Ideas & Trends; Of Tragedy and the Movie Monolith - New York Times

Ideas & Trends; Of Tragedy and the Movie Monolith
By Alexander Gorlin
Dec. 30, 2001
Read the article in the New York Times here.

FORGET Nostradamus, this was the year of Stanley Kubrick's movie ''2001: A Space Odyssey.'' It has more than fulfilled its terrifying prophecy of climactic events at the millennium.

An entire generation of baby boomers grew up with the film as emblematic of the anticipation and apprehension of the year 2001 -- which technically began the millennium as opposed to the fanfare of the previous year's celebrations. The 1968 movie presented a darkly pessimistic view of humanity wrapped up in extraordinary imagery. Kubrick's insights into the destructive nature of mankind, a constant in all his films, has kept his message, and the movie, alive these past 30 years.

The director was born in the Bronx, but lived in Britain for most of his adult. Yet, he was strongly tied to New York City and had a strange premonition about it -- which tragically came true in the events of Sept. 11. Looming over ''2001,'' appearing at key points of the story, is a large black monolith, a mysterious, sleekly technological object seen both by the ape-man millions of years ago and also in 2001 on the moon, pointing its radio signal to the planet Jupiter, the object of the last voyage of the doomed astronauts in the film.

In one of many eerie parallels to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the image of the black monolith has reappeared -- literally -- at ground zero, in the form of proportionally similar black glass slab buildings that rise above the ruins of the twin towers.

For years, Kubrick had abandoned the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world themes from the film, turning instead to history (''Barry Lyndon''), horror (''The Shining''), war (''Full Metal Jacket'') and sex (''Eyes Wide Shut''), before revisiting, just before his death in 1999, his dark vision of the future in ''A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.'' Realized at Kubrick's request by the director Steven Spielberg, the film retains enough of Kubrick's original vision to again present images that predict the horror later visited on Lower Manhattan.

Kubrick's ''2001,'' based on a story by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, is a morality tale of the evolution of man and the double-edged sword of technology, a tool for both creation and destruction. The film ends with the ambiguous promise of the next evolution of man and the future of peace, perhaps influenced by otherworldly forces, variously interpreted as aliens or religion. In the film's enigmatic beginning -- almost an anthropological Discovery Channel documentary about the evolution of man -- apes are seen foraging on the African savannah, when there appears a mysterious technological object: a tall rectangular black monolith. Soon after, perhaps somehow due to the monolith, these apes discover the use of an animal bone as a tool, and the leader of the previously peaceful creatures commits the first murder of their brethren, using the bone as a weapon. The implication is that this discovery of the tool as weapon is essential to the evolution of ape into man.

In a scene compressing eons of time, the triumphant ape/man throws the bone into the air. It transforms, immediately, from distant past to future, into a similarly shaped spacecraft to the moon. The identity of form, and congruence of the first weapon with the idea of technology and flight connects the film ''2001'' with the current year 2001.

In a frightening inversion of film and reality, the terrorists used the two aircraft in a similar manner, turning the planes into tools of mass destruction, and like primitive man, hurled them like huge bones into the two towers, causing death multiplied by the thousands.

Now, the smoking ruins of the towers are surrounded by architectural sentinels that, in color and proportion, recall the black monolith of ''2001,'' witnesses to the primal scene of devastation. All the tallest buildings adjacent to ground zero are black monolithic slabs: 1 Liberty Plaza, a 700-foot-tall rectangular structure; Deutsche Bank, whose gashed facade stands witness to the collapse of the towers; and the aptly named Millennium Hotel, a black glass-sheathed building.

This year, in Kubrick's posthumous film ''A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,'' which the director had worked on for many years, he returns to the setting of an ominous future with its uncomfortable melding of robots and humans. In the climactic scene, a robot child is flown in a helicopter to confront his replicants, at the site of the ''Forbidden Zone.'' That location is none other than Lower Manhattan, in ruins -- the remains of the city after World War III. There, half sunken below the water, is the World Trade Center.

THE movie came out in June, the terrorists struck in September. Even beyond the grave, Kubrick remains sadly ahead of the curve.

Unfortunately, it seems mankind has not changed much in the course of its evolution, though the means of destruction has advanced exponentially beyond the hand-held bludgeon. In the aftermath of both the film and the year 2001, one is left exhausted and bewildered, with a sense of relief that it is over and a barely concealed disbelief that it happened after all.

At this point, perhaps the glimmer of hope at the end of ''2001,'' where the elderly astronaut is transformed by the black monolith into an embryonic star child gazing at the earth, is a metaphor for the restoration and rebirth of humanity -- and New York.


December 30, 2001

Alexander Gorlin

photo credit: Kubrik, 2001: A Space Odyssey