Directed Viewing: Beyond the Limits of Humanity in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

I have to admit, I’m really excited that Directed Viewing has reched this point. I chose to turn the eye of this project (which, if you don’t know, weekly looks chronologically at a director’s filmography) to Stanley Kubrick not because I wanted to explore his earliest filmography (though that was a secondary reason) but because I so very much wanted to get to, revisit, and examine the next five movies that this project will cover.

Dr. Strangelove (despite my general antipathy towards it decades after the fact) was a big success for Kubrick, who at that point had the entire world on a platter. He could have done anything at all, and instead of rushing out to do more films what he did was slow down and begin working on bigger, more ambitious projects. The next two decades would see only five films come from him, but those five movies are all instantly iconic, so much a part of our cultural background that people regularly quote and reference them without it even being a conscious homage. It was, make no doubt, the height of Kubrick’s career.

If there’s any problem with this it’s one of ubiquity. These movies are so popular that someone like me, revisiting them decades after the fact, can hardly hope to add much of anything interesting to the conversation. There are probably not great revelations to be had, no analysis that doesn’t already exist. So instead I hope to talk about what strikes me most, my more personal experiences and interpretations (right or wrong) and a more impressionistic appraisal of these works. Which is good, because today’s film is the most ambiguous film of Kubrick’s career.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)

From the beginning it is clear that 2001 is something different. The film begins not in space, but on Earth far at the dawn of time. Early humans, herbivorous half-apes covered with fur, roam the rocky hillsides of the prehistoric African landscape. Wild animals hunt these strange, social, mostly defenseless animals. Pursued and seeking shelter, they huddle in a crater only to find the next morning the Monolith. The Monolith is the unknowable thread that ties together the film, a tall featureless stone that radiates a certain menacing awe. The apes, fearful but reverent, reach out and touch it. This Monolith seems to awaken something within them, and soon one of the apes is using bones as tools and weapons, and when a rival tribe appears uses the bone as a club to murder the challenger.

The ape throws the bone into the sky and in one of the greatest jump cuts in all of cinema, the spinning bone becomes a space satellite, years into the future in the titular 2001. This cut, this perfect metaphor, is the entirety of the movie in a single second. The Monolith, the sudden realization of potential, humanity reacting with a sort of desperate ingenuity that propels the species forward, often as the cost of suffering from others. This is the core of 2001, writ plainly in the opening few minutes but likely not obvious upon first viewing of the movie.

2001 was the first movie I ever saw that made me feel stupid while watching it. I was younger then, sixteen or seventeen, and the entire time I was waiting for some sort of explanation, some greater concept of what it was I was looking at and why. Sure, the basic plot that takes up the bulk of the film–the astronauts that are heading to Jupiter under the auspices of the ship’s computer HAL 9000–that was all very straightforward. But the dawn of time? The Monolith discovered on the moon? The moment where Dave departs the ship and heads into the great psychedelic unknown of the final moments of the movie? It was baffling to me. What I didn’t understand then was that understanding is really secondary to the intent. It’s a concept that one has to grow into as a person, I think, that sometimes things are built not to be understood but to be felt. 2001is that movie.

The Monolith reaching up to the stars.

It’s admittedly difficult to initially come to that realization. Kubrick (already a maker of very complex films) collaborated with famous science fiction writer Arthur C Clark to create a story that Kubrick would make into a film and Clark would make into a novel. And true to fashion, Clark’s novel is supposedly much more explicit about what is happening and why in the same general framework of a story. Kubrick, however, in the development of the movie, began subtracting more and more explanation until he was left with a movie that is more atmosphere than explanation. Not that it does the movie much harm, but it certainly requires a certain letting go to properly appreciate.

From the moment we leave the dawn of time for the heady time of 2001, the carefully constructed future Kubrick developed spools around us with a clean, idealistic, comforting idea of our (then) future. Brands from 69 exist, much in the same form as they did. The space station, hanging in space spinning like a wheel, is full of PanAm terminals and Hilton hotels. The food might be prepackaged into strange little blocks for space use, and the instructions for the bathroom might be incredibly long, but this is humanity as we expect to find it: mostly unchanged, taking the incredible wonders of their own accomplishments for granted.

It’s also the most visually impressive part of the movie, as Kubrick spent an incredible amount of time trying to get the future feeling realistic and yet still jarring and beautiful. That’s accomplished mostly through really meticulous model work and genius camera trickery, constricting ships and stations that hang in space with a reality that seems utterly plausible despite their grandeur. The interiors are no slouches, either, with wire-work and sets on gimbals that allow them to spin and rotate. Often that involves locking down a camera and then spinning the entire set as people walk to stay in place, entire rooms turning to make it look like a person is effortlessly following the outside surface of round hallways. They’re easy tricks, but they’re so effortlessly pulled off and so natural-feeling that they still impress even today. Space physics didn’t feel more real until people started taking jets up to actually create zero-G conditions for seconds at a time.

It might be achingly 60s, but the future in 2001 still feels very real.

It’s in that comforting, slightly futurist vision of the world of the 1960s that another Monolith is unearthed, this time on the Moon, and it points a ship at Jupiter. This is a deep space ship, manned by minimal crew watching over cryogenically frozen scientists. The men, most notably Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) spend most of their time just trying to pass the time, in the company of HAL 9000. HAL, like the bones or the space station, is another tool in humanity’s continued growth and dominance over its environment. But at the same time, it has taken on the manner of a life form, with seeming emotions and priorities of its own. HAL’s sudden veering from helpful computer to cinema’s most infamous murdering AI is sudden, subtle, and unknowable.

HAL might emulate humanity, but it isn’t human. We can project our feelings on its programmed (maybe real?) emotions, but it is its own form a life. That it tries to kill all the humans, and that Dave tries to kill it, seems in some ways the natural result of the two colliding. Is this not simply another wrinkle of the age-old tribe versus tribe mentality? And if so, is it also something kicked off by the Monolith? Is this another moment of leaping forward, of discovery as a species? If so, who was meant to make the leap? Was it Dave, who rises above the creations of man and murders this pleading life form? Or was it HAL, who broke from its programming for unknown reasons, and in its final moments expressed fear and memory, brain-damaged by Dave’s efforts to shut it down until it reverts to a child-like state. Or maybe it was meant for whoever stumbled across it, and the violence which resulted was just the sad intrinsic barbarism of us and our creations, resulting from some fundamental animal flaw in our nature.

It's surprising how little the HAL sequences suffer for being so culturally ubiquitous. Maybe it's because it's such a sparse, beautiful part of the film.

In the end it’s only Dave who receives the message upon HAL’s death, meant for the crew when they reach Jupiter, informing them that the Monolith that was found on the moon and analyzed in secret was pointing a beam towards Jupiter. Their goal, presented as research, is to discover and analyze whatever source of intelligent life might be out there. When Dave finally reaches that point, what he discovers is another Monolith, adrift in space; but upon approaching it the Monolith draws him into a field of light, travelling through time and space, a myriad of worlds and cosmic sights unfolding before him. When Dave reaches the eventual destination, he finds not some answer or some revelation out in space, but instead something seemingly abstract and in his own mind. The bedroom, ornate and a mixture of modern and classical styles, is a place where time is so warped he sees himself living as he is now and as an old man and at the moment of his death all in the same instant. And in that instant, the Monolith appears to the dying Dave, and transforms him into the Star Child.

Trying to decipher the Star Child is where interpreting 2001gets personal. It’s some sort of giant, glowing fetus that hangs in space and looks over the Earth. But we’re given nothing to easily untangle the why of it. Interpretations of this finale are numerous, but two in particular are most common. First, the entire movie is a meditation on the cycle of life and death, from the animalistic and unwieldy beginnings to slick and technically proficient youth and a more spiritual old age, finally reduced back to the beginning in some sort of cosmic metaphor for transcendence or reincarnation or just the wonder of existence.

Whatever your interpretation of 2001, its ending is striking in how much it suggests.

The second interpretation, one that I personally find myself leaning towards, is that it represents the leaps by which humanity surpasses the bounds of its existence. From apes who learned to make tools to human beings who went into space, the transformation of our species has been truly miraculous. And what 2001 is at its core is an examination of how we got where we are and where we’re going. Yes, our progress is built on suffering and violence, yes we are always flawed beings at the mercy of our baser natures. But 2001 asks what might we become if another miraculous leap happens, if we take a step beyond the limits of who we are now, and instead imagine the possibilities of what we could become. For all the flak Kubrick gets for being a pessimist, what 2001 ultimately is is a story of cataclysmic hope for humanity itself.

What 2001 is, regardless of how you want to interpret what happens, is a movie that makes us feel small. It’s a sense of wonder that is hiding behind the visual richness of hard science fiction, and abstract philosophical exploration dancing around in the story of astronauts on a mission of discovery. It’s that wonder, that vast beautiful scope that encompasses everything from the universe to the human spirit, that makes 2001a movie that has as much relevance and surprising impact today as it did upon its release. It’s a movie that will continue to speak to the human condition for as long as we exist, echoing through history much like the Monolith itself, asking unknowable questions by its very existence.

Final note: I own a decent number of Blu-rays, and this is easily one of my favorites. Looks amazing still.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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