2001: A Space Odyssey – A Look at the Kubrick’s Most Epic Work
I would not think of quarreling with your interpretation nor offering any other, as I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.
– Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a giant in the world of cinema both because of its groundbreaking filmmaking and its thematic commentary on human beings and their place in the universe. It is one of those films that attempts to answer, or at least make a discussion of, the biggest questions we humans can ask: who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone? The film is timeless because of these universal questions man has been asking himself for a long time. The film is timely because it addresses man’s conflict with machine and artificial intelligence. That conflict is a first in history for it might end with man’s replacement as the dominant species of creatures on earth. The film also suggests that in addition to the machines we have created, there are intelligences in the universe superior to our own.
The film was made because of Kubrick’s then new-found belief that there is other intelligent life in the universe. Kubrick came to believe, based on astronomical theory and the laws of statistics, that because there are billions upon billions of stars in billions upon billions of galaxies, life and intelligence must have inevitably evolved independently on billions of other planets in the universe. Furthermore, on some of those planets, life must have evolved far beyond life on earth:
They may have progressed from biological species…which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities… and then transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans…they would ultimately possess the twin attributes of all deities – omniscience and omnipotence.
It was this kind of speculation the seeded the writing and production of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film was a landmark in filmmaking. 2001 started with a 130-page treatment. It took about three years to make. It consists of 205 special effects. Rather than the film focusing on dialogue, the attention is put on the stunning visuals and well-engineered sound design. There is in fact less than forty minutes of dialogue in the entire film. The first words of the film aren’t spoken until thirty minutes into it. The dialogue itself is low in narrative illumination. Many consider the use of dialogue in 2001 irrelevant to Kubrick’s talent for visual storytelling:
For finding the meaning is not a matter of verbalizing, but of feeling it in the images drawn from past and future time, in the involvement with the experience of space, and in apprehending what is happening rather than being fed cut-and-dried information.
The scale of the film is immense and almost every sequence catches your eye. It is very impressive that a film with so much commentary and content is able to say so much without actually saying much at all.
2001 is fairly unique in comparison to other Kubrick films. Although the filmmaking was fantastic, the storyline seemed unexpectedly experimental for a director who often utilizes traditional narrative to tell his stories. In that regard, the film’s progression did remind me of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Both films are broken up into acts. The sudden transition from one act to another is quite an experimental decision made by the director. In 2001, the appearance of the monoliths actually works as narrative chapter markers. Each time a monolith appears man is thrust forward in his life history. First, the monolith bestows intelligence onto the man-apes; then it works as a ˜burglar alarm’ that signals whoever put it on the moon that man is drawing closer to them. At this point in the film, man’s evolution is now transferred into his machine technology. The third part of the film, the Jupiter mission, is unique in that it depicts the dramatized conflict between men and machines. Some have argued that the man-versus-machine rivalry, although fascinating and timely, is not relevant to the main story of the film. The critics who value the strong narrative structure of a conventionally arranged film, which 2001 is anything but, often dislike the man-versus-machine element because they feel it is out of place. However, it is very relevant if you think of the film’s theme of developing intelligences. The film is generally about the evolution of life – a discussion that artificial intelligence is most definitely a part of. The last part of the film adheres to no form of conventional narrative. After killing the mutinous computer named HAL, astronaut Bowman discovers a third monolith artifact that shoots him through inner and outer space into something of a cage that transcends space and time. There, the astronaut’s environment is manifested by his own dreams and imagination as his life passes from middle age to death. He is then reborn as a superior being: the ˜star child’. The film ends with the child, as man’s next step in his evolutionary destiny, looking onto earth. Kubrick felt that this final encounter with a higher intelligence would be incomprehensible to our earthbound frames of reference. Because of this, Kubrick’s “depiction of it in eerie and bizarre images, with the help of the visually orchestrated, ambiguous but comprehensible story would stimulate viewer reactions, including spontaneous metaphysical and philosophical speculations. ” The end scenes defy traditional narrative in that we do know how or why certain things are happening, but they are meant as a non-linear discussion of man’s role in the universe and his relationship to other forms of intelligence.
If one were forced to say what 2001 is about in three words, they could say it is about the nature of intelligence. The film roots intelligence in a mythological past where man has not yet begun to use it. The film ends intelligence in a metaphysical future where man cannot yet understand its evolution. The theme of intelligence in this film is a form of magic that goes backward and forward, jumping huge time gaps, beyond the imprisoning present:
Intelligence as Kubrick and Clarke illustrate it is a wider concept than the film’s evolutionary transformation of ape into man into machine into super-man. It both stands outside man and permeates his progress. It precedes and survives him on the evolutionary scale. It is a sort of God. And man’s encounter with this God is finally accompanied by his understanding that he himself is not the sole intelligent entity in the universe.
Stanley Kubrick proposes an organization of the universe where the powers that created the monoliths are mysterious entities of superior intelligence, “like the gods the Greeks invented to replace the terrifying omnipotent Unknown. ”
A pivotal character in the film is HAL, the artificial intelligence crewmember on the Discovery. He is dynamic not just because of his humanity, or one might say ˜mimicked humanity’, but because of the contrast to his machine-like, human crewmembers. The men on Discovery have no individualized traits. They are well-groomed Ph.D.s who don’t display any warmth or weakness. One could argue that Bowman burning his fingers on the food tray is the most vulnerable we ever see him. We see Dr. Pool bored by his parents wishing him a happy birthday via videophone. When Bowman tries to rescue his crewmate and friend, Poole, from an icy death in space he goes about it with expressionless efficiency and no emotion. “Feelings, Kubrick is saying are minimal in this new age, a matter of physical nerve ends, not emotional nerve centers. Where they have gone is, paradoxically, into the programming of the inhuman computer. ” HAL, on the other hand, seems to have a personality. How amazing it is that every time we see HAL’s ˜eye’, we get a sense of an emotion or an expression even though the eye always looks the same. We think the eye looks different because of what we have just heard HAL say or seen him do. HAL develops an emotional state, an ego, and a persona. He becomes more and more human. HAL begins to misbehave when the value of his worth is questioned. One might say he kills to hide his weaknesses. He discovers murder just as the man-apes did. It is a fascinating progression: man discovers tools and murder, man builds a tool (HAL), man tries to murder the tool, the tool discovers murder, and then the tool uses murder as a tool to kill man. Kubrick tells us that because machine is becoming man, men must become something else, something greater. The machine does not win though and Bowman ends up killing HAL. Even in his demise, HAL appears human. As Hal dies, his lobotomy mimics the natural aging of man. He moves slowly down from health into senility into a second childhood into death. The ˜battle’ between the machine-like astronauts and the human-like HAL is a fascinating struggle for survival. Both entities fight for their lives. They both have a sense of self-preservation and they both kill in order for them to live. With HAL dead, Bowman is left alone, 630,000,000 kilometers from the nearest human being.
After Bowman kills HAL, he views a prerecorded message, triggered by HAL’s extinction, informing the crew of their mission to investigate the first evidence of intelligent life outside the earth. This message ironically serves both to remind the audience of what the film is narratively “about” and to end the conventionally narrative portion of the film. This message is the last time words are spoken. It “launches Bowman into the penultimate sequence of the film and effectively restores the linear, nonverbal development. As the ˜plot’ thins again, the ˜magic’ thickens. ” For the audience member who has enjoyed Bowman’s fight to survive, the ending might be a little disappointing. Being such a stickler for conventional narrative myself, I didn’t fully understand the last part of the film on my first viewing of it. After thinking about it, I came to understand the end as an experience to be enjoyed as you would enjoy music. It is not always structured or logical but you take something from it. Norman Kagan described it well as, “scientific-poetic art, an elegant vehicle for ideas. ” Bowman lives out the rest of his life and as he is about to die, raises his arm to the monolith as he is absorbed into it. This is a gesture of greeting but also, perhaps, a gesture of gratitude. After Bowman’s epic and strange journey through space and time, the film ends with his rebirth as the, possibly symbolic, ˜Star Child.’ He floats outside of earth’s atmosphere with booming music in the background as the film fades to black. Many, including myself, consider this a real cliffhanger ending. I, personally, like this ending. I think a discussion sometimes should end open-ended. However, not everyone agrees with me, “It is audacious and enigmatic to end with the orbiting space baby, but it also represents a failure of nerve…After all his irony and elegant cinematography, Kubrick has in a sense never really astonished us. He is unable to suggest what a transcendent being would do. ” By ending with the wide-eyed innocence of the Star-child, Kubrick wants us to interpret the film for ourselves. One could compare the Star-Child to the Mona Lisa as they are both enigmatic portraits whose impenetrability is key to their brilliance.
2001: A Space Odyssey is very full thematically. It is a film about humanity and other forms of intelligence. The question of destiny is addressed; is the cosmos random? The creators of the monoliths directly affect human history and are responsible for what one might call its ˜destiny’. Is there a hierarchy of consciousness? Where does mankind’s consciousness lie in that order? “The idea is implicit in the levels of consciousness: to the man-apes the world is a mechanical, fatalistic place over which they have no control; to the spacemen it is a world of a cause and effect without purpose, feeling or meaning; to the ultimate form of life, the monoliths’ masters, it is a whizzing, blinding chaos man is not mean to understand. ” How valuable is rationality? HAL, the “perfect’ personification of man’s intelligence, is destroyed by his corrupted humanity. He represents the limits of thought and emotion. Is man able to transcend himself and his history? The space odyssey is a quest for freedom, the knowledge of oneself, and the knowledge of the universe. Having evolved from the man-apes, it is fitting that Bowman neither becomes a monolith or one of its masters but rather something else, the Star Child.
Again, 2001 is a giant in the world of filmmaking. The film was received very well by critics but there was little agreement on its interpretation and overall message. If I was Stanley Kubrick, I would be pleased with such a reception. The film was a discussion. A dialogue is almost always more valuable than a monologue. “The starting and finishing points of his gigantic undertaking are rooted in intellectual speculation. For the first time in the commercial cinema, a film of this cost and magnitude has been used to advance ideas. ” I don’t believe that last sentence is true today even though it might have been in 1971. For example, I strongly believe The Matrix is a film of the commercial cinema of great cost and magnitude that advanced many ideas thematically similar to 2001. Not only did this film break new ground in its filmmaking technique, but it artfully asked important questions that may not have clear answers. Kubrick accomplished a great deal by making 2001. By making such an intelligent film in such an unconventional way, he has replenished my faith in experimental filmmaking.
Above all else, it marks a significant advance in the way of communicating ideas through the medium of film. For its effect is determined as much by the visual properties of the medium through which it is transmitted as by any of the actual events, hypotheses, and reflection comprising the picture’s content. By suppressing the directness of the spoken word, by breaking narrative logic, Kubrick has insured that watching his film requires an act of continuous inference on the part of viewers to fill in the field of attention by making their own imaginative connections.
Macklin, F. Anthony. “Sex and Dr. Strangelove.” Film Comment, Vol. 3, No.3, p. 55
——. “Playboy Interview.” In The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970.
Kagan, Norman. The CINEMA of STANLY KUBRICK. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972. 145-167.
Walker, Alexander. Stanley Kubrick Directs. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, INC, 1971. 241-267.