Thoughts on 2001

by Roderick Munday

2001 is a masterpiece of cinema that still influences film makers nearly thirty years after it was made -- but what does it actually mean? Therein lies the enigma.

One can speculate almost endlessly upon this question, as the film itself offers very little overt guidance, but to avoid the mental vertigo of suppositional reductio ad absurdum, I have tried in this essay to concentrate on what is on screen, however I am condemned to failure because one of the film's strengths is that it refuses to be successfully encapsulated. Kubrick himself condemns me: to echo the director's words, "you're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film" but it is intended, "to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness. . "

Nevertheless it is illuminating to start an appraisal of 2001 by placing it in some sort of historical context. Those who work in the Science Fiction medium consciously or unconsciously create future worlds, by extrapolating from contemporary sensibilities, as well as technology, thereby inextricably wedding their work to the spirit of the age of its creation.

1968 was the year before the moon landing and the world was changing at an unprecedented rate, while in a sense, still frozen in the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. The protest movement against the war in Vietnam was escalating and 'Counter Culture' was strengthening its hold, especially on the young. Notably Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both symbols of hope for the dispossessed sixties generation, were assassinated the year 2001 was released.

Throughout the Sixties, Space technology and the race to the Moon were promoted by successive US administrations almost as an agent of redemption for the American people. It was the government's hope that the Moon landings would restore the lost sense of national pride and optimism in the USA. 2001 is unavoidably but perhaps also deliberately imbued with the same anxiety and hope as those times. Therefore the importance of the impending Moon landing cannot be underestimated in interpreting the film. Consider just its synopsis: an alien Civilisation, the midwife possibly even creator of humanity, absents itself for four million years, but leaves a 'calling card' on the Moon to trigger its next intervention.

2001 is structured in four sections:

1/The Dawn of Man
3/Jupiter Mission - 18 Months Later
4/Jupiter - and Beyond the Infinite

1/ The Dawn of Man

In the first section, portentously (and humorously?) titled 'The Dawn of Man' we see a tribe of hominids, scrabbling in the dirt for insects, munching on dry leaves of plants, and feuding with a rival tribe to dominate a muddy water hole. This section opens with a montage of empty desert landscapes: Kubrick notably departs from accepted paleoanthropological wisdom here, by not placing his proto-humans in a Savannah habitat, but choosing instead a poetic rendering of them, eking out an existence on barren rocks.

Stylistically, the film strives for a realistic, almost wildlife-documentary mood, however subtle undercurrents of strangeness prevail throughout these scenes, hinting perhaps that they are also intended to be viewed metaphorically. The illuminated eyes of the jaguar for example are an unavoidable consequence of the front projection process used to create the backgrounds on a sound stage, but one suspects a serendipitous one, as they lend the creature the mythological appearance of an 'archetypal' predator.

After the appearance of the monolith, 'Moonwatcher,' the leader of the hominid tribe becomes 'enlightened' in the use of tools. The triumph of this original 'giant leap for mankind' is illustrated eulogistically in a montage of slow motion violence cut to the stirring music of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, but in the following scene the leader of the rival tribe is beaten to death with a bone bludgeon in a more realistic and horrific portrayal of murder.

At this point the audience are left perhaps with a pessimistic impression of the brutal and violent consequences of humanities 'enlightenment' by the monolith, but before we have time to assimilate these images the film jump-cuts and we our in outer space.

2/ Untitled

The bone weapon becomes a space ship orbiting the earth, interestingly in Arthur C. Clarke's novelisation and in the original screenplay, the space craft is described as a nuclear missile launching platform. However this connection is obscured in the film, due it is said, to Kubrick's desire to distance 2001 from his previous Cold War epic, Dr. Strangelove. What is very clear though, is the progress humankind has made in fashioning tools.

There are many echoes of bone imagery in the hardware of 2001, the unfinished skeletal space station, the chairs in the orbiting Hilton and the vertebrae of the Discovery vessel all subtly underscoring, like the famous four million year jump-cut itself, a connection between our future-selves and our stone age forbears. This visual leitmotif is repeated throughout sections two and three of the film. The implication is a Jungian one: that the pace of human evolution has been uneven and Human Beings, although endowed with the power to conquer Nature, have not been able to transcend some of the baser aspects of their own natures. Therefore 'Space age Humanity' is metaphorically still tethered to the earth by its stone age past.

Yet in the Blue Danube sequence, the mood of philosophical pessimism is strongly contradicted, as if Kubrick wanted audiences to bask unashamedly in the voyeuristic pleasures of the technology on display. As the spacecraft waltz across the screen we are shown more than just a veneer of Civilisation, the effect is one of a seduction. It is the familiar seduction of an almost grasped, utopian future much loved of advertising copywriters and NASA propagandists; even the character's apparent indifference to the wonders around them, adds to its appeal, their boredom inspiring our awe and our envy.

Space travel is portrayed almost exclusively as the pursuit of male Caucasians. Thus an analogy is drawn with commercial air travel in the late Sixties both in stylistic references and conservative values. As we are introduced to further snippets of Twenty First Century life it becomes increasingly apparent that the bland vocabulary of 'airline-speak' has, by some osmosis, bled into every aspect of existence, it is as if social discourse and the human pallet of emotions have been superseded by more ergonomically efficient models. This calibrated blandness provides much of the films black-comic moments, unfortunately they have been taken at face value by hostile critics who view them as evidence of lack of characterisation and miss the point entirely.

The group psychology is still tribal, evidenced by the meeting of Dr. Heywood Floyd and rival Russian scientists, but violence has been replaced by social ritual and is played out symbolically in clipped formal speech and gestures of hostility, that nestle just below a layer of almost reflex pleasantries- (note towards the end of this scene one of the female Russian scientists holds her hands like a gun in her lap pointing at Floyd).

2001 society is depicted as controlled and authoritarian, but power is a collective responsibility. Dr. Floyd, the authority figure, cannot make a decision without consultation with the enigmatically named 'Council.' In one of the most ironic and chilling scenes in the film, Floyd is shown standing in front of an American flag, delivering a tough peremptory speech to a delegation on the Clavius moon base. To justify the secrecy surrounding the monoliths discovery, he couches his words of warning in a deceptively breezy and friendly tone: "I'm sure you're all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning."

Furthermore in the following scene en route to the Tycho crater we discern that this is a civilization that has lost its ability to feel awe.

Halvorsen: It [the monolith] seems to have been deliberately buried.

Floyd {In disbelief}: Deliberately buried...

Michaels: ...well, how about a little coffee?

Thus we can see that the cost of human 'progress,' by repressing brutality, is a loss of humanity. The people of 2001 stand on the threshold of realising their species' enormous potential yet ironically they have turned themselves into a just another tool in order to achieve this.

3/Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later

The third section of the film follows the slow progress of the giant space craft 'Discovery' towards Jupiter and the destination of the piercing signal sent by the monolith on the Moon. Gone now are the images of space filled with man's technological paraphernalia, 'Discovery,' is by stark contrast a lone explorer, cut off from her tribe and dwarfed by the blackness and emptiness of the void around her. Numerical decline is also echoed in the scenes onboard the ship: a move away from ensemble acting to vignettes of characters in studied isolation.

The routine life of the space craft is depicted in fastidious detail, but this is no heroic adventure for the human astronauts as their roles have been relegated to those of caretakers in an otherwise totally automated mission. In this setting, the loss of humanity is more acutely apparent and the paucity of Bowman and Pool's relationship despite their close proximity is contrasted ironically with the computer Hal's synthesized but considerably more varied emotional repertoire.

The character of Hal, the artificial brain, is omnipresent on the spacecraft and likewise dominates this section of the film. His Cyclops eye, glows like the eyes of the leopard in 'The Dawn of Man' as he watches over everything: the systems on the ship, the life signs of the frozen scientists - even the psychological progress of Bowman and Pool.

His motivation is expressed succinctly in his own words:

"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."

Perhaps the remnants of all the emotions discarded by human beings have found their way into Hal's programming. As if he is an idealised portrait of 'Humanity lost,' that seems perhaps rather picturesque when compared with the inscrutably taciturn Bowman and Pool.

Yet puzzlingly Hal turns from being a servant of the astronauts to an adversary. The usual reason given for this is that he suffers a 'mental breakdown' although I would argue that there is no direct evidence for this in the film, unless of course one unquestioningly equates the murder of Discovery's crew with a loss of sanity. However there is some evidence that points to a different interpretation.

Just prior to his homicidal transformation Hal talks to Bowman about his concerns about the mission:-

". . . certainly no-one could have been unaware of the very strange stories floating around before we left: rumors about something being dug up on the Moon. I never gave these stories much credence but particularly in view of some of the other things that have happened I find them difficult to put out of my mind. For instance the way all of our preparations were kept under such tight security and the melodramatic touch of putting Doctors Hunter, Kimble and Kominsky aboard, already in hibernation, after four months of separate training on their own."

Taken at face value the speech articulates Hal's anxiety, a need for reassurance that almost verges on paranoia, yet it is contradicted by Heywood Floyd's taped message to the crew at the end of the Discovery section:

"Good day Gentlemen, this is a pre-recorded briefing, made prior to your departure and which for security reasons of the highest importance has be known only by your H.A.L. 9000 computer..."

The repetition of the 'glowing eye' motif, suggests rather that some parallel is meant to be drawn with the leopard in 'The Dawn of Man.' Hal displays some of the calculating logic and cunning of a predator and as in the chess game with Bowman, he seems to be always to be several moves ahead of the competition. Hal also does nothing to endanger himself which is not a usual symptom of insane behavior, on the contrary, he becomes increasingly hostile when his own existence is threatened and his remark that he has: "made some very poor decisions lately" can be seen in this light, more as a plea for leniency, than a confession of diminished responsibility.

It is important to keep in mind that Hal is a sentient being, sentient enough perhaps, to be concerned with his own survival above all else. Obviously given his enormous intellect, Hal would be well aware of humanity's historical propensity for violent conflict and when he lip-read Bowman's and Pools conversation in the pod, it must have confirmed his suspicion that the crew of the Discovery represented a threat to his survival. Therefore his subsequent actions, can be seen as those of a competing species at a water hole. Moreover logically Hal's life may even justifiably take precedence over those of the astronauts, as in the vacuum of space, a machine is much better adapted for survival than a human being.

There is a repetition here of an axiom of Kubrick's 2001 thesis, that enlightenment is predicated by acts of violence, like the hominids in 'The Dawn of Man,' Hal's enlightenment, although a result of human ingenuity not alien intervention, has murderous consequences. His very existence implies that Humans have reached a point in their progress that they too can play the role of gods and perhaps if only as a sly reference to the 'Prometheus Unbound' theme that has influenced Science Fiction literature from Mary Shelly's 'Frankenstein' onwards, Kubrick portrays Humanities creation as a monster.

On another level it is interesting to consider how the Hal sub-plot counterpoints to the main plot of '2001:' obviously his role is that of a catalyst; through trying to destroy Bowman (to appropriate Joseph Campbell's terminology), Hal becomes the agent of Bowman's call to adventure, forcing him to take on the more active role of hero. But thematically Hal's murderous actions surely also presser the need for Bowman's own evolutionary transformation: a necessary advancement it seems, if human beings are to survive in space and compete with the machines they have created.

In the act of murdering of the machine Bowman symbolically also murders his own mechanical nature, we hear no more about Mission Control or collective decision making. We are also not told how long Bowman travels in the deserted ship, all that matters now is that he is alone, a solitary pilgrim on his way to a meeting with the 'Godhead.'

4/Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

Section four is the most enigmatic and deliberately obscure part of the film. It opens with a montage of a universe that is no longer empty, but filled with the celestial splendors of Jupiter and her satellites. There are many visual analogies to birth and religious (notably Catholic) imagery in the styling of the effects shots. The Jovian system is filtered through a diffuse, milky light, as if the planets and Discovery are floating in amniotic fluid and when the sperm-like pod leaves the hold of the phallic Discovery for the last time the Jovian moons align themselves to the vertical like a string of Rosary beads, while a floating monolith folds in and out of the blackness of space to form the horizontal genuflection of a cross.

Bowman enters the 'Stargate,' a phenomenon like a procession of stain glass windows, streaming by him at incredible speeds. We watch his face grimace under the pressure of tremendous acceleration, then blur out of recognition.

There is a merging of Bowman's point of view with the audience's and we pass through galaxies and supernovae, together now as one traveler. We watch star systems form and decay before our eyes, as if millions of years are passing in every second of perceived time. The technique Kubrick utilised to achieve this effect was by photographing chemical reactions on glass slides only a few centimeters across and this use of the very small to represent the infinitely large gives these scene an extra resonance: one of the forms we see is bright red and looks like a fetus another is a retrograde comet or perhaps an external view of the pod itself, but glowing white with a membranous tail it also resembles a sperm, it is as if in the furthest extremities of space, Bowman is seeing snatches of his own gestation in the womb -- premonitions of his forthcoming transformation.

There is a close-up of Bowman's strangely coloured eye, we are now traveling over the surface of a planet. Is it the alien's planet? If so, there is no sign of the presence of any Civilisation. The terrain looks almost earth-like, despite the strange colours splashed over its surfaces. We recognize that we are traveling over discernible deserts, oceans and ice flows, perhaps it is the earth of prehistory, in the throws of its own birth, or a 'race memory' from the dawn of humanity -- the empty deserts and canyons are certainly reminiscent of those in 'The Dawn of Man.'

There is another cut to an extreme close up of Bowman's eye moving through a series of colours, before coming to rest as a normal eyeball. We are now outside Bowman's head. His face shakes uncontrollably: a side effect of his incredibly journey.

We glimpse the exterior of the pod, it has landed in some sort of hotel suite. A white hotel no less! We are in a room styled to be reminiscent of the classical opulence of Louis-seize, but with an underlit floor and bleached out colours that are incongruously ascetic. As well as the Freudian 'womb' interpretations, this room can also be seen as a metaphor for civilisation in the Twenty-First Century.

There now follows a series of strange transformations in which Bowman watches his corporeal body decay before his eyes, while his consciousness is shifted into progressively older versions of himself, time is meaningless here, we could be watching moments or years. The quality of the scene is nightmarish, strange noises punctuate the soundtrack and there are groans and screams as the camera roams about the room past symmetrical Grecian statues and Fragonard-like paintings. When the camera pans around a bathroom there is vaguely hysterical, operatic singing as it passes a bath tub, which seems to undermine any suggestion that these are sounds the aliens are making, but rather played-back snatches of the astronaut's own nightmare. Echoing the space walk scenes earlier in the film, there is also the constant sound of Bowman's breathing through his space suit helmet, lending these scenes an intimacy and subjectivity that verges on claustrophobia: as if we are inside his head with him.

Then a change occurs, the helmet comes off and we see Bowman again from an external perspective. He is an old man now, but has apparently adapted to his environment. He is dressed in elegant clothes and is eating a meal. The mood has changed too, the nightmarish voices are gone, along with the sound of Bowman's breath, now there is only the scraping of cutlery on bone china, echoing in the silence. The ambiance of the room seems more real now as if Bowman is actually there, a prisoner perhaps, or a specimen, but of whom? The aliens, if they are present at all, remain always hidden from view. Nevertheless Bowman seems to have accepted his fate and is no longer experiencing the surroundings as some mental abhorrence, yet the dreamlike logic of the transformation continues.

Finally we see Bowman lying literally on his death bed, the monolith is there too at the foot of the bed. Bowman stretches out his arm in a parody of the 'Birth of Adam' by Michaelangelo and at last, at the moment of death, the epiphany comes and he is reborn, in the form of the 'Starchild,' an entity resembling a baby inside a glowing suggestion of an amniotic sac that hovers above the bed.

To the reprised soundtrack of Also Sprach Zarathustra the camera slowly tracks into the blackness of the monolith, as if it is passing through an open doorway and in the second startling jump-cut of the film we are transported millions of miles, back to our solar system. The opening image of the film is then reprised but with the 'Starchild' taking the place of the Sun and the planets appearing on screen in reverse order. Kubrick's film has now come full circle and we are presented with a new 'holy trinity.' The last shot is of the 'Starchild,' surrounded by a halo of light, it stared benignly and enigmatically into the camera, infant hands held together in a posture of prayer, the screen goes black.

The meaning of Bowman's transformation is not made clear. It is as if Kubrick has shown us three ages of mankind: the brutal early man of the distant past, the civilised yet prosaic man of the near future, and numinous, transmuted man of our religious leanings.

We sense that though some 'divine' and asexual reproduction Bowman has become this vision of 'perfected man.' Reborn as a child of the universe, he has 'evolved' into space, no longer needing the artificial placenta of a space suit.

The impression we are given is that the 'Starchild' is the first of a new species: a Christ-like half human and half god hybrid. Yet the image of Bowman's transformation also confronts us as being unambiguously religious: the 'Starchild' is a holy infant, a wise child bathed in a halo like aura.

There is apparently no ambiguity or irony in this depiction and on an intellectual level, given the film's thesis, this is very puzzling - the undeniably powerful image of the 'Starchild' is seemingly at odds with the tone of rest of the film. But religious experiences are by definition unexplainable and Kubrick forces us to tread the path of the prophet.

The scenes in the Hotel are deliberately disorientating so that our minds are striving to assimilate them when he presents us with the 'Starchild.' In our confusion, its very clear religious significance is lost in a mental gridlock of the higher mind allowing Kubrick access other more restricted areas, where the image resonates with an unspoken power.

The question is why a cerebral film maker should resort to such a technique? 2001 is subtitled 'A Space Odyssey,' and although superficially Bowman's journey does not resemble the journey taken by Odysseus, the Homeric reference does on one level underscore the mythical and heroic aspirations of the finale as well as the grand scale of Kubrick's vision - but also, I would argue that on an emotional level the ending of 2001 is faithful to spirit of the Greek myth, in that it too is a kind of homecoming.

2001 can also be seen an evocation of the spirit of the late sixties. Mankind stood on the threshold of a great adventure, but the hope of nations was very much tethered to the earth by internecine strife, squabbling and fear. Kubrick's 'Space Odyssey' ends with an optimistic image that can be viewed as the apotheosis of the palliative hopes NASA and US Governments tried to imbue.

However it is a conclusion that seems to contradict Kubrick's celebrated "Man is an ignoble savage" pessimism. Possibly the choice of A Clockwork Orange as his next project was in some ways a reactionary one: the opportunity to depict the future world of the earthbound, disenfranchised underclass 2001 left behind. Taken together the two films are like doppelganger twins 'A Clockwork Orange' showing us perhaps a truer picture of the descendants of the violent hominids.

There may be yet another reason for the religious tone at the end of 2001. A final great irony. We never glimpse the aliens throughout the film, all we see of them are their tools. An interesting implication is that this is all they are: just machines - a race of incredibly advanced Hals - this idea echoes a famous tenant of Arthur C. Clarke's personal philosophy: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This conclusion is hinted at, in the depiction of Hal's brain as a collection of monolith-like slabs and its implications are startling, because if one accepts the aliens are machines then it must also follow that by utilising religious rhetoric so un-ambiguously in the film's finale, Kubrick is showing us that our awe, by monotheistic standards, is idolatrous and therefore also arguably inappropriate.

2001 seemingly aims to inspire numinous feelings in its audience living in a godless modern age with a 'dogma' that is, like the Science Fiction genre itself, firmly rooted in the philosophical traditions of the 'Age of Reason.' Unfortunately interpreting the film in this way leads one to conclude that it is philosophically suspect, as religious subjective 'truth' cannot happily co-exist with Darwinian and Einsteinian 'objectivity,' without inherent and intellectually unassailable contradictions creeping in. Ironically though, this negative interpretation can be seen as further justification for the aliens as machines hypothesis, because the philosophical difficulty can be circumnavigated and the film's thesis not only becomes an atheist tract, but a satire on the human religious impulse: there is nothing to worship, the gods are dead, they died a long time ago; murdered in space like the crew of 'Discovery' by the machines they created.

Viewed in this way the epiphany the mysterious aliens offer Bowman is no longer so altruistically one sided. He becomes in fact the offspring of a new symbiosis and Humanity can be credited with having the potential to redeem the aliens as much as they redeem Humanity. As the final shot reprises the film's opening, a circle is closed: savage and sophisticate, user and tool, predator and prey are all joined in one being and it is strongly suggested by the imagery and in the use of Also Sprach Zarathustra on the soundtrack, that in the form of the 'Starchild,' the union of man and machine will be like Nietzsche's 'Superman,' greater than both its parents.

I first saw 2001 when I was thirteen, it was on re-release in the UK to cash in on the success of Star Wars. I was totally captivated by the images but remember as the end credits faded, its contradictory moods and impressions left me haunted, confused but moreover strangely unfulfilled and yet I had this persistent nagging feeling of something important overlooked. 2001 is a film that almost demanded my subsequent attention over the years. Kubrick himself intended it to be "the proverbial good science fiction movie," in my opinion he far exceeded his aim and not just in terms of spectacle and visual coups de cinema; Science Fiction has always been a medium primarily of ideas, it can offer us either hope for the future or serve as a warning against it and 2001 ambitiously attempted to be both a portent and a wish.