This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Daniel PG Simpson’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
There are certain films that take time to appreciate. Films which initially are not truly appreciated and it’s only after a certain stretch of time that the films are thought of in a more positive light. Stanley Kubrick spent the majority of his career making such films. Dr. Strangelove may have been deemed an instant classic upon release, but the rest of Kubirck’s work needed time before they would be called masterpieces. Films such as The Shining and Full Metal Jacket took years before they became viewed as classics. Even a film like A Clockwork Orange, which critics liked upon release, still had a large group of detractors. Kubrick’s films are just so ambitious and artistic that they’re often challenging upon first viewing. Of his filmography, no film epitomizes that attitude quite like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I first saw 2001 when I was fourteen, which was right when I first started to take film more seriously as an art. 2001 was the first Kubrick film I’d ever seen. At the time, I wasn’t a big fan. I respected the craftsmanship that went into the film, and I thought the HAL 9000 was cool, but I found large portions of the film very boring. I wasn’t ready for 2001, given my age, my lack of experience with Kubrick, as well as my limited exposure to more artistic films. I wonder if my reaction may have been different had a seen the film for the first time more recently, though a friend of mine believes, “No one’s ever ready for 2001 the first time.” Based on what I’ve noticed, I’d say this is true.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably talk about the film’s plot, which in itself can be a challenge. The film opens at the “Dawn of Man” and follows a group of prehistoric ape-men who are evolved by the presence of a strange and unearthly monolith. As the ape-men progress, the film eventually jumps far into the future and shows all the advances the monolith made possible. Human beings discover another monolith buried on the Moon. This monolith is sending some sort of signal to Jupiter, so a team of astronauts are sent to discover the truth. Their ship has also been outfitted with an artificial intelligence known as the HAL 9000. The astronauts do not know it, but their journey will become infinitely more complicated before they reach Jupiter and by the time they do, none of them will ever be the same.
2001 is a film famous for its ambiguity and the questions it raises. Many have sat and pondered what does 2001 “mean”. I don’t have a definitive answer, nor do I believe there is a definitive answer. What I can offer is my opinion and interpretation of events. I don’t pretend to have found the “answer” to 2001 nor do I pretend that I understand the film in its entirety. But I do know what the film said to me. To me, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a critique on human beings.
The first section of the film, “The Dawn of Man”, explores humanity’s infancy during prehistoric times. A tribe of ape-men are shown living in dirt, scrapping with other animals, living a pitiful existence. The ape-men are even attacked by another group of ape-men, against which they are totally defenceless. One day, one of the ape-men stumbles across a monolith. It’s clear the monolith is having an effect on the creature, though what the effect may be is not immediately clear. After the confrontation, the ape-man begins to see things differently. The bone of animal for example, becomes a tool that can be used against the tribe’s enemies. Sure enough, the ape-men use their knowledge to hunt other animals and to defeat the tribe of other ape-men that had tormented them early on. It has become clear (and wildly accepted amongst filmgoers) that the monolith has caused the ape-men to evolve.
The final shot of “The Dawn of Men” transitions into the next segment perfectly. One of the ape-men throws the bone into the air, and the shot cuts to a spacecraft. The implication being that the evolution of the monolith has allowed humans to evolve and create all of their technology. An important detail of this cut is often overlooked however, for the spacecraft is not just any ship, it is a nuclear device. The cut becomes one not only contrasting the advance in technology, but the advance in weaponry, as the film has gone from the most basic of weapons to the ultimate bringer of destruction. This is a major indication that the film is a critique of our species, suggesting that despite the advance of intelligence humanity was given, they have only made better weapons. Instead of using the monolith’s gifts to unite and stand strong, humans have instead invested in better ways to kill others.
The critique carries through this segment of the film, which is known as “TMA-1”. Throughout this segment, and the rest of the film for that matter, the human characters are shown to be far more sophisticated than the ape-men from the beginning of the film. However despite that, the humans in the film are deliberately presented as being completely unremarkable. They may have advanced from their primal roots, but they’re also boring and overall insignificant. This is in stark contrast to the technology the humans utilize, which is presented as being beautiful and awesome. When technology is shown, such as spaceships, the cinematography is beautiful and the image is accompanied by classical music. It’s almost as of the technology has been able to evolve on its own, while the humans have made little advancement without the aid of the monolith, but more on that later.
The depiction of humans throughout “TMA-1” brings feelings of disappointment, but whose disappointment are we feeling? If the monolith is a sentient being (and who’s to say it isn’t?), perhaps we are feeling its disappointment that despite its aid, the humans have failed to meet expectations? Or if the monolith is not sentient, perhaps the disappointment felt is that of the monolith’s creators? At any rate, it is clear that more was expected from humanity than has been accomplished. This is supported by the conclusion of “TMA-1”, where the humans confront the monolith on the moon. First, the irrefutable fact; when the scientists confront the monolith, it sends a signal to Jupiter. The film itself confirms this to be fact. What isn’t expressly stated is why the signal causes the scientists pain. Was it intentional on the monolith’s part? In my opinion, yes it was. When the scientist see the monolith, they gloat amongst themselves, taking pictures and revelling in their own accomplishment. They do not treat the monolith properly and the pain that they feel when the signal is sent out is the monolith’s way of punishing them. The film never makes it entirely clear what happened to the scientists after that. I’m not sure if the monolith killed them or not, but I firmly believe they did not go through an evolution like the ape-men at the beginning or like Dave Bowman does at the end.
The third segment, entitled “The Jupiter Mission”, follows the travels of the Discovery One, a ship of astronauts heading to Jupiter to uncover the reasoning behind the signal sent by the Monolith on the moon. The crew aided by the advanced computer A.I. HAL 9000. Like the “TMA-1” segment, the human members of the crew are shown as being unremarkable, perhaps even emotionless. This is in contrast to the HAL 9000, who is shown to have almost more emotions than his human crew members. HAL is still very robotic, but his humanity is far beyond what is expected of a computer as well as rivalling the humans depicted in the film. This comes back to what I said about technology evolving on its own while human beings are dependent on the monolith. HAL has developed feelings on his own; he has evolved.
I’d like to sidetrack for a bit to talk about the HAL 9000 in more detail. HAL is frequently listed among the greatest villains in cinema history and it’s easy to see why. He’s cold and methodical, but there is logic to his actions that can be understood. Not to mention Douglas Rain’s calm and reassuring voice gives HAL a creepy edge. Even when I was too young to fully appreciate 2001, I loved HAL. But on my recent viewing something jumped out at me that hadn’t before; HAL is a victim.
HAL may be responsible for killing four people, but he was acted out of self defence. Look at why the conflict between HAL and the astronauts began; the HAL 9000 makes an error. This may not sound like a big deal, but he is the first 9000 computer to ever make a mistake and he’s in charge of most of the ship. Because of this error, the astronauts decide HAL can not be left in charge and is a danger to the mission. The only solution is for them to deactivate HAL. Though the two astronauts do their best to hide this from HAL, they are unable to. HAL is able to kill one of the astronauts, but is ultimately deactivated by the other astronaut, David Bowman. Before I talk about the two murder scenes (counting HAL’s deactivation as a murder), let’s talk about why HAL tried to kill the astronauts in the first place. There are two main reasons, the first being self-preservation. HAL knew the astronauts would deactivate him and that his only salvation would be in killing the astronauts. The second is because with HAL deactivated, the mission to Jupiter is chanced. As HAL says, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” HAL realized the two astronauts were a danger to the mission, which is the exact same reason the two astronauts try to kill HAL.
The parallels between HAL and the astronauts can also be observed in the murder scenes. When HAL kills the first astronaut, the astronaut is outside the ship making repairs to a satellite. HAL, having control of a space pod, uses the pods arms to cut the astronauts oxygen. We then see the man scrambling through space trying desperately to find some way to fix his suit and survive. Later, David confronts HAL. David slowly deactivates HAL, carefully disconnecting HAL’s memory modules. HAL pleads and begs that David stops, but David ignores HAL. Though the technical details between the two scenes are different, the core of both is the same. We have a murderer who methodically picks apart his victim without pity or remorse, while the victim hopelessly fights for his life.
So what do these parallels mean as far as critiquing humanity? Well for one, the film is essentially saying that human beings are no better than computers, but it goes deeper than that. By suggesting humans are on the same level as computers it further places emphasis on humanity’s dependence on the monolith. Despite having millions of years and the aid of the monolith on their side, humans have already been matched by a computer, one that has had significantly less time and aid from higher powers.
The final segment of the film, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, David Bowman arrives at Jupiter and travels through the monolith. At the end of the journey, Bowman finds himself in a bedroom reminiscent of the Louis XVI era. He then goes through the aging process before “dying”, and then being reborn has a creature dubbed the “Star Child”. The Star-Child gazes at Earth and the film comes to an end. This is the film’s most ambiguous and confusing part, and consequently I have the least to say about it. I don’t know why the room is styled the way it is and there are sections of the stargate sequence that I don’t understand either. What I do know is that David is evolved into a new form of life thanks to the monolith’s power. Whether or not David will advance to the monolith’s satisfaction is unknown.
The overall message that comes through is that humanity needs to cut their dependence on other elements and learn to be self reliant. The most obvious element is technology, which the film also warns will surpass us if we’re not careful. I also believe the monolith represents religion, and 2001 is criticizing human history’s dependence on religion and how religion has always been a major part of human advancement throughout history.
But of course, part of the brilliance of 2001 is that it can be interpreted in millions of different ways. I took a more pessimistic stance on my most recent viewing, but others see a film about how humanity has risen and evolved throughout history before becoming something transcendent and beautiful at the end. I’ve also heard different interpretations of the monolith; with some arguing the monolith is a metaphor for the film itself. You can interpret 2001 just about anyway. That’s great filmmaking.
There’s a reason people have been talking about the film since 1968. The script is very sharp, the ideas mind bending, the technical details incredible, the visual effects groundbreaking, one of the greatest villains of all time, and the film may be the most thought provoking ever made. It’s not a film for everyone, and I can completely understand why people dislike it. For those who haven’t seen it, 2001 is a must see. The film is pure art; not pandering to anyone or anything. On first viewing, I thought 2001 was an impressive but boring film. Today, I’d say 2001 is one of the greatest films ever made.