Type “2001” in the Google search bar, and one of the top suggestions is “2001 a space odyssey meaning.” This isn’t surprising for a movie that ends with a man aging rapidly in a room before becoming a giant embryo orbiting Jupiter, a scene that probably qualifies as the most enigmatic of all time, at least outside of David Lynch’s movies.
There’s obviously a message there. The movie’s slow pace seems designed to give us time to ponder what it is about. It’s pretty clear that the message has something to do with man’s relationship with technology, since the first part of the movie shows man’s discovery of technology, and the rest shows what he’s done with it.
Some critics claim that 2001 has an optimistic view of technology’s effect on man. I can see how they would think that. The proto-humans that the movie follows in the first segment have no technology, and they live a pathetic existence. They scrounge for roots in the dirt while chubby warthogs walk amongst them without fear. They are driven from their murky watering hole by another group of apes. A cheetah comes out of nowhere to pounce on one of them, and all the others can do is run away screaming.
Then the famous black monolith appears in front of them. Its smooth metal exterior and sharp corners tell the apes that someone used their intelligence to construct it. One of the apes, inspired by the monolith, picks up a bone and uses it as a club. No longer will they be the punchline of the African savannah. Triumphant music plays while they slaughter warthog after warthog until they have more meat than they can eat. They take back the watering hole, killing the leader of the rival apes in the process. Already, technology has given them considerable power over their environment.
Jump eons forward to 2001, when the inspiration the ape received from the monolith has led man to voyage into space. The ape’s descendants have constructed magnificent space stations, into which luxurious spaceships dock while graceful classical music plays. They’ve built machines to help them travel, communicate, and even eat. They are comfortable and cheerful. It seems implied that many of man’s ancient problems – war, starvation – have been solved with reason and technology; the upbeat manner of the characters in this part of the film suggests that nothing seriously wrong is happening down on Earth. It’s significant that a movie made during the Cold War shows Dr. Floyd, an American traveling to the moon, having a polite chat with a group of Russians on the space station.
But as impressive as these triumphs are, have they been as good for modern man as that bone-club was to the apes? I argue that the second and third segments of the film suggest they have not.
Although the characters in the 2001 part of the film are polite and cheerful, they also seem distant and unfulfilled. We never see them having heartfelt conversations. I should have counted the number of conversations there are in the movie. It wouldn’t have been difficult – probably no more than a dozen or so. None of them are emotionally satisfying to the people involved. They are polite conversations, but they lack substance. Dr. Floyd exchanges pleasantries with the Russians. He briefs a conference of men on the mission. Some of the men in the briefing thank him for the informative lecture. Et cetera.
The only conversation between people who seem to have an emotional bond occurs between Dr. Floyd and his daughter, but it’s characterized by the distance between them. Dr. Floyd is calling her via a videophone on the moon to tell her that he can’t make it to her birthday party. She seems disappointed.
A similar “conversation” occurs between Dr. Frank Poole of the Jupiter mission and his parents. Actually, it’s more of a video birthday card than a conversation; they are so far away that the time delay makes conversation impossible. Dr. Poole emotionlessly watches them wish him a happy birthday.
Dr. Poole and his colleague on the Jupiter mission, Dr. Dave Bowman, are even more distant towards each other than the crowd on the space station. Despite being each other’s only human company on the months-long mission, they hardly speak. When they are first shown together, they are eating dinner silently. They have their only conversation to discuss what to do after they realize the HAL computer has made a mistake, and it’s a cold and logical one. Instead of spending time together, they pursue “logical” endeavors like drawing sketches or playing chess with HAL.
The only evidence of emotion from the two men comes from Poole as he struggles for his life after HAL jettisons him into space. Although he is presumably screaming, we hear nothing in the void of space. Bowman shows no emotion when he travels to scoop up Poole’s body, when he risks his life to leap through empty space into the emergency hatch, or when he confronts the homicidal HAL. Indeed, the only emotions we hear on the mission come from HAL when he is about to be destroyed.
In the 2001 segment, men are distant not only towards each other but also from nature. Not a single shot is set on Earth after the first segment. It’s not important, as far as man’s technological progress is concerned. Humans have conquered the earth, and now they’re venturing into space. Earth is history. Man’s spirit no longer resides there.
We never see people outside, in the sun, walking on grass. Instead, we see them in cramped, sterile surroundings. We never see a human eating real food, just trays of colorful paste and sandwiches that “all taste the same.” Apparently the space-faring humans of 2001 are no longer enjoying the meaty bounty of their club-wielding ancestors.
Kubrick emphasizes the loneliness of these men by playing dreary music during the Jupiter mission segment, which contrasts with the beautiful melody of the spaceship docking sequence and the triumphant songs that accompany the apes’ discovery of technology in the first segment.
The mysterious room that Bowman ends up in after reaching Jupiter symbolizes the ideas Kubrick hinted at in the space station and Jupiter mission scenes.
The room has a classical look about it. There are sculptures and paintings on the wall. The paintings, which are of natural scenes, are neatly contained in frames, symbolizing man’s control over nature. The architecture of the room is mathematical, with squares and ovals everywhere. The floor is an illuminated grid much like that seen in many Renaissance paintings, when artists were learning to use the principles of perspective to understand space. With these characteristics, the room represents what man has acquired since that ape slaughtered a warthog with a club: reason, intelligence, curiosity, power over nature. It’s a scholar’s room.
But it’s also a prison cell. Bowman undergoes a disturbing transformation inside it, turning into an old man and finally ending up on his deathbed. There’s an aura of loneliness as he ages in the room. He eats a meal alone, his fork and knife clanging on the plate. He dies alone, not saying a word.
This scene, like the voyage to Jupiter, shows that man has become a prisoner of what he created. Although man’s accomplishments are magnificent, they have distanced him from his true nature and the other members of his species. Now that men have mastered their world and set off into space, they are destined to live lonely, unfulfilling lives. That, I think, is the point of 2001 (not that I agree with it).
I’ve read that Arthur C. Clarke, who helped write the story, intended the embryo that Bowman becomes to be a hybrid of the human race and whatever alien species planted the monoliths. I don’t think Kubrick meant for it to represent something so simple, however. It doesn’t matter who created the monoliths; what matters is their significance.
I believe that Bowman’s reincarnation as an embryo in Jupiter’s orbit represents man’s transformation into a new kind of being, one that will be at home in space. Indeed, Bowman sees a monolith before changing into the embryo, and the other monoliths appeared when humanity entered a new stage of development: when it became a thinking species, and when it became a space-faring species. Instead of being in a mother’s womb, the embryo floats unprotected in space. Mankind has become like Poole and Bowman, space explorers of great intelligence who have achieved wonderful things, yet are uncomfortably distanced from their true nature.