Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is a monumental epic which explores the evolution of humankind. It is is dense, slow, demanding and not normally judged to be a giggle riot. I see it as Kubrick’s cosmic sex joke.
The key to unlocking the humour and understanding Kubrick’s intentions can be found in the director’s previous film.
Released in 1964, is his wildly funny and blackly satirical Cold War comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Set mostly in US military bunker populated almost exclusively by men, it charts the steps to nuclear armageddon as emotionally bereft warmongers charge into madness.
Terrified by sex and are obsessed with bodily fluids and super-phallic nuclear weapons the politicians and military plan to use an unseen army of women as breeding machines to re-populate the world with a fascistic race of supermen.
This fear drives their retreat into a toxic all-male environment such as a gang, the army, or a space mission. Free from troublesome complexity of emotions, the energy of their sexual insecurities can safely be channeled into violence.
Kubrick is fascinated, appalled and amused by men’s behaviour, their fear of sex and the seeking of sanctuary in combat.
The director delights in repeatedly pointing out these idiocies and finds their behaviour so entertaining, he turned up the dial all the way to eleven for his next work, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Importantly, Kubrick described Dr. Strangelove as possessing a ‘sexual framework from intromission to the last spasm’. So does 2001.
The director employs visual metaphors to explain his thoughts on man’s attitude towards sex. Men are insecure, fearful and in response, violent. Kubrick employs outlandish bombast and an exaggerated self-important tone to satirically mock men’s failings.
In 2001 Kubrick mocks his macho technological aesthetic, by placing it within an over-arching visual framework of sexual reproduction.
The sex in 2001: A Space Odyssey is hidden in plain sight within the trippy and awe inspiring imagery, and the ground-breaking special effects.
2001 begins in humanity’s pre-history with a tribe of starving hominids discovering an immense black monolith
Kubrick uses this void to inform us of how he believes men regard women. Drawn by its mysterious beauty, the hominids regard the powerful and, importantly, silent intruder with fascination and fear.
Soon the lead ape is banging his bone in an angry frenzy. Here Kubrick explicably links fear, sex, selfishness and violence. A rival tribe is slaughtered and ownership of a water hole is established.
Then we see the triumphant hominid leader banging his bones with orgasmic exultation.
Dutch master Paul Verhoeven applied a similar extravagance when executing the relentless cartoon-like violence in his satirical 1987 sci-fi Robocop.
The hominids ferocious behaviour is set to the militaristic romanticism of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name.
The writer’s work was famously co-opted by Nazi’s to justify their beliefs in the Master race, another link back to Dr. Strangleove and underscoring the link between sex, violence and madness.
Anyway, the ape returns to whacking off and courtesy of the most famous match cut in cinema, his bone(r) becomes a nuclear-powered penis, sorry, spacecraft. How’s that for a money shot?
If, by the way, you believe sexual metaphors are beneath the lofty talent of a consummate filmmaker such as Kubrick, you probably don’t recognise the wank jokes in Shakespeare.
We see the rocket manoeuvre to penetrate the spinning space station. So scared of sex and emotions, all men have managed to achieve in three million years is reduce the sex act to a mechanical experience.
In fact, for Kubrick’s men this is progress. Kubrick’s use of the swooningly romantic Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss is a hilariously caustic and ironic accompaniment.
See how tubelike the inside of the space station is. Those corpuscular chairs are engorged blood cells. The men i.e. semen, are deposited in to the female craft. Next stop, the Moon base.
Look at those teeth! Quick, someone google vagina dentata!
The second, larger monolith represents the next stage of the semen’s journey further into the reproductive system. After the sex act the men stand staring in mute incomprehension, until they recoil as the monolith screams at them as if in great pain.
Gang rape is a theme Kubrick returns to in later film. Men seek comfort in numbers when ‘doing’ sex. Compare the second monolith gathering in 2001 to the ‘sacrifice’ scene in 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Kubrick is always bringing together the sex and violence. See the gang rape in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, and the penis/gun metaphors employed by the drill sergeant in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. Yes, that title is a condom metaphor.
Anyway, this encounter prompts the men to attempt to conquer a new monolith near the planet, Jupiter. i.e. they travel further through the reproductive system.
There’s a lot of walking and crawling through tunnels as astronauts make their way through the tubes, sorry, corridors of the spacecraft, Discovery.
Although played by Douglas Rain, the spaceship’s computer HAL 9000 is the dominant female voice in the film. He’s almost the only ‘female’ voice in the film.
Portrayed by a soft blood-red orb, HAL 9000 is a maternal figure, tasked with keeping the crew warm and snug until their arrival at the next monolith, which is orbiting Jupiter. Only one sperm is necessary to fertilise the egg, and so the crew are killed off.
Kubrick uses HAL to demonstrate the paradox of human reproduction, where a system designed to create and nurture life also involves killing off the unsuccessful contenders.
And once reproduction has been achieved, the female host body is redundant. The ‘winning’ sperm immediately begins to destroy the mind of the woman who nurtured him.
The successful sperm/astronaut, Bowman, literally rips HAL’s brains out. Honestly, the injustice and ingratitude is enough to drive anyone mad.
Once the third monolith is reached, Bowman passes through the Stargate. This trippy passage represents the moment of fertilisation, the creation of a new life.
Here’s another of those vaginal black voids, oh yes, the new life will be pushed out soon enough.
Often misnamed a ‘star child’, The space foetus experiences a pre-birth vision of its life ahead, as an insecure, fearful and violent ape.
Our cyclical journey ends where we began, with Wagner’s music of war dooming us to make the same mistakes all over again.
For all our pretensions and technology, we’re still a bunch of fighting primates. And Kubrick finds all this darkly funny. Men are idiots, he says, and he can’t help pointing and laughing at them.
Men’s irrational fear of women and resultant violence is a theme Kubrick returns to in A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. They’re all best read through the dark comedic prism, or possibly the monolith, of Dr Strangelove.
From Jack Torrence in 1980’s The Shining to Dr. Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s men are puzzled, frightened and angry. And it’s the women who suffer.
These tables from A Clockwork Orange illustrate how Kubrick believes men prefer women. Naked and subservient. Sexually available and non-threatening. Without intelligence or personality. Mute. As this image is darkly ridiculous, so men are darkly ridiculous.
When people think of Kubrick, it is of the polymath chess master and cinematic genius. A coldly arrogant and detached figure, an irate perfectionist who is dismissive of the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. He’s probably glowering through a fog of cigarette smoke.
But the Kubrick who reveals himself to me is a satirical successor to Swift. Kubrick is so bewildered by the insanity of man, his barely controlled response is to create wildly exaggerated scenarios to try and explain them. But all he can do is mock and laugh at men’s behaviour because any other response would be mad.
Of all the characters in the history of cinema, there is one who I imagine most captures Kubrick’s manically disbelieving outrage. It belongs to the little remembered actor Peter Butterworth in the role of Brother Belcher. In particular in the dinner scene in British comedy classic, 1968’s Carry on up the Khyber.
You can watch it here.
Postscript: I recommend you read Nicholas Barber’s recent excellent piece on humour in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here
Note: when I say mankind I’m explicitly referring to the male of the species. Kubrick seems not to have a position on womenkind and there is no evidence of feminism in his films.