2001: A Space Odyssey left 1968 audiences open-mouthed - as befuddled
by the elusive "meaning" of the film's unconventional narrative as they
were awed at the grandeur of its visual imagery. Many people remarked
on the quasi-religious nature of the film's depiction of an extraterrestrial
force that guides the formation and application of human intelligence.
New York Times critic John Simon called it "a shaggy God story."
Science fiction has arguably always been a metaphor for the intervention
of the divine (or the demonic) into human affairs. But producer-director
Stanley Kubrick and his coscenarist, science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke,
resisted the temptation to "explain" the film's speculations about life,
intelligence, and meaning. Like all of the greatest filmmakers, Kubrick
insisted on letting his images do the work. The most famous of these
is arguably the abrupt cut from the man-ape leader's bone-weapon, turning
in the air, to the long, white, bonelike space liner approaching the space
station - all of human prehistory and history reduced to a single film-splice.
It's a brilliant moment, not only because it compares the bone with the
ship as manifestations of how human intelligence devises tools that are
also weapons, but also because it suggests that, in the four million years
that pass between those two shots, nothing of much importance has happened.
People are still throwing things up in the air and getting no closer to
figuring out the mysteries of the universe.
Well - maybe a little closer. After all, they are about to
be favored with another visitation like the one that prompted the apelike
ancestors of humankind to take their first fumbling steps toward technological
supremacy. 2001 took its cue from "The Sentinel," a simple,
beautiful, and haunting short story by Clarke premised on the notion that
an older, more intelligent race than ours would leave an artifact planted,
not on Earth, but on the moon, so that we would discover it only when our
intelligence and technology had advanced to the point where we were ready
for the stars. In the world of 2001, the simple prehistoric
act of using a bone as a hammer has led to a vast technological arsenal,
which Kubrick celebrates in the long, leisurely montages that depict the
graceful descent of the Orion to dock at the space station and the
subsequent transport down to the lunar surface. That slowness of
pace is a hallmark of Kubrick's style - he has always been willing to risk
being considered "boring" - and in 2001 it contrasts sharply, and
satisfyingly, with the abruptness with which things change when the monolith
The notion that change takes place slowly and gradually, over an agonizingly
long period of time, is consonant with the evolutionary theory of Darwin,
which stood the Victorian world on its ear and continues to challenge and
provoke science and theology alike. But 2001 dares to suggest
that maybe change takes place suddenly, not gradually. ("Stasis followed
by sudden replacement is the way evolution ought to work," said
scientific author Stephen Jay Gould in a 1977 interview.) And, further,
that change occurs because of the intervening hand of - something
(call it God or not, as you wish). This view may not rest happily
with Darwinian evolution, but it is a perfect view to be adopted by a filmmaker.
For in the technology of film, change always comes abruptly. First
there is one picture, then there is another, different one.
Our minds fill in the spaces in between, make them imperceptible, and create
the illusion of movement. But in fact, change is occurring in a series
of jumps, not in a slow and gradual flow. That's the underlying
phenomenology of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it is a filmmaker's
Born filmmaker that he is, Kubrick never lets us forget that flying bone.
It's echoed not only in the ship descending toward the space station but
also in the pen that has floated out of the sleeping Dr. Floyd's hand and
hovers in the weightlessness of the ship's cabin; in the shape of the space
vessel Discovery, the complex ship created to undertake the Jupiter
mission; and, at the climax of the film, in the stem of the wine goblet
that has shattered against the floor of the 18th century room where Bowman
dies and is reborn.
That broken glass is arguably the second most important image in the film
- and certainly the most discussed. Recalling the broken glass of
the Judaic marriage ceremony, it symbolizes the end of one way of life
and the beginning of a new one - exactly what seems to be in store for
David Bowman. But it is also a reminder of the persistence of human
error. If Bowman is in fact being not only observed but worked
on by an extraterrestrial, superhuman intelligence in those last moments
of 2001, he is not yet perfect, but still "human, all too human"
- the phrase Nietzsche used to describe human beings before the coming
of the superman in his book Also Sprach Zarathustra (the book on
which Richard Strauss based the tone poem whose opening measures, not accidentally,
became 2001's triumphal fanfare). That broken glass, even
near the very end of the film, reminds is of the words of Hal in the first
stages of his deterioration: "This sort of thing
has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error."
It is much remarked on - and rightly so - that Hal, a machine, remains
the most human and sympathetic character in 2001. Even after
he has methodically killed four of the five members of the mission crew,
and attempted to consign Bowman to the emptiness of space for the sake
of preserving the mission's integrity, we still like Hal; when he
pleads with Bowman for his life ("Will you stop,
Dave? ... My mind is going. I can feel it... I'm afraid.")
we feel sorry for the guy - a sorrow we never feel for the murdered
scientists, or even for Poole, though we have shared with him the intimacy
of a "Happy Birthday" message from his family. The fact is that 2001:
A Space Odyssey epitomizes, and harmonizes, two of the great themes
of science fiction: the mechanization of the human and the humanization
of the machine (the copulating jets of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove Or:
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb are the grandparents
of HAL-9000). Both Kubrick and his critics have frequently remarked
that the human characters in the film are dull and mechanical, devoid of
humor and spontaneity, while Hal, for all his mechanistic implacability,
is likable and sympathetic. When the human beings in the film err,
we expect no more of them; when Hal errs, we are profoundly touched by
his shattering recognition of his own limitations - due, of course, to
As it turns out, of course, humanity defeats the merely mechanical, notwithstanding
the fact that Hal seems more human to us. Bowman can't beat Hal at
chess, but he is able to outwit the computer in finding a way to get himself
back into the ship; and once aboard, he is single-minded in his destruction
of Hal's memory banks and higher brain function, undissuaded by the most
plaintive pleas and unmoved by the reduction of Hal's sophisticated systems
to the level of a mere electronic trick, the singing of "Daisy,
Daisy." Is it this Dave Bowman who finally has the makings of
the superman? It is, apparently, he who has at least been chosen
by this race of superhuman intelligences to receive the gift (if it is
a gift) of taking the next step, of progressing as far beyond the merely
human as humans progressed beyond those pithecanthropi quarreling over
a water hole.
Though it is never spelled out in the finished film, those rooms in which
Bowman spends his last days are part of a zoo, or a laboratory, in which
extraterrestrials study Bowman and work on the next transforming step in
the life-form that is their plaything. Bowman seems to have moved
out of time, seeing himself at various stages of life, seeing his own life
move by in mere moments. But it is not clear whether he is actually
seeing himself, one Bowman at many times, or is seeing other "Bowmans"
or other (failed) attempts to make a "new Bowman." What matters,
though, is that Bowman (whose name means "archer," the arrow being yet
another weapon that descended from that tossed bone), after reaching out
to the monolith, undergoes some sort of a reconstruction and emerges transformed,
like that other archer of old, Odysseus, whose long journey home to Ithaca
gave our language the word that Kubrick adopted for the film's title.
Science-fiction films have historically provided us with cautionary fables:
this is what we might come to, yet we need not, if we correct the errors
of our ways. Few films in the genre look with confidence and hope
upon the future our species is building for itself. 2001 seemed
to offer a positive vision: It does all mean something; there is
a power that shapes our ends; and we are destined for new achievements.
This sort of thing spoke well to the generation that looked for the dawning
of the Age of Aquarius and went searching for ancient astronauts in its
quest for meaningful cultural and religious roots. In fact, the reputation
of the film's last section as a psychedelic "head trip" a la the light
shows and underground movies of the era had much to do with the movie's
But the superhuman shares with the subhuman the quality of being not
human, and the idea of a superman has always been most readily embraced
not by those who hold great hope for humanity but by those most disillusioned
with it. Moreover, far from heralding the coming of a superman in
Nietzchean terms, as the use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" might imply,
2001 espouses the distinctly unromantic notion that all is not
within, that we are determined as much by absolute exterior forces
as by our own predisposition and will. Whatever the extraterrestrial
superintelligences have made of Bowman, he is not the savior of the human
race. "The planet Earth with all its peoples," writes Arthur C. Clarke
in the novel version of the film's screenplay, was "a glittering toy no
Star-Child could resist." The Bowman-Star-Child "put forth his will"
and detonated a multimegaton orbiting nuclear weapon; then "he waited,
marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers.
For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do
next. But he would think of something."
The transformation at the end of 2001 is not necessarily an optimistic
This selection was
written by Robert C. Cumbow.
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