Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey


Since its premiere in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey has been analyzed and interpreted by multitudes of people ranging from professional movie critics to amateur writers and science fiction fans. The director of the film, Stanley Kubrick, wanted to leave the film open to philosophical and allegorical interpretation, purposely presenting the final sequences of the film without the underlying thread being apparent; a concept illustrated by the final frame of the film, which contains the image of the embryonic ‘Starchild.’

Kubrick encouraged people to explore their own interpretations of the film, and refused to offer an explanation of ‘what really happened’ in the movie, preferring instead to let audiences embrace their own ideas and theories. In a 1968 interview with Playboy magazine, Kubrick stated: ‘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.’

However, neither of the two creators equated openness to interpretation with meaninglessness, although it might seem that Clarke implied as much when he stated, shortly after the film’s release, ‘If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.’ When told of the comment, Kubrick said ‘I believe he made it [the comment] facetiously. The very nature of the visual experience in ‘2001’ is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not—and should not—require further amplification.’

When told that Kubrick had called his comment ‘facetious’, Clarke responded, ‘I still stand by this remark, which does not mean one can’t enjoy the movie completely the first time around. What I meant was, of course, that because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in ‘2001,’ and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simpleminded critics to the contrary.’

In a subsequent discussion of the film with Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick said his main aim was to avoid ‘intellectual verbalization’ and reach ‘the viewer’s subconscious.’ However, he said he did not deliberately strive for ambiguity- it was simply an inevitable outcome of making the film nonverbal, though he acknowledged this ambiguity was an invaluable asset to the film. He was willing then to give a fairly straightforward explanation of the plot on what he called the ‘simplest level,’ but unwilling to discuss the metaphysical interpretation of the film which he felt should be left up to the individual viewer.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name was developed simultaneously with the film, though published after its release. It seems to explain the ending of the film more clearly. Clarke’s novel explicitly identifies the monolith as a tool created by an alien race that has been through many stages of evolution, moving from organic forms, through biomechanics, and finally has achieved a state of pure energy. These aliens travel the cosmos assisting lesser species to take evolutionary steps. The novel explains the hotel room sequence as a kind of alien zoo—fabricated from information derived from intercepted television transmissions from Earth—in which Dave Bowman is studied by the invisible alien entities. Kubrick’s film leaves all this unstated.

Physicist Freeman Dyson urged those baffled by the film to read Clarke’s novel: ‘After seeing Space Odyssey, I read Arthur Clarke’s book. I found the book gripping and intellectually satisfying, full of the tension and clarity which the movie lacks. All the parts of the movie that are vague and unintelligible, especially the beginning and the end, become clear and convincing in the book. So I recommend to my middle-aged friends who find the movie bewildering that they should read the book; their teenage kids don’t need to.’

Author Vincent Lobrutto, in ‘Stanley Kubrick: A Biography,’ was inclined to note creative differences leading to a separation of meaning for book and film: ‘The film took on its own life as it was being made, and Clarke became increasingly irrelevant. Kubrick could probably have shot ‘2001’ from a treatment, since most of what Clarke wrote, in particular some windy voice-overs which explained the level of intelligence reached by the ape men, the geological state of the world at the dawn of man, the problems of life on the Discovery and much more, was discarded during the last days of editing, along with the explanation of HALs breakdown.’

In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Stanley Kubrick stated, ‘On the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God […] The film revolves around this metaphysical conception[,] and the realistic hardware and the documentary feelings about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.’

The film has been seen by many people not only as a literal story about evolution and space adventures, but as an allegorical representation of aspects of philosophical, religious or literary concepts.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical tract ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ about the potential of mankind, is directly referenced by the use of Richard Strauss’s musical piece of the same name. Nietzsche writes that man is a bridge between the ape and the Superman. In an article in the New York Times, Kubrick gave credence to interpretations of ‘2001’ based on Zarathustra when he said: ‘Man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilized human beings. Man is really in a very unstable condition.’

Donald MacGregor has analyzed the film in terms of a different work, ‘The Birth of Tragedy,’ in which Nietzsche refers to the human conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of being. The Apollonian side of man is rational, scientific, sober and self-controlled. However, for Nietzsche a purely Apollonian mode of existence is problematic, since it undercuts the instinctual side of man. The Apollonian man lacks a sense of wholeness, immediacy, and primal joy. It is not good for a culture to be either wholly Apollonian or Dionysian. While the world of the apes at the beginning of ‘2001’ is Dionysian, the world of travel to the moon is wholly Apollonian, and HAL is an entirely Apollonian entity. Kubrick’s film came out just a year before the Woodstock rock festival, a wholly Dionysian affair. MacGregor argues that David Bowman in his transformation has regained his Dionysian side.

The conflict between humanity’s internal Dionysus and Apollo has been used as a lens through which to view many other Kubrick films especially ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ ‘Lolita,’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’

‘2001’ has also been described as an allegory of human conception, birth and death. In part, this can be seen through the final moments of the film, which are defined by the image of the ‘star child,’ an in utero fetus that draws on the work of Lennart Nilsson ( a Swedish photographer and scientist noted for his photographs of in vivo human embryos and other medical subjects once considered unphotographable). The star child signifies a ‘great new beginning,’ and is depicted naked and ungirded, but with its eyes wide open.

New Zealand journalist Scott MacLeod sees parallels between the spaceship’s journey and the physical act of conception. We have the long, bulb-headed spaceship as a sperm, and the destination planet Jupiter (or the monolith floating near it) as the egg, and the meeting of the two as the trigger for the growth of a new race of man (the ‘star child’). The lengthy pyrotechnic light show witnessed by David Bowman, which has puzzled many reviewers, is seen by MacLeod as Kubrick’s attempt at visually depicting the moment of conception, when the ‘star child’ comes into being.

Taking the allegory further, MacLeod argues that the final scenes in which Bowman appears to see a rapidly aging version of himself through a ‘time warp’ is actually Bowman witnessing the withering and death of his own species. The old race of man is about to be replaced by the ‘star child,’ which was conceived by the meeting of the spaceship and Jupiter. MacLeod also sees irony in man as a creator (of HAL) on the brink of being usurped by his own creation. Thus, by destroying HAL, man symbolically rejects his role as creator and steps back from the brink of his own destruction.

An extremely complex three-level allegory is seen by Leonard F. Wheat in his book, ‘Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory.’ Wheat states that, ‘Most… misconceptions (of the film) can be traced to a failure to recognize that ‘2001’ is an allegory – a surface story whose characters, events, and other elements symbolically tell a hidden story… the surface story actually does something unprecedented in film or literature: it embodies three allegories.’ According to Wheat, the three allegories are:

First, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical tract, ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ which is signaled by the use of Richard Strauss’s music of the same name. Wheat notes the passage in Zarathustra describing mankind as a rope dancer balanced between an ape and the Übermensch, and argues that the film as a whole enacts an allegory of that image.

Second, Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey,’ which is signaled in the film’s title. Wheat notes, for example, that the name ‘Bowman’ may refer to Odysseus, whose story ends with a demonstration of his prowess as an archer. He also follows earlier scholars in connecting the one-eyed HAL with the Cyclops, and notes that Bowman kills HAL by inserting a small key, just as Odysseus blinds the Cyclops with a stake. Wheat argues that the entire film contains references to almost everything that happens to Odysseus on his travels; for example, he interprets the four spacecraft seen orbiting the Earth immediately after the ape sequence as representing Hera, Athena, Aphrodite and Eris, the protagonists of the Judgment of Paris, which begins the events of Homer’s Odyssey.

Third, Arthur C. Clarke’s theory of the future symbiosis of man and machine, expanded by Kubrick into what Wheat calls ‘a spoofy three-evolutionary leaps scenario’: ape to man, an abortive leap from man to machine, and a final, successful leap from man to ‘Star Child.’

As with many elements of the film, the iconic monolith has been subject to countless interpretations, including religious, alchemical, historical, and evolutionary. To some extent, the very way in which it appears and is presented allows the viewer to project onto it all manner of ideas relating to the film. The Monolith in the movie seems to represent and even trigger epic transitions in the history of human evolution, evolution of man from ape-like beings to beyond infinity, hence the odyssey of mankind.

The monolith appears four times in ‘2001’: on the African Savannah, on the moon, in space orbiting Jupiter, and near Bowman’s bed before his transformation. After the first encounter with the monolith, we see the leader of the apes have a quick flashback to the monolith after which he picks up a bone and uses it to smash other bones. Its usage as a weapon enables his tribe to defeat the other tribe of apes occupying the water hole who do not use bones as tools. After this victory, the ape-leader throws his bone into the air, after which the scene shifts to an orbiting satellite four million years later, implying that the discovery of the bone as tool inaugurated human evolution.

The first and second encounters of humanity with the monolith have visual elements in common; both apes, and later astronauts, touch the monolith gingerly with their hands, and both sequences conclude with near-identical images of the sun appearing directly over the monolith (the first with a crescent moon adjacent to it in the sky, the second with a near-identical crescent Earth in the same position), both echoing the sun-earth-moon alignment seen at the very beginning of the film. The second encounter also suggests the triggering of the monolith’s radio signal to Jupiter by the presence of humans, echoing the premise of Clarke’s source story ‘The Sentinel.’

The fact that the first tool used by the protohumans is a weapon to commit murder is only one of the challenging evolutionary and philosophic questions posed by the film. The tool’s link to the present day is made by the famous graphic match from the bone/tool flying into the air, to a satellite orbiting the earth, which may or may not be a weapon. At the time of the movie’s making, the space race was in full swing, and the use of space and technology for war and destruction was seen as a great challenge of the future.

But the use of tools also allowed mankind to survive and flourish over the next 4 million years, at which point the monolith makes its second appearance, this time on the Moon. Upon excavation, after remaining buried beneath the lunar surface for 4 million years, the monolith is examined by humans for the first time, and it emits a powerful radio signal—the target of which becomes Discovery One’s mission.

In reading Clarke, or Kubrick’s comments, this is the most straightforward of the monolith’s appearances. It is ‘calling home’ to say, in effect, ‘they’re here!’ Some species visited long ago has not only evolved intelligence, but intelligence sufficient to achieve space travel. Humanity has left its cradle, and is ready for the next step. This is the point of connection with Clarke’s earlier short story, ‘The Sentinel,’ originally cited as the basis for the entire film.

The third time we see a monolith marks the beginning of the film’s most cryptic and psychedelic sequence, interpretations of the last two monolith appearances are as varied as the film’s viewers. Is it a ‘star gate,’ some giant cosmic router or transporter? Are all of these visions happening inside Bowman’s mind? According to Michael Hollister in his book ‘Hollyworld,’ the path beyond the infinite is introduced by the vertical alignment of planets and moons with a perpendicular monolith forming a cross, as if the astronaut is about to become a new savior.

Bowman lives out his years alone in a neoclassical room, brightly lit from underneath, that evokes the Age of Enlightenment, decorated with classical art, and as his life passes the monolith makes its final appearance: standing at the foot of his bed as he approaches death. He raises a finger toward the monolith, a gesture that alludes to the Michelangelo painting of ‘The Creation of Adam,’ with the monolith representing God.

The HAL 9000 has been compared to Frankenstein’s monster. HAL is an artificial intelligence, a sentient, synthetic, life form. According to John Thurman, HAL’s very existence is an abomination, much like Frankenstein’s monster. ‘While perhaps not overtly monstrous, HAL’s true character is hinted at by his physical ‘deformity.’ Like a Cyclops he relies upon a single eye, examples of which are installed throughout the ship. The eye’s warped wide-angle point-of-view is shown several times — notably in the drawings of hibernating astronauts (all of whom HAL will later murder).’

Kubrick underscores the Frankenstein connection with a scene that virtually reproduces the style and content of a scene from James Whale’s 1931 ‘Frankenstein.’ The scene in which Frankenstein’s monster is first shown on the loose is borrowed to depict the first murder by HAL of a member of Discovery One’s crew–the empty pod, under HAL’s control, extends its arms and ‘hands,’ and goes on a ‘rampage’ directed towards astronaut Poole. In each case, it is the first time the truly odious nature of the ‘monster’ can be recognized as such, and only appears about halfway through the film.

Clarke has suggested in interviews, his original novel, and in a rough draft of the shooting script that HAL’s orders to lie to the astronauts (more specifically, concealing the true nature of the mission) drove him ‘insane.’ The novel does include the phrase ‘He [HAL] had been living a lie’ — a difficult situation for an entity programmed to be as reliable as possible. Or as desirable, given his programming to ‘only win 50% of the time’ at chess, in order for the human astronauts to feel competitive. Clarke also gives an explanation of the ill-effects of HAL being ordered to lie in computer terms as well as psychological terms, stating HAL is caught in a ‘Mobius feedback loop.’

While the film remains ambiguous, one can see evidence that since HAL was instructed to deceive the mission astronauts as to the actual nature of the mission and that deception opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities. During a game of chess, HAL misstates what move is to be made (by using a hybrid of algebraic and traditional chess notation) and how many moves it will then take to mate him (assuming a move is forced that is not). Frank Poole is seen to be mouthing his moves to himself during the game and it is later revealed that HAL can lip read. HAL’s conversation with Dave Bowman just before the diagnostic error of the AE-35 unit that communicates with Earth is an almost paranoid question and answer session (‘Surely one could not be unaware of the strange stories circulating…rumors about something being dug up on the moon…’) where HAL skirts very close to the pivotal issue concerning which he is concealing information.

When Dave states ‘You’re working up your crew psychology report,’ HAL takes a few seconds to respond in the affirmative. Immediately following this exchange, he errs in diagnosing the antenna unit. HAL has been introduced to the unique and alien concept of human dishonesty. He does not have a sufficiently layered understanding of human motives to grasp the need for this and trudging through the tangled web of lying complications, he falls prey to human error.

The follow-up film ‘2010’ further elaborates Clarke’s explanation of HAL’s breakdown. While HAL was under orders to deny the true mission with the crew, he was programmed at a deep level to be completely accurate and infallible. This conflict between two key directives led to him taking any measures to prevent Bowman and Poole finding out about this deception. Once Poole had been killed, others were eliminated to remove any witnesses to his failure to complete the mission.

One interesting aspect of HAL’s plight, noted by Roger Ebert, is that HAL, as the supposedly perfect computer, actually behaves in the most human fashion of all of the characters. He has reached human intelligence levels, and seems to have developed human traits of paranoia, jealousy, and other emotions. By contrast, the human characters act like machines, coolly performing their tasks in a mechanical fashion, whether they are mundane tasks of operating their craft or even under extreme duress as Dave must be following HAL’s murder of Frank. For instance, Frank Poole watches a birthday transmission from his parents with what appears to be complete apathy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.