Lost in space

Stanley Kubrick’s cold vision was truer than any of us wanted it to be.

My wife Rachel and I were exploring the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan in 1977, and I remember standing one evening by a cinema in Merida when a double feature let out. On the one side, Steven Spielberg’s current masterpiece, “Encuentros Proximos del Tipo Tercero,” had been playing. The poster on the other side, of a Mexican film called (I think) “El Monstro Horrible,” showed a man in an ape suit standing atop a university building, blood dripping from his lips.

What interested me was the expressions on the faces of the people exiting the two movies. The Spielberg audience seemed perplexed. This was a Catholic country, after all, and the notion of luminous visitors from another star system did not mesh with their weltanschauung. On the other hand, the people leaving the monkey-suit movie seemed exhilarated, recharged. Their universe was still violent and cruel and ridiculous, the way it was supposed to be.

Fine. But the true acid test for sci-fi culture wars occurred years earlier, in 1968, when the curtain rose on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Thinking back, I wonder how people put up with that movie at all. It was dazzling, yet dull; profound, yet confusing; anti-establishment, but certainly not in a flower-power way. The people in it were busy becoming robotic even as the machines in it were straining to connect with humanity. “That’s a wonderful likeness, Dave,” HAL says tenderly at one point. “Your drawing is definitely improving.”

I saw it the first time with my grandmother at the palatial Allen Theater in Cleveland, and the film bowled me over. I got it, as they say, and I can pinpoint the movie’s most meaningful moment.

A committee to investigate the discovery of an alien artifact on the moon–a monolith–is sailing through space, with the meticulous, awestruck face of the moon turning below them. They have come face-to-face with the most remarkable find in human history. Yet amid this unconscionable beauty they sit in the spacecraft and negotiate what kind of sandwiches to peel open for lunch–ham salad, egg salad, chicken salad.

Later that year I saw the movie again, with a couple of dropout friends at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. We struggled to incorporate the movie into our long-hair perspective, but it was no good. We were so full of faith that things would work out, hunkering on our heels in our communal house because we didn’t have any chairs, but our hearts were pure and open. Whereas Kubrick stared into the human soul and saw smugness and stupidity. His one expression of hope came at the very end, where a brightening eclipse illuminates the blue eyes of some kind of giant, allegorical, planetoid fetus.

One other image stays with me. During the Jupiter story, when HAL the computer goes nuts and assumes command of the mission, he commandeers a shuttle craft and, using computer-controlled mechanical pincers, severs the lifeline of one of the two surviving crew members.

The camera zooms in on the face of the man as he realizes he is done for, and his aluminum-clad body spins like a punted baked potato out into space. At some point we realize he has died, but the body continues to wobble end over end, as it will for a thousand years, until some planet’s gravity reels it in for a fiery end. That feeling of being cut off, disconnected, and doomed, despite all the gadgets and technology–indeed, they are what has cut us off–was Kubrick’s cold gift to us.

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