What did Penelope Gilliatt have to say about 2001?

[Here is one of Penelope Gilliatt's best-written reviews, which 
appeared in THE NEW YORKER, titled "After Man".]

I THINK Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is some sort of great 
film, and an unforgettable endeavor. Technically and imaginatively, 
what he put into it is staggering: five years of his life; his novel 
and screenplay, with Arthur C. Clarke; his production, his direction, 
his special effects; his humor and stamina and particular disquiet. The 
film is not only hideously funny -- like DR. STRANGELOVE -- about human 
speech and response at a point where they have begun to seem 
computerized, and where more and more people sound like recordings left 
on while the soul is out. It is also a uniquely poetic piece of sci-fi, 
made by a man who truly possesses the drives of both science and 

Kubrick's tale of quest in the year 2001, which eventually takes us to 
the Moon and Jupiter, begins on prehistoric Earth. Tapirs snuffle over 
the Valhalla landscape, and a leopard with broken-glass eyes guards the 
carcass of a zebra in the moonlight. Crowds of apes, scratching and 
ganging up, are disturbingly represented not by real animals, like the 
others, but by actors in costume. They are on the brink of evolving 
into men, and the overlap is horrible. Their stalking movements are 
already exactly ours: an old tramp's, drunk, at the end of his tether 
and fighting mad. Brute fear has been refined into the infinitely more 
painful human capacity for dread. The creatures are so nearly human 
that they have religious impulses. A slab that they suddenly come upon 
sends them into panicked reverence as they touch it, and the film emits 
a colossal sacred din of chanting. The shock of faith boots them 
forward a few thousand years, and one of the apes, squatting in front 
of a bed of bones, picks up his first weapon. In slow motion, the hairy 
arm swings up into an empty frame and then down again, and the smashed 
bones bounce into the air. What makes him do it? Curiosity? What makes 
people destroy anything, or throw away the known, or set off in 
spaceships? To see what Nothing feels like, driven by some bedrock 
instinct that it is time for something else? The last bone thrown in 
the air is matched, in the next cut, to a spaceship at the same angle. 
It is now 2001. The race has survived thirty-three years more without 
extinction, though not with any growth of spirit. There are no Negroes 
in this vision of America's space program; conversation with Russian 
scientists is brittle with mannerly terror, and the Chinese can still 
be dealt with only by pretending they're not there. But technological 
man has advanced no end. A space way station shaped like a Ferris wheel 
and housing a hotel called the Orbiter Hilton hangs off the pocked old 
cheek of Earth. The soundtrack, bless its sour heart, meanwhile thumps 
out THE BLUE DANUBE, to confer a little of the courtliness of bygone 
years on space. The civilization that Kubrick sees coming has the 
brains of a nuclear physicist and the sensibility of an airline hostess 
smiling through an oxygen-mask demonstration.

Kubrick is a clever man. The grim joke is that life in 2001 is only 
faintly more gruesome in its details of sophisticated affluence than it 
is now. When we first meet William Sylvester as a space scientist, for 
instance, he is in transit to the Moon, via the Orbiter Hilton, to 
investigate another of the mysterious slabs. The heroic man of 
intellect is given a nice meal on the way -- a row of spacecraft foods 
to suck through straws out of little plastic cartons, each decorated 
with a picture of sweet corn, or whatever, to tell him that sweet corn 
is what he is sucking. He is really going through very much the same 
ersatz form of the experience of being well looked after as the 
foreigner who arrives at an airport now with a couple of babies, reads 
in five or six languages on luggage carts that he is welcome, and then 
finds that he has to manage his luggage and the babies without actual 
help from a porter. The scientist of 2001 is only more inured. He takes 
the inanities of space personnel on the chin. "Did you have a pleasant 
flight?" Smile, smile. Another smile, possibly pre-filmed, from a girl 
on a television monitor handling voice-print identification at 
Immigration. The Orbiter Hilton is decorated in fresh plumbing-white, 
with magenta armchairs shaped like pelvic bones scattered through it. 
Artificial gravity is provided by centrifugal force; inside the 
rotating Ferris wheel people have weight. The architecture gives the 
white floor of the Orbiter Hilton's conversation area quite a 
gradient, but no one lets slip a sign of humor about the slant. The 
citizens of 2001 have forgotten how to joke and resist, just as they 
have forgotten how to chat, speculate, grow intimate, or interest one   
another. But otherwise everything is splendid. They lack the mind for 
acknowledging that they have managed to diminish outer space into the 
ultimate in humdrum, or for dealing with the fact that they are spent 
and insufficient, like the apes.

The film is hypnotically entertaining, and it is funny without once 
being gaggy, but it is also rather harrowing. It is as eloquent about 
what is missing from the people of 2001 as about what is there. The 
characters seem isolated almost beyond endurance. Even in the most 
absurd scenes, there is often a fugitive melancholy -- as astronauts 
solemnly watch themselves on homey B.B.C. interviews seen millions of 
miles from Earth, for instance, or as they burn their fingers on their 
space meals, prepared with the utmost scientific care but a shade too 
hot to touch, or as they plod around a centrifuge to get some 
exercise, shadowboxing alone past white coffins where the rest of the 
Crew hibernates in deep freeze. Separation from other people is total 
and unmentioned. Kubrick has no characters in the film who are sexually 
related, nor any close friends. Communication is stuffy and guarded, 
made at the level of men together on committees or of someone being 
interviewed. The space scientist telephones his daughter by 
television for her birthday, but he has nothing to say, and his wife is 
out; an astronaut on the nine month mission to Jupiter gets a 
prerecorded TV birthday message from his parents. That's the sum of 
intimacy. No enjoyment -- only the mechanical celebration of the 
anniversaries of days when the race perpetuated itself. Again, another 
astronaut, played by Keir Dullea, takes a considerable risk to try to 
save a fellow-spaceman, but you feel it hasn't anything to do with 
affection or with courage. He has simply been trained to save an 
expensive colleague by a society that has slaughtered instinct. 
Fortitude is a matter of programming, and companionship seems lost. 
There remains only longing, and this is buried under banality, for 
English has finally been booted to death. Even informally, people say 
"Will that suffice?" for "Will that do?" The computer on the Jupiter 
spaceship -- a chatty, fussy genius called HAL, which has nice manners 
and a rather querulous need for reassurance about being wanted -- talks 
more like a human being than any human being does in the picture. HAL 
runs the craft, watches over the rotating quota of men in deep freeze, 
and plays chess. He gives a lot of thought to how he strikes others, 
and sometimes carries on about himself like a mother fussing on the 
telephone to keep a bored grown child hanging on. At a low ebb and 
growing paranoid, he tells a hysterical lie about a faulty piece of 
equipment to recover the crew's respect, but a less emotional twin 
computer on Earth coolly picks him up on the judgment and degradingly 
defines it as a mistake. HAL, his mimic humanness perfected, detests 
the witnesses of his humiliation and restores his ego by vengeance. He 
manages to kill all the astronauts but Keir Dullea, including the 
hibernating crew members, who die in the most chillingly modern death 
scene imaginable: warning lights simply signal "Computer Malfunction," 
and sets off electrophysiological needles above the sleepers run amok 
on the graphs and then record the straight lines of extinction. The 
survivor of HAL's marauding self-justification, alone on the craft, has 
to battle his way into the computer's red-flashing brain, which is the 
size of your living room, to unscrew the high cerebral functions. HAL's 
sophisticated voice gradually slows and he loses his grip. All he can 
remember in the end is how to sing "Daisy" -- which he was taught at 
the start of his training long ago -- grinding down like an old 
phonograph. It is an upsetting image of human decay from command into 
senility. Kubrick makes it seem a lot worse than a berserk computer 
being controlled with a screwdriver.

The startling metaphysics of the picture are symbolized in the slabs. 
It is curious that we should all still be so subconsciously trained in 
apparently distant imagery. Even to atheists, the slabs wouldn't look 
simply like girders. They immediately have to do with Mosaic tablets or 
druidical stones. Four million years ago, says the story, an 
extraterrestrial intelligence existed. The slabs are its manifest 
sentinels. The one we first saw on prehistoric Earth is like the one 
discovered in 2001 on the Moon. The lunar finding sends out an upper-
harmonic shriek to Jupiter and puts the scientists on the trail of the 
forces of creation. The surviving astronaut goes on alone and Jupiter's 
influence pulls him into a world where time and space are relative in 
ways beyond Einstein. Physically almost pulped, seeing visions of the 
planet's surface that are like chloroform nightmares and that sometimes 
turn into closeups of his own agonized eyeball and eardrum, he then 
suddenly lands, and he is in a tranquilly furnished repro Louis XVI 
room. The shot of it through the window of his space pod is one of the 
most heavily charged things in the whole picture, though its effect and 
its logic are hard to explain.

In the strange, fake room, which is movingly conventional, as if the 
most that the ill man's imagination can manage in conceiving a better 
world beyond the infinite is to recollect something he has once been 
taught to see as beautiful in a grand decorating magazine, time jumps 
and things disappear. The barely surviving astronaut sees an old 
grandee from the back, dining on the one decent meal in the film; and 
when the man turns around it is the astronaut himself in old age. The 
noise of the chair moving on the white marble in the silence is typical 
of ihe brilliantly selective soundtrack. The old man drops his 
wineglass, and then sees himself bald and dying on the bed, twenty or 
thirty years older still, with his hand up to another of the slabs, 
which has appeared in the room and stands more clearly than ever for 
the forces of change. Destruction and creation coexist in them. They 
are like Siva. The last shot of the man is totally transcendental, but 
in spite of my resistance to mysticism I found it stirring. It shows an 
X-raylike image of the dead man's skull re-created as a baby, and 
approaching Earth. His eyes are enormous. He looks like a mutant. 
Perhaps he is the first of the needed new species.

It might seem a risky notion to drive sci-fi into magic. But, as with 
STRANGELOVE, Kubrick has gone too far and made it the poetically just 
place to go. He and his collaborator have found a powerful idea to 
impel space conquerors whom puny times have robbed of much curiosity. 
The hunt for the remnant of a civilization that has been signaling the 
existence of its intelligence to the future for four million years, 
tirelessly stating the fact that it occurred, turns the shots of 
emptied, comic, ludicrously dehumanized men into something more 
poignant. There is a hidden parallel to the shot of the ape's arm 
swinging up into the empty frame with its first weapon, enthralled by 
the liberation of something new to do; I keep remembering the shot of 
the space scientist asleep in a craft with the "Weightless Conditions" 
sign turned on, his body fixed down by his safety belt while one arm 
floats free in the air.

                                                     (J.A., pp. 209-13)

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