The Sublimity of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sublime film. Tracing the evolution of humanity from prehistoric hominids to space age explorers immersed in Cold War politics, the film considers the telos or final aim of the human: a sentient computer. In terms of plot and thematically the film is sublime indeed, but especially when it’s big. Kubrick’s movie comes back to the theater this week as part of Seattle’s first Science Fiction Film Festival, using a 70mm print, which basically means the resolution is higher than a standard 35mm print. But 70mm film was/is used to shoot very few films, and the Cinerama, where 2001 will be screened, is one of only three theaters in the world with the capacity to project one. For everyone else, the DVD will have to suffice (at least you get the extras!). While I always thought aesthetic theories of the sublime had much to contribute to a conversation about Kubrick’s futuristic journey, is a big screen really a prerequisite for such a discourse?
It doesn’t hurt.
Kubrick’s film opens with “The Dawn of Man.” A group of apes scavenge for sustenance, fighting with other clans of apes for a nearby waterhole. By today’s standards, the apes resemble homo erectus, bipeds prior to the use of tools. The stage in their development is important because one morning, Moon-Watcher (as he’s called in the script), awakes to find a large, black, symmetrical object: the monolith. Geometrical form, par excellence. Following from the encounter, Moon-Watcher creates what amounts to the first tool, thus inaugurating the next step in human evolution. Moon-Watcher sees a bone and anticipates its use as a weapon. The film presents viewers with a radical notion, that an external object determines brain capacity. In other words, the encounter with the monolith animates Moon-Watcher’s imagination, but as the German Enlightenment philosopher Kant would say, the monolith itself does nothing.
For Kant, writing on aesthetics in his Critique of Judgment (Berlin, 1790)—a foundational text for studies on the sublime—sublime experience occurs only in the mind.[i] A sublime experience follows from the “might” exhibited in nature causing a feeling of “respect” in the viewer. A truly sublime effect turns its subject into a “brave” and “noble” character with a newfound sense of moral purpose (§§28-9.99-106). However, Kant disavows any purpose within the sublime object itself. If it’s an ocean it’s only an ocean; if it’s a volcano it’s only a volcano (§29.110).[ii] So according to Kant, the monolith could be anything because, for the human, it is the mind that determines the object.
From the inauguration of the first tool, time is compressed. Kubrick now jumps almost two million years into the future as the camera follows Moon-Watcher’s hurled weapon through the air. In a vicissitudinous cut Kubrick links two tools at the limits of technology: From Early Pleistocene bone to a twenty first-century military vessel orbiting earth. The gesture forces us to ask, what’s the difference? As Adrian Mackenzie might say, the bone is local while the spaceship is global.[iii] But how local are bones? Like the monolith, these objects seem to traverse time and geographic location. Furthermore, despite the apparent innocuousness of the film, the accompanying evil (or banality) of the monolith reveals itself in that imagination’s inauguration ushers in weapons of war—first and foremost.
For film’s third section, Kubrick introduces a different kind of sublimity. If the military spaceship doubles as Moon-Watcher’s bone, the monolith’s double is the HAL 9000 computer. Faceless and seemingly indifferent, HAL is “the most reliable computer ever made.” On their mission to Jupiter, the crew is comprised of HAL, scientists in hibernation, as well as two conscious scientists, Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. Next to his human counterparts, HAL appears fragmented without an actual body, restricted by the cameras determining his sight. On the other hand, HAL acts as the ship’s nervous system; that is to say, he is totally mobile, ubiquitous, and dubiously inescapable. If the sublime requires safe distance, as it did for Edmund Burke in 1757, HAL creates the illusion of distance, while in fact he is closer than anything else.[iv] Kubrick zeroes in on a sublime object that cannot be measured in terms of physical distance. The object is remote in appearance but near in personality, distant in body but near in omnipresence. In this sense Burke is wrong while Kant and Kubrick are right: measuring, identifying, and containing the sublime says nothing about sublimity.
Maybe a good reviewer would explain the film’s end, but in the spirit of the sublime I will not enact that violence. To be fair, the end should be experienced on the big screen, which is why, should the opportunity arise, any fan of the sublime or science fiction ought to see the film in the theater. But what does one gain from bigness? If in the end we admit that size alters experience, have we not undone the whole point of this article? To admit that proportion is part of the sublime experience is only to admit exactly what these various thinkers ultimately gesture toward: the sublime cannot be contained within a single criterion or tedious criteria.
The Seattle Science Fiction Film Festival runs from 4/19 to 5/2. Among others, films include Metropolis, Dune, Barbarella (of course), but sadly not Bladerunner.
[i] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J.H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press, 1951. Print.
[ii] On this point see Paul de Man’s “Kant’s Materialism” in Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
[iii] For an interesting commentary on the limits of technology, comparing Paleolithic hand-axes to thermal nuclear devices (57-86), see Adrian Mackenzie’s Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed. London: Continuum, 2002. Print.
[iv] Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958.