A Progressive Analysis of 2001

by by Sandra Venturini

The first time I saw 2001, I couldn't tell the astronauts apart, let alone understand what the final sequence was all about. The first insights into the film I got later, from a book on Kubrick's work by Alexander Walker and from talks with a genuine mystic, Tony Fairburn of Gosford, NSW, Australia (may our paths cross again in cyberspace!). With their preparation, I've seen the film dozens of times over the past 25 years and managed to elaborate some other ideas.

Of course, 2001 is open to many interpretations and probably even Kubrick couldn't provide the "correct" one. The film is, apparently, very different from the book (which I have the advantage of not having read) and, in production, Kubrick reduced the original script to its bare essentials.

But what are the "essentials"? The best we can hope for in interpreting 2001 is to find a coherent thread that runs through the whole work without becoming hopelessly entangled in the last 20 minutes, the part many viewers find totally baffling. For me, the thread is man's evolution and the fact that, to continue evolving in space, he needs to get rid of his body. It's the old matter vs. spirit story.

(Please note that the thread I'm proposing still has a few knots in it, the main one being tied around this point: Did HAL make a genuine error, and thus find himself dragged unwillingly into a mortal conflict with the Jupiter mission crew, or was the "mistake" part of a deliberate plot by HAL to isolate, divide and destroy them? Unfortunately, both interpretations find confirmation in the film. It remains a complete mystery...)

So here is The Definitive Explanation of 2001, with pointers to key scenes and clever cross--references...

1. The theme of 2001 is man's evolution, from ape through Earthman to astral being.

2. In the beginning, the ape has what it takes to make the first evolutionary leap. Presented with the monolith, his curiosity and courage overcome his fear. These innate characteristics -- and not some buzz from the big block -- lead to the ape's subsequent invention, the tool.

3. A million years later, the first tool has become a spaceship and Earthman is soaring at the peak of his evolution. He's so civilized -- when Floyd meets the Russians in the bar, it's: "Dr. Floyd, won't you join us for a drink?" (cf. that with ape hospitality round the last watering--hole we saw).

4. But, immediately, we sense something is wrong. Earthman is just not suited to space. He eats junk. Every step is an effort. Even taking a crap requires advanced technology. What's more, man has become a bore. His emotions are flat. He communicates in banalities. He has lost his sense of curiosity -- meeting the monolith for the second time, he touches it with a cold, scientific, gloved hand, then poses for a tourist snap.

5. The Jupiter mission. What a sad sight, these Earthmen. Bored, boring, all intellect and no feeling. The ones in hibernation testify to man's utter incompatibility with space exploration -- he has to be virtually dead just to get around. Seems like he just doesn't have what it takes to last out here in space.

6. But maybe HAL does. HAL is a tool, no more and no less than that bone wielded by the ape. But he's so smart he beats man at his own game ("I'm sorry, Frank, but I think you missed it....").

7. HAL -- but not the crew! -- knows that Earthman is heading for an appointment with destiny, with higher powers. "But hey," thinks HAL, "who's to say I'M not the Chosen One? I'm a lot smarter than these jerks. And I'm made for space. I don't need to hibernate, I don't need oxygen or phoney cheese sandwiches. Hey, I'm practically immortal..." The ultimate tool, HAL, doesn't need the apes anymore. He's decided to end an association that has lasted a thousand millennia.

8. HAL plots and schemes. And Earthman finally twigs: "I've got a bad feeling..." says Bowman's buddy Poole in the pod, making the film's first reference to feelings. Facing the ultimate, mortal conflict -- although only dimly aware of what's coming -- Earthman regains that old ape intuition.

9. HAL almost succeeds, but Bowman (get it? -- man is culturally so far behind his own evolution he's stuck with a name from the 12th century) outsmarts the machine with his ingenuity, imagination and courage. And he kills HAL using the simplest of all tools, the screwdriver. That's what tools are for, HAL!

10. Man makes his appointment.

11. The room in the 4th dimension is a 'colour negative'.

12. At his last supper, Earthman tips over his glass. The glass breaks -- but the wine is still there. Hey...container/content, body/spirit... Ah!

13. Earthman is dying. Enter the monolith. Have you got it yet, Earthman? As an ape, you touched me with a child's fear and courage. On the moon, you touched me with your cold logic. And now?

14. With his rasping, dying breath, Earthman reaches out to the monolith, at last, with deep understanding and wisdom. The body -- container of his spirit for a million years, but like fish out of water in space -- is cast aside forever. He's ready for the next evolutionary leap -- and the Starchild is born. (Ba--baa--baaa--baaaa baabaaaa!...bombombombombom...)


In space, man finds himself at an evolutionary dead--end, so unadapted to the new environment that he is forced to delegate practically all human functions -- from toilet--work to command decisions -- to his tools/machines. At that point, it is simply "natural selection" for the machine to replace its creator.

That is the crux of 2001: man on Earth used tools -- extensions of his body -- to progress. In space, the tools become so "vital" that they take on a life of their own, detach themselves (remember the floating pen?) and ultimately decide to do away with him.

When HAL threatens to destroy him, Bowman draws on man's innate qualities (his spirit) to outsmart and finally destroy the machine (the screwdriver used to lobotomize HAL represents man's reappropriation of domain over his tools).

At the same time, in destroying HAL, Bowman draws the curtain on Homo Utensilis ("lays down the bone", as Geoffrey Alexander puts it) -- he's seen that evolutionary route leads to disaster. And if the tool/machine has exhausted its evolutionary thrust, so, by extension (or intention), has the human body. At that point, all that is left to evolve is the wine in the broken glass, i.e. the spirit in the old man's broken, dying body.

Note also that while the ape and Homo Utensilis actually had to touch the monolith to get results, dying man only has to lift a finger -- it's his intention that counts this time, not what he does with his body.