September 7, 2017
by Doug “Uncola” Lynn:
The screen is dark. Eerie and oddly dissonant music begins to play. The screen remains black. At two-minutes and fifty seconds the music stops, followed by six seconds of silence over the blank nothingness before the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer MGM logo fills the screen as the symphonically ascending chords and drumbeats of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra increase in volume. In a view from the moon, the sun rises behind and then above the blue sphere of the earth.
The Dawn of Man
A series of colorful still-shots reveal a primordial sunrise then transition to daylight shots of desert scenes, against the isolated sound of the wind howling. White bones are shown on the dry, rocky ground under mammals resembling pigs that are rooting in near proximity to prehistoric monkey-men. Two separate tribes of the ape-like creatures scream and wildly gesticulate on each side of a watering hole before one side cautiously retreats. An ancient ancestor of the leopard lies prone over the neck of its dead zebra prey; the leopard’s eyes reflective, like mini-suns embedded in the shadow of its skull, ever watching.
The viewer feels a part of the experience, eons ago, sensing the danger and harsh living conditions of multitudinous mammals teeming on the austere earth beneath the strangely serene, ancient sky. The nights appear cold in blue moonlight as the tribe of monkey-men huddle in a cave, listening to the guttural growls of predators nearby. Primeval primates, male and female alike; waiting anxiously, their bloodshot eyes shifting in apprehension.
To the buzzing, haunting, disharmony of medieval monks intoning in unison like ghosts, the monkey-men at dawn are agitated at the sight of a black, rectangular monolith standing vertically above them like a gigantic twenty-first century smartphone. It was not there before. As the chilling other-worldly intonations of the soundtrack increase in volume and intensity, the monkey-men slowly and fearfully kneel before the monolith, like congregants before an altar, touching it gently and suspiciously. The view looking upwards from the base of the pitch-black object shows the white sliver of the Moon surrounded by blood-red clouds and the sun rising over the top of the rectangular block, standing as a divinely cut monument formed of polished obsidian absorbing, rather than reflecting, the surrounding light.
Later, as one of the ape-men kneels by the bleached-white bones of a mammal long gone, he sees the same upward view of the mysterious monolith, the sun, moon, and bloody clouds, like a memory. To the reintroduced music of Also Sprach Zarathustra the prehistoric man picks up a large bone and begins wielding it as a club, smashing the skeletal remains, and seeing visions of live pig-like mammals falling to the ground with skulls crushed in the mind of the monkey-man. As natural as conclusions follow logic, the tribe is next seen feasting well on raw meat with their primitive bone-weapons lying on the ground next to them. They are shown again, this time, with weapons in hand advancing upon the enemy tribe, gathered around the watering hole. Before long, the viewers witness the first casualty of the earliest avant–garde war as the enemy of prehistoric man is beaten to death by clubs made from the bones of the prior dead.
In an apparent celebration of victory, the bone-white club of death is thrown high into the air, oscillating, rotating, and then transitioning on the movie screen into a modern space craft; or more accurately, a weapons delivery satellite in orbit, as the sun rises again from behind the blue circle of the earth.
The Modern Men
And so begins writer and director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinematic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The screenplay for the film was written by Kubrick and science-fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, and was inspired in part by Clarke’s short stories entitled “Encounter in the Dawn” and “The Sentinel”. 2001: A Space Odyssey is widely considered, by critics and fans alike, to be one of the most important and influential films of all time. According to Arthur C. Clarke’s diary cataloguing his collaboration on the project, he said Kubrick wanted to make a film about “Man’s relationship to the universe” and one that would evoke the emotions of “wonder”, “awe”, and even “terror”.
The film is reminiscent of a symphony, presented in three parts, and remains wide open to multiple interpretations to this day. For curious minds, there are many clues left by Kubrick that may be used as separate lens by which to interpret the film. One such lens includes Arthur Clarke’s story “The Sentinel”. Another lens is found in Freidrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and referenced by the music in the film of the same name. Are there more clues? Definitely. In Nietzsche’s Zarathustra about the Persian patron of Zoroastrianism, human beings are presented as the mortal link between apes and the Übermensch (German for Superman or Superhuman) and indirectly refers to the Apollonian and Dionysian attributes of mankind; all of which are themes in Kubrick’s 2001.
Perhaps one of the most interesting, and comprehensive, critiques of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey is found in Leonard F. Wheat’s book, Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory, where it is claimed the film is based on three allegories:
1.) Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
2.) Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey”
3.) Arthur C. Clarke’s theory of the future symbiosis of man and machine.
It is interesting that, in 2001: A Space Odyssey there are distinct parallels to Homer’s Odyssey, including the single “eye” of the HAL 9000 computer as compared to Homer’s Cyclops, and the name of Kubrick’s astronaut and protagonist, Dave “Bowman” , as potentially representative of an “archer” from Homer’s poem. However, in a Playboy interview published in the same year as the release of 2001, Kubrick said the interpretation of the film would remain open and not be defined by him:
2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute [Marshall] McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to “explain” a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. 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.
As the sun rises again from behind the blue circle of the earth, a sleek space shuttle approaches a wheel-shaped, rotating space terminal followed by scene after scene of an intricately choreographed space ballet to the melody of Johann Strauss II’s 1866 Blue Danube Waltz. As the craft approaches what is later shown to be the Hilton Space Station, the viewer is welcomed into the cabin of the shuttle where a television screen is playing on the back of a passenger seat, exactly like in actual aircraft and some automobiles today. A stewardess wearing “grip shoes” retrieves a pen floating in anti-gravitational mid-air and hands it back to Dr. Heywood R. Floyd, an important and distinguished scientist from the National Council of Aeronautics, on his way to the Moon.
Later, Dr. Floyd addresses a panel of military and scientific personnel regarding “the most significant” discovery in the “history of science” and reminds them of the need for “absolute secrecy” due to the “grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation” until proper “preparation and conditioning” of the public takes place.
What is the find? It is a magnetic force field deliberately buried 4 million years ago on the Moon which is discovered to be originating from a similar pitch-black, rectangular monolith as seen by the prehistoric monkey-men earlier in the film. At the excavation site on the Moon, the civilized modern men approach the monolith and cautiously touch it exactly like their ancestors in the film ages before. This time however, a high-pitch whistle is emitted from the object. The astronauts grab their space helmets in pain as the earth is, again, cosmically released from a lunar eclipse beneath the rising sun.
Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
Eighteen months later a sperm-shaped ship formed with a large round head and a long chain of pods in the tail, looking like vertebrae, is gliding through the dark vacuum of space with a triad of circular satellite dishes riding like jockeys on an interplanetary horse. Although initially vague in Kubrick’s film, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” revealed that the monolith recently exhumed from beneath the lunar surface sent a radio signal to Jupiter; as prompted by Cerebral Man’s presence on the moon. The Jupiter bound craft, Discovery One, is commanded by astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole and contains three other scientists asleep in hibernation pods. The ship’s brain and central nervous system is operated by what is referred to as the “sixth crew member”, or HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence system that, in an interstellar BBC interview, tells the viewers on Earth:
I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.
However, when it is later revealed that HAL 9000 has an operating flaw, astronauts Bowman and Poole decide to decommission the AI system before HAL 9000 decides to defend its identity and the mission, in terrifying ways. To the eerie sounds of breathing, or dead silence, mankind is shown as isolated and fragile against the vast expanse of space just before another monolith is observed orbiting Jupiter. To discordant music, sounding not overly unlike an orchestra warming up, the sperm-shaped Discovery One, with Dave Bowman solely at the helm, is soon ejaculated into what appears to be a wormhole; seemingly seeking an alien planet to penetrate like a cosmic ovum. Soon Bowman appears to age in an other-worldly dimension that defies any normal conception of time and space until, finally, as an elderly man lying helpless, the dying Bowman sees the monolith standing before him. He reaches for it, pointing one finger in an apparent tribute to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”; except with the monolith now presented as an unresponsive image of God. Upon Bowman’s death, a star-child is born.
Passages of either Transcendent or Transcendental Evolution
In Kubrick’s 2001, the monolith appears four times: At the “dawn” of prehistoric man, on the Moon, in outer-space orbiting Jupiter, and at the bedside of the dying Bowman before the revelation of the star-child. With the appearance of the first monolith, ancient man envisions a bone as a weapon to be used for hunting and war. Upon the excavation of the second monolith on the moon, mankind is directed towards deeper space where the black monolith orbiting Jupiter transports Man to another dimension of being. The final appearance of the monolith is seen at the foot of the dying Bowman’s bed, before the birth of the star-child; which appears to represent mankind’s symbolic transformation.
The famous film critic, Roger Ebert, wrote the following in his 1968 review of 2001: A Space Odyssey:
What Kubrick is saying, in the final sequence, apparently, is that man will eventually outgrow his machines, or be drawn beyond them by some cosmic awareness. He will then become a child again, but a child of an infinitely more advanced, more ancient race, just as apes once became, to their own dismay, the infant stage of man.
And the monoliths? Just road markers, I suppose, each one pointing to a destination so awesome that the traveler cannot imagine it without being transfigured.
The viewer wonders: Are the monolith’s actually machines made by an advanced race of beings and left as guides on the way to enlightenment? Or, could it be the objects are symbolically veiled and shadowed doorways on the path to God? Perhaps they are simply what they appear to be: Black boxes representative of mankind’s occasional ability to “think outside of the box”. The monoliths could also be used to illustrate passageways within Man’s odyssey from carnal, to cerebral, to spiritual states of “being” all within the confines of his existence; a kind of Transcendent Evolution, if you will.
In the field of Philosophy, the term transcendent addresses knowledge which cannot be understood outside of Mankind’s experience. Correspondingly, the term transcendental refers to a priori knowledge, or that which can be deduced by logic outside of Man’s experience. For example, mathematics was always there waiting to be discovered. And therein lays the philosophical dilemma of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. Were the monoliths placed there by God, or an advanced race of beings, as revelations to mankind, thus allowing for the technological advancement of the human race? Or, did they serve as allegorical passageways, always there, and representative of existing knowledge merely waiting for Man to discover; like walking through a doorway? Even the radio signal from the enlarged interstellar, monolithic, smartphone on the Moon to the monolith near Jupiter, could be considered as symbolic of how one scientific discovery leads to another; like the receipt of celestial recipes by text.
If cinema were cuisine, then 2001: A Space Odyssey is an iconic feast of a film; a veritable buffet of artistic vision and technological prophecy. Consider the prophetic aspects of the film: The ubiquitous proliferation of computing devices, artificial intelligence, video phones, voice print identification, microwavable TV dinners, advanced robotics, space shuttles, computer games (like Chess), flat-screen monitors, voice-activated electronic systems, digital surveillance, 3-D scanners, and in-flight entertainment. In fact, 2001: A Space Odyssey was used in court by Samsung Corporation’s legal defense team against Apple’s claim that the Galaxy design was a copyright infringement of Apple’s I-pad. In the suit, Samsung argued that both the I-Pad and Galaxy devices were envisioned by Kubrick in 1968:
Attached hereto as Exhibit D is a true and correct copy of a still image taken from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In a clip from that film lasting about one minute, two astronauts are eating and at the same time using personal tablet computers… As with the design claimed by the D’889 Patent, the tablet disclosed in the clip has an overall rectangular shape with a dominant display screen, narrow borders, a predominately flat front surface, a flat back surface (which is evident because the tablets are lying flat on the table’s surface), and a thin form factor.
Were all of these technological advancements revealed to Stanley Kubrick, or mankind in general, by supernatural, or divine, revelation? Or were the puzzle pieces of knowledge always buried there, a priori, and merely waiting to be exhumed?
Even so, and perhaps more importantly, can we know with 100% certainty that mankind has evolved at all, or continues to do so, without any “hard-science” proof of macro-evolution? Although many evolutionists still embrace the “soft-science” of body-part studies (homology) and common embryology while at the same time, erroneously applying (same species) “micro-evolution” to justify their belief in Darwin’s 158 year-old theory; it is a fact today, that Darwin’s Disciples are finding themselves overwhelmed by the hard-science of Physics, Molecular Biology, Astrophysics, and Probability Analysis. When considering the modern understanding of concepts like “Irreducible Complexity” it raises the question if, perhaps, Creationism or Intelligent Design may send The Theory of Evolution the way of the dinosaur.
Where did we come from? Where are we going? Will mankind continue to synergize with machines, thus creating a new order of being (or Being)? Or will man break the chains of technology and find another path to enlightenment? These are the questions raised in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Additionally, and in closing, why did Kubrick choose the year 2001 for the title of his film? Why not 2002, or 2003, or 2025? Did anything significant happen in the year 2001 to mark a transition towards mankind’s actual next phase of existence on planet earth? It is a fact that boarding an aircraft was simpler before that year and both computer proliferation, and surveillance, was far less than before 2001. Did Kubrick foretell the year 2001 as a passage where vertically positioned, rectangular monoliths were symbolic of the transformation? Or did he choose the year 2001 simply because 2000 was too soon to mark the beginning of the new millennium and 2002 was too late?
Most of what we think we know is imagined. Or not.