Thursday, 7 November 2013

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A space Odyssey is a film filled with philosophical, scientific and religious themes.  Like many of Kubrick’s works, this is a film that has and will be analyzed over and over again, as long as screens to watch films exist.  It has come to a point where its very difficult to find new meanings in this film that someone hasn't already found and deconstructed to the last frame.  This is one such depth analysis of the film so If you have not seen it, I recommend that you do.  Its the granddaddy of all science fiction films.

In my research in reading blogs and watching Youtube videos about the meanings of 2001, I’ve realized how complicated and symbolically dense people seem to think it is.  Its a film where it’s cult following may have read too much into its meanings than the creator may have intended.  It’s taken on a life of its own like a book of scripture.  But, much like the canons of religious texts, it may not matter what the writer intended it to mean.  What matters most is what the audience takes from the text.  That is what is worth talking about.  Since its had such a profound effect on the speculative fiction that followed 2001, I think its worth talking about some of the ideas I took from this film and other people’s analysis of it.  I will talk about the ideas of human progress that are most prominent in the film.  As well as the themes of a future transcendence that is creeping into our cultural and religious zeitgeist.  What role does what we think of as “God” play in this film?

Why is studying the bible interesting?  There are many reasons of course.  But what what is least interesting to me is whether or not these events actually occurred.  Its not very interesting to ask what the authors of these texts intended to mean when they wrote them.  What is most fascinating is to study these texts from a retrospective point of view.  Its interesting to see the profound effect on our culture throughout the centuries that the writings of the bible have had.  It’s only as important as the people who read them say it is.  People who believe that the bible is the actual word of god, will read deep meaning into any given passage.  Of course depending on the religious context it is read.  I think the same is true for 2001.  Kubrick is known for his deep subliminal messaging and hidden meanings in his films.  Because of this, people will read as much meaning as they want to into every scene from 2001.  People watching 2001 in the year 2013 may find different meaning in this film than someone watching it in 1968.

If the books of the bible had fallen into obscurity shortly after they were written, they would not contain all the meanings they do now.  Even if they had been written word for word, they wouldn't mean anything religiously significant.  Similarly, if 2001 or Kubrick had not found the cult following of the counter-culture youth of the sixties, the film would probably not have the kind of thematic influence it has today.  Adding to the film’s mystique, Stanley Kubrick has since passed away.  So this leaves only the audience to speculate and exaggerate what this film really means.  But despite my cynicism of this cult-film phenomena, I think 2001 has some very worthwhile subjects worth talking about.

The most important message I took from 2001 was the evolutionary direction the human race seems to be going.  The ominous, rectangular monolith that appears before the characters at crucial points of the movie, signifies an evolutionary quantum leap.  These leaps are significant to our religious sensibilities because the film seems to point the human race in a direction of ascension to transcendental god-hood.  Stanley Kubrick conveniently sidesteps the hornets nest of directly commenting on religion or God by representing the divine as a race of super-intelligent, unseen extraterrestrials.

The first important evolutionary jump was made when early hominids learned to use tools, hunt for meat and wage war.  We continued on this technological path for 4 million years.  We are shown this linear progression with the juxtaposed scene of the tossed animal bone cut to directly to the spacecraft.  The next evolutionary leap we are shown is directly after the second appearance of the monolith.  The story proceeding the moon monolith scene is about the emergence of an artificial intelligence.  The invention of A.I is the most important technological event we as a species, see on the horizon of technological progression.  It will be the most significant event in human history since we developed the ability to control fire or the invention of tools.
2001 Space Odyssey Dawn of Man

The computer program Hal 9000, seems to develop a true sentience during the Jupiter mission, by demonstrating human characteristics.  Hal lies to his human masters about his true intentions.  When Hal kills the human Frank Poole, he shows a sentient desire to be free.   He also demonstrates flawed logic despite his apparently flawless programming by allowing David Bowman to survive.  He shows a desire to live and a fear of death.  The roles of man and machine are seemingly swapped as Bowman shows a machine like ruthlessness when he deactivates the computer while “it” begs for mercy.  Its interesting to note that Kubrick adds in subtle stabs at IBM with the Hal 9000 character.  Alphabetically the letters H-A-L are all one letter removed from I-B-M.  The IBM logo appears in various scenes.  When Hal is being deactivated, he sings the song “Daisy”.  In 1961 IBM scientists created the first computer so synthesize singing, the song they first had it sing was in fact “Daisy”.

The next quantum leap is represented when Bowman encounters the monolith in orbit around Jupiter.  In the story, the monoliths are supposed to be artifacts left by extra-terrestrial intelligence.  Whenever humans come into contact with them, they gain some sort of knowledge left behind by the extraterrestrials.  In the third encounter, the meaning of the knowledge or power that is imparted onto Bowman is very cryptic on screen.  This part of the film is where an endless amount of symbolism and meaning can be gleaned by its viewers.  (Whether or not Kubrick intended them to).
Bowman is thrust through a psychedelic tunnel of information and colored light.  Then possibly witnesses a abridged narrative of the universe’s history.  He apparently sees the big bang and the expansion of the universe.  Then he sees the development of life and a tour of unknown alien worlds.  The way I saw this sequence, Bowman had an encounter with an incredibly higher form of intelligence attempting to impart it’s knowledge onto him.  The way this experience is portrayed on film is analogous to a powerful psychedelic drug experience.  This movie was released during the peak of the introduction of LSD among the counterculture of the sixties.  I think the significance of the imagery of Bowman’s experience would not have been lost on those who would have experienced similar things with LSD.
The "Star Gate" sequence, one of man...
He then finds himself inside a renaissance styled hotel room viewing himself in the third person, rapidly age and his own bodily death.  In a making-of documentary I watched according to one of the commentators, the sterile hotel room was supposed to be a kind of human nursery.  The same way human beings would construct a familiar jungle environment for gorillas in a zoo, the higher intelligence provides a familiar human setting for Bowman.
The fourth and final encounter with the monolith occurs at the moment of Bowman’s apparent bodily death.  What the monolith gives him is a rebirth, over the Earth as some sort ethereal being.  “The Starchild”.  Its representative of what we see ourselves eventually becoming.  We aspire to become that which we've always felt we are.  We’re animals but we feel like we’re more than the sum of the flesh and blood we’re made of.  We feel angelic but trapped in the shell of an ape.  One of organized religion’s main purpose is to address that very feeling.  This film is a story of our struggle towards that ineffable other we can sense.  The film represents the other with an extraterrestrial artifact.  The ominous tone of the monolith encounters signify our simultaneous fear and fascination with something so alien and ineffable.  Our religious traditions have the same kind of fear and reverence towards their transcendental object, usually God.
A very interesting blog I found explained to me the symbolism of the monolith.

The Monolith is supposed to represent a movie screen.  Proportionally, its the same size as the screen that 2001 was intended to be shown on.  The creepy music that plays during the monolith encounters, is also played during the intermission of the film.  The intermission is a blank movie screen.  So you are actually staring at the monolith itself.

Now, heres where I go off the deep end of crazy.
In the film when the monolith/film screen is encountered, the characters begin to realize they are inside a movie.  This makes sense to me as a philosophical principle.  Every time the characters encounter the monolith, they achieve another level of intelligence.  The movie screen is a feedback loop of awareness.  An evolutionary step.  They become more self aware when they look inwards at themselves and they realize what the game is.

bowman helmet reflect
 In real world, sentience is achieved once the agents realize the matrix they’re inside of.  Humans achieved a higher level of sentience when they began to realize what kind of biological game they’re a part of.  We started using tools and technology to “hack the system”.  The first monolith encounter was supposed to represent this.  The second encounter was supposed to represent when human created technology(Hal 9000) will reach a higher level of intelligence.  The last two monolith encounters represent transcendence to higher forms of being we may see in our future.
The last thing I’d like to point out is the period of chronological time between each monolith encounter.  Between the first and second monolith there is a period of millions of years.  Between the second and third, there is a period of 18 months.  Between the third and fourth encounter, there are only minutes.  This may have just been the way the film turned out.  It may have been unintentional, but to me this is significant.  If this is a film commenting on the progression of the human race, it would be helpful to notice the pattern in time in the way progress seems to follow.  Each major evolutionary step happens in shorter and shorter intervals.  I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar from the old TV show, Cosmos.
Whatever.  That was only my interpretation of it.  Take what you want out of this review.  but more importantly, watch this movie for yourself.  What hidden cryptic messages can you find?  Did Kubrick produce a film to demonstrate that he helped fake the moon landing? Or did Kubrick predict a race space fetuses invading earth? Who knows.


  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Scott. This film has fascinated me for a few years now. What intrigues me the most now coming from a Christian perspective is how well the plotline portrays a kind of mirror image (both a parallel and a reversal) of the biblical narrative. Of course, from a Christian perspective 2001 seems to side with the biblical “bad guy”: the serpent in the garden, which has come to be associated with Lucifer/Satan in Christian understanding of the story.

    Take for example the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The biblical story has them living in paradisaical bliss until the serpent introduces them to forbidden knowledge so that they “shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:5). In pursuing this course they lose their paradise and enter a fallen state, after which follows all sorts of evil: the first murder occurs in the very next chapter (Cain murdering his brother Abel).

    Kubrick’s story is both a parallel and a reversal of this biblical narrative. Far from a paradisaical state, early hominids are shown living in fear and darkness until they are introduced to knowledge from an outside force. Like the biblical story, this knowledge is followed by the introduction of murder (the hominid with the bone kills another hominid from a different group).

    Whereas the biblical story treats this external influence as a very negative thing (no less than the introduction of evil into the world), 2001 treats it as liberation and advancement, leading to the eventual godhood of mankind. As you mentioned, “the film seems to point the human race in a direction of ascension to transcendental god-hood.” To Kubrick (and others in the New Age movement), external spiritual forces (aliens, ascended masters) are responsible for advancing mankind. To the Bible, these spirits are representatives of Lucifer, peddling his lie that man can be as gods. According to the Bible, Lucifer was an angel who desired to be God himself (Isaiah 14:12-15). So, you can see how the film would raise eyebrows for Christians!

    It is possible that none of this meaning was intended by Kubrick; but certainly the biblical stories are familiar to most people in Western culture, so it is also possible that he was consciously rejecting/reversing Christian themes, or advancing a “New Age” doctrine of apotheosis of man. Either way it presents yet another way to look at the film.

  2. Thanks for reading James! Of course there is no end to how many ways 2001 can be watched. What ever perspective the audience is coming from may shape the way they see it. Right now I'm in a new-agey mood to that's probably why I saw it that way. You coming from a religious standpoint will see it another way.

    Kubrick wasn't religious so who knows if he intended to reverse the story as you said.