*SPOILER WARNING. PLOT POINTS AND SPOILERS REVEALED IN ARTICLE. READ AT OWN RISK*
I, along with many critics and moviegoers, consider Stanley Kubrick to be a genius and likely the greatest movie director of all time. A lot of his films rank highly in my personal favorite list. It’s impossible to deny the man’s ambition, scope, and perfectionism when it came to his craft. As a result, he created many distinct films that are now considered classics in their respective genre. Film scholars, critics, and your average movie goer are almost unanimous in declaring Kubrick’s sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey his greatest work and among the greatest pieces of film in the history of cinema. Although I personally enjoy A Clockwork Orange and The Shining more, the consensus is understandable. 2001 is another Kubrick piece that I now recognize as an achievement in the fields of visual effects and a highly philosophical think piece that discusses humanity, evolution, and technology among others. It may come to a surprise, then, that I had a very difficult time getting through the film’s deliberately slow, tepid pace.
I required multiple viewing to get through the entirety of the movie. At this point I had already seen and admired A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket, so why was I having a hard time? Why was the film taking as much time as possible to move through its scenes? I was baffled that an entire dialogue-less 20 minute scene was placed at the start of the movie for the Dawn of Man scene. I wanted to turn it off so badly. I figured the rest of the movie would be the same way and I was not wrong. I forgot how long it eventually took me to finish, but it felt like a chore the entire time. Of course, had I maintained my original feeling about the film, I would not be writing this essay discussing its rightful status as a masterpiece. Gradually over time, I began to think more and more about the film. I wanted to like it so bad. I watched YouTube videos and perused forums to determine what I was missing. A whole lot, as it turned out. I failed to see Kubrick’s intentions with the film. I was generally used to conventional storytelling and character development. As I began to look into the themes and purpose of the film, I came to the realization that made me consider the film a personal favorite. The fact was, Kubrick didn’t have any particular interpretations or themes he wanted to get across. He wanted the viewer to come up with their own. Each unique interpretation is equally valid and logical.
So, that’s what I did. I re-watched it a couple of times for reference. I didn’t dissect the film frame by frame. I allowed it to take its time, as it should be allowed to. I eventually decided what 2001 meant to me as a film and as an experience. The focal point of this essay will be what I have come to interpret and dissect the various aspects of the film are. I won’t be discussing the technical achievements, the groundbreaking cinematography, or what I thought about the acting or character development. This is an analytical essay designed to explain my personal interpretations of the film. However, I will be going into big plot points so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t know what happens, I suggest you watch the film first or at least read the Wikipedia article. Both the store and analysis section contain plot points as references for my analysis.
2001: A Space Odyssey is among the most minimalist films I’ve ever seen. There is no dialogue in either the first 20 minutes and last 20 minutes. The opening scene depicts humanoid apes in an apparent war with another tribe of humanoid apes. They are driven away quickly. Out of nowhere, the apes awaken to a strange monolith. They are perplexed and frightened by it. Eventually, one of the apes touches the monolith. At first nothing happens, then we see this ape fiddling with bone. He seems to know how to use it. So do the other apes in his tribe. Utilizing this newfound knowledge, they drive away the enemy tribe and retake control. As the ape raises the bone in triumph, we cut to millions and millions of years later.
We are inside a spaceship in orbit. It is revealed to the characters that a similar monolith as seen with the apes has been detected on the moon. After investigating the monolith, we cut to 18 months later where another monolith has been spotted on Jupiter. A new crew is assembled to journey to the monolith and investigate its meaning and purpose. They are guided by their spaceship’s computer HAL9000. While on the journey, the crew become concerned with HAL’s behavior. HAL lips reads the crewmembers’ conversation and determines human beings are a threat to the mission he is programmed to accomplish. HAL begins to wreak havoc by severing one astronaut’s oxygen pod and severing the life support for many others suspended in orbit. The final remaining astronaut manually forces his way back in and proceeds to manually shut HAL down. HAL attempts to reason with the astronaut, eventually pleading and showing fear before he is finally shut down.
We learn from a video message that there is indeed a monolith on the moon, its purpose and origin completely unknown. The astronaut exits the spaceship in a pod and notices yet another monolith in orbit of Jupiter. He is sucked into a vortex of bizarre amalgamation of colored lights. He is thrown through space while observing strange cosmological phenomenon and unusually colored landscapes.
He ends up in a uniquely designed bedroom alone. There are multiple version of him: a middle-aged version, him dressed in a suit, and finally, him as a noticeably older man. Another monolith appears at the end of his bed, which he gingerly reaches out to touch. In his place is now a large, translucent fetus entombed within a glowing orb. The film ends with the fetus floating in space, silently gazing over the Earth.
Many people, like myself originally, are confused by 2001. The limited plot, dialogue, and focus on character is perplexing for many traditional moviegoers. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself. Certain films need to be dissected to be made sense of. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do here. Through my interpretations of the film, hopefully others are able to gain a grasp on the complexity and intentional ambiguity of the film. I promise I’ll do my best.
A strange, black stoned monolith appears four times in the film. Originally with the ape-humanoids, then on the moon, then orbiting Jupiter, and finally at the end of the final astronaut’s bed. It’s purpose for being where it is and its usage remain unclear to the characters in the film, both ape-men and astronaut. When the ape-men tribe approach and touch the monolith, they seem to be growing in intelligence. After being driven away by a rival tribe, they are able to utilizes bones as tools and effectively as weapons to reclaim their territory. Near the end of the film, the final astronaut is launched into an apparent cosmological vortex filled with bizarre color patterns and strange structures. He ends up in a room where he rapidly grows in age, until the monolith appears for one last time. The astronaut is transformed into some sort of giant space baby floating within a glowing, protective orb. The entity appears at peace as the film ends.
The monolith is, quite simply, a tool of evolution. It’s reason for being there or how it works is not known and makes no difference regardless. We see the ape-men evolve into more intelligent being, and we infer that the next step in evolution for the modern human is represented by the floating space baby. What the next step exactly is serves no relevance to the context of the film. The ape-men are clearly shown to evolve into more intelligent being. With the monolith, humanity can now transcend into its more superior form of existence. 2001 is a film that does not focus on individual characters, or even groups of people. It focus on humanity as a whole. It’s scope is intended to be epic. Different groups of humanity are depicted in the film, separated by millions of years. Each of these facets of humanity are transcended into the next one by the monolith. I believe Kubrick had no intended message to spread to us viewers in this. He simple desired portraying the vast breadth in which we have existed, which we exist now, and where we will exist in a completely different way.
HAL9000 is the primary antagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He is the ship’s supercomputer that controls its functions. He is programmed to complete the mission primarily. When he perceives the astronauts as detrimental to the mission, he begins to go haywire and turn on his crew.
2001 has been widely lauded for its accurate and revolutionary usage of technology and special effects used within the film. Kubrick meticulously ensured the science behind the space travel and related things were as accurate as possible. The models of the spaceships and other technology are considered way ahead of their time and inspired modern technologies such as tablets. HAL9000 is the most advanced piece of technology in the film, yet he is the only one to malfunction. At least, that’s how it appears on the surface.
HAL9000 never betrays his programming in the movie. His primary goal is to accomplish the mission. He perceives his crew as getting in the way of the mission, so he takes action. The way I see it, the .conflict between the human crew and robot HAL is a reflection on human vs technology relationship. However, I don’t believe Kubrick was intending to portray either as sinister. Rather, he wanted to show the role reversal of the two groups. HAL acts more human than any other human character in the film, even showing genuine emotions at the end of his life. Most of the astronaut crew appear stilted and robotic with each other. The meditative pace of the film and the particular focus on day-to-day activities that may seem unnecessary are better characterizations than any dialog could have accomplished.
Existence, Purpose, Realism
I’ve said it once but I’ll say it again. 2001 is an EXTREMELY slow film. It’s running time is roughly 2 hours 20 minutes, with the premiere having been 2 hours 40 minutes. Minutes of screen time are devoted to focus on the very tedious and monotonous process of docking a space ship. The little dialog works to enhance this tediousness. Of course, there is an excellent score playing in the background of most of these scenes. Certainly the mostly classical score of 2001 is one of my favorite aspects of the film. More on that later.
So why does the film take so fucking long to do simple things? Easy. Because that’s how it would be in actual space. AKA, in real life. Docking and walking through building are boring and repetitive. Kubrick wanted very strong realism in his film. Realism in a science fiction movie in space? But we hadn’t even gone to the moon yet? What’s the point of showing us?
That’s exactly the point, in my view. We had no idea was space travel and being on spaceships were like yet. Kubrick floored us with his representation of what it would be like to occupy space outside our planet. He did extensive research in ensuring the most accurate and realistic depiction of how space existence would be. Science fiction works had existed before that. Kubrick wanted to take us away from this typically outlandish tales and bring us back down to Earth (or away from Earth in this case). 2001 is a film that wants to make us think about existence. The film portrays existence as occurring away from our planet. The film characters exist in a universe where going beyond our planet is common and not out of the ordinary. It really makes you consider your existence and the existence of everything else past what you can comprehend. In 1968, people couldn’t comprehend an existence beyond Earth. 2001 tells us that our existence will keep evolving and evolving until who knows when. Now that our views of existence have been increased in scope and reason, what could our new purpose be?
Once again, 2001 is not a film that concerns itself with human beings. It doesn’t concern itself with any particular subset of existing beings. It’s ambition extends past us, never even touching us. We shouldn’t ask ourselves what our new purpose is. We should ask what the purpose of humanity really is. What’s the purpose of constantly evolving beyond our current perception of existence? Kubrick designed 2001 as nearly completely ambiguous on purpose. Here’s what I mean.
No explanations are given for who the ape-men are or any indication to their inner thoughts. They encounter the monolith, they ascend to a higher level of existence, and they are now superior and triumphant over the other tribe. We know this will repeat itself for the rest of eternity (monoliths or not). The astronauts’ journey to Jupiter is met with heavy resistance. HAL does not attempt to sabotage them because he understands the monolith. It just happens. What’s their mission again? To investigate and attempt to discover the purpose and origin of the monolith? Of course they are resisted. We shouldn’t be finding purpose in these monoliths. We are just there to accept them, utilize them, and enjoy them. The monolith (evolution) isn’t concerned with who you are. You are part of humanity. You will be ascending beyond what you currently comprehend. The monolith has no desire to necessarily stop you nor help you. Its origins and purpose remain ambiguous. Humanity is simply meant to ascend up the evolutionary ladder. Again, it is irrelevant why. There is no why. That’s evolution.
2001 is a movie that uses mostly visuals and music to tell its story. Most of the dialog in the film is exposition and/or bears little relevance to the overarching ideas of the film. The main plot involving the Jupiter mission and HAL9000 going haywire is merely a vessel to get us where we need to go. The technology featured in the film is quite impressive and very advanced. I feel that 2001 makes the argument that technology is part of humanity. The bones in the Dawn of Man sequence are utilized as tools after the ape-men touch the monolith. Thus, they evolve from mere bones to useful tools and weapons, their own version of technology. HAL9000 is a piece of technology that seems to be far advanced than the other technology. His ability to read lips, draw his own conclusions, and most importantly, experience emotions are certainly unheard of, even in this film. HAL did not come into contact with any monolith or anything like that. How could he have been in an evolved state?
Think back to the ape-men and their “tools”. The bones themselves were upgraded and utilized only when the ape-men realized they could. In present day, the astronauts have come into contact with the monolith on the moon before the Jupiter mission. Perhaps while not evolving themselves, HAL9000 subsequently evolved past his original programming. Remember how I noted that HAL seemed more humans than the actual humans? Perhaps HAL’s next step on the evolutionary ladder was something a lot more human.
I want to clear up any misconceptions that might arise over my argument in this section. I’m certainly not saying our existences don’t have purpose or that our existence is inherently irrelevant. 2001 is, in my opinion, more concerned with presenting us a broader scope compared with our current existence rather than telling us to philosophically ponder our existence and purpose on a deeper level. Kubrick suggests that humanity will continue to evolve beyond any existence we can comprehend, and that’s how it is supposed to be. More importantly, it is more beneficial. The ape-men thrive with their newfound knowledge. The final astronaut seems content and at peace in his new space baby existence. Kubrick knew he needed to visually show us these themes and ideas rather than some dialog heavy, philosophical discussion. 2001 is a philosophical movie, but not for us to think about ourselves, but more for us to think about everything as a whole. Humanity isn’t necessarily a group of people or a race or multiple races. It’s perception and existence of the universe as we know it.
The film’s slow, deliberate attention to detail and realism shows us a reality in which we should be perceiving. Slow things down, embrace the vastness of what’s around you, both physically and philosophically. We are not insignificant, but we must accept that we must change. To continue growing and succeeding as humanity, we must embrace the unknown and trust it will lead us into an existence on a higher plane than the one we currently embody. Then, just like the film ends, we can peacefully gaze with our new enlightened perception and purpose.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a remarkable achievement in both the science fiction genre and for cinema in general. While I do believe the visual effects, scientific accuracy, and attention to detail are nothing short of revolutionary, I limited mentioning these in my essay for a reason. For me, 2001 is a bold, daring philosophical meditation that came out way ahead of its time. Kubrick had so much to say when either nobody was willing to listen or they weren’t able to understand. Humanity, purpose, and existence will never stop, to put it frankly. Kubrick has inspired me to broaden my scope of perception towards everything around in. I’m not arguing that I believe humanity will all ascend into giant space babies and reach true enlightenment. The film works as a metaphor through its visual story telling and epic grandeur it presents. Embrace the random. Embrace change. Embrace the big picture. Evolve into enlightenment and purpose.