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 appears.
        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 phenomenology.
        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 human error.

        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 box-office success.

        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 one.

This selection was written by Robert C. Cumbow.
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