“A Cypher, Wrapped in an Enigma, and Smothered in Secret Sauce”
When I was asked about writing a film column for Nerds and Nomsense, I envisioned a series of articles both for film nerds and for nerds who like film. No film covers both of those groups like 2001: A Space Odyssey. No film has been more divisive to Kubrick fans, film buffs, or sci-fan fans. It’s less a film and more an experience; it’s more a journey than a movie.
Full disclosure: it took me three times to finish a full viewing. I fell asleep during the first two attempts. I finished those viewings in caffeine-fueled spurts. The third time I watched it was as an undergrad majoring in film studies; 2001 was shown at the university’s theater. To this day, I point to that experience as a testament to how certain films must be seen in certain ways and at certain times in your life. The inanity of space travel, the emotional flatness of Dave and Frank, and the near-total lack of action lead to a rather slow-paced film. Some call it “meditative” or “transcendent.” Others call it “boring.” The silver screen allowed me to become surrounded by the film, enveloped by it, and ultimately, I left the theater slightly transformed. The movie was never meant to be degraded by my VCR and thirteen inch television in a dorm room. 2001 requires much more than that.
What the film does require, however, is more than just a big screen and a good sound system. It requires understanding and a willingness to dive into the deep end of complexity and, at times, confusion. In my article, on The Shining, I mentioned that I took a class devoted to this film. It was an…interesting… seventeen weeks. Not many films need that much attention and study. I don’t intend to dissect the entire film here; a glimpse is plenty. Much like The Shining, this is a movie meant to spark debate and to get the audience to think.
Consider the opening: 2001 begins without imagery and with ambient music. The presence of the atonal, non-melodic music evokes a question of it being diagetic or non-diagetic; to answer this question leads to another question: if it’s within that world, what’s creating the music? If it’s not, we’re staring at a void. It’s a movie (in part) about space travel–so this question about music leads to a philosophical debate involving the big bang theory: the representation of the void with a black screen in collusion with the presence of diagetic music begs the question of a god-like force beginning this filmic world. However, if the music is non-diagetic, how can be represented as such? By definition, film music is present to guide the viewer’s emotional response to a scene; in a scene without action or movement, what emotions are to be conjured? Certainly the dissonant notes are placed to evoke fear and anxiety, and the major chords bring a pleasant response, but without a world to match the notes to, no reason exists to catalogue this music as non-diagetic. Thus, as diagetic tones spanning just under three minutes, a philosophical dialogue must be opened to examine the presence of a deity within the filmed world.
The movie hasn’t really even begun.
This is what you’re going to be dealing with when you watch this movie.
Given the space I have to write this article, it would be impossible to comment on the parrallels to Nietzschean philosophy, the mirroring of The Odyssey, the perils of artificial intelligence, or the treatise on humanity’s evolution present in the film. I’ve written those papers, and trust me, no one needs to read them again. But there is one element of the film that perplexes many who watch it, and it’s worth discussing here: the monolith.
From the beginning of the film to the Star Child, the question remains as to the purpose of the dark, looming monolith. However, whatever purpose the monolith has is incomprehensible without knowing what exactly it is. Obvious conjectures and possibilities emerge: the monolith is an alien object sent to guide our evolution to a specific outcome. The monolith is a messenger of a God-figure, sent to push humanity’s development. In either case, what is essential to the monolith is that it is not merely symbolic; the monolith acts. The monolith perpetuates the plot of the film. This is the important point often lost in the rhetorical debate of what the monolith means; any discussion of the symbolism of the monolith must invariably take into account what the monolith does. The ramifications of permanently altering human evolution are not without weight; it is due to this factor that the monolith must be self-sustaining and self-manifesting. It is not that its origins lie in a Aristotelian unmoved mover, but rather as a predestined ideal for man to follow and develop through its guidance, with the ultimate evolution into the form of the Star Child.
If you’ve read the original book, you know that it’s Moon-Watcher, the man ape, who touches the monolith first. When he does, there’s a transformation. He understands tools and weapons, and thus initiates a step towards evolution. There’s a connection here between the monolith and evolution–it’s unclear at this point in the film, but it may be agent guiding evolution. The next time it appears, the monolith is on the moon. Scientists and government agents are examining it–and are quickly overwhelmed as it emits a kind of sound, just as it had with Moon-Watcher. The film cuts to the Jupiter mission. Though as explicit as the development of tools, once again the monolith can be associated with pushing our technological capacity forward. Humanity hasn’t necessary evolved at this point; at least, not as whole species. Bowman and Poole, the astronauts heading the Jupiter mission, may be the first to move beyond their current state of evolution. After all, HAL, the ship’s computer, kills Poole (possibly while under orders from a governing body) on the way to Jupiter. Bowman disables HAL and makes the journey–only to be met by the monolith.
After the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” interstitial title card, the next shot is from within the monolith, which then floats into view in space. The planets and sun make for brief moments of light within the void of space. The space falls away to the infinite as Dave Bowman travels into the dimension beyond normal space; the novel calls it the Star Gate, but certainly other monikers may equally apply: hyperspace, subspace, another dimension, or simply beyond space-time. Whether the monolith becomes a doorway into the Star Gate is up for contention; what matters is the end result of Dave Bowman falling into it and moving beyond space-time. While we, as viewers, are privy only to a few moments of this traveling, with glimpses of galaxies, flashes of light orbs, and worlds beyond measure, it is the final moments of the film–a destination beyond the infinite–which create the heart of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then…
A cold room.
A bed. A mirror.
A chess set on a table.
Bowman eats his meal.
Bowman reaches towards the monolith on his deathbed.
In a place beyond the infinite, Bowman reaches towards the monolith as a symbol of humanity reaching towards the next step in their evolution. The audience never actually sees the physical death of Dave Bowman. What is certain is that the Star Child has been born and therefore, like the Dawn of Man sequence, a new step has been taken. The Star Child is the new incarnation of humanity, leaving a physical body behind in favor of one in concert with the universe.
There’s a lot more to be said about 2001, but I don’t know that it’s necessary. The film doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue or plot. That doesn’t make it a bad film, it’s just better described as an experience instead of a movie. Waxing philosophically over the film certainly has its merits, but when I watch 2001 now, I simply let it wash over, getting lost in all spectacular glory of space travel and the potential of what humanity may become. Ultimately, I leave it to Kubrick’s own words on the metaphysical message of the film and what he’d hoped to offer audiences:
It’s not a message that I ever wanted to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes, there are only a little less than forty minutes of dialogue. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does. (272)
All images in this post are the property of their original owner / creator. Several images are screen shots from 2001: A Space Odyssey. We do not claim to own any of these graphics or be their original creators.