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Film

Breaking down the one joke Stanley Kubrick hid within '2001: A Space Odyssey'

More than half a century ago, director Stanley Kubrick, alongside futuristic writer Arthur C. Clark set out to make, “a good science fiction” cinematic experience. The resulting film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, premiered in spring 1968 (nearly a year before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon) is a landmark moment in the history fo cinema and one that has influenced sci-fi filmmakers for generations including the likes of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Christopher Nolan. Nolan, in an interview with the Stanley Kubrick Appreciation Society, said, “[2001] is in dialogue with our ideas of the future.” 

The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey on subsequent sci-fi technology and special effects has been pervasive. The film won an Oscar for its pioneering special effects and has been called a “quantum leap” in technological advancements by film critic James Verneire. However the concurrent artistic and philosophical bravura of the film is unparalleled. Never before or after has a film on space engaged in such immersive visual dialogues on the philosophy of humanity’s evolution and the philosophy of technological advancement. Unlike Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb2001:A Space Odyssey restrained its use of humour to one hidden ‘intentional joke’ which stopped the comic element of an otherwise ambiguous film from flushing down the toilet. 

The virtuosity of Kubrick is indeed in infusing the scientific with the enigmatic. The subliminal transcendence of the trajectory of ‘2001’ can be akin to a psychedelic hallucinogen ingestion induced epiphany or Scientological epiphany depending on the viewer’s biases. At the time of its premiere in 1968, Renata Adler in the Times described the movie as “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.”

Indeed one of the biggest philosophical easter eggs hidden within 2001:A Space Odyssey is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The film opens to Richard Strauss’s evocative tone poem, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ based on Nietzsche’s, ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’, with the visual the sun, moon and earth aligning in the symbolism of Zoroastrianism, based in the teaching of Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra). 

2001’s divergence from quintessential sci-fi music is reiterated with Johann Strauss’ ‘The Blue Danube’ playing to the docking of the space shuttle. The film’s divergence from the staple is future exacerbated by exiguous verbal sound in the film. While most cinematic pictures rely on dialogues to reveal plotlines, Kubrick intended 2001 to be a visual experience, mostly devoid of verbiage. In 1970, Kubrick explained that the movie was “basically a visual, non-verbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalisation and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophical”. 

Kubrick further added, “I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension”. 

2001 exemplifies Hitchcock’s dictum not to tell what you can show. The narrative of the film unfolds in four movements: 

‘The Dawn Of Man’

The initial ‘Dawn of Man’ segment opens with the eponymous landscape shots of dawn in prehistoric earth. A tribe of apes in a Darwinian struggle for survival engage in territorial battle over a watering hole with another tribe of apes only to be defeated. The former tribe of humanoid primates encounter a mysterious black monolith. The monolith accelerates their enlightenment, as one of the Apes figures out the use of bones as weapons and kills a tapir, turning the pirates into carnivores. The tribe deploys their newfound weapon in a battle against the opposing tribe and kills the leader of the opposing tribe. 

In triumphant jubilation akin to a footballer’s celebratory high five, the ape-man flings the bone in the air. In one of most iconic ‘jump-cuts’ in cinematic history, the bone in the air transforms into what is presumably a space satellite, propelling the timeline of the narrative forward by four million years. According to Clark, the ‘Space Satellite’ is “supposed to be an orbiting space bomb, a weapon in space”. Thus the transition from the Pleistocene era to space-age is tethered by the notion that human evolution is concurrent with the evolution of bigger and better ways of destruction. 

The Floyd Segment

This segment introduces Dr Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) en-route to a space station and onwards to Clavius, a lunar settlement. Replete with technological advancements such as artificial gravity, zero-gravity toilets, voiceprint recognition, video payphones, corporatisation of space travel (did someone say Elon Musk?) Clarke and Kubrick’s futuristic predictions are of near Nostradamus proportions of accuracy if not wholly infallible and a tad over-optimistic. 

The banality of dialogues between Floyd and his Russian counterparts is interspersed with the parody of a full page of instructions to use a zero-gravity toilet. The narrative progresses with the revelation of the discovery of a monolith, now identified as TMA-1 or Tycho Magnetic Anomaly, buried under the lunar surface which emits a signal to Jupiter. 

The fearful reverence of the apes is replaced by the arrogance of man as the astronauts try to take a picture in front of the monolith. Under instructions from the National Council of Astronautics, Floyd prohibits his colleagues from disclosing the news of the TMA-1.

The Jupiter Mission

Fast forward 18 months Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood)) and Dr David Bowman (Keir Dullea) are aboard a spacecraft, Discovery 1, on an expedition to Jupiter along with three other astronauts in hibernation and a H.A.L 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) supercomputer that talks in a Canadian accent.

In a fastidious sub-plot, the question of the sentience of the machine is evoked when H.A.L who proclaimed to be “foolproof and incapable of error” misdiagnoses a fault in AE-35 unit and Poole and Bowman discuss disconnecting HAL’s primary brain functions. HAL goes ape-shit crazy (Remember the primate with bone?) and kills the entire crew except for Dave, who manages to disconnect HAL. The supercomputer is acutely humane in his last moments as it says, “I am afraid Dave”, “my mind is going, I can feel it”. 

Jupiter and Beyond the infinite

Perhaps the most baffling part of the movie is its ending, which is more evocative than instructive. A third monolith suspended in Jupiter’s atmosphere propels Dave in a space pod through a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic plethora of colours and shapes, popularly known as the Stargate sequence. 

Kubrick’s special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull used a pioneering slit-scan technique to achieve the impressionistic psychedelic effect, a feat which will be replicated decades later by CGI. Dave is transported into a neo-classical French style room, and in an anachronistic time wrap the film rapidly shifts perspective from young Dave to an older Dave and finally, a bedridden Dave, who reaches towards the monolith in action oddly reminiscent of Adam reaching out to God in Michaelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine chapel, only to be transformed into a foetal ‘Star child’. 

The film ends in a shroud of ambiguity with the ‘star child’ floating in space near earth. However, Kubrick, unperturbed by the annals of audience restlessness to the pervasiveness of ambiguity in ‘2001’ said in an interview with Joseph Gelmis: “Once you’re dealing on a nonverbal level, ambiguity is unavoidable. But it’s the ambiguity of all art, of a fine piece of music or a painting—you don’t need written instructions by the composer or painter accompanying such works to “explain” them.”

Perhaps, thus the ‘zero-gravity’ toilet instruction is the only intentional joke in the film. In a scene aboard the space station, Floyd is seen peering at a detailed and convoluted instruction manual on the use of the zero-gravity toilet. Kubrick’s disdain of instructions for the understanding of the film highlights the irony of a page long instructions from the zero-gravity toilets. In an interview, Kubrick’s explained the zero-gravity toilet was the only intentional joke in the film. That evolution and technological advancement would lead to convoluting of tending to basic human needs is well worth a snigger. Despite its ambiguity, Kubrick doesn’t “want to spell out a verbal roadmap for 2001”. Kubrick’s film doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but the zero-gravity toilet does.

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