“You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.” – Stanley Kubrick in a 1968 interview with Playboy.
One of the most effective features of the film is how it draws on such a wide range of different thought-provoking ideas and interpretations without having one apparent singular outline. However, it is very easy (and so commonly the case) to become frustrated by the extensive depth of ambiguity. The true beauty of this movie is that there is no definitive explanation for it all. The only conclusive element is what is seen, heard, or felt on-screen such as the sequential narrative, vividly lush cinematography, meticulously detailed set and costume design, the masterfully symbolic use of classical music within the powerfully unsettling score, and its subtle yet striking performances. Kubrick intended 2001: A Space Odyssey to be ‘experienced’ opposed to being directly understood. This is something Roger Ebert passionately supports :- http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/2001-the-monolith-and-the-message
Everything in the film is left non-verbalized or unanswered for the simple reason that what man cannot comprehend is in itself most interesting to man. Therefore, I believe that it is through this reflection of the audiences “confusion” (willingness to understand) which is alternatively represented on-screen – creating if you will; a ‘black mirror’ effect. To quote Ebert – “It’s what Kubrick wanted to say about man as a race, an idea and an inhabitant of the universe.” To clarify, I am not stating that the film is incomplete of any discernible meaning, I just believe that it has no singular concrete elucidation. In furtherance of this, here are several interesting theories to support the films philosophical representation of the universe and everything connected.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
The film does of course share the same name as Arthur C. Clarke’s novel but considering they were developed simultaneously, and the book was actually released after the film (which rarely ever happens), then it shouldn’t be regarded as the ultimate answer. I guess both Clarke and Kubrick wanted the film and novel to exist in some sort of partnered experiential form, especially considering Clarke has made statements promoting how he’d like readers of his book to watch the film after reading “and repeat that dose as often as necessary”. In a way, the novel does hold a fair amount of answers but only to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and not that of Stanley Kubrick’s. Now, that is essentially what you are getting when watching this film; A Stanley Kubrick movie! It’s clear that Kubrick made this the way he intended without having to adhere to any explanation or having to compromise his vision in any shape or form. Which, of course, is also one of the defining factors behind the man’s success as one of the greatest directors of all time.
There are several religious interpretations of the film but for me, the most attractive idea is connected to what Kubrick loosely summarized to Rolling Stone magazine in an interview:- “On the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God.”
In other interviews, he has gone on to explain that he believes the film to be religious but not in any traditional monotheistic sense. He proclaims the film as consideration for the scientific concept of God – given the sheer enormity and magnitude of the universe, the conceivable probability of extraterrestrial existence, the extreme likeliness of a higher intelligence amidst a plausible account for advanced evolutionary development in both biological and technological process, illuminates his belief (and my own) towards the expectation of a ‘higher being’.
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. Do you want to be the ebb of that great tide, and revert back to the beast rather than overcome mankind? What is the ape to a man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just so shall a man be to the Overman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm. Once you were apes, yet even now man is more of an ape than any of the apes.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I personally feel that many of the film’s central narrative, themes, and ideas run parallel to Nietzschean values and ideologies. Of course, we have the most obvious reference with the iconic Richard Strauss piece – Also Sprach Zarathustra, but more thought-provoking is Nietzsche’s theories of the Übermensch (the potential of mankind.) The film certainly touches upon an understanding of man as a missing link between apes and civilized beings. These interpretations are supported further when analyzing the ‘star-child’, of which can be argued to represent the final step between man and the Übermensch.
Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is also regarded as effective reference considering it draws upon the human conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of being. Apollonian meaning a rational, scientific, sober, and self-controlled mode of existence. Dionysian meaning chaotic, spontaneous, and instinctual. We can see in the film that the apes and David Bowman’s transformation appear to be of Dionysian form, whilst all scenes of human technological advancement seem to be wholly Apollonian. Through the deterioration of the HAL 9000 we witness the result of an Apollonian imbalance.
Logical discussion can be made for the films allegorical representation of human conception, birth and death. Many claims have been made to how it singularly illustrates physical human conception through sperm like spacecraft, planets symbolized as eggs, and how the coming together of the two trigger the growth of the star-child (especially with the intergalactic luminescent light show). Although this is very insightful, I personally believe these elements reinforce Nietzschean ideas of the progression of man to Übermensch opposed to a representation of physical conception.
Wheat’s Triple Allegory
In Leonard F. Wheat’s book, Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory, not only does he clarify that the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is an allegory but he also explains that it embodies three allegories – Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Odyssey by Homer, and Arthur C. Clarke’s theory of the future symbiosis of man and machine. For Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Wheat notes how the whole film acts as a metaphor for mankind walking a tight-rope balanced between an ape and the Übermensch. For interpretations of The Odyssey, he explains how the name “Bowman” refers to Odysseus and compares the connection between Bowman’s extermination of HAL using a key to Odysseus’ blinding of the Cyclops using a stake – (both mono-eyed beings taken down by small instruments). And finally, for Clarke’s theory of the intergalactic unification of mankind and technology, Wheat expands how this progresses throughout a three stage ‘leap’ cycle advancing from ape to man, man to machine, and then from man to star-child. I also believe this to be an intellectual viewpoint, however, most of it can be diverted back to a Nietzschean translation.
Comparisons to the Cyclops and Frankenstein’s monster have been made to the Discovery One mainframe computer; HAL 9000 given that both are synthetic life forms. This is underlined by iconic imagery of Frankenstein’s monster on a bloodthirsty rampage with extended arms and hands simulated by the empty pod controlled by HAL in its callous murder of astronaut Frank Poole. It’s also suggested that when HAL is introduced to the unique and alien concept of human dishonesty, it gradually results in his malfunctional demise.
It is perhaps this wonderfully essential feature of the film that creates most speculation – and for that reason alone, I believe Kubrick has achieved exactly what he intended by simultaneously fascinating and mystifying the viewer. A true enigma, the monolith embodies both results perfectly as it can be logically interpreted religiously, technologically, biologically, narratively, evolutionarily, alchemically, and historically. It activates epic transitions on a narrative, evolutionary, and philosophical scale. So far, most aspects of the film can be connected to Nietzschean values, however, I find the monolith to be a completely disconnected individual component. Unmitigatedly and thoroughly Kubrickian.
Its most valuable reading is when viewed as a cyclical evolutionary trigger from ape to man to space man to star child. In its most basic and literal sense, it represents the ‘tool’ in a plethoric range of understandings. Many have claimed how the monolith represents the cinema screen itself which in my view is an incredibly powerful interpretation working in some ways as a meta ‘tool’ enabling the audience to subconsciously view the film narcissistically and introspectively.
I like to view the monolith as an enigmatic entity which echoes our human nature to either explore and investigate or live in fear of what we cannot comprehend.
Overall, the movie has to be considered one of the most (if not the most) intellectually thought-provoking films of all time, considering the ever-growing interpretative readings. I would advise watching this film as often as you can with as much of an open mind as possible to dynamically altering perceptions – and not to conclude your viewing with a singular definition. But by all means, enjoy the experience of confusion and bewilderment as you venture through Kubrick’s concept of time and space.
5 Giant Monoliths out of 5
by Simon Garganera Price