2001: A Space Odyssey is pure Science Fiction

2001: A Space Odyssey is not a film for everyone.
People who see cinema as simple entertainment probably won’t like it.
Sci-fi haters will hate it.
And those who can’t bear slow-moving films will most likely despise it.
But, if you’re like me and can’t help asking yourself about our past and future as human beings, I’m certain you’ll love 2001 as much as I do.

Many films have stood the test of time, yet not many are remembered 50 years after their release.
And if a work of art is as meaningful today as it was yesterday, it certainly deserves a celebration.

I’ve been thinking about writing down my thoughts on 2001 for quite a while, and I feel its 50th birthday is the right time.
I know I’m a bit late to the party (2001 returned to theatres earlier this year), but I believe there’s so much to say about this film, we’ll never get tired of talking about it.
I’m sure it’ll be back in theatres for its 100th birthday, too.

– Spoiler Alert! –
In this blog post I’ll be talking about Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, adding some references to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel on which the film was based.
I strongly recommend taking some time to enjoy them both before reading this post.

2001 and its 2001 Interpretations

I don’t generally watch the same film over and over again, however I made an exception for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Well, 2001 really cannot be watched just once – say what you will, but one thing is certain: it is not easy to understand it on the first viewing.

If you understand 2001 on the first viewing, we will have failed
– Arthur C. Clarke

2001 is definitely open to a number of interpretations – Kubrick himself always refused to explain its meaning, except for once.
There are countless books and opinions about 2001, yet I believe any viewer can give one’s own explanation and still seem plausible.

I don’t know about you, but my mind opens up a little more every time I watch it – an effect that good science fiction always has on me.

2001 and the Beauty of Science Fiction

I love 2001: A Space Odyssey basically because I love science siction.
And there’s a specific reason why I love it: that is, it truly expands my mind to imagine a possible (past and) future of humanity in relation to other beings, worlds or technologies.
Science fiction has a way of raising philosophical questions that is unique to this genre, in my opinion.

Themes like space travel, life off Earth, aliens and the creation of artificial intelligence really make me wonder about our place in the universe.
2001: A Space Odyssey addresses all of these themes in its own awe-inspiring, extraordinary way.

Jump To:
Space Travel
Life off Earth
Human Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence
The Monolith / Where are the Aliens?

Space Travel

I admit I’ve often re-watched 2001 just to imagine myself aboard a spacecraft.

The very first scenes in space are pure poetry to me.
See the space station twirl close to Earth and the shuttle align with it, as if they were both dancing in a waltz… The entire sequence is a feast for the eyes.
Spacecrafts appear to be in harmony with celestial bodies, obeying the laws of physics just like natural satellites do.

Space Shuttles

Space travel is a matter of details, according to Kubrick.
The first scene inside a space vehicle opens with a pen floating in the air, and we see only one passenger aboard – his arm moving gently up and down while he’s asleep.
You can immediately tell we’re not on an ordinary airplane.
Besides the one guest (Dr Floyd, as we’ll discover later on) and a flight assistant, there’s no other person aboard.
Perhaps space flights in 2001 are so common they are of no interest to most earthlings – or maybe still a privilege for a few lucky individuals.

Dr Floyd is the only passenger aboard the space shuttle. // Flight assistant catching a pen floating in weightlessness.

The same situation occurs while Dr Floyd is on his way to Clavius lunar base: because of the mission’s secrecy, his only company is the aircrew.
Kubrick shows us how an ordinary flight from a space station to the Moon would be, taking into account the wonders of technology and some adventures in weightlessness at the same time.

Flight assistant in weightlessness and shuttle pilot.

The two spacecrafts’ appearance was designed carefully: the space shuttle departing from Earth looks like a fuse, while the one travelling from the space station to the Moon has got a round shape.

Earth <-> Space station shuttle. Notice the fuse-like shape.
Round-shaped shuttle for Moon <-> Space station trips.

I think it was a good idea to conceive two different spacecrafts depending on their route: a shuttle leaving the Earth has to pierce the atmosphere to reach space, while a vehicle detaching from a space station wouldn’t have that kind of problem.
I love attention to details, particularly when rocket science is involved.

The Rotating Space Station and Clavius Moon Base

Maybe I’m just in love with its structural beauty, but I believe 2001’s rotating space station is absolutely credible.
Judging by its empty modules, this colossal spinning outpost in space is yet to be finished.
Could it be the reason why the first sequence in space is still part of the film section called “The Dawn of Man”? I mean, are the first steps in space exploration closer to our simian past rather than to the future of humanity?

Rotating space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The idea of building a rotating space station is not just a fantasy: NASA built a real centrifuge to create artificial gravity and study what effects it has on people. If we want to spend extended periods of time in space, we might need this kind of technology.

The station’s interiors are not too dissimilar from those of a conventional airport: we see security checks, lounges and different kinds of facilities which can be easily identified by their brands (such as Pan Am, Hilton etc.).
We have the feeling of witnessing the natural evolution of what was happening in the 1960s: commercial flights had become accessible to masses during the second half of the 20th century and the Space Race was speeding up in those years, so daily space flights in 2001 must have seemed like a logical consequence.

I have to say Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room caught my attention: it is irrelevant to the plot, however it certainly adds credibility to the scene.
The human body suffers if not exposed to natural light for too long, and I appreciate the fact somebody thought about that for a pleasant stay aboard a space station.
After all, you can’t open a window and get some fresh air if you’re in space… Also, direct exposure to space radiation would surely cause any kind of cancer – which is far beyond the right amount of vitamin D our bodies require.

Picturephone / Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room

In the same scene, the ‘picturephone’ triggered my curiosity, too. In the 1960s, videocalls were probably believed to be as sci-fi as daily flights to space.

On Clavius lunar base we see a completely different environment, instead – not just on the outside but particularly on the inside.
The base is built underground for the most part, and I believe it’s a clever design: the Moon has no atmosphere, which means it is not shielded from space radiation or meteorites. An underground building would certainly be protected from both threats.

Shuttle arriving at Clavius moon base. Its centre of operations is built entirely below the surface.

Contrary to the space station, Clavius moon base is clearly restricted to staff and scientists.

Dr Floyd’s secret meeting on Clavius moon base.

Spaceship Discovery One

The spaceship travelling to Jupiter looks like a sort of living being whose habitat is the vacuum of space. It moves slowly through the cosmic darkness, barely lit by the Sun it’s leaving behind.

Spaceship Discovery One on its way to Jupiter.

To tell the truth, the space we see on the background is not that accurate: all of the stars look like dots, but in reality, they really are not (as we see even from our home planet).
And they’re also quite spread out, while the cosmos is actually full of stars.

Stars visible from the International Space Station (the real one). Credit: NASA

A centrifuge is onboard the Discovery One, too. It allows astronauts to live in a sort of natural environment, and it’s also a clever trick not to film too many scenes in weightlessness.
The spaceship’s got basic interiors, where everything has a clear function and nothing’s futile.

Interiors of the Discovery One spaceship, with astronauts Frank Poole and David Bowman.

Compared to our actual outpost in space, Kubrick definitely imagined a tidier place.

Interiors of the International Space Station, with astronaut Reid Wiseman aboard. Credit: NASA

Life off Earth

I have the feeling Kubrick chose to depict life in space in two apparently separate, but coexisting ways.
He showed us all aspects of humanity, comparing our highest ingenuity with our simplest daily lives – with a touch of irony.
In a way, it’s like watching the wonders of proudly man-made technology and the banality of humans at the same time.

Screens displaying a complex language made up of equations and acronyms (probably shared by humans and computers) are in contrast with flying trays, zero-gravity toilets (and their endless instructions) and some scientists’ sarcasm about ham sandwiches.

The irony of life off Earth. Sometimes you have to catch flying food, use zero-gravity toilets and eat while being careful not to stain the proof of alien life.

This sort of dichotomy made me think: intellect can push us beyond our own limits, but all in all we can’t deny we are still mammals struggling to survive.

Human Intelligence

And to think we were just a bunch of cells suspended in the primordial soup!
Humankind moved its first steps on Earth about seven million years ago, when the evolutionary branch that would lead to homo sapiens started to differentiate from African apes. It might seem like an incredible amount of time, however, on a cosmic scale, it’s just an instant.
If we could condense the history of the universe in one year, man would appear at 8 PM on December 31st and America would be discovered a mere 1.2 seconds before the New Year.

Kubrick grasped this moment beautifully. The first time I saw the ‘bone to satellite’ cut*, my jaw literally dropped.

* Technically a match cut, but imprecise. Here you can see the difference between Kubrick’s and an exact match cut. Considering Kubrick’s attention to details, I suppose the director’s imprecision was intended.

That’s the magic of film editing at its finest: we saw the history of humankind in just a couple of frames.

Right before this incredible time jump, however, Kubrick shows us where the first spark of humanity came from.
Compared to Clarke’s novel, the director clearly takes a different path.
In the book, aliens definitely play a major role in developing human intelligence, while in the film we can’t really tell.
But there’s one more important aspect: Kubrick picks a particular action to depict the exact moment in which the monkey (which I’ll call Moon-watcher, as in the novel) starts to think.

Instead of describing the different stages that lead monkeys to humanity -like Clarke does-, Kubrick focuses on one peculiar, significant gesture.
When Moon-watcher first understands he is not holding a bone, but a tool, he uses it to destroy a skeleton, in a truly violent act.
In addition to that, the scenes of a tapir crashing to the ground don’t leave room for misunderstanding: that bone is a real weapon – as emphasised in the ‘water hole’ scene as well.

Moon-watcher hits and kills a rival monkey with a bone.

It seems to me that Kubrick had a certain interest in representing violence**, but we must not forget the film was shot in 1966-1967: The Cold War was at its peak at that time, and those were the days in which a device created by our minds could cause humankind to self-destruct in the blink of an eye.
In addition to that, the satellite we see in the match-cut scene was actually meant to be an atomic bomb in the first script.

** Not just in 2001, obviously. A Clockwork Orange is the clearest example – however, Kubrick depicted a certain kind of violence in all of his films.

Don’t panic

I particularly appreciated the way astronauts are portrayed in both novel and film – as human beings, they have worries and fears, but they can also be extremely rational, if circumstances require it.
They just don’t let panic overwhelm them, not even in the worst-case scenario.

Where in God’s name am I? Bowman asked himself; […] He wanted to close his eyes, and shut out the pearly nothingness that surrounded him; but that was the act of a coward, and he would not yield to it.

Clarke, Arthur C.. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey Series) (p.210). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In the novel, the primordial instinct of fear is thoroughly described.
After all, astronauts are men – as such, they have a natural fear of the unknown, but reason and a desire to explore push them to go forward.

It’s difficult to translate thoughts into images, however Kubrick mastered that beautifully: you can tell Dave Bowman’s feelings just by the expression in his eyes and the rhythm of his breath.
We can clearly see Dave’s frightened look while deactivating HAL, however his feelings won’t prevent him from completing his task.

David Bowman while deactivating HAL 9000.

Kubrick was criticised for creating characters that lack emotion and personality.
We know very little about their lives and dialogues are often irrelevant to the plot.
I do believe, however, that each character is meant to be as part of the history of humankind in its entirety.
While watching the film, we have the feeling of observing the various stages of humanity from an outside point of view – which helps when it comes to assuming an objective perspective on something we really care about, such as ourselves.

Ironically, we tend to get more involved with HAL 9000’s personality, «the latest result in machine intelligence».
Despite its calm and monotone voice, we feel the urge to know more about what’s behind its iconic lens.
How does it elaborate thoughts? Is it really self-aware?

Artificial Intelligence

In 2001, Kubrick faced one important sci-fi theme which is more relevant today than ever, i.e. artificial intelligence.
Technology has allowed us to program machines to work autonomously and more efficiently than a person would do. Machines are capable of performing repetitive tasks quickly and easily, with no complaints nor distractions. They’re created to do perfectly one thing, and this has always been their greatest limitation, actually; sort of “all brawn and no brains” – until today.

The simple fact of talking about artificial intelligence immediately projects us into the future.
This subject was clearly very important to Kubrick, as he addressed the issue extensively in the film section called “Jupiter Mission”. I dare say the whole chapter is dedicated to HAL 9000 – the supercomputer in charge of piloting Discovery One and, at the same time, providing for the wellbeing of the crew.

Is Artificial Intelligence a help?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an alter ego handle our most stressful and boring tasks? I don’t know about you, but for some reason, this comes up to my mind every single day.
The problem is that an alter ego would eventually get as much stressed or bored as we are, so we’d need someone (or something) that wouldn’t mind doing what we hate to do… Can artificial intelligence be the answer?

We get an idea of AI’s extraordinary potential as soon as we encounter HAL. The supercomputer calculates Discovery One’s trajectory to Jupiter, monitors the spaceship’s status and provides for the astronauts’ needs – all at the same time.
We’d expect to see the crew piloting the ship, but instead they are busy playing sports or chess, or drawing.
People don’t have to worry about anything: HAL takes care of everything.

Is Artificial Intelligence a threat?

We don’t really pay attention to that, but our daily lives are actually more AI-driven than we think.
Here’s an example: I’ve got a car with ACC (Adaptive Cruise Control) system. When it’s active, my car keeps the right distance from the vehicle in front by accelerating or slowing down automatically (depending on what the radar behind the front grille reads). ACC might not be the kind of sophisticated artificial intelligence we have in mind, but I assure you sometimes I have the feeling my car consciously decides what to do, as if it were alive.
And in reality -even though my car is just a bunch of metal parts and circuit boards- I trust its decisions.

The same does Discovery One’s crew: three astronauts in hibernation depend on HAL in the same way as a baby depends on his or her mother; at the same time, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole know they can count on HAL for anything – whether that be food or information about the mission.
What happens, however, if a malfunctioning AI is in charge of looking after people? In 2001 we clearly see that.

“Life functions terminated” is the ironic epitaph for the three hibernated astronauts killed by HAL.

Besides its undeniable defect, the trouble with HAL is basically its own ability to think.
It won’t understand or admit it made a mistake, and it takes the decision of killing people to safeguard itself.

What shall we do then, if we get the feeling that a machine we rely on, actually means us harm?
Perhaps our only chance would be to behave as Bowman and Poole do: as soon as they acknowledge the fact HAL might be malfunctioning, the two astronauts play along. They try to calm it down and minimize what happened – they treat it like a person.

Is Artificial Intelligence life in itself?

I’ve re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey quite a few times, but I still can’t understand why HAL is so attached to life. Where does such instinct for survival come from? Is it an intrinsic characteristic of sentient beings, or does it develop according to the environment?

HAL initially says that «everything is going extremely well», but its paranoia shows through in one of the following scenes: it seems particularly anxious to know Dave’s opinion about the secrecy of the mission – as it’d been ruminating for quite some time.
On the other hand, the astronaut doesn’t seem to trust HAL completely, and reticent to discuss matters with it.
Why are they both so suspicious of each other? Perhaps the instinct of self-defence is rooted in any life form?

If that is the case, HAL definitely proves it’s alive.
The scene in which Dave deactivates HAL confirms it.

There’s one more thing to say about this scene, and it’s a very important matter to focus on – it takes into consideration the theme of creation.
Men create a living being from scratch using themselves as a model, and the creature carries its masters’ virtues and vices. As a matter of fact, HAL initially cooperates with people, but it eventually becomes as violent as humans can be. In a way, its violence is as brutal as the monkeys we see in “The Dawn of Man”.
Also, we see men create and destroy a sentient being as if they were gods. I think this is a serious theme to reflect upon.

The Monolith / Where are the Aliens?

So here we are – it’s time to talk about the cornerstone of the film,
the symbol of everything which is as black as nothingness,
the mysterious key to understanding 2001: A Space Odyssey: the monolith.

We first see it surrounded by a bunch of monkeys, then it is discovered below the lunar surface, and we find it floating near Jupiter later on. In the end we see it standing in front of a dying David Bowman, right before his ‘ultimate trip’ begins.
Each appearance of the monolith marks a turning point: the spark of intelligence in the monkeys’ brains; humanity’s ‘jump’ to the Moon and consequent “Jupiter Mission”; the beginning of David Bowman’s psychedelic voyage, and finally his rebirth as star child.

The monolith and its four appearances.

In Clarke’s novel, the monolith has a specific meaning and a clear task: it is an alien artefact which guides humans through all of their stages, from the dawning of intelligence to… Transcendence.

On the other hand, in Kubrick’s 2001 it’s up to us to understand where the monolith is from, who put it there and why.
There’s no explicit answer to these questions (and that’s the beauty of it), so… Let’s speculate a little, shall we?

As viewers, we are the only ones witnessing the four appearances of the monolith throughout time. Seeing it from ‘the outside’ forces us to acknowledge its existence in a most objective way, pushing us to ask ourselves about its origin and find out its basic meaning.

What’s the meaning of the monolith, then? The way I see it, it’s a monument to human intellect.
In my opinion it is not the cause, but the symbol of the different steps that lead humans to develop science and technology.
In the beginning we were animals only capable of responding to instincts, then we learned to reason.
Our ingenuity has allowed us to push ourselves beyond our own limits, leave Earth and live in naturally hostile environments such as space.
Too bad it also made us violent and capable of deciding rationally if other living creatures should live or die.

In the end, I think the monolith carries a positive connotation, though: we’ll be born again and we’ll finally be able to see Earth (i.e. humanity) from above – learning how to put things into the right perspective and be at peace with ourselves and our place in the universe.

The star child watches our home planet from space.

Actually, I suppose Kubrick wouldn’t agree with me, as the first script had a totally different (catastrophic) ending, which reminded of Doctor Strangelove.
But, as I said, the beauty of 2001 is that there is no absolute right or wrong interpretation.
That’s why 2001: A Space Odyssey is a true masterpiece, and I’m not just referring to the sci-fi genre.

For that matter, the good thing about science fiction is it is not just ‘scientific fiction’.
2001 is a clear example of it: the film poses huge questions about our existence, our past and future evolution, maybe even about our re-birth (as figurative as it might be).
It is a work of art about being human and what it means to have limits, and to be able to overcome them.

If 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a masterpiece, I don’t know what is.

So you’ve reached the end of this long post!
And now, before you go, I’d really love to read your own interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. What do you think about HAL 9000 and artificial intelligence? What’s the meaning of the monolith? Let me know in the comments!

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