The Cinephile: 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Redeeming Culture Cinephile is our series about classic films; we hope you enjoy another look at some of the formative films in cinema history. This is the second of two Command Performances, honoring the 50th anniversaries of two science-fiction classics.

One of Redeeming Culture founder David Atwell’s favorite concepts is The Monomyth. He argues that the reason we have such a specific common narrative in so many of our stories is that it’s woven into us, into creation and history itself, so we recognize and accept it easily. But what happens when an excellent piece of art has the trappings of, say, The Hero’s Journey, but it actually lays out a contradictory myth?

We can take a film seriously and still misread it, even for a long time. I think I did with this one. 2001: A Space Odyssey is enigmatic and open to a lot of readings, so it would be brash of me to say that others’ interpretations are wrong; but the one I now have is 180° to the standard view, so I may not be able to sidestep that accusation. Know that it’s aimed at me too.

Because of its visual and musical grandeur, the word that most frequently accompanies the film is “triumph,” and as a work of art, it is unquestionably that; but I think many also read the plot as ending in a kind of evolutionary victory for humanity. It’s beautiful looking, and we have that music most people think of as the 2001 theme. It certainly felt like a big win to me, even though I didn’t fully understand what was actually happening. Roger Ebert wrote:

Now consider Kubrick’s famous use of Richard Strauss’ ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra.’ Inspired by the words of Nietzsche, its five bold opening notes embody the ascension of man into spheres reserved for the gods. It is cold, frightening, magnificent. The music is associated in the film with the first entry of man’s consciousness into the universe—and with the eventual passage of that consciousness onto a new level, symbolized by the Star Child at the end of the film… It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.

That take on 2001, that it ends in good things for man, certainly fit the times of the film. At least in part, Kubrick was playing off the vibe of America’s moon shot, which was well underway, and sprinkled a “Bright Future” zest over America.

I don’t think it’s saying that, though.

Hear me out.

Gifts of the gods of evolution

2001’s first images are of barren landscapes. They’re followed by our first evidence of life, in the form of evidence of death: bones.

Then we see apes. They eat plants, stick together in little groups, and run away when provoked. In one of these early shots we see apes here and apes there, eating their weeds, and right in the middle of the screen, front and center, is a great, big, huge pig.
2001 A Space Odyssey - Monkey Food
Hanging out with them is an obvious food source. For me, the shot composition had all the subtlety of a Looney Tunes gag, like this:

Kubrick did have a pretty wicked sense of humor.

The first major plot point comes next, when these mentally inert monkeys encounter a giant rectangle.

Monolyth Monomyth pt.1: Kill Things

Broadly, the Monoliths are Kubrick’s guardians of the universe. This one is not a mere messenger, coming to tell us that we should all just get along; it is the bringer of knowledge, and the knowledge we see it bring is pretty straightforward: Kill. It teaches both how to kill, and the idea that one should kill. Kill the nearby animal for food. Kill opponents for territory. That’s the big advancement. It doesn’t teach them basket weaving, math, or how to make fire, nor does it render their thumbs opposable.

Just ‘kill’. Eat a thing’s dead leg, and whack your kind when they become a problem for you, or for dominance. And that message makes sense in context; killing is a primary engine of evolutionary progress. You know, circle of life.

The second important plot point is that famous cut from the tossed bone to the satellite floating above earth. But something significant about that shot seems to be missed by most. I know I did, initially, and here’s Ebert’s description: “The bone is thrown into the air and dissolves into a space shuttle (this has been called the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema).”

But that’s not some happy little spaceship waltzing to Strauss.

That satellite is a nuclear weapon.

Monolyth Monomyth pt.2: Extend the Killing

I’ve heard commentators dismiss this piece of information, suggesting that by just watching the movie we might not know that; but it actually is that, and I don’t think we should assume that miss for people in the late 1960’s. The cold war was hot, and nuclear fear was a big topic. In 1968, the year of 2001‘s release, Hiroshima was about 20 years past, not 70; memorable as a live event, not a distant piece of history. The Cuban missile crisis and its aerial photos of missile equipment were fresh in mind, and we were nearing the climax of the moon shot; equipment itself was in the news – what rockets look like, what missiles and missile transports looked like. It would have been very clear to its original audiences, where we might have become so dazzled by the artistry of a millennia-skipping jump cut from a bone to a spaceship that we miss the meaning of it.

The cut is from the first weapon of war to the ultimate one, a nuclear warhead floating over the Earth: Man’s progress, laid out in tools of destruction, his implements of power over others. That is what Kubrick filmed, and the two endpoints of the biggest chronological cut in film history are important considerations. The Gateway across these millennia is the deadly weapon; through the guidance of the Monolith comes our symbol of progress: the advancement in our ability to kill.

What follows in this Moon section of the film is pretty dry. Voices are barely raised above a calm businesslike tone. Nevertheless, territoriality is strongly in play, especially in the conversation Heywood Floyd has with his Russian counterparts. The tone hides its standard tell, but it has come forward from that first Monolith’s effect. Man will bring all of its influence with him into space, and presumably into everything he’ll touch.

Case in point: our third section, the bulk of the film, at Jupiter, where we get introduced to the situation and the technology; then the lifestyle of being in space, and then the plot begins. HAL becomes suspicious of his human colleagues, and they become suspicious of him.

Monolyth Monomyth pt.3: Propogate the Killing

HAL self-identifies as perfect in every way, but he still has flaws that travel with human intelligence; he has been made, intellectually, in man’s own image. His response to the crewmen’s being a problem is to kill them. He wants the mission to be complete, and he thinks that Dave and Frank will create problems for the mission. He’s being territorial.

They had also decided that he might need to be shut down, so call it HAL’s self-preservation; but the response is murder, on both sides. This is still what the Monolith hath wrought, even so far back in time: an evolutionary philosophy, only this time it’s the one with the most knowledge who wins the battle, and the one that wins the battle, gets the Stargate.

Might HAL’s territoriality be even less honorable than his mission mindedness? Being so intellectually capable, has HAL calculated some things about the Jupiter Monolith, anticipating what it might do to its traveler? Even I think that’s a stretch, and only titillating speculation at best, but at this point it may be as supportable as a positive reading of the movie’s conclusion.

Monolyth Monomyth pt.4: . . .

When Dave is transformed into the Star Child, it’s only the second time in the film that the Monolith has directly affected a human being. We know what it did the first time: it taught apes to kill. Some see it as broadly bestowing intelligence, but from what the film gives, we only have surety that it taught them how and when to kill others in order to advance, and so far every character – the ape, Heywood Floyd on the moon, Frank, Dave and HAL at Jupiter – has been territorial, and, with the exception of Heywood, who did not have motive or opportunity, an intended murderer.

What is this Star Child? Its approach is heralded with glorious music; which happens to be the same music used when the ape demonstrated what a great weapon a long bone would make. That was a triumphant piece, if not for the pig.

In the beginning we got to identify with an ape; he becomes a killer. In the middle section many connect with HAL (it is often said that he is the most human character in the film); he becomes a killer. In the end, through the camera’s focus and the music, we’re sort of riding piggyback on the Star Child. If I follow the logic of the film, it’s probably not coming ‘round to save us or pat us on the back. When it shows up, by an evolutionary comparison, humans occupy the pig’s spot.

I think it’s here to whup humanity’s butt, and if it isn’t, it will want to after spending some time with us. If it’s the next step in evolution, then that lovely, glowing Star Child has probably come back to kill us all.

To be clear… that is not the common read of this film.

It holds up to inspection though. I don’t refer to Arthur C. Clarke’s book to help me through this. Neither book nor film were adaptations of the other; they were created simultaneously, with Clarke taking lead on the novel, and Kubrick on the film. I think their philosophies on life were different enough to justify keeping them separate. The book was much more personal and human, and Clarke’s own 2001 sequels show his humanism and belief in peace. The movie really is its own thing. If I’m right, would Kubrick be okay with such a widespread misread, people celebrating the end of a movie trumpeting the arrival of our Great Destroyer? Wicked sense of humor indeed. None of Kubrick’s Hollywood movies to date had been about how great people are:

  • The Killing: A heist movie featuring cold characters with big, sometimes humiliating, flaws. And they lose it all in the end.
  • Paths of Glory: Venal generals subvert justice to execute three subordinates in order to bolster their view of the world. They succeed – the innocent are shot. FIN.
  • Lolita: A couple of men fall all over themselves to be the accepted wooer of a fourteen year old girl. Played for laughs; it doesn’t end well.
  • Dr. Strangelove: A comedy about human ineptitude possibly leading to the nuclear war. It does.

So far, all of his major movies had ended badly for their protagonists. Lolita and Strangelove also had tones that contrasted their subject matters. If you tell someone they’re about to watch a movie that ends with the nuclear holocaust, they won’t expect the levity of Strangelove.

We want the gods we invent to be on our side in the important ways.

The notion that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film about the triumph of human evolution is a pretty popular one. We want the gods we invent to be on our side in the important ways. I could say the reason people believe that take is because they already agree with it, and Kubrick has willingly given them just enough rope to hang themselves on it; but, let’s face it, it really seems to be present in the tone of the film. The Star Child’s approach comes with the fanfare we might expect from the finale of a redemption or rescue story, or a hero’s journey. It honestly looks and feels like a triumph, and we always read those as being for us.

I’m saying the tone obfuscates the dark conclusion to which the logic of the story so easily leads: the “victory” is the coming of a being whose advancement was bestowed by a device which last introduced a millennia-long strain of murder into humanity; therefore a being just as likely to destroy or subjugate the lower forms that came before it. The Monolith is more like Original Sin than anything good.

Those who think past the weird misread of original sin as “sex” often land on original sin being knowledge, bolstered by the also-mistaken idea that Christianity is an anti-thought religion. But we need to examine our texts more carefully and clearly. Whether metaphor or historical object, the tree was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not just the tree of knowledge, or intellect. And at that point in the account, our Genesis protagonists were already quite familiar with good; it had little of that to offer. It wasn’t the Tree of Enlightenment; closer to the Tree of Prurience and Malignancy.

Yet, they bit.

Is it in our nature to miss a deadly message wrapped in a perfect, beautiful appearance? The read I have for 2001 is cogent, but far from obvious, in part because we would not recognize that kind of an ending as triumphant. Do we miss it because it is neither our natural nor designed in meta-narrative?

I don’t think Kubrick intended the film’s message to be this dark. Maybe for him it was a Triumph of Evolution fantasy, but that can still mean that it is simply our turn to be the food, or just killed and swept out of the way. Evolution is built upon killing and subjugating, territoriality, and the preservation of favored races. Replacement gods are usually pretty awful, when you look closely and honestly at them.

Who are we really, in evolution’s picture? Probably not the chosen children, being rescued from our ugliness and brought into a perfect realm. That’s, uh… it’s some other God who does that.

We’re more like, well…

• • •

Thanks for reading. The Redeeming Culture Cinephile seeks to examine the classics of film history through a culture-redeeming lens. Read more reviews of classic flims here.

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4 thoughts on “The Cinephile: 2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. I should say that, despite my possibly antagonistic view of the film’s viewpoints, most of the time I really do love it. There have been rare occasions when my mood was just off, and it did nothing for me, but usually it’s a great experience, watching it. You know, Roger Ebert described movies as “machines that generate empathy.” I agree with him that it is one of the best distinctives of the art form, but like much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, 2001: A Space Odyssey operates well outside the realms of empathy. You could call 2001 anti-cinema on that one ground, but I reject the notion that cinema is essentially one thing. Not all films have what we commonly expect of all films. A movie that does what it does well doesn’t have to also do each and every thing most movies do. Sometimes you may be observing it from a distance and thinking about it, and sometimes you may be fully invested, even dramatically, but 2001 is visually stunning, sonically interesting, and intellectually engaging throughout.

    But even thoughtful filmgoers don’t get everything right. I include movie reviewers in that fine group, really, but listen to these, written upon the film’s release. Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News simply didn’t take the movie seriously: “The sound track is a mishmash of pseudo-church electronic music and, incredibly, Strauss waltzes. Imagine whirling through space to schmaltz in three-quarter time!” Variety’s Robert B. Frederick could not have been more exactly wrong when he wrote, “2001: A Space Odyssey is not a cinematic landmark. It compares with, but does not best, previous efforts at science fiction; lacking the humanity of Forbidden Planet, the imagination of Things to Come and the simplicity of Of Stars and Men, it actually belongs to the technically-slick group previously dominated by George Pal and the Japanese.” Yikes!

    Anyway, here’s a great audio overview of the movie in its time, both in production and reception, an episode of The Film Programme from the BBC:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04pvdhk

  2. “The book was much more personal and human, and Clarke’s own 2001 sequels show his humanism and belief in peace.”

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but, as I recall, the book ends with the Star Child detonating all of the nuclear weapons that the nations of the earth are shooting off at it the moment it appeared in the heavens, and with the ominous line (repeating something said of Moon-Watcher earlier on), “He didn’t know what he would do next. But he would think of something.” Ambiguous, but I always inferred from it that humanity was not long for continued existence. Doesn’t have to be read that way, but it would also support your reading of the film (even though I understand your reading of the movie doesn’t depend upon the novel).

    Very compelling and convincing take on what is, as you say, an indisputably classic film.

  3. Fascinating! It’s been so long since I listened to a tape I had of Clarke reading his last chapters of the book, from the stargate onward, and longer since I read the whole novel, that I’d placed that event in the book 2010. Yet there it is, just as you say:

    There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all its peoples. He had returned in time. Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies – and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close. A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in its orbit. The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky. He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the sleeping globe. Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

    But he would think of something.

    Thanks for pointing that out, Mike! Clarke’s employment of the Star Child in 2010, and even more in the film, is quite warm; a pleasant messenger, tying up loose ends and looking after Dave’s people. I wonder if he repeated that moment in his second book, the detonations, because I remember thinking, “Ah, here we go! Let’s find out what this thing can do!” having apparently forgotten it from the original.

    By the way, I also love 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the film, I mean. It gets an unfair rap, the sort we could give West Side Story for besmirching Shakespeare. It is not a fair follow-up to the artful film 2001, but it is an exceptional, and quite lovely, movie in its own right.

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