December 7, 2003

Kubrick's 2001 Revisited:
(Why Aren't We on Jupiter?)

  • Further around the channel selector, Turner Classic Movies showed Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey Saturday. I saw it in a theater when it came out in 1968, worlds and worlds ago. It certainly provokes some interesting thoughts in 2003. For example: Why aren't we on Jupiter yet?

    Setting the scene, 1968 was the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both wiped off of the political stage. They were perhaps the two most effective voices of opposition to the war in Vietnam.

    In Vietnam, it was the year of the Tet Offensive, a devastating loss for the U.S., widely considered a turning point in the war. (See Howard Zinn, Steve Forest, Dennis Simon, eHistory

    In the space program, Apollo 8 was launched on December 21, 1968. It orbited the moon and returned to earth December 27. The next May, Apollo 10 would circle the moon again and by July, 1969, Apollo 11 would land a man on the moon. The moon project took about a decade to go from rough beginnings to landing men on the moon. It was certainly reasonable to predict that a manned mission to Jupiter might take place by 2001.

    When I first saw the movie I thought it was visually spectacular, with very little plot or action, and what there is moves at an excruciatingly slow pace until the end when a furious-paced psychedelic lightshow is followed by a series of fascinating images and scenes, the meaning of which is never clear. But their ambiguity doesn't necessarily detract from their fascination. In a way it makes them more potent as symbols.

    The screenplay was co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, a British writer of science fiction who also had impressive credentials as a scientist himself, including the invention of the theory of satellite communications in 1945. The story line in the movie was purportedly based loosely on three stories by Clarke, "Transients", "The Sentinel", and "Expedition to Earth". Clarke later wrote a "novelization" of the film, which assigns explicit verbal meaning to some of the ambiguous symbols of the movie, and in so doing robs them of their power and trivializes them.

    When it came out I thought 2001 was a backward look forward. Typical of many "hard sci fi" writers of the time, of which Clarke was exemplary, it projected a line of technological evolution without giving much consideration to other lines of progression that would presumably also move forward, some propelled by technological change, and some impinging on it. The Clarke-Kubrick future seemed to be one in which only the technological evolved and everything else stayed the same as it was in 1968.

    I was reading Marshall McLuhan at the time and believed that the technological advances would force radical social changes that would be far more profound than anything portrayed in the movie.

    It's interesting now to see how those visions of the future compare to what really happened. I now think I was naively optimistic about how radically the U.S. would progress socially by the 21st Century. On the other hand, it seems that the Kubrick-Clarke vision did have a technological bias that led to portraying space technology much more advanced in relation to other lines of progression than it turned out to be. In the real life version of 2001, the U.S. was certainly nowhere near a manned mission to Jupiter. And that is probably due more to parallel lines of evolution than to the evolution of technology itself. If they could land a man on the moon in 1969, after only one decade of a space program, couldn't they have put a man on Jupiter in 35 more years? It would seem so. But that's not the way things evolved. Seeing the movie in 2003, it's still a scenario far in the future.

    It was Kennedy who set the goal for putting a man on the moon by 1970, and he was gone by 1964. Depending on how one chooses to interpret the assassination of Kennedy, one could speculate about how his death affected the country. Many say the country lost faith in its government then and never gained it back, as shown by the huge majority that has always disbelieved the official explanation of his death.

    It has been cogently argued that since the executive order to begin to withdraw troops from Vietnam was removed only a week after his death and replaced with orders to build up troop presence in Vietnam, that the escalation of the war was the purpose of his death. But regardless of whether one puts credence in that claim, one could point out that the character of leadership and the direction of the country changed a great deal after the murder of Kennedy. By 1974, the country was so deeply enmired in the corruption of the Nixon administration -- the massive and repeated abuses of power collectively called "Watergate" -- that any sense of national unity or purpose was pretty much scattered.

    A few years ago I spoke with Story Musgrave, an astronaut who joined the space program in 1967 and was part of it for 30 years. He was one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. His first space flight was on the maiden voyage of Challenger in 1983, on which he and Don Peterson took the first space walk of the Space Shuttle program. On his second mission aboard Challenger in 1985, he worked as systems engineer for launch and re-entry, and as a pilot during orbit. (See Astronaut Bios or Space Story, the official website of Story Musgrave.) In 1993 he was part of the crew of Endeavour, which he took three space walks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He told me he had orbited the earth hundreds of times, an experience few could match. His official stats are six space flights, 1,281 hours 59 minutes, 22 seconds in space, and about 25 million miles in orbit.

    He said the whole space program was predicated as a race with the Russians for the moon. Once the objective of landing on the moon was achieved, he said, it fizzled. There wasn't enough interest in the space program to sustain it at the level on which it had function in the early days.

    Who knows? It also corresponded to a time when the inspired leadership of JFK had been supplanted by dull politicians who were diametrically opposed to him on the continuum of American politics. In the case of Gerald Ford, he was actually a member of the fraudulent Warren Commission. Americans were not justifiably not stirred by the conniving minds of Nixon and Ford.

    Now Dubya, ever trying to draw snatch some of the fire of JFK, is talking about the space program. It could be just the thing for an administration scraping the bottom of its barrel for good PR.

    Today, when I see Kubrick's 2001 I appreciate it more than I did at first. It's a great film. It's still ploddingly slow, but that effect has a function, and was a pretty daring element in 1968. The allegorical conflict between human and computer intelligence, which is the principle element that provides the dramatic tension of the plot, is still quite relevant, arguably moreso today than at the time the film came out.

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