A trip down arcane lane

Image via MGM 1968
Image via MGM 1968

The inner workings of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

By Benjamin Howard, Columnist

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the sci‑fi epic, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, then go watch it before reading this article.

Almost 50 years since 2001 was released, it is still being discussed today. Beyond simply being a great film, what makes it so memorable and thought‑provoking? For most, the only way to answer that question is private reflection on the film’s themes. I hope to bring a different perspective on 2001, and perhaps film in general, by discussing Kubrick’s secret sauce: “non‑submersible units.”

In his own words, Kubrick was always trying to “change the form” of movies. As Steven Spielberg put it, “the way he told stories was sometimes antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.” In 1960, Kubrick said “I think the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start—the start gets under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate the grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.” According to Brian Aldiss, former collaborator with Kubrick, “He had a contempt for narrative […] that is to say, cause and effect.”

Kubrick was trying to extricate 2001 from the shackles of plot. His solution was the non‑submersible unit—a fundamental story sequence untethered by extraneous plot details. This sequence would be so robust and interesting that it would be enough to captivate the audience on its own. Kubrick believed that all a movie required was six to eight of these units.

From what I could discern, 2001 contains five such sequences. The first is “The Dawn of Man,” in which our primitive ancestors first meet the Monolith. A jump‑cut takes the scene from a bone thrown victoriously in the air to a man‑made spaceship. This begins the second sequence, which accompanies Dr. Floyd through the delights of space travel, covert committee meetings, and then to the lunar Monolith site.

The third sequence is the crux of the film, “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later.” It introduces David Bowman and the HAL 9000 computer. Following Bowman’s victory over HAL comes the fourth sequence: “Jupiter—And Beyond the Infinite.” After 15 minutes of hypnotic interstellar travel, the fifth and final sequence begins: Bowman goes from his mid-30s to his 90s in 5 minutes, after which he is reborn as a planet‑sized baby.

What did these units do for 2001? They render every sequence in a vivid and unique way. This is because they are not weighed down by uninteresting scenes that so often plague films reliant upon a chain‑of‑events narrative. This unorthodox approach makes the film naturally unpredictable.

A traditional narrative is constrained by set‑ups and resolutions. This means resolutions are often played out, or just plain tedious. These are a common issues in film, and the non‑submersible unit is a great way to avoid them completely.

As non‑submersible units are largely separate from each other, 2001 explores an uncommonly wide range of themes. 2001 is so thought‑provoking precisely because the units don’t quite link up. They are self-contained in nature, and therefore relate to each other only vaguely. Brian Aldiss said that this makes for “something that our intellects can’t quite resolve, and that’s an attraction in a movie.”

The only constant in the film—the thread through the units—is the Monolith, the most mysterious element of the whole story. Nothing related to the Monolith is properly explained. Only hints are given as to what it might be. This forces the viewer to ponder their own interpretation of the Monolith and the film as a whole.

In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview about Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick said: “Some people demand a five-line capsule summary. Something you’d read in a magazine. They want you to say, ‘This is the story of the duality of man and the duplicity of governments.’ I hear people try to do it—give the five-line summary—but if a film has any substance or subtlety, whatever you say is never complete, it’s usually wrong, and it’s necessarily simplistic: truth is too multifaceted to be contained in a five-line summary. If the work is good, what you say about it is usually irrelevant.”

Perhaps this truth is what led Kubrick to throw away the final puzzle‑piece—because to provide a conclusive answer or message to the film would cheapen it.