Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” has broken many barriers since its release in 1968. Rightfully it won an Oscar (among numerous other awards), has influenced and been referenced in various films and TV shows, and remains the source (and perhaps the pinnacle) of outer-space exploration movies.
Due to the special effects and overall cinematography, it’s clear why this movie caused an initial stir. But has it stood the test of time 43 years later?
For younger generations, it seems this film’s popularity rests solely on its cult status of being “the ultimate (psychedelic) trip.” Even so, it appears to have taken the backburner to other Kubrick hits, notably “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining.” But while “2001” may not contain the special effects we have today, nor the endless spewing of action and sex that we need to survive a two-hour film, it remains a classic for the exact reasons people tend to dismiss it.
Other than the seemingly obvious plot elements, Kubrick revealed nothing of what “2001” actually meant on a philosophical and spiritual level. But to grasp any semblance of meaning within this movie, viewers have to first start asking these very questions. It’s not enough to analyze this film in terms of scientific accuracy, dialogue, or a seemingly pretentious and basic plot. Kubrick himself stated in an interview with Playboy Magazine, “…I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing.” Indeed, with only 40 minutes of dialogue in this massive film, the audience is encouraged to be subjective in their interpretations, and doing so will vastly enrich their experience as a whole.
So, how exactly does one make sense of concepts like a supernatural, time-traveling stone, or a spaceman that ages, dies, and is reborn in all of four minutes? Again, we are asked to form our own conclusions, but from the information that Kubrick did provide (as well as novelist Arthur C. Clarke), we can build a foundation for our ideas.
The black stone, or monolith, is essentially the main character of this movie. It seems to tease us with its intentions, notably whether humans should look outside of themselves or inside of themselves for answers to the universe. Four different monoliths appear, each one coinciding with an eclipse and a phase in man’s evolution. From Clarke’s words, we gather that the monolith on the Moon is a type of “cosmic alarm,” put there to alert its owners when mankind had finally reached space. We can then make the assumption that whoever placed these objects in man’s path is definitely of advanced intelligence, and perhaps even immortal. Still, we have to ask whether these stones existed to help or harm our progress as a race (And when we refer to the monoliths, we should automatically be referring to its creators as well).
Somehow the presence of a monolith invoked the apes to use bones as tools for survival; this eventually led to the invention of spacecrafts. On the moon, a monolith pointed man in the direction of Jupiter, or the realm of the “infinite,” which presumably led to a higher life-form (Dr. Bowman as a fetus) coming to Earth. At first glance, it appears the monoliths were aiding human evolvement, yet we mustn’t forget the millions of years of history that Kubrick purposely discarded. The apes are inspired to use the bones as tools, but they essentially use them to beat and kill members of their own race, just as humans have used advances in technology to wage wars and destroy the Earth. Like the Gods of most polytheistic religions, the monoliths are mysteriously dualistic, both provoking man towards violent tendencies and pushing man towards a higher plane of existence. They feasibly could represent a form of the Ten Commandments in the beginning of the film (instructions delivered on a stone tablet), and William Blake’s metaphorical “doors of perception” at the film’s conclusion (evidenced by Bowman physically traveling through the monolith).
As far as the confusing ending, Kubrick has stated that the bedroom was created from fragments of Bowman’s mind; perhaps the claustrophobic, tomb-like atmosphere of the room was made to echo the effects of social advances on an individual’s empathy. Bowman’s swift aging could be a result of passing through the monolith (and literally growing grey hairs of wisdom), the doppelganger effect (seeing one’s double mythically results in death), or simply being in a zone of space where time is warped.
As far as the fetus (or “Starchild”), one might recall Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Superman” paradigm. (Essentially Nietzsche believed that all of mankind was a stepping stone for a higher race- the Superman- that would remold societal values to fit everyday needs vs. the beliefs of church, God, or any higher power. Mankind would transform and transcend to better their lives as Earthlings, instead of looking to an outside, unknown deity, or falling into nihilism. This was a theme in his novel “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” which interestingly is the title of a main compositional piece by Richard Strauss, used in the film). The quintessential, concluding image of the movie (the fetus facing another planet in its own celestial sphere), is remarkably profound as it not only represents a new “dawn of man,” but perhaps a revitalized planet Earth (Gaia) as well.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is an ostensibly simple film, but there are tons of layers under the surface if one looks hard enough (Jungian archetypes, human self-preservation, humanistic emotion in technology, spiritual rebirth, significance of character names, alchemic/Gnostic symbols, use of propaganda, eternal recurrence, shape and appearance of spacecraft, Freud’s “death drive,” spiritual stagnation vs. technological progress, and so on).
The key is finding a connection to the film that reflects your personal experience, both as an Earthling and as an individual.