehistoric sequence signifies -- or simply what the film world is 
coming to -- is temporarily beside the point. What matters is that the 
imagination and intellect are jolted out of complacency by the 
experience of seeing the film. Wonder, like laughter or tears, is a 
legitimate emotional response.

Such a response, however, cannot be evoked by a work of art that is too 
pat, too readily comprehended, too easily flattened by the onrush of 
tradition or sheer intellect. Since science and technology themselves 
have stunned our sense of wonder into numbness by the very habit of 
providing new mysteries daily, it is not only fair but essential that 
the arts (including film) take up arms against our indifference.

It must be remembered, however, that the mystery which surrounds 2001 
is not the result of arbitrary obscurantism designed to confuse. It is 
the mystery of self-containment that makes certain works of art (and 
not a few human beings) fascinating and irritating in turn.

It is part of the genius of 2001 that it must be approached on several 
levels at once. There are, in a sense, at least four films on the 
screen at all times -- three of them available to all viewers and a 
fourth one perhaps unique to each viewer. Ways of looking at the first 
three and hints about the latter follow.

The first three are comparable to the wrapping paper, box, and gift 
that mark some special occasion. What that occasion means depends on 
the one receiving the gift, however. That is at once the most important 
aspect of the experience and the least easily verbalized. If anything 
can be said about it at all, it is necessary to start with the simpler 
aspects.

Strangely enough, confusion sets in at the level of the wrapping paper 
-- the outermost and least important of the four films that are 
simultaneously given to the viewer.

On its most superficial level 2001 is a science-fiction film full of 
gadgets and special effects -- a film about space travel in the near 
future and man's encounter with a strange slab that seems to prove the 
existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

It is on this same superficial level that one gets disturbed about the 
lack of plot, dialogue, and character. It is as though wrapping a gift 
in newspaper, like a fish, would have been better than using a paper of 
bold new design and color.

It is on this level, too, that questions arise about the meaning of the 
slab, the point of the film's beginning and ending, and the general 
direction of cinema as it hurtles out of the 1960s into the 1970s.

We are in the habit of approaching film as though it were a book that 
needed only to be opened and read. Most films succeed at this level. 
Most of them must or there would not be such confusion over a film that 
treats such a level of comprehension as a mere covering that must be 
torn away.

If this film succeeds at this level, it is a tribute to Stanley 
Kubrick's courage as producer and director that he so flagrantly sets 
his film in opposition to tradition. But he assumes (quite rightly, one 
suspects) he is dealing with a generation that has been brought up on 
television as much as on the written word, a generation oriented to 
visual images and the grammar of the visual more than to the slow 
plodding of language.

For such viewers he has made a film that operates on a second level of 
comprehension. It corresponds to the box inside the wrapping paper. It 
is so beautifully wrought and so intricately carved and inlaid as to 
defy description. If it has a name, it is called the art of 
filmmaking. It has little or nothing to do with the design of model 
spaceships, the gimmickry of showing weightlessness on the screen, or 
cataloguing the potential inventions or conditions of the year 2001. It 
is the use of these things to achieve a kinesthetic and psychological 
effect on the viewer. It is also film as poetry, film as painting and 
music, film as dance.

It is the result of using film for what it is: the motion picture. 
Attention must be paid, quite consciously, to both the motion and the 
picture-movement and the visual images. The resemblances between images 
as to form, outline, and color must be seen and felt just as their 
patterns of appearance and variation must be noted.

The movement of objects on the screen and especially the sense of 
movement experienced by the viewer as the result of the camera's 
mobility bring to the audience a sense of being in space. In some ways 
2001 is not simply about space and time travel and the encounter with 
the unknown: watching it is like such travel and to some extent like 
such an encounter.

All these elements are so beyond the approach of words as to render 
criticism of the film at this level almost impossible. For one thing, 
2001 is so full of such touches of cinematic artistry and sleight of 
hand as to require that a book, rather than an essay, be written to 
catalogue and describe them. But the catalogue already exists: The film 
is its own catalogue.

Hints can be given, however, through one example that strikes this 
viewer as both brilliant and significant: the music that was selected 
-- rather than written -- for the soundtrack. Specifically intriguing 
is the use of Richard Strauss's opening measures from the tone poem 
THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA, which open the film.

On the first level of comprehension, it works well -- almost too well. 
The grandiose swell of sound is almost a self-parody of grandiose-
sounding music.

Yet on this second level -- in which the fitness of the parts to the 
whole on an aesthetic level is paramount -- it is magnificently 
appropriate. It is, first of all, a bit of music known as the World-
riddle theme, introduced by an ascending line of three notes, C-G-C. 
When it is first heard, at the opening of the curtain, the camera, too, 
is rising, and three spheres appear in alignment: the Moon, the Earth, 
and the sun. As the theme reaches its climax, the image of the sun has 
risen above the curvature of the earth.

Virtually every element of the film -- from its sometimes ironical 
indebtedness to Nietzsche, to the emphasis on the appearance of things 
in threes (or three times), to the tension between straight lines and 
curves -- can be traced outward from these three notes of music. In 
some ways the best program guide one could read in preparing for the 
images and ideas that flow across the screen during the film is the 
prologue to Nietzsche's THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA.

The best clue to their artistic organization and development is 
contained in the number three -- mother-father-child, the eternal 
triangle, two's company three's a crowd, the three primary colors, and 
the three dimensionality of the universe we normally think of as 
"real," perhaps even the Trinity and three as a magic number for 
infinity.

2001, of course, is not pictures meant to accompany one's reading of 
Nietzsche or one's hearing of Strauss. It is whole and complete in 
itself with its own ends and its own means of organizing time and space 
-- through light, movement, and imagery -- as a means of accomplishing 
those ends. Synthesis, rather than eclectic derivation, is the basis of 
its indebtedness to other cultural phenomena.

Once we begin to look at the film as a film in this way, the otherwise 
obscure relationship between the continuity, flow, and duration of 
images on the screen -- their reappearances and significance -- begins 
to come clear. We begin to comprehend what kind of cinematic 
thunderbolt has been hurled into our midst.

Out of this approach emerge some inklings about the third dimension of 
the film -- its gift of a myth and a warning for contemporary man, a 
myth about man in the 1960s.

Mr. Kubrick's tracing of mankind's development from prehistoric past to 
post-fantastic future is the old theme of "apeman-angel" (or ape-man-
superman, to put it into Nietzsche's terms) translated somewhat 
literally yet strikingly into cinema. The unifying prop that becomes a 
terrifying protagonist is the machine -- the weapon, or tool, that is 
the clever extension of man's arm, eye, or brain.

As Hitler was a false human version of the superman, so the HAL 9000 
computer becomes an equally destructive mechanical version of the 
superman. The reason for this destructiveness is that the machine 
appears, in fact, altogether too human. It is presented as capable of 
pride, envy, rivalry, fear, murder, and the false notion that a 
scientific mission is more important than life. In short, it is insane, 
and its insanity threatens to destroy life.

Its insanity, of course, is no greater than that of any fallible mortal 
who assumes fallible mortals can create, out of their own cleverness, 
an infallible machine.

As the myth ends, the human hero undergoes a kind of death and 
transfiguration -- after a Last Supper accompanied by bread and wine. 
His transformation is the result of his having been swept out of time 
and space altogether into some contact with intelligent beings of pure 
energy.

It is at this point that the film itself enters a kind of fourth 
dimension (the three primary colors are finally abandoned for a palette 
of greens), and further interpretation of the film becomes highly 
subjective.

On a fourth level of comprehension, however, it is precisely this level 
of subjective response -- the film having virtually left the screen and 
entered into the experience of the viewer -- that matters most.

Even if one assumes that intelligent beings of nonterrestrial origin 
are meant to be taken literally rather than allegorically in this film 
(or anywhere in science fiction, for that matter) there is still a 
basic problem:

If intelligent beings from elsewhere in time and space are needed to 
effect the regeneration of man, who effected the change for them? Where 
does the search for the ultimate cause of intelligence lead, inside or 
outside this film, inside or outside time and space?

Inside the film, the search involves a plot twist that sweeps a man 
outside time and space altogether into a fourth dimension. Between the 
film and the filmgoer, it involves a brushing aside, through effective 
cinematography, of traditional notions of filmic time and space -- the 
establishment of a kinesthetic and emotional breakthrough into realms 
of imagery and experience not normally found in film.

Ultimately for the filmgoer, however, the search involves turning 
inward. If seeing the film once isn't enough, it may be because passive 
viewing of the film won't do. It is thinking about the film, 
approaching it intelligently, reaching toward it and beyond it that 
counts.

If the black rectangular slab -- that calling card of the unknown and 
that doorway to the future -- is like any signpost in one's present 
experience, it may very well resemble 2001 itself.

Neither the slab nor the film is the ultimate mystery, of course. Both 
are tokens that someone who cares has passed this way. One of the 
tokens, at least, is already a part of human history in the 1960s.

There is no telling what will turn up by the time 2001 here, is there?

Is there?                                        

                                       (excerpted in J.A., pp. 229-34)

Back to Table of Contents.