I had the joy of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen the first time in my life a little while ago. For those of you living near Portland, The Hollywood Theater purchased a 70 mm print of the film a couple of years back, and they show the movie to a sold-out house a couple of times every year. I had seen the film many times before on video–it’s one of the truly formative pieces of art in my life–but seeing it in a literally larger-than-life format impressed me deeply: the movie reminds me why I work in the genre of science fiction.
One of the most celebrated elements of the film has been its technological accuracy. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke, working before CGI or the moon landing, were able to predict so many of the challenges and curiosities of living and working in space. As much as I loved Star Trek and Star Wars growing up, I always had the sense that those two franchises were more science fantasy than science fiction (especially Star Wars). 2001, by contrast, looked like some thrillingly-plausible documentary footage from a future just over the horizon.
But it is not the accuracy of the film that affects me so much now. Rather, 2001 is worth watching because of what Tolkien would have called its mythopoesis: its creation of a new mythology in which we could view our modern predicament. As much as any other work of art I can think of, 2001 gets at the painfully intermediate position of our species as part animal and part divine: the film is a 164-minute meditation on Hamlet’s musing: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
(Another quote, just as apt, comes from Nietzsche’s This Spake Zarathustra, the book which also inspired the iconic theme music for 2001: “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”).
While the film is set in space in the near future, as realistically as Kubrick and Clarke could conceive of it, the setting is just as much a place of the inscrutable divine: in other words, its setting is really The Dreamtime, the Underworld, Faerie. Even though the US Space Program was deeply influenced in real life by 2001, the movie is closer to the mystical cave paintings of Chauvet or Lubang Jeriji Saléh than it is to the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
Of course, there are many elements of any piece of science fiction that won’t hold up well after 50+ years. In the case of 2001, Kubrick and Clarke seriously underestimated the amount of progress our species would make in some aspects of information technology, while at the same time overestimating the progress we would make in artificial intelligence and manned spaceflight. Those are easy mistakes to make, by the way: I can’t think of any science fiction before the 1980s that successfully anticipated the internet, and of course a movie made in 1968, the year before Apollo 11, would extend the logic of manned spaceflight out to regular orbital shuttles and populous moon bases and manned Jupiter missions.
But the beauty of 2001 is not how much the movie correctly predicted but rather how well it explores the timeless theme of what it means to be a human being. What strange gods called out of the darkness to our rude, frightened hominid ancestors to make us human? What awaits us if we can survive the deadly unintended consequences of our own ingenuity? In wrestling with those questions, 2001 is every bit as bottomless a work of art as Paradise Lost or Faust or the Popol Vuh. One can argue that there are no gods that made us, that the monoliths of the movie will never be found because they never existed in the first place. However, 2001 speaks to something very deep in our cultural DNA (and, for all I know, in our literal DNA): the yearning for our spiritual parents.
Two hundred years from now, if we somehow survive this dreadful bottleneck of overpopulation and ecological collapse, our descendants may be living in domed cities on the moon and Mars; we may be gliding in beautiful submarines through the oceans of Europa and Ganymede. We will still be looking for the monoliths.