Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Sad Optimism of 2001

I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, shortly after it first came out.  I was much younger then, of course.  I recall there was some controversy at the time regarding just what it was intended to express.  In particular, there was speculation regarding the nature of the monolith, or at least what it represented.  Some thought it represented God.  Regardless, I was much impressed.

The picture above is from the very beginning of the film, depicted as Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra blared majestically.  I found the precision of the imagery, which I suppose is to say the cinematography, astounding.  I had seen nothing like it before.  For the time it seemed wholly new.

The movie had its critics.  Some felt it dull and incomprehensible.  I personally felt somewhat overwhelmed, wondered and wondering.  It was clear enough that the monolith, whatever it was, was involved in the "dawn of man"; this was apparent from the scene in which the proto-human or ape-like creature began to use a large bone as a weapon after the encounter with it.  I particularly liked the scene in which the bone was thrown into the sky, and "became" a spaceship.

I didn't read the Arthur C. Clarke novel until much later.  It made sense of what I had seen, though I had inferred some things, as I expect most did, in time.  I don't think, as I believe some did or do, that the book didn't do justice to the film.  I think it a great movie.

As an achievement, it's remarkable.  But I think it's most remarkable, given what's happened since it was made, in its overestimation of what we would achieve, in space at least.

Was its optimism justified?  We were then on the brink of landing on the moon, but a short time, really, after JFK had declared that as a national goal.  A relatively short time, really, since we began to blast things into orbit.  The year 2001 was more than thirty years away.  In thirty years we had split the atom, blown up cities, reached space.  Perhaps our potential seemed limitless.

Nearly fifty years later, and we haven't even returned to the moon for many years, let alone sent a manned mission to Jupiter space, built a huge space station and installations on the lunar surface.  True, we've managed to send probes around the solar system and landed ambulatory robots on Mars.  We put so many satellites into orbit that they're becoming a positive danger. 

Clearly, it turned out that we had different priorities.  We have no HALs, but our computer technology is impressive enough, probably more impressive as it seems there were only two HALs in any case. 

But it's galling in a way that despite the fact that we haven't taken the steps required to begin the colonization of space (and we surely would have had colonies on Mars and perhaps elsewhere among the planets if the universe of 2001 had come to be) we seem to be in much the same poor way we were in the late 1960s.  We have no war in Vietnam, but we have conflicts all over the globe, the rich are very rich indeed and becoming richer, and the poor grow more and more numerous.  We grow more divided, angrier and probably have less hope than we did back then.

But perhaps I'm being too negative.  There were other futures envisioned in movies of the time and shortly thereafter which make our present seem good enough, perhaps even  desirable.  Kubrick himself depicted one of them in A Clockwork Orange.  The future in Farenheit 451 wasn't exactly cheery.  We have a penchant for dystopian futures and indulge it in our movies often enough.

Still, 2001 contained the hope of transformation, transcendence, in the form of the Starchild, which one of us became courtesy of the monolith,  Perhaps that hope is still there, although it seems to me that the transformation some of us seek is at the moment less physical and more mental or emotional. 

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