"2001: A Space Odyssey" - Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest of all film directors, would retain that eminence even if he had directed no other film than 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  That seminal work drew only mixed reviews [1] and a tepid box-office when it was first released, but it is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made [2,3,4,5,6].  For example, for the British Film Institute’s 2012 polls of international critics and film directors concerning the all-time greatest films, 2001: A Space Odyssey was ranked 2nd on the directors’ poll [7] and 6th on the critics’ poll [8]. Interestingly, though, there is some confusion and varied interpretations, even among the film’s most fervent fans, concerning the film’s ultimate message [9].  I will offer my own suggestions on that matter below.

The film’s story was co-scripted by Kubrick and renowned British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke [10], and it was inspired by Clarke’s earlier story, “The Sentinel” (1951).  But as their lengthy scriptwriting collaboration evolved, Kubrick and Clarke made significant changes in the story and even came to hold somewhat differing views on what should be included.  They were also jointly and concurrently working on a sci-fi novel of the same story, but gradually the novel became Clarke’s exclusive project and came to represent Clarke’s own particular perspective.  When Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was published a few months after the film’s release [9], the substantially contrasting perspectives of Clarke and Kubrick became more evident. Clarke’s view was more schematic and definite, and his novel offered concrete explanations for enigmatic aspects of the film.  But Kubrick, who felt that films could express feelings and experiences that were beyond the possibilities of text, did not hold to what many felt were Clarke’s banal views – he preferred to leave the film’s open-ended cosmic suggestions up to the minds of his viewers.  Most of us who regard 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a great film feel that way, too.  So my comments here are only with regard to the film as we have it.

Before discussing the structure of the film in more detail, however, it is worth mentioning some aspects of the production as a whole.  Kubrick was sometimes considered to be a cinematic “all rounder”, inasmuch as he dipped into many different genres over his career: epic blockbusters, historical films, war films, comedies, films noir, etc.  So at a casual glance, his films may seem rather dissimilar.  Nevertheless, there were some common aspects to them. 

One common element was the technical craftsmanship of his productions, and this was certainly on display in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  After almost fifty years, the film does not appear at all dated or technically unsound, even though it was dealing with outer-space travel.  The technical work for the film, which was supervised by Douglas Trumbull, was performed well before the current level of computer animation was available, but it still looks as convincing today as when the film was released.

Another common aspect of Kubrick’s work is the portrayal of a dark, narcissistic personality. These people are ostensibly normal, but at some point they reveal their utter lack of empathy that leaves a chill with the viewer. This dark human portrayal is accompanied by an eerie sense of loneliness. Even when there are other people about, one gets this pervasive sense of loneliness that hangs over the entire tale.  And so it occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey, too.

The story of 2001: A Space Odyssey that Kubrick presents to the viewer is not a linear narrative but something more like a cinematic symphony with four “movements” [12].  Even the individual movements are not actually coherent narratives, but they do comprise some narrative fragments.  Although these movements seem quite distinct and relatively disconnected, they do not stand alone – the viewer’s appreciation of these movements depends on their being viewed in the overall context.

It is notable that the first and last movements of the film contain no dialogue, and even the dialogue in the second movement is mostly mundane small talk.  Instead of dialogue, the sound track often features classical music pieces and abstract chorales that convey a sense of interiority and isolation from the external world.

1.  The Dawn of Man
The films opens on an African savannah several million years ago where a band of protohuman apes is struggling with another, similar group of apes over the control of a water pond.   One morning, they wake up to see a huge slate stone rectangular pyramid, a monolith, stuck in the ground before them. The apes are frightened but curious about the monolith and where it came from.  It is clear to the viewer that the monolith is not natural; its perfectly tall and thin rectangular shape was fashioned by an intelligent producer of some kind.

Shortly thereafter, one of the apes thinks about the monolith for a second and then grabs a large leg bone of a dead animal and swings it like a club.  This is supposed to be the first realization that objects can be used as tools to enhance a person’s manual capabilities.  The ape is the first instance of Man, the Tool-User.  And, of course, one kind of tool of great import is the weapon.  Soon the other apes of this band are using their bone clubs to kill other animals for food and defeat their enemies in battles.   In a fit of unrestrained joy, the original ape throws his club into the air and the film cuts forward millions of years to an image of a satellite in the near future (presumably the year is 2000, which was the future at the time of this film’s’ production).

2.  Mission to the Moon
A middle-aged American military officer, Dr. Heywood Floyd (played by William Sylvester), is shown traveling as the lone passenger on a space shuttle to an orbiting space station, and now the first dialogue appears 23 minutes into the film. For the most part this movement focuses on how everyday life, even in outer space, has become routinized and machine-like.  Even the conversations avoid substance, such as when Floyd skirts discussing with Russian colleagues his upcoming mission to the Moon. 

Floyd then travels, again as the only passenger, on a spaceship to the Moon, where his mission is to investigate the recent discovery of another black monolith, identical in form to the one seen in the first movement.  It has been determined that it was buried far below the Moon’s surface four million years ago, but nothing more is known about it. Since the monolith is recognized as a product of some extraterrestrial intelligence, its discovery is top-secret.  When Floyd and some fellow investigative personnel go out and visit the uncovered monolith, it suddenly begins emitting intense electromagnetic radiation directed towards the planet Jupiter.

3.  Jupiter Mission – 18 Months later 
The action now jumps forward to an exploratory first space mission to Jupiter.  The secret goal is to investigate the targets of the mysterious monolith’s emissions.  Onboard the spacecraft are five personnel, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with three other astroscientists placed in hibernation for the voyage.  A sixth “member of the crew” is an onboard HAL 9000 computer, known as “HAL” (note that the succeeding alphabetic-order letters of “HAL” form “IBM” [4]).  HAL is the most advanced implementation of man’s development of artificial intelligence, and it has been programmed to be able to converse in English with the crew members concerning mission operations [13].

While Frank and Dave display dry, businesslike personalities, HAL’s conversation displays a more human-like concern.  “He” even shows a certain amount of pride concerning his presumed infallibility.  This has led many critics to assert that HAL is more human than the others.  I would say it’s more of a ruse on the part of HAL’s programmers.  HAL turns out to be the most chillingly narcissistic and diabolical of all of Kubrick’s empathy-less villains, and this is one of the film’s major signposts.

It turns out that HAL is the only crew participant who has been fully informed of the mission’s true purpose, and it has been instructed to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the mission’s success. HAL asks probing questions of Dave to check up on his mission reliability and then soon reports a fault on the spacecraft’s AE-35 external telecommunications module, which requires one of them to go outside the craft and investigate the unit.  When the removed unit shows no signs of dysfunction, Frank and Dave become suspicious of HAL’s supposed infallibility. They consider the possibility of deactivating HAL. 

HAL gets wind of their suspicions, however, and soon kills Frank and the three hibernating crew members.  It looks like Dave, who is stranded in an extravehicular activity (EVA) pod outside the spacecraft, is finished, too, but he just barely manages to reenter the spacecraft through its manual emergency exit.  He then grimly sets about deactivating HAL’s RAM memory, which leads HAL to a whimpering dementia.  Then Dave continues on the mission alone. 

4.  Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
As Dave’s spaceship nears Jupiter, we see another monolith orbiting the planet, and Dave gets into an EVA pod to investigate it.  As his pod approaches the monolith, he seems to enter into another, inner dimension – the film moves into a 12-minute phantasmagoria of shifting color and sound. Significantly, I think, the dynamic images gradually shift from abstract geometrical patterns to more organic imagery. The phantasmagorical light show closes with the EVA pod shown standing in an elegantly furnished 18th century bedroom. 

Dave, shell-shocked by what has happened, peers out of the pod window to see a considerably aged image of himself still in his spacesuit standing in the room.  The gaze shifts successfully to another, more-aged version of Dave wearing a bathrobe and then to a very old man near death in the bed, who looks up to see the monolith standing at the foot of his bed.  He then appears to be transformed into a large embryo containing a sentient child, the “Star Child”.  The final shot shows the Star Child orbiting the earth and looking downward.

As I mentioned above, the ultimate meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a matter of controversy, especially if we follow Kubrick’s more mystical path, rather than Clarke’s more schematic account. What role do the monoliths play?  Are they triggers for new evolutionary stages, or are they merely passive monitors for intelligent extraterrestrial beings? Some people see religious connections and suggestions of higher spiritual powers.  I will suggest here, though, that a key aspect concerns man’s existential comportment towards the world, and in so doing, I will offer a reason for that 18th century decor in the closing scene.

In the opening movement, the protohuman ape discovers the potency of tools, and more specifically, tools as weapons.  In general a tool extends the agency of a person and enhances his or her capabilities with respect to certain types of actions.  At this moment in the film, the ape discovered not only a tool, but the concept of a tool, which led to the gradually increasing empowerment of humans over nature.  When the story moves forward to the year 2000, it has skipped over many major milestones – writing, machines, the gun, the steam engine, airplanes, computers, etc. – but they all follow from the original realization of the nature of a tool.  However, although a tool enhances man’s capabilities with respect to certain actions, it can also restrict the range of actions, too.  When I drive my car, I can travel fast and far, but I may also be more restricted to where I can go.  It all depends on nature’s affordances with respect to the tools developed.

By the year 2000 men are shown to be flying to the Moon with these tools, but they also seem more restricted, too.  The men shown are key components, it is true, of vast and powerful machines, but they also seem to be somewhat machine-like, themselves. When, for example, Heywood Floyd speaks to his daughter on a videophone in the second movement and when Frank Poole similarly receives a birthday greeting from his parents in the third movement, they both seem dispassionate and preoccupied with their prescribed routines.  Their freedom of action is significantly constrained. The men have handed over some of their autonomy to let the tools and machines do the job.

By the third movement, we get to see the naturally next phase of this tool expansion progression.  Men are not only shown following prescribed rules to use their machines, they are also delegating their decisions to computers and hence subjecting themselves to the rigors of mechanical algorithmic decision making.  An algorithm, after all, is actually logical mechanism that can execute logic-based sequences of actions, such as rapidly searching through a space of possibilities and arriving at the “optimal” decision.  Of course algorithms were being used all the way along in this account of man’s history, but by the third movement the computer algorithms were taking over the major decision-making of life.  In fact this is where we, ourselves, are getting to in the world today, with “Big Data” taking over more and more of our own decision-making and hence of our humanity.  2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrates Kubrick’s prescience in this regard almost fifty years ago.

This is not to suggest that algorithmic decision making is bad, but only to question whether it should serve as the fundamental basis for our interactions in the world.  Today we are facing a proposed major paradigm shift to the new notion of “Dataism” [14].  According to this view, the entire universe, including biological organisms, consists of particles governed by mechanistic rules of interaction; and with our always accelerating data-processing capabilities, we are now approaching the point where we can participate most effectively in this cosmic system by processing vast amounts of collected data. As Yuval Noah Harari has commented, “given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves” [15].  So just as Rational Humanism began to replace Theism as the great metaphysical stance around the 18th century, Dataists believe that their stance relying on computational “Big Data” will replace Rational Humanism. 

To see what this means, consider what happened when Rational Humanism of the Enlightenment (it has many other names, but it is the basis of our modernistic world view) came to the fore. Prior to this rise, the authoritative guide to life was based on the rigid authority of theological doctrine backed up by the unlimited authority of celestial deities.  With Rational Humanism, man alone was seen as the authoritative guide to truth.  This not only meant reliance on human reason, but also reliance on the human heart, too.  It is important to remember this point – that Rational Humanism involves heartfelt feelings as well as rational thinking. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading Enlightenment figure in 18th century France, emphasized this point when he said that his authoritative decision-maker concerning what to do lies
“in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.” [16]
Thus according to the Rational Humanists, it is authentic human feeling and empathy that tells us what is the right thing to do.  We consult the “god” within us, rather than handing things over to an external authority.  Of course, an individual can sometimes be mistaken, so we collectively rely on one-man-one-vote democracy and not on expert authorities to govern our world.  Each person is irreducible according to this scheme. This has become so natural to us now that we take it for granted.

Dataism, however, seeks to negate this view in favor of computational efficacy based on the statistics-based correlations of “Big Data”. This effectively represents a proposal to put HAL in charge of everything, and this is what Kubrick was warning us about in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When the action in the film moves in the fourth movement to the 18th century bedroom, I believe Kubrick is foretelling mankind‘s hoped-for evolutionary move that will restore the balance between heart and mind that was sought by the Rational Humanists.  This harmony was also similarly urged by Nietzsche, who referred to it in terms of the needed balance between the Dionysian and Appolonian modes of existence [17].     

There are other thematic aspects and dimensions to 2001: A Space Odyssey that one might consider.  Some people, remembering Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), see allusions in 2001: A Space Odyssey to global nuclear war.  Certainly the global competition with Russia was in the background and briefly referenced in the film.  But ultimately schematic explanations of the film concerning specific political issues do not do justice to the film’s intuitively non-textual (and hence non-HAL-like) experience.  Kubrick attested to this in an interview in 1969 [18]:
Strangelove was a film where much of its impact hinged on the dialogue, the mode of expression, the euphemisms employed. As a result, it's a picture that is largely destroyed in translation or dubbing. 2001, on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

  1. Renata Adler, “The Screen: '2001' Is Up, Up and Away:Kubrick's Odyssey in Space Begins Run”, New York Times, (4 April 1968).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, RogerEbert.com, (27 March 1997).   
  3. Robert Castle, “The Interpretative Odyssey of 2001: Of Humanity and Hyperspace”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (31 October 31 2004). 
  4. Murtaza Ali Khan, “2001: a Space Odyssey (1968): American Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's Intellectual Extravaganza”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (October 2012). 
  5. Marilyn Ferdinand, “2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)”, Ferdy on Films, (2008).   
  6. Rob Humanick, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Slant Magazine (20 November 2007). 
  7. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  8. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  9. “Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey”, Wikipedia, (18 August 2016).  
  10. Clarke is also famous for having proposed the idea that geostationary satellites could be employed for global telecommunications purposes.
  11. Clarke later published a sequel to his “2001" story, 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), which was subsequently made into a film, 2010, directed by Peter Hyams.
  12. Some critics say there are only three movements (see, for example, reference [3]), but I think the division into four segments is a more natural arrangement.
  13. Interestingly, HAL is said in the film to have become operational on January 12, 1992 – an awfully long time before 2001, given the rapid pace of computer technology development.
  14. Yuval Noah Harari, "Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will”, Financial Times, (26 August 2016). 
  15. Ibid.
  16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education, (1762).
  17. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, (1872).
  18. Joseph Gelmis, “An Interview with Stanley Kubrick (1969)”, The Kubrick Site, (excerpted from The Film Director as Superstar, by Joseph Gelmis, Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York (1970)).