Is 2001 "ironic"?

Personally I find Kubrick an enormously ironic film-maker: I would go as 
far as to say that, in the Kubrick films which I know, irony is the 
dominant tone: so much so that it is unnecessary for Kubrick to signal 
when he is being ironic. I suppose I should offer my definition of 
irony, just to make it clear where I am coming from. In my opinion, 
irony involves a deliberate ambiguity on the behalf of an artist, 
wherein the artist undermines a literal interpretation of his/her work, 
often through self-referentiality or through a deliberate invocation of 
established artistic conventions. A corollary: the opposite of the 
*ironic* mode is the *sincere* mode (an insight I owe to the theories of 
the British musician Brian Eno).

I would argue that 2001 operates in the ironic as opposed to the sincere 
mode. Consider for a moment the implications of the film's title. 
Homer's ODYSSEY is a seminal work in the development of Western culture, 
articulating as it does a myth which has become, like the Faust myth, a 
major intellectual theme to which Western culture constantly refers. 
There are two important components to the odysseys of Western culture:

1. The odyssey is a *quest*: that is, an extended journey whose goal is 
clear from the outset. There is a clear purpose to Odysseus's 
wanderings: he seeks to return to Ithaca and Penelope.

2. The odyssey is undertaken by a hero: a person of courage, strength, 
passion and resourcefulness.

The title of the film suggests that Kubrick is presenting us with a 
purposeful quest in outer space undertaken by a hero: indeed, much the 
kind of thing with which George Lucas later presented us in STAR WARS. 
Yet this is clearly not the kind of film which Kubrick has made. The 
Holy Grail which is discovered at the end of this quest is discovered 
accidentally, by an anti-hero wholly lacking in heroic qualities, who is 
even denied knowledge of the true purpose of his journey. If Odysseus 
was captain of his ship, Bowman is little more than a component, as 
replaceable as the AE-35 unit if he begins to malfunction and threaten 
the mission, as HAL 9000 believes he does (a review of the film by 
Samuel Delaney, reprinted in Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison's THE 
YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION in 1969, mentioned that a passage has been 
cut from the film's first release in which Bowman and Poole receive the 
same set of orders twice from HAL 9000, and carry them out twice, 
emphasising that they are mere cogs in the machine of the Discovery). It 
has been suggested that the cyclopean eye of HAL 9000 is meant to recall 
Odysseus's struggle to free his crew from the Cyclops; but whereas 
Odysseus merely blinded the Cyclops, and smuggled his crew out tied to 
the bellies of sheep, Bowman `kills' HAL 9000 but is unable to save the 
crew. It may even be Kubrick's intention that HAL 9000 is the hero, in 
which case Bowman's destruction of HAL 9000 is an act more `villainous' 
than `anti-heroic'. . . .

Kubrick's `space odyssey' is not a retelling of the Homeric legend; 
rather his deliberate invocation of Homer in the film's title is 
intended to establish the ironic as the dominant mode structuring the 
film. This renders 2001 as an ironic comment on the futility of the 
quest for any kind of `Holy Grail', be it Ithaca and Penelope, escape 
from our human limitations, or any other Transcendent Purpose.

                                                                (C.C.)

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