How 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Is a Comedy

2001: A Space Odyssey, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, isn’t a laugh riot, but it is more of a comedy than most people realize. It’s not by accident that one of the most memorable lines of dialogue during the movie’s relatively talk-free runtime refers sarcastically to human error, and what is funnier than showcasing the absurdity, futility and the flaws that make us mortal?

Possibly the most aped, so to speak, of 2001‘s moments is its famous cut from a bone thrown into the air to a spaceship. It’s commonly described, thanks to additional information provided in the concurrently written novel by Arthur C. Clarke, as a depiction of the evolution of weaponry; a bone used to smash skulls that transitions over time to a space weapons platform. The movie, however, offers no obvious cues that it is a warship; the book pays it off by having the starchild mentally detonate all space-based artillery in the final chapter. This transition is, rather, an absurdity–a funhouse version of the creationist intelligent design viewpoint that says God must exist because it’s ridiculous to think apes became humans by random mutation. Director Stanley Kubrick sees the absurdity of bone-slinging apes becoming spacefarers in the blink of an eye, relative to infinite time, and suggests that indeed, intelligent design helped things along, but it wasn’t God…just something so advanced we would regard it as such. We are, after all, dumb apes.

Not every joke is that sophisticated. When I was a child watching 2001, I laughed at the zero-gravity toilet because, huh-huh, toilets are funny. Later in life, I though it was just part of the overall obsession with minutiae Kubrick had, and not a cheap gag. Nowadays, I tend to think it’s both: Kubrick could have indicated a lavatory without further detail, but the fact that it sports detailed instructions for using a zero-gravity toilet seems clearly designed to make the viewer imagine the difficulty, and laugh at how one of the most notable challenges of space travel might be something as simple as taking a dump. Classically, comedy is defined by shining a light on the base desires and needs that make us human, and Greek playwrights frequently used the form to bring deities down to earth…and the bathroom.

Some humor plays differently now than it did in 1968: the notion of a phone call from space costing $1.70 was funny because it was expensive; now it’s funny because it seems so cheap. The absurdity of a world in which a bush baby can be obtained easily as a pet still holds, though there’s accidental humor in the fact that the actual president in the real year 2001 turned out to be a “Bush baby.” But the notion that astronauts, upon finding an alien artifact, immediately make it their first impulse to take a picture of themselves with it? That might have been the most accurate, on-point prediction of the millennium, though Kubrick instantly smashes the human ego on display by having the Monolith promptly deafen our would-be selfie pioneers, whom we never see again.

Leonard Rossiter’s appearance as a Russian scientist might not mean much to non anglophiles–in the UK, he’s best known for starring in TV comedies, though at the time he was relatively new to them, having been a classical stage actor prior. Still, imagine Patrick Stewart suddenly showing up in a serious sci-fi movie as a nervous Russian, and you get a sense of how British audiences might have received the scene with Dr. Smyslov. Kubrick would undoubtedly have been in on the joke.

It has never been fully confirmed as to whether the name of HAL the computer is a riff on IBM, with each letter in the name being one letter prior in alphabetical order (HI, AB, LM). However, what is clear, and made clearer by the sequel and the books, though supporting evidence is onscreen in the first film, is that HAL is presented with evidence of his own fallibility. That’s a classic comedy device, and he reacts by proving just how vulnerable the humans in his care are by attempting to dispose of them. When that fails to take them all out, and the last survivor deactivates him, his fallibility is even further and more comedically exposed, as he regresses to “childhood” singing a simple song.

Other than the odd contrast that advanced aliens would assume a cold, ornate hotel suite makes a perfect zoo cage for a human specimen (intelligent design coming full circle, in a way), the final section of the film isn’t necessarily funny or satirical, but it does bring home human vulnerability in an allegorical way. We anticipate our own mortality, unlike other animals, and Dave Bowman does so literally, seeing each steadily older version of himself outside his body before becoming that next person. He’s finally “born again” in what once more passes as a funhouse mirror of a religious idea; Jesus (as far as we can tell) hasn’t renewed him as a baby into eternal life, but something has.

The final image is of a man become a godlike being, having been brought down into vulnerable positions many times over to get there. It’s the “scheintod,” or fake death, of heroic narratives that end in the hero surviving, and subsequently re-attaining divine or royal status, contrasted with the visual of a baby. We’ve seen a species develop from metaphorical infancy; literal infancy starts a whole new cycle, and new vulnerability.

Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and 2001 is his favorite movie of all time.

Images: MGM

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