2001: A Space Odyssey Uncovering the intelligence from what may appear to be an unintelligible text

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 16, Issue 3 / March 2012 10 minutes (2492 words)

“There’s something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas, and allegories.”

Stanley Kubrick [1]

2001 is often mistakenly thought of as being a dream like film, better experienced than understood, which is purposefully unintelligible. I think this is to devalue both the film and Kubrick’s intellect, which is second to none in the history of filmmaking. The film covers themes so broad that it acts as a philosophical discourse in epistemology, a psychoanalytic study of the trade offs in the creation of human civilisation and culture, and a thoughtful examination of the repercussions of our realisation of our own mortality, or indeed our refusal of this realisation. I do not pretend to have uncovered everything that 2001 has to offer, not at all. Rather I suggest that serious engagement with the content will allow viewers to realise that the film is a clear and conscious creation of a mature worldview which, whilst highly symbolic, is far from being a purely experiential trip lacking in meaning and coherence. It is an open text but one which does not allow for simplistic interpretations to explain fully the film. As to whether great art has to be so opaque, I might argue that this does not necessarily need to be the case – look at Shakespeare and how lucid he is. However, Kubrick uses the medium of film like almost no other to create meaning. In his films form and content coalesce. In his own words, “Even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001 would, if presented as abstractions, fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intellectual categories; experienced in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibre’s of ones being.” [2] So, against Kubrick’s stated wishes, this is an attempt to demystify but not devalue one of the great accomplishments of the cinema.

The Dawn of Man:

“The dead know only one thing, it is better to be alive”

Private Joker, Full Metal Jacket [3]

The film starts by showing the living conditions of our pre-human ancestors (presumably in Africa). The film depicts a very high stress environment for these pre-humans as they struggle for dominance over their environment. They feed on vegetation and come into conflict with other animals (hogs). They also come into conflict with other tribes as they compete for resources (ownership of a water site) and they even compete within the tribe. Furthermore they are prey for other wildlife, we see one attacked by a leopard and killed for food.

The emergence of a monolith at dawn one morning scares and excites them and leads to the realisation by the tribe that they can use objects in their environment as tools, in this case recycling a bone of a dead hog for use as a weapon, which serves both as a tool with which to kill hogs for their meat, increasing their diet from just vegetation to high protein meat, and as a tool with which they can establish physical dominance over competing tribes, asserting unequivocally their ownership of the water site.

Rather than trying to develop ever more complicated theories about what the monolith represents which cannot be supported by the text itself, why do we not just admit that we do not know? Indeed, this leads us to the realisation that the monolith is best understood as exactly this – it represents that which we do not understand, that which we do not know and have not been able to find adequate meaning for. It is a desire for understanding which the monolith sparks in the pre-humans who encounter it and which drives them to new theories about the world around them. Rather than learning through repetition, which is what they had done up until then, and is a key motif in the film, the monolith inspires, nay demands, an evolution in their way of thinking.

In one of the most celebrated cuts in the history of cinema we see the lead ape rejoice in his killing of the leader of a competing tribe and his victory over them by hurling his weapon, the bone that he turned into a tool, into the air – at which point Kubrick cuts across millennia to show a spaceship, occupying the same screen space as the bone, travelling through space, the cut capturing beautifully the development of men and their tools.

TMA-1:

I have always enjoyed dealing with a slightly surrealistic situation and presenting it in a realistic manner. I’ve always liked fairy tales and myths, magical stories. I think they are somehow closer to the sense of reality one feels today than the equally stylized “realistic” story in which a great deal of selectivity and omission has to occur in order to preserve its “realist” style.

Stanley Kubrick [4]

We pick up the story of Dr Heywood Floyd who journeys from Earth to a space station and then onto the moon where he meets with colleagues who have discovered a monolith, seemingly deliberately buried millennia ago. The organisation he works for has created a cover story surrounding these events to keep the discovery secret until further research can be conducted.

During this whole section of the film we see that Kubrick emphasises the sublimation process that has taken place in order for humans to have created their technology and culture. Human-interaction is unemotional, robotic and sterile, but the technology they have created plays out the sexual drives that have been transferred to them in order to allow for their creation. The space ships conduct a romantic seduction, dancing to the Blue Danube and the Waltz, consummating the process as phallic shaped spacecraft enter oval shaped space stations which open up to let them in.

This overt symbolism has been used for exactly the same purpose by Kubrick before in Dr Strangelove where the planes refuel mid-air as a clear analogy to sexual intercourse and again the meaning is the same – humans cede their sexual impulses to the culture and technology they create, and in the process become dominated by these structures, thereby limiting their own freedom.

Kubrick’s film suggests that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this sublimation process. Human conflict in the space age takes the form of discussion which is both assertive and evasive, but this passive aggressive discourse avoids the deadly violence of the dawn of man. Interestingly Kubrick foresees the resolution of the cold-war in 2001, with Dr Heywood Floyd conversing with the Russian scientists Elena and Smyslov, discussing coming to visit them when back on Earth, implying no overwhelming political conflict exists between their countries and giving an appearance of a globalised and internationalised culture on Earth. However, this conflict, now in the form of discussion, is not resolved in the space age. Dr Heywood Floyd avoids answering Smyslov’s questions. He limits the debate when at the moon station about potential disagreement about how to deal with the cover up. These aggressive instincts have been suppressed and repressed, creating further sterility in human interaction, and this drive towards conflict and violence have also been transferred from man to man-made tools. In a word – HAL.

Jupiter Mission:

If man merely sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should he bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space? Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomie… The world’s religions, for all their parochialism, did supply a kind of consolation for this great ache.

Stanley Kubrick [5]

The sublimation of human drives renders HAL with seemingly human characteristics, feelings and instincts but this process leaves humans devoid of emotional interaction. Think of the lack of engagement with which Frank Poole receives a Happy Birthday message from his parents, which in turn recalls Dr Heywood Floyd’s algorithmic birthday greeting to his daughter whilst on the space station, or the representation of eating in which contrast between the pre-humans in The Dawn of Man, as they joyously tear into their food, and the functional mastication of pastes of the space age men show that even pleasure in the basic human needs has been forgone. It is interesting that the pleasure seems to be reclaimed on Jupiter when Bowman, as an old man, is able to enjoy a proper meal. The humans, having transferred their natures, egos and drives to their tools, come to be ruled by their creation. HAL’s deception and attack upon the crew is implied to come from his human characteristics, his ego, rather than from a computer driven logic.

The battle that Bowman undertakes with HAL can be read as a battle by man to recover ownership of human agency and self definition from the machinery and structures he has built, whose construction required his inhibition and whose existence now rules him.

Man starts his symbolic re-birth by entering the electronic womb/brain to wipe HAL of its memory and shut it down. HAL resists but eventually dies, displaying its ‘humanity’ as it does so by singing a children’s song, Daisy Bell. As HAL is killed this creates the opportunity for Bowman to rediscover his own human nature and to reclaim this from the machinery around him. At this point he is approaching Jupiter and we see a third monolith floating in space.

Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite:

The whole idea of god is absurd. If anything, 2001 shows that what some people call “god” is simply an acceptable term for their ignorance. What they don’t understand [my italics], they call “god”…Everything we know about the universe reveals that there is no god. I chose to do Dr [Arthur C.] Clarke’s story as a film because it highlights a critical factor necessary for human evolution; that is, beyond our present condition. This film a rejection of the notion that there is a god; isn’t that obvious?

Stanley Kubrick [6]

So begins Bowman’s figurative re-birth as his descent into Jupiter is marked by imagery of an epic journey which moves from computer like travel to more organic passages, his space pod acting like a sperm travelling to a union to Jupiter, which finishes with shots of landscape which at once looks both familiar but different (what appears to include shots of the Grand Canyon and oceans but with colour manipulation through all kinds of lenses, exposures, etc), a metaphor for his re-birth and how he can look at the world through new eyes.

On landing he finds himself incomprehensively in a room, decorated in a manner consistent with apparent high culture (the furniture, paintings, decor, etc) but which is emotionless and meaningless. This high culture, created by man’s ability to sublimate his drives, is rendered impotent. It has lost its power over him as he reclaims his humanity from the things created by man which had become more important than himself.

During this time he is brought into the intimate realisation of his mortality, he literally sees himself age a generation at a time before lying on his death bed and pointing to the final monolith to appear in the film. Remember, the monolith represents that which we do not know, that which we do not understand, that which we cannot find meaning for, and is symbolic at this moment of the unknown after death. As the camera tracks into the monolith we are literally swallowed up by this unknown, this uncertainty – we are forced to recognise it and live with it.

As reward for accepting that we cannot know everything, this uncertainty, which no longer appears as scary, and for the acceptance of his own mortality, Bowman (who is now fully representative of Man) can be symbolically reborn as the ‘star child’. He is fully cognisant of his mortality and capable of living with uncertainty and the unknown. He is able to return to the world he left behind (literally and metaphorically) and look upon it with new eyes. He is both child-like and god-like, and finally, shorn of the excesses of sublimation and repression which dissolve his own freedom. He can redefine himself, as if from birth, to be master of his own destiny.

The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism – and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Stanley Kubrick [7]

Endnotes

1 Quoted in Kubrick : Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (2000) by Thomas Allen Nelson, p.10

2 Stanley Kubrick in interview for Playboy by Eric Nordern in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), Gene D. Phillips, Roundhouse Publishing Ltd (2001), p48

3 Full Metal Jacket, 1987. Film. Directed by Stanley KUBRICK. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures

4 Quoted in Kubrick : Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (2000) by Thomas Allen Nelson, p.14

5 Stanley Kubrick in interview for Playboy by Eric Nordern in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), Gene D. Phillips, Roundhouse Publishing Ltd (2001), p72-73

6 Interviewed in American Cinematographer (1969) from Celebrities in Hell, Warren Allen Smith, Barricade Books (2002), p68

7 Stanley Kubrick in interview for Playboy by Eric Nordern in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), Gene D. Phillips, Roundhouse Publishing Ltd (2001), p73.

2001: A Space Odyssey Uncovering the intelligence from what may appear to be an unintelligible text

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 16, Issue 3 / March 2012 Essays science fictionstanley kubrick

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