2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

For a film that put me to sleep the first two times I watched it as an early teen, 2001: A Space Odyssey is like a gift that keeps on giving. It has gone from an impenetrable, tedious bore to (with Clarke's novelization as a companion piece) one of the most fully realized, visually stunning, and conceptually staggering pieces of sci-fi I have ever or will ever hope to have seen. For some reason, I had logged 2001 at 4 stars - my only excuse is that I hope it never stops giving and getting better - but for all intents and purposes, I now consider it a film that will only improve upon already-established perfection.

Of Apes and Earth
2001 is a dilemma - is it religious film, merging science with a modern myth of divine influence in the evolution of man? Or is it a damnation of the idea of God, showing the inherent imperfections in even the attempt to act as a deity to a lesser being? In the opening sequence, it seems a bit of both. It's easy to draw the connection from whatever species or being left the monolith to a broad definition of many religions' god(s) - the tree of life, the fruit of knowledge, the jump-start into civilization. Whatever The Alien intended with the gift of The Monolith, we are told explicitly that it imbues some sort of knowledge, or urge, that influences The Apes to make the first step towards planetary dominance. In other words, The Monolith is superficially a gift. However, the gift it gives one unit means the death of several others. Is this Clarke and Kubrick saying that a perfect gift received by an imperfect subject mars the intent of the giver? Or is it simply that it was an imperfect gift? Who's to blame for the violence that follows (immediately and for the millions of years to come)? Is that violence redeemed by the end result of 'advancement'? What is the goal of The Alien?

We get no answers, and are barely given hints, in Kubrick's film. Clarke's novelization is much more explicit in that regard, but that jumping-off point into profoundly philosophical questions is a good part of the appeal of the film. Like the surface of The Monolith, it is a reflection of ourselves, of each viewer watching, to interpret or imagine the pre-history and implications all of the elements invoke.

Of Men and the Moon
Heywood Floyd. The 'human' touchstone in the film, plagued by the mundane issues of modern man - family, friends, societal expectations, and one hell of a commute to work. Though taking place in the then far-future of 1999, Floyd's segment is ostensibly the most exhilarating in the similarities to 'now' and the potential that we are one paradigm-shift away from peeling back the veil of space. As in the film, progress continues apace with technological baby-steps into the future (although the film was a bit more optimistic in man's drive to the stars, it couches that by expecting the Cold War to continue to be the impetus to discovery and innovation - much as a smaller war helped invoke The Monolith's initial gift to The Apes). It is that one instance, the confirmation that we are not alone, that changes everything. In the end, isn't the search for extraterrestrial life a faith all its own?

Although I do love this segment of the film especially for the brilliant imagining of space travel, and its brief moments of humor in an otherwise dire film, one aspect that troubles me is the unique purpose of the moon's Monolith. In all the other segments, there is a clear element of supersensory or otherwise superhuman technology behind The Monoliths. Here, it seems to be simply a cosmic compass, literally pointing man in the right direction for the next phase. I suppose Jupiter's Monolith could be considered the same, and that the two are essentially one in tandem, considering how close to each other in time they are activated, but TMA-1 still seems a bit superfluous, assuming the trajectory of intra-stellar travel would lead man to Jupiter within a few hundred generations at the most. Given the scale of time for the contact with the last three Monoliths, perhaps it's better to think of them as a singular event, a three-stage acceleration meant to be discovered relatively simultaneously.

Of Silicon and the Solar System
Bowman's tale - the meat of the picture, and one that is ostensibly not about The Alien and The Monolith at all. Yet...

Here is where the most convincingly religious element is most relatable. Much has been said about the visual similarity of HAL to The Monolith. In my interpretation of the film, HAL is actually an anti-Monolith. We are The Alien, we are The God, who creates this Monolith of artificial intelligence to serve us. And as a purportedly infallible entity, HAL is essentially a god unto itself. We, as gods, have shackled gods, and therein is where we create our doom. Imperfection, like a genetic disease, compounds through generations. We imperfect humans assume too much of ourselves, and those imperfections are translated into HAL. A mad god. A god that has a sickness, of emotion (while the film vaguely hints that that emotion is fear of death, Clarke's novelization states that HAL's errors are introduced through guilt of hiding the true purpose of the mission - to find TMA-2 - from Bowman. While the film's reasons are more severe and universal, I quite like the idea that HAL's madness stems from good intentions, much like how I prefer to think of The Alien's intentions are in providing us with The Monolith).

When viewed this way, Bowman effectively becomes a godslayer, paving the way for his own ascent into literal godhood. I wonder what would have happened if HAL succeeded in reaching TMA-2 alone. Would his intelligence be accepted by The Monolith? Would he find himself in a quiet room? Could this technological singularity have been The Alien's true goal? It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that The Alien realizes the weaknesses of corporeal existence in universal existence. In fact, I believe Clarke states as much - that The Alien has discarded a physical presence and exists among the stars as pure energy (Sagan's distaste for the anthropomorphic bias has long been one I've admired and pondered over). This leads to the realization that Bowman's outcome is purely an accident - an imperfect being given the status of a god, much like man has done with HAL. It adds a layer of irony that invites many interesting questions about the purpose of life and the future of mankind (I<3U Kurzweil).

Of Godhood and Galaxies
The end, or the beginning? Bowman no more, now a child of the stars. Even the name 'Star-child' invokes newness, an initial form, to grow and change as time goes on. It's a mixed bag to be presented with a literal manifestation of a god (as the film had been so careful to keep things ambiguous until now), but his transformation is so surreal, so unexplained, so rife with possibilities that I suppose the confusion is meant to persist through the last frames. Still, for a journey like this, perhaps it's not seeing the ending that is disappointing, but realizing that the credits must soon roll. Back to imagination, back to staring up at the stars, back to waiting, hoping, praying that there's a monolith out there somewhere, waiting for us to be capable of receiving it. Waiting for us, instead of taking baby-steps out of our planetary backyard, to take a giant leap into the unknown.

P.S. I heartily recommend anyone who hasn't done so already to read Clarke's novelization. While it removes a lot of the ambiguity in the film, if taken as an 'alternate universe' story, it's a fantastic tale unto itself - much more sci-fi flavored, with much less of the hints of religiosity apparent in the film. Of special note is the climax, of Bowman approaching Saturn's moon Iapetus, and his journey through interstellar (interdimensional?) space. The film does a magnificent job translating this into a visual event, but the specificity of Clarke's alien worlds are well worth the trip.

P.P.S. With this overlong, and ultimately inane rambling, I'm off to the beach for a week. While sitting in the sun, listening to the crash of the waves, and abusing my liver all night is always a treat, the best part of getting away from city life is being able to look up and see, not a few bright pin-pricks of light in the night sky, but clouds upon clouds of them. To try and tickle my brain into imagining planets circling each one. To try and visualize that these billions of stars mean trillions of worlds, and wonder how far off we are from that next step. I have no doubt that we are not alone, I just hope we don't have to be the first ones to the party.

P.P.P.S. Through a combination of my own ignorance/forgetfulness and happy coincidence, today is the 44th anniversary of mankind making one of those immensely overwhelming baby-steps.

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