“Twentieth-century art may start with nothing, but it flourishes by virtue of its belief in itself, in the possibility of control over what seems essentially uncontrollable, in the coherence of the inchoate, and in its ability to create its own values.”
T. S. Eliot
o torture a cliché, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an exploration of the Human Condition—or, more appropriately, as I intend to argue, the Human Predisposition. It is, at its simplest, a road-trip movie. But there is no intended destination or conceivable measure of success: like gap-year students parading aimlessly around South-East Asia, everything is concerned with the journey itself. Kubrick’s characters are in pursuit of themselves—their own purpose and meaning, as individuals and as part of the collective. Bound up with all this is the concept of wisdom—perhaps even Enlightenment.
2001 demonstrates a “world” dominated by a species that has sacrificed wisdom for knowledge. Despite fantastical delusions of grandeur, science remains a primitive drive to understanding. Paradoxically enough, “science” is presented as “ignorance,” the pursuit of question-less answers.
We assume that the elusive “truth” is concealed somewhere in the darkness of space. Its vastness reminds us of how little we know, and how little we are destined ever to know. No matter how high-tech or self-assured we become, we remain transient and fragile in comparison to the infinity of space. By evoking the sublime, Kubrick forever reminds us of mankind’s limitations. The act of searching is futile because we do not (and perhaps never can) understand what it is we are looking for.
This is why Kubrick places such great thematic emphasis on the concept of immaturity. We see it in the laborious movements of the spacecraft; we see it in the clumsy footsteps of the flight-hostess and in the inexperience of Bowman (floating food, space-toilets, and so on). The station interiors are startlingly white, a color connotative of innocence and placed in direct contrast to the omniscient blackness of space. And of course, innocence underpins 2001’s most poignant image: the embryonic “Starchild,” which stands for humanity’s relative youth and downplays the script’s enormous traversal of time.
The film’s opening minutes are occupied by a blank screen—literally nothing. After a sizable wait, we are introduced to a sunrise, a traditional signifier of new beginnings (indeed, “the Dawn of Man”). The emptiness of the introduction alludes to the relative brevity of Mankind. Infinity is, after all, a very, very long time, and the Universe has done a great deal of existing before we arrived on the scene. The celebrated cut between the bone and the spaceship is a temporal manipulation that augments this idea, belittling the plight of 70,000 years or more, and concisely affirming that all our progress is but an attempt to dominate a “nature” whose meaning or purpose we may never understand.
The “Dawn of Man” sequence shows the ascent of Man to the top of the food chain. At first, Kubrick establishes Man as a herbivore, poking and stirring unyielding dust for nourishment. They form an egalitarian society with a group of boars; scattered about them are the bones of the starved, simultaneously a symbol of imminent death and, ironically, the means of Man’s salvation. To make matters worse, Man is prey to wild beasts. The cheetah keeps watch from a rocky peak, an elevation that connotes its position in the food chain; after Man’s eventual triumph, the cheetah is absent from this platform.
The Monolith appears three times in the film, each time preceding a technological and narrative advancement. It is an enigmatic object—that is for certain—but, further to that, it symbolises enigma itself. The human need for explanation is what drives discovery and progression. The Monolith is the objectification of this need, and the characters who share screen-space with it are drawn instinctively to it.
The film plays upon this fact, in effect tricking the audience into complicity. The image is never explained yet we seek endlessly to explain it—it is, must be, the missing piece to the puzzle. There a deliberate lack of artistic subtlety. The monolith is ostensibly “placed” and modern audiences expect such arrangements to be, in some way, meaningful. The characters’ misplaced faith in the “laws” of science is paralleled by the moviegoers’ misplaced faith in “laws” of the cinema. This device is particularly important in understanding the ending of 2001.
Yet the Monolith is not a creation of transient man. A popular interpretation is that it indicates extra-terrestrial life. I disagree, for within the diegesis of this film there is little to support the notion of alien intervention. The attribution is more likely to God, or, if you don’t lean that way, to Mother Nature. In the context of the Monolith’s first appearance, it is a quirk of evolution. Then again, you would not be mistaken to consider either God or Mother Nature as precisely an extra-terrestrial life, whose alien intervention both religion and science posit as the starting point for all life on this planet (and only this planet, so far as we know). The film allows us to choose our preferred metaphor; it doesn’t actually matter what we call it: the story is the same.
Indeed, the dimensions of the Monolith resemble those of a door, as though the characters path is being dictated. Kubrick, however, never casts doubt upon his characters’ self-determination or free-will. Linking the ages, the Monolith is perhaps presented as a sturdy, constant constituent of the human condition—something that speaks to the human spirit and distinguishes us from our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom.
The monkeys’ engagement with this enigma (or rather, their engagement with enigma) instigates the first technological leap: the formation of a tool that irreversibly alters their circumstances. It is their inquisitiveness, on all levels, that initiates the change.
Worth pondering is that their curiosity leads to tool-building, and that their tools are immediately put to use as weapons of violence and domination. From Heraclitus’ declaration that “war is the father of all things” to McLuhan’s insight that “war is nothing but rapid technological change,” the theme is at least consistent throughout recorded history. From longbows at Agincourt to stealth bombers over Baghdad, man’s use of tools nearly always results in the haves taking military advantage over the have-nots.
Interestingly, the cut that links “past” and “future” draws attention to the similarity of the airborne objects: they are both bone-shaped. They are both death. Despite all the “advancement” achieved between the images, humans are still the same. We’re just not as hairy. After all, we still measure our hours, days, weeks, and years according to the movements of big rocks in an unfathomable abyss. We still barter with pebbles, and members of our societies still kill for them. The Stone Age never really ended, no matter how you dress us up.
It’s almost as if that jubilant bone, the first step of the journey, just kept floating away. Later in the film the exploratory spacecraft, aptly named Discovery, is forever lost. Discovery alone can only take us so far; discovery alone is blind and aimless. Despite verbal assurances to the contrary, the mise-en-scene continues to depict human control as an illusion—and its tools as fallible.
So yes, the bone and the ship are both tools. Our tools elevate our potential for achievement—they are science solidified. But although we can possess and use them, we don’t actually hold their power ourselves—it doesn’t belong to us. Regardless of “how far” we have come, merely remove the tool and we are again nothing more than impotent herbivorous monkeys. How much effort it takes to survive in space! How bulky and awkward is the equipment sustaining us minute to minute! Pathetic!
2001 therefore abolishes the notion of progression and advancement. These are empty terms, symptomatic of Man’s desire to impose order on chaos. Delusional, aren’t we? Or, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “all our advancements are but improved means to unimproved ends.”
As Bowman probes the most distant boundaries of conceivable achievement, he hits a threshold. HAL personifies the science/ignorance conflict. His character parallels Man’s arrogance, placing absolute and obstinate faith in both his abilities and in empirical science. He is, of course, an obstacle in the literal sense—he stands between the crew and their “objective”; more importantly, however, he is an obstacle in the allegorical sense that this element of human nature must be circumvented if we are to ever achieve enlightenment. Indeed, as HAL’s memory-core is shut down, he is left babbling like an infant. His was knowledge unsupported by wisdom; his was knowledge unearned.
Despite these failings, HAL can be considered the facilitatory tool: the space-bone. Without HAL, the astronauts seem naked, alone. Man’s use of science entirely supports its endeavor, and without these: nothing. Herein lies a warning. Knowledge may seem to speed up man’s Great Journey, but there is no substitute for understanding or wisdom. This is most audibly articulated by HAL’s termination of the dormant crew. The tool must belong, it cannot be borrowed.
Having overcome HAL (and unencumbered, then, by a mindless preoccupation with advancement), Bowman is confronted by the Monolith. The experience is followed by man’s journey “beyond the infinite”, by far the film’s (perhaps any film’s) most contested segment.
Before thinking about what we actually see from this point on, let us think about the language: “Beyond the infinite.” Within the discourse of the film, the infinite is all-encompassing—the mighty unsurpassable. It is everything we have ever known, and more than we can ever hope to know. It is the sublime; to transcend the “infinite” is to exist outside of existence itself.
The phraseology here compliments an increasingly nihilistic discourse within the film, a theme that is later picked up in Toy Story by Buzz Lightyear, who wishes to go “to infinity and beyond!” So 2001 refutes the very notion of progress or advancement; these terms imply a discernable beginning and end. It would suggest that there is an ultimate technological “goal”—that individual “future” inventions and discoveries are inevitable, waiting merely for the light of day. Kubrick, through the symbolism of the flying bone (in its various guises), likens the monkeys at the “Dawn of Man” to the human characters across the universe. There is equality throughout the ages.
If the infinite is endless and beginning-less, in order for the film to reach any conclusion we have to step “beyond.” Is Bowman dead? Well, in terms of plot, yes: unequivocally. He is lost in space, with no means of rescue and with no oxygen. He has been reduced to his base, powerless state; he is an impotent monkey. But to read the film’s climax in such a literal way would be a disservice to this ultimate trip, this allegorical fable of the species that made and continues to be enthralled by the film.
Form, here, matches content. If science is a futile attempt to impose “order on chaos,” then we see this futility mirrored in our attempts to impose narrative convention.
We naturally try to make sense of the pretty colors in the same way we do any other piece of imagery. We continue to seek the “key” because as human beings we want to compartmentalise our experience—reduce its enormity, render it safe. Exposed to the full electromagnetic spectrum, we prefer to see only the seven colors of Roy G Biv; it is a necessity for survival. The film wishes us, despite our biological limitations, to see more than that.
Despite our tremendous experience as spectators, we lack the means to understand this sequence in the same way that Bowman’s tremendous experience as scientist leaves him ill-equipped to understand the complexities of the universe. We simply lack the tools.
Kubrick, then, is operating on the symbolic level alone. The cinematic norms of causality, time, and space do not apply, and any attempt to apply them will simply confuse matters further.
Bowman appears to be incarcerated. The props and dressing are familiar objects, but seem distinctively artificial; this effect is, in part, produced by the awkward juxtaposition of the room and the preceding flight—not to mention the complete lack of context. Now captive, he is unable to aimlessly progress. He is forced to muse. Perhaps understanding is as likely to occur in a banal environment as it is inside a laboratory, or in a space-craft.
We witness the character observing his own rapid aging, emphasizing his fragility, brevity, and transcendent state of mind. His countenance now provides a satisfactory contrast with the core theme of innocence. Keir Dullea’s acting also suggests his character is approaching wisdom; he pauses for thought as a wine glass shatters on the ground—presented by Kubrick as a symbol of the frailty not only of life but of Man’s delusions.
The etched-crystal is a stand-in for civilization as a whole, for its relative trivialities: our social mythology, structures, and metanarratives are but a flimsy abstraction at best, splintered by the slightest waver. Closer scrutiny consolidates such a reading: the set is filled with marble statues and Renaissance paintings—references to that great zenith of civilization. Our hero is trapped by these, claustrophobic—it is as if a blinkered outlook has isolated man from the vast expanses beyond. Indeed, the stylized white lighting again draws attention to itself. Mankind cannot see beyond its misplaced priorities or its arrogance.
Contrast the set with those psychedelic landscapes on Bowman’s approach. And compare the set floor with the building as a whole: it is like a house built on sand, a stubborn denial.
On his deathbed, Bowman raises an accusing finger at the monolith, indicating his realization of the folly of humankind. He has achieved the understanding that has eluded his ilk. The monolith resembles a door—an exit; he passes though, becoming the “Starchild.”
Whereas some have described this as the realisation of enlightenment, perhaps in the Buddhist sense, it must be remembered that Buddhist enlightenment marks the end of reincarnation. In the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, this is precisely the implication: the Starchild gazes toward earth, and with a conscious act of his will, detonates every nuclear device on the planet. By human choice, as opposed to some judgment of God (such as Noah’s flood), mankind forces his own evolution into the realm of pure spirit. It is water from the sky or fire from the earth, a nice reversal of the traditional.
While Clarke saw this annihilation as perhaps the ultimate form of human progress and purification, you can imagine why this scene never made it into a film released in 1968. There are shades of the idea in Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus in The Matrix when he says “you humans are a plague, and we [A.I.] are the cure.” If nothing else, the Starchild is a symbol of man’s relative youth and innocence and a reminder of the ancestral (or cyclic) accumulation of knowledge.
One imagines that Clarke was raised on T. S. Eliot’s poetry, for the Starchild is nothing if not the cinematic confirmation that “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” At the conclusion of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, Meryl Streep’s character ends her tragedy by whimpering: “I want to be a baby.” It is perhaps part of the meaning of Jesus’ saying, “you must be born again.”
Alternatively, you could say that the spectator is confronted with humanity stripped to its essence—a warmer image than that of cold science and its blind march. An embryonic miracle, a miracle repeated generation after generation. A most rudimentary thing, the beauty of which science and technology can never hope to imitate, let alone match. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “It is only when a child is born that we can truly say there is something new in the world.”
Floating happily and mysteriously in orbit, eyes wide open with wonder, the Starchild reminds us of the need to sit back and appreciate the incomprehensible for what it is.