Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey is a humbling experience. Knowledge of Stanley Kubrick’s genius preceded my first viewing of the film, and the grand scale of the subject matter only intensified my feelings of ineptitude. I am sure the letters appearing on the spacecrafts dashboards are anything but random, but I couldn’t tell you what they signify. I can’t claim to really grasp what’s going on in the last sequence of the film. But isn’t that the way it should be? I’m only human after all, in the vast and ever expanding universe, with no monoliths to help me find my way.
I’ll start where the film starts, at the beginning of the Dawn of Man. We open on a cluster of apes, who appear to be living peacefully in a desert landscape among tapirs, munching on the limited vegetation and passing away the days in contented ignorance of their being. There’s a low growl and a flash of yellow as a leopard jumps from a cave and mauls the unlucky ape who sits closest to the den. The onlooking apes scamper away in fear. Starting at this point, when our primate ancestors had not ascended to the apex of the food chain, serves as the first book end for the story that’s about to unfold. The message seems to be these lives are are not exceptional, they’re expendable even, and therefore so are their human counterparts — nothing more than small pieces in an ever shifting framework of the universe at large.
Next, we watch as the apes are approached by another clan of primates. They screech at each other, asserting collective dominance until the first group is pushed away from the watering hole that they had previously laid claim to, and it’s understood that the muddied water is liquid gold in the squalid, desert, atmosphere. The first group of apes, our heroes, bunker down together in caves for the night, and there’s something comforting about their intimacy and their desire to stay close and take comfort from one another. Throughout the film there are quiet nods to the importance of family and connection to fellow man (/ape). The scene of the animals falling asleep wrapped up in each other is the first introduction we see to the power of that bond.
When the apes wake up, we are introduced to the first black monolith, which they approach with fear and then with wonder and curiosity. Shortly after the discovery, one enterprising ape discovers he can use the bone of a decomposed tapir to crush the skull of the skeleton. The score shifts to the crashing of tippany drums and low bellows of horns — loud, violent, and destructive.
Here was the dividing line between man and ape: the capacity for tools and the understanding that power is granted to those who know the value of a large stick. Tools granted the apes safety and vanquished their competitors. The newly minted humans have peaked themselves above other species of the time, a point driven home as the apes feast on the raw meat of felled tapirs.
Power becomes inextricable from destruction, tools from the dawn of man to deep into the space age become a beacon of safety and a harbinger of threat. The black monolith, standing ominously as a post in time, towers above the discovery.
2:aSO premiered in theaters a few months prior to Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, at the peak of the space race, when our nation and the world was enamored by the call of the final frontier, and of bravely going where no man has gone before. The reverberations of this event must of rattled through the hearts and brains of everyone who knew of it, and Kubrick’s own fascination has led to the development of at least one conspiracy theory that I don’t necessarily buy, but is compelling in its own right. Immediately following the Dawn of Man, we see our species flying through the far reaches of the cosmos accompanied by the soft strings of Johann Strauss II’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube. The contrast between the apes savagely tearing apart raw meat against the soft strings of Johann Strauss behind dancing, floating, white structures help add context for the shift from past to future.
The images of ships and stations over the symphonic score represent both a new age of human mental opulence and humanity’s primitive coital symbolism. The space crafts are awe inspiring and belie a requirement for delicate, mental aptitude. However, the imagery of elongated, phallic, ships docking themselves in spinning ports suggests that humans will never escape their primal instincts and the fundamental need to reproduce in order to continue the development of the evolving human brain — a suggestion driven home by the video call Floyd Heywood has with his daughter when he arrives in the space station.
In fact, maintenance of the human body and dexterity of the human brain are consistently presented side by side by Kubrick. When Heywood eats / drinks his meal aboard the ship, the images of carrots and peas on the packaging serve as a gentle reminder of our dependence on mother Earth for sustenance, and the precarious status of the living as we venture outside of our organic atmosphere.The space station is littered with corporate vestiges of marketers willing and able to outpace the confines of our planet — PanAm manages the space station and Howard Johnson owns a hotel aboard the craft; these companies materialize as odd ghosts of former empires for the modern viewer, obviously chosen for their seemingly impervious standing among American culture and economics.
When asked by a fellow scientist during his layover why the Clavius station refused a request for an emergency landing, a violation of international space agreements, Heywood says he cannot comment on the rumors of an epidemic ravaging that base. The quick reference to international space agreements should not be dismissed as insignificant, especially bearing in mind the film’s release coincided with the height of the contentious space race with the Soviet Union. The treaties serve as a gentle reminder that more can be accomplished when humans band together (harkening back to the apes with their clubs) than when they isolate and withhold information from each other. The choice of “epidemic” for the cover story is also a telling counterpoint to the setting — tiny, invisible, microbes invading bodies and stealing lives, using and disposing of our cells is as opposite from vast space as one could hope for. Both forces are beyond the control of humans, despite our best efforts, and they continue to addle our conceptualization of our status in the scope of the infinite. After a brief meeting, Heywood and the fellow panel of scientists visit the monolith where they run their gloved, protected, human hands over the onyx surface of the figure. When the first rays of the sun touch the monolith, a piercing tone punctures the ears of the astronauts and their gloved hands clasp onto the side of their helmeted ears. The next phase of evolution is now initiated.
The third act begins with two astronauts moving around a new spaceship, seemingly invisible to each other. They consume their processed space food mush in silence while watching a segment about themselves on BBC World News. They speak to each other and the reporter on their screen, but not as they sit side by side. It is during the interview we are first introduced to the spacecraft’s super computer, HAL 9000. The computer is touted as not only having never made an error, it also feels and considers itself himself a sentient being who is capable of not only complex thought, but also complex emotions. In the series of following scenes we see HAL convincingly demonstrate this consciousness. He plays chess with Frank despite the fact he is unbeatable. HAL appreciates David’s artistic stylings of the fellow scientists who are being transported in hypersleep, admiring the likeness of the face, a feature HAL does not possess. Ultimately, he is only an all hearing and all seeing eye, a red iris with a yellow pupil that watches and processes his crewmates’ actions.
The astronauts busy themselves but do not speak to each other. At one point Frank jogs around the circular main pathway on the space station (is he running up hill or downhill? I’m dying to know) punching the precious, breathable, air — moving his muscles and refining his body. This is one of many circular images shown throughout the film, perhaps representative of the grinding wheel of time and evolution, unstoppable but also cyclical. At another point, David reclines himself and watches a video message from his parents (Frasier’s Dad!) wishing him a happy birthday, another gentle reminder of the cultural importance of family and human bonds to one another. David watches the message stoically in the sterile, all white, setting. When the message ends, HAL also wishes him a happy birthday, David thanks him and requests that he adjusts his headrest. HAL wavers between being treated as a third crew member, a buddy, the help, and a non-sentient, critical, machine.
HAL is the first subject aboard to suggest an ulterior motive behind the mission, but he is shrugged off by the astronauts. Shortly after, HAL tells the men that he predicts a mechanism on the ship will fail imminently, an assertion that amounts to the computer’s first mistake. When confronted about this mistake HAL equates the miscalculation to human error, insisting that is what all mistakes by computers have amounted to in the past. This is a confusing excuse for HAL, who is a man built machine after all, so can he really be wrong that his mistake is ultimately a human one? Can we pinpoint his shirking of responsibility as an emotional reaction, evidentiary proof of his capability for emotion? Was it embarrassment that led to that statement? The humans themselves are suspicious of his new found fallibility, and the first time we see them speak directly to each other, they plan a sequester in the one place HAL cannot hear them. The humans, again demonstrating their reliance on their fellow man, discuss the possibility that HAL is in fact capable of being wrong, and agree that if their assumption is proven they will need decommission his mainframe (or something along those lines).
HAL, however, is not only all hearing but also all seeing, and manages to read their lips and learn of their plans. Just as we witnessed in the chess game, HAL hatches a counter attack by suggesting that the astronauts replace the device to test if it will in fact fail as he predicted. When David space walks outside of the aircraft to reinsert the mechanism, HAL cuts off his oxygen line, which is also his tether and David proceeds to spin uncontrollably through space. All of a sudden the constant, belabored, breathing of the man in the helmet is cut off. I for one at that moment realized I had been pacing my breathing with his, enacting the same rhythmic mirroring that tends to occur when you lie next to another body and you find your vital organs sync to one another. Having that unconscious beat cut off has a visceral effect on the body and the already heightened anxiety of the viewer, again demonstrating our dependency on forces beyond availability in the hostile outer reaches of the universe. Throughout the following scenes, HAL also cuts off the life support for the three scientists who were aboard the craft in hypersleep, their heart rates quicken and stop as one by one the lines on their monitor turn from cascading one dimensional mountains into small white sperms following the same track across the screen — another hint at the inextricability of death from rebirth.
When David’s oxygen line is severed by HAL, Frank jumps into action, donning his own space suit and using a pod to chase after his crew mate’s spiraling body (the bond of one human to another continuing to play a crucial role in the escalation of action) exhibiting a trait HAL must have counted on when formulating his plan to eliminate the humans on board. Frank manages to clasp David’s body in the outstretched arms of the pod, and he carries him back in a posture that resembles many depictions of Mary holding the freshly crucified body of Jesus.
Predictably, HAL will not allow Frank to reenter the ship, and confesses to learning of the men’s plan to disconnect him. Frank is able to get himself back on board (without David’s body) and he promptly proceeds to disable HAL’s main processor. What follows is a heart breaking sequence of HAL begging for his life in low computer drones as Frank releases the chips from the computer and they rise in a slow succession, each resembling a small white monolith, as HAL continues to chant “Please stop Frank, I can feel it. I can feel it.”When HAL is finally disconnected, Frank receives a transmission from Heywood detailing the true nature of the mission he is embarking on, confirming HAL’s suspicions.
It’s worth pausing to consider the creation of HAL in the course of the film. He is said to be unerring, but is also capable of emotion — two forces that I believe to be mutually exclusive. While HAL’s mistake was not necessarily an emotionally charged hiccup at its core, his ensuing reaction demonstrates how emotional, sentient, beings cannot be infallible. Self awareness is inseparable from a knee jerk instinct toward self protection, and HAL also shows how knowledge is entangled with destruction — a distorted reproduction of the same instincts demonstrated by the apes in the Dawn of Man. Was HAL’s error and subsequent reaction plotted in advance by Team Heywood to encourage the astronauts to disable the computer and therefore receive his recorded message? Possibly. But it seems unlikely that Heywood would have accounted for and allowed HAL’s murder of four crew members. Hal proves that emotions and the miracle of being, of feeling alive, are unpredictable forces that can lead to unforeseen consequences.
After HAL’s decommissioning, we watch as Frank takes one of the pods in search of Jupiter and the uncovered monolith. He is sucked through some kind of wormhole (?) and we see a spectrum of lights flash over his stunned face. I’m not sure if he goes into another dimension, but that’s my hunch. My guess is the flashes of lights are representative of newly gained knowledge, a color wheel or spectrum of the human experience and roles of consciousness within the greater scope of infinite space, where one extreme touches the other. We watch Frank watching himself in a sparsely decorated French Baroque boudoir, his perspective shifting with each manifestation of himself. At one point he eats solemnly at his desk, in isolation and apparently emotionless. We then he see his ancient, decrepit body, desperate to inhale the oxygen he’s so dependent on and a giant fetus grows and expands before his wondered gaze. Again we witness as death becomes life, as destruction of one being leads to the rebirth of another.
This may be an optimistic reading of the scene, but I think it’s difficult to deny that there is always a suggestion of an equal and opposite reaction to the turning wheels of life and being, of dependency and freedom, and of evolution and destruction throughout 2001: a Space Odyssey. Man may journey far into the deep reaches of space, but he will always need food and air and water. Man may build an omnipotent machine, but he will always be at risk of human error. As far as we evolve, we will always remain close to the legacy of those apes in the desert, curious and destructive, bonded to one another, protecting our watering hole.