Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: An Existential Odyssey Pedro Blas Gonzalez September 2009 Feature ArticlesIssue 52We should not be too quick to dismiss the nagging suspicion that form is not a limitless, bottomless well of inspiration. On the contrary, form is rather an objective reservoir that meets man’s most pressing æsthetic/metaphysical concerns on its own terms. In addition, it seems that form is best recognized by those who seek it. Today’s hyperactive domain of everyman’s hysterical whims and desires may in reality have very little to do with the nature of form.Cinema is a fine example of a field that from its earliest and rudimentary beginning has evolved beyond the wildest expectations of its originators. Even an informal survey of the thousands of films that have been made makes one privy to the qualitative complexities that all creative enterprise encounters.When there was very little to rely on by way of technology, directors mostly embraced imagination and the inherent value of storytelling. But with the advent and frantic pace of technological development, more directors have come to rely less on storytelling and more on technology itself. It is fair to say that today a great number of films are nothing more than a sophomoric dare to prove that special effects alone can create cinema.While the use of special effects in cinema is a perpetual temptation, this does not preclude the desire of some great directors to forgo its use, as this essentially often interferes with the creative process. We can consider a number of great directors and their successful films, and how they did very well by keeping special effects at bay. We can point out the lyrical qualities of John Ford’s films, the life-affirming nuances that Jacques Tati showcased in his body of work, Jean-Pierre Melville’s profoundly existential dramas, and Alfred Hitchcock’s use of suggestive horror. There are some poignant exceptions, however.As I have written elsewhere, cinema can be an enlightening humanistic art. (1) It is precisely because of its entrancing entertainment qualities that the aforementioned can be convincingly argued. Undoubtedly, the moral and existential condition of man in the first decade of the 21st century is dominated by a profound lack of curiosity and wonder, or what I will characterize as a debilitating boredom. This boredom partly originates as the result of a surplus of visual images. Practically speaking, my suggestion is simply that man’s intellectual, spiritual and moral make-up may very well be exhaustible. By this I mean to stress that innovation can only take us so far before it begins to collapse under the exigencies of its own logic.Might it not be the case, pure and simple, that man’s spiritual and moral development has brought us to these shores? But why should we view this as a spiritual or moral condition and not necessarily as a question of technological advancement, some may ask? One possible answer is that we would not embrace any technological advancement that we weren’t ready to accept morally. If we use the telephone feature, “caller identification” excessively, it is because we find this a useful way of not having to talk to certain callers. And, if according to some statistics, thirty-six percent of the population has a television on during every waking hour as a companion background noise; this may be a strong indicator of some people’s aversion to silence and solitude.Hence a surplus of images may be exactly what the doctor ordered for an age that is existentially superficial and morally saturated with arbitrary, make-work “arts”. Such a profound world-weariness can only be alleviated through yet more images. Images are just what many people crave in order to ascertain any semblance of meaning and purpose. We must not forget that most images do nothing more than take us into an external realm, and keep us from cultivating any contact with ourselves. Hence, we might want to take stock of the root meaning of the word ecstasy: to be totally outside ourselves.Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 majestic 2001: A Space Odyssey has not only solidified its position as one of the best two or three science-fiction films of all time, but, in addition, it is one of the greatest examples of world cinema. 2001 is a superb visual articulation of profound human thought and exalted emotions. This film captures the sublime in ways that few cinematic works ever have. (2)2001: A Space Odyssey is a marvellous combination of entertainment – this is the ultimate purpose of cinema – and an uplifting look at the human condition in relation to the intimidating vastness of space, time and infinity. At this point it is essential to make a sound clarification: 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 and was rated “G” for general audiences. 1968, we must not forget, was also a time when Marxists groups of all stripes and denominations shouted their disapproval and assault on all things familial and on western values.2001 speaks thunderous volumes by utilizing a minimum of dialogue. This appears as a curiosity to us, today, in this age of hollow words. This is also a testament to the ideas and emotions that 2001 conveys. Without utilizing the exaggerated, frantic and breakneck editing that is so fashionable today, this film achieves a timeless cinematic beauty that places it on an artistic pedestal where only few other films dwell.Interestingly, 2001 is a film that comes across as employing a mythological form of storytelling, where ultimately the story is what matters, not the special effects or the popularity of the actors. Some critics of the film have referred to it as “abstract”. Perhaps this is best characterized as a reluctance to embrace and thus work within the demands that this intriguing work makes on the viewer. This is precisely the existential quality that drives this work.What makes the existential aspect of the film so intriguing to so many critics and viewers is that it makes us work for its meaning. Few films are seemingly as demanding on the viewer as 2001. This is not a work that lazily telegraphs its punches, as it were. The idea that beauty, happiness or truth should make us work for their attainment has become anathema in our age.At no time during this film are we given a cheap and transparent exposition of its direction. 2001 begins and ends in what some critics like to refer to as speculation. This film, some believe, is just too much for most audiences to figure out. This may be true. But this is also ironic. 2001 is a science-fiction film and science fiction – at least in written form – demands a great deal of imagination from its readers. These same critics apparently find it necessary to lower the standards when a genre that involves a visual medium is involved.Stanley Kubrick has said that he left the meaning of the film up to the viewer. Of course, this is his prerogative as a director. Yet, 2001 is not deliberately made incomprehensible, as is often the case with a great number of avant-garde, artistic films. This does not preclude the possibility that several possible meanings may surface. This is indeed a very complicated picture.We ought to keep in mind that a work of art may contain one unifying and several correlative meanings or interpretations. However, this does not mean that the director has not ascribed an overarching meaning. 2001 is a challenging film both, philosophically and as high entertainment, but no one can say that it is meaningless. The short story that partially inspired the making of 2001, “The Sentinel”, comes from the imagination of science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.The immediate meaning of 2001 has to do with man’s technological development, and how this has taken us from Earth out to the stars. There are several clear indications of this. Stanley Kubrick’s original title for the film was “Journey Beyond the Stars”. He referred to the film as being akin to “a space odyssey”. He later changed the title, adding the 2001portion.There is some significance in the film being a kind of odyssey, for an odyssey is a long journey replete with difficulties and usually culminating in the discovery of something of transcendent import. If we take Odysseus’ odyssey as an example, we can easily attribute the idea of an odyssey in the film to the return of man to his original source, or what in this case can be said to be pure intelligence.The film begins with a barren landscape that is inhabited by a species of apes. The words “The Dawn of Man” appear, as the viewer witnesses a moon-like landscape. The apes are seen co-existing with many tapirs. One of the apes is then attacked by a leopard. The appearance of the cat showcases the raw power of brawn. The apes are next seen squabbling with each other over a watering hole, but no physical confrontation ensues. The apes are then awakened from their sleep by the appearance of a black, rectangular monolith. They go up to it and reluctantly begin to touch it.The monolith remains stationary, while we witness an ape curiously studying the remains of large animal bones. The ape develops a kind of curiosity that is easily identifiable by his smart countenance. Clearly, the ape is now confronted with an aspect of the very same bones that he had previously ignored. The animal learns to use the largest bone that it can find to attack and kill a tapir. The apes then eat the tapir. These animals have discovered tools. When the next squabble for water takes place between the rival ape clans, the ones with the tools begin to attack the others. Why some apes receive higher intelligence from the monolith and not others, remains an interesting question. The immediate answer, however, is that some of them touch the monolith while others do not. This is a valuable metaphor to ponder in terms of man’s development.Of course, of major significance to the film is the next cut, when the large bone that the ape has launched into the air gives way to a shot of a large, elongated spaceship.The transition that takes place between the ape’s discovery of tools, to the space age is a major component of the film’s inherent meaning. Because the monolith resembles some form of pure intelligence, we can surmise from this that we owe our intelligence to this thing that man comes into contact with several times throughout the film.But what exactly is the monolith? Is it intelligence, pure and simple? Is it a guiding principle for man? Apparently all of these, for man’s discovery of tools is directly tied to the appearance of the monolith. Some commentators have surmised that perhaps the monolith is representative of some alien intelligence. This is conceivable, but, if one embraces this possibility, we are still left with the question of whom or what send it. The monolith may be of an intelligent design, but it certainly shows no signs of life, as we know it.If the monolith is interpreted as some kind of alien intelligence, one can assume that intelligence may have something to convey to man. But what? The monolith only makes a humming sound. Those who come in contact with it are changed by it, as are the apes at the start of the film and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) at the end. Yet these entities do not understand what has happened to them. Thus, to interpret the monolith as a form of alien intelligence leaves us with more questions than answers. Such an interpretation adds very little to the coherence of the film.In addition, if we argue that the latter is the case, we also then have to ask: What exactly is the point of sending this metallic envoy to appear before man? We cannot view communication with humans as a motive for the appearance of the monolith, because clearly that does not take place. And, given that the monolith does not communicate, what can the guiding reason for its mission be? It is probably more fruitful to assume that the monolith is either a God-like entity that is the cause of all things intelligent in the universe or that it is a symbol, a metaphor, even, for intelligence proper.Either way, the monolith has a transformative power over the apes and subsequently the astronauts. This is evident at the end of the film when the lone astronaut is transformed into an old man before returning to childhood. Whatever the message that the monolith imparts to the astronauts, it nonetheless allows them to have greater understanding. This alone makes the monolith a transcendent power that the astronauts heed to. But even here, one ought to be careful with hyper interpretations.What is important in the sequence of appearances of the monolith before ape and man is not so much that the monolith appears to man, but that man (or ape) always finds itself where the monolith is: at the dawn of man, on the lunar base, and out in the orbit of Jupiter. This is not a coincidence, for technological man goes out of his way to investigate the monolith on the moon and in the orbit of Jupiter.2001: A Space Odyssey is a film about space exploration. This is a basic driving motive for making the film. Both Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick convey this theme admirably. From the 1930s and through the 1970s, space exploration was a dominant concern of science-fiction writers. The science-fiction magazines of the time and reaching into today’s vast market have always kept the exploration of space, aliens and intelligent life forms as a predominant concern.Scientists, too, warmed up to the realistic possibility of near-space exploration, mainly of the moon, after Robert Goddard’s successful launching of his liquid fuel rocket, and after World War II, with the advent of the V-2 rocket. Before that, literature had already entertained such a possibility in the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.Hence, a film about space exploration must undoubtedly have a human component, either in the form of unmanned or manned space vehicles. 2001 is part of that human drama. Of course, the film develops a rather unique and highly complex drama of its own. One of the plot components of the film is the drama of just what we can expect to encounter in space.2001 also entertains a man-versus-machine theme in the form of the tenacious HAL 9000 computer. While the computer is said to fail, it only does so because of the instructions that it has received. If it feels that the mission will be compromised by the astronauts in any way, HAL, which has been programmed to have an emotional response, will act accordingly. The problem is that what it deems as rational behaviour entails the “termination” of the hibernating astronauts, as well as Bowman’s partner, Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).The drama that truly drives the film has everything to do with the human condition. Bowman and Poole embark on a journey that will take a very long time to complete and one from which they may never return. These are considerations that they accept. But astronauts in “2001” must maintain a modicum of cool that keeps them distant from their loved ones. This is a mechanism that they must cultivate in order to safeguard themselves from too great an emotional tie with the people they left behind on Earth.When Bowman is called by his parents on the teleconference screen, he acts serene and unemotional, even though they are calling to sing Poole happy birthday. Bowman talks to his parents in the same sterile way that he talks to HAL. In fact, we can add that his intonation matches his cold and clinical surrounding on the ship. One can gather that the psychological make up of a Dave Bowman must be this way in order to protect himself from the harsh conditions and distances that he must endure. So, when HAL begins to act up, Bowman acts calm and collected, as he has been trained to do. One wonders how he must truly feel to find himself in such dire straits.When I first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey at age twelve, I was awed by the visual spectacle that the film presents us with. I was also moved by the sophisticated themes of the film. What I was most profoundly impacted by, however, was the character portrayed by Dave Bowman. I wondered just what Bowman felt, and how he kept from losing all sense of reality. I didn’t see Bowman as tied to a mission devised by a space agency, but rather, Bowman, totally alone and having to deal with his thoughts and emotions. This is an aspect of 2001 that very few writers have commented on.Dave Bowman’s existential drama has captivated my imagination since I first saw this film. Subsequent viewings, and there have been more than twenty throughout the years, have not changed this impression. It seems that lost in all the talk about computers, and space travel, and the harshness of space, etc., we have somehow lost the essential drama that is the centre of the film: Dave Bowman’s existential condition as he stumbles into old age and is later transfigured once again into a child.Again, I must reiterate that space travel, no different than gardening, let us say, can only make sense to the subjects directly invested in it. Nowhere do we find more existential drama than in the persona and inner workings of those who have risked everything in order to seek understanding. The view of the world and himself that a Dave Bowman ascribes to is probably vastly different from most people. When we watch Bowman struggling to undermine HAL, we see a man who must exhaust his entire stock of ideas and emotions in order to safeguard his safety. What we don’t realize is just how much of himself he must consume in order to garner the success of the mission.Even Voltaire’s famous notion of “cultivating one’s garden” requires a minimum modicum of existential self-awareness. One cannot cultivate one’s garden – that is, remain busy all the time – without having conceived the idea that cultivating one’s garden is a higher value, say, than other forms of existential inauthenticity that remove us from the cultivation of the self.Bowman tends to his ship like Candide to his garden. However, he does so from the understanding that he is in control of his choices. Thus, when HAL threatens to override his command, and eventually take his life, this very practical, unassuming man must roll up his sleeves. If the latter action does not spring from an existential understanding of danger and survival, then Bowman would be akin to a HAL with flesh. This is the interesting part of Bowman that we only see immerge under duress.Bowman takes his mission seriously. He is seen going over technical details, exercising and relaxing. He knows that he will be on the ship for a long time. When the first signs that something is wrong onboard appear, he does not immediately come to suspect HAL, the master computer. This is an indication of the kind of trust that he and the others have placed on this machine. Knowing that HAL has his life in its control is not something that Bowman takes for granted. From the outset of the flight, he demonstrates great respect for the computer.Bowman is shrewder than he appears, though. When the problems begin, he goes about trying to figure out what is taking place. Things only turn sinister when the hibernating astronauts are “killed” by HAL. Whatever working relationship Bowman has had with HAL ends when the astronaut discovers just what it means to be controlled by a machine. HAL refuses to acknowledge that he has done anything wrong in terminating the lives of the hibernating astronauts. How could he? Having been instructed to follow certain guidelines and operating logic, the computer can only respond accordingly.We give away our freedom, or so it seems to computers, for a greater return on our overall freedom. This is the idea behind our greater demand for freedom from undertaking many tasks. Bowman’s decision to go on the voyage to Jupiter is his initial choice. Astronauts work with highly sophisticated machines. This is the first rule of thumb for astronauts. But this is only half of the equation, for astronauts put their lives at the mercy of machines that they themselves have to operate, regulate, and calibrate. This is an uneasy marriage.When HAL acts up, Bowman has no choice but to take over in a way that he didn’t need to before. The whole point of having HAL run the ship is precisely so that the astronauts can save their energy for the important task of confronting the monolith. Bowman’s capacity to take action against this computer never wavers as a genuine possibility. On the contrary, the so-called relationship that the astronauts have with HAL is predicated on the fact that it is merely a computer.Those who argue that HAL essentially creates a mutiny on the ship are right, but only to a certain point. When HAL disconnects the hibernating astronauts it does not do so from any computer error, and certainly not from a sense of moral evil. The effect, of course, is the same. But the idea of mutiny hardly passes muster. HAL acts, not from an existential freedom, but from exactly the opposite, an implanted command that he is determined to obey. In fact, by acting up, HAL merely forces Bowman to exercise his freedom. The latter is not theoretical, but life-saving.Much can be made of clichés like machines ruling over man, and man becoming at a lost to enact any sense of control, etc. While some of these concerns may ring true, we must recognize that we have had over a century now to come to grips with these questions. Technology, either in 1968, when 2001 was released, or today is nothing new to us. If we become tongue-tied by an inarticulate capacity to understand our world, clearly this is of our own doing. The proof of this is that outside primitive man, that is, some ideal of man as a savage, man has lived with technology for as long as he has been known to exist as Homo sapiens.Bowman’s condition on the spaceship is one of a proto first-man who encounters the world and human reality afresh everyday. He knows what astronauts in 2001 are capable of doing. However, his scientific training can only deliver him so far. Whatever existential reservoir he has as a man will determine how he acts in any given situation.The question of the inevitability of technology to take over the human person remains with us, even though, one suspects, that it is more of a tongue-and-cheek exercise than a genuine concern for most of the people who raise this question. We simply do not know how to live without technology of any kind. Technology may seem to be anathema to existential authenticity according to some, but this is simply not the case. The technology that we enjoy has come from the entrails of our existential longings.Bowman demonstrates his existential concerns once that he finds himself alone and threatened by HAL. And throughout the star gate sequence, when he is travelling over some very strange and even frightening terrain, we watch his face in amazement, as he fears what is yet to come. Bowman is a man alone. He is not alone in the sense that we speak of being alone on Earth, for here the possibilities of companionship are truly real. Bowman is alone, as perhaps no person in human history has ever been.Through his encounters with space, time, and a malfunctioning computer, he then arrives at the realization that he has transcended himself into an immediate form of old age. Finding himself old and not as nimble as he once was, Bowman comes face to face with his own mortality. He sits in bed in a lavishly decorated room, breathing hard and staring at the ceiling – or the stars – as he begins to die.The end of 2001: A Space Odyssey finds Dave Bowman reeling with amazement at what he has become. At the end of the film, he is transfigured into a star child, or what is essentially a child once again. Bowman has found the ultimate meaning of human reality, as this has transformed him into a kind of being that has no need to continue searching. This is the kind of awe and wonder pertinent to the human condition that the film explores.EndnotesSee Pedro Blas González, “Jacques Tati: Last Bastion of Innocence”, Senses of Cinema, No. 37, Oct.-Dec. 2006, p. 1-11. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968). References:Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: The New American Library, 1968).The Hammer of God (New York: Bantam Books, 1993).2010: Odyssey Two (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982).The Fountains of Paradise (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).2061: Odyssey Three (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987).The Exploration of Space (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1959).Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (Eds), Arthur C. Clarke (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977).