Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the best sci-fi film of all time. It’s better than Star Wars. Better than The Empire Strikes Back, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Alien, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, Akira, Close Encounters, Gattaca, Soylent Green, District 9, The Thing, West World, The Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Wall-E, and Star Trek II and IV and VI.
And 2001 is even weirder than the weirdest of sci-fi flicks. I’m talking about Brazil, Barbarella, Yor, Flash Gordon, They Live, Primer, Upstream Color, City of Lost Children, Dark City, and Zardoz, which is saying a lot, because 2001 doesn’t even feature Sean Connery in a mankini.
People say a lot of things about 2001 — it’s visionary, it’s too slow, it’s like totally trippy, brah, pass the pipe — but they rarely say this: Kubrick intended 2001 to be the very thing that changes the course of humanity. And it all begins right there in the opening few minutes.
For two minutes and 50 seconds, the movie screen is pitch black. Unsettling music ebbs and flows. It builds, but the screen remains black. The disquieting sounds continue as viewers stare at the blank screen, waiting for the movie to start, unaware that it already has and that Kubrick’s message is inserting itself into their subconscious minds. And then voila, the MGM logo appears, followed shortly by the first few notes of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as a single image fills the screen, in this case the sun rising over the Planet Earth. The inception has taken place, and it is immediately forgotten as the director turns to mankind’s earliest, most ape-like days.
In the beginning, the ape-men are starving, they are fighting over watering holes, they are on a one-way path to extinction. But then the Monolith appears before ape-men for the first time. The ape-men don’t know what it is, where it came from, or how it got there. More importantly, they are curious about all of these things. So they gather around it and begin to approach it as swirling music, similar to what accompanied the start of the film, plays. With their fur-covered hands, they touch the Monolith, and the course of mankind changes forever.
What exactly happens to the ape-men, we’re not entirely sure, but the encounter with the Monolith inspires one ape-man to pick up a bone. He ponders it until he comes to a revelation: he can use this object as a tool, a weapon. He bangs it, hitting other bones and breaking them. Shortly thereafter, we see the ape-man and his tribe feasting on a dead beast they have killed. Later they use that same knowledge to defeat a neighboring tribe in a fight over a watering hole. Armed with a nascent understanding of tools and weaponry, man has taken his first evolutionary step, a step that will not only lead him to outerspace, but to the brink of worldwide destruction. Which brings us to 2001 the novel.
Written by the celebrated sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, the literary version of 2001 takes place during a time when the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war. One can rightfully assume the same is occurring in the film, since both 2001s were made simultaneously, with Clarke and Kubrick collaborating throughout the creation of the two works. Both pieces inform each other, and as such, both are variations on the same evolutionary gospel. And it’s this shared setting that provides the context to the way in which Kubrick transitions out of the ape-man’s story and into the world of the space traveler. Here’s how the director does it: Shortly after the tool-using ape-men defeat their adversaries, one of them throws a bone into the sky. We see it tumble and tumble before it disappears from the screen and is replaced by a space craft of a similar size and shape. In the original script, the craft is an orbiting nuclear weapons platform and it’s pointed at Earth. This is Kubrick’s way of telling us that our capacity for making tools and waging war has reached a horrible endpoint. We are in danger. Our evolution is at an impasse.
What follows next is a dispiriting showcase of how man’s greatest achievements have become sadly mundane. Floating high in outerspace, men and women in suits talk casually about cosmic matters in the same blasé fashion we might discuss office supply orders, space stewardesses check on their space passengers and serve them pre-packaged in-flight meals, and board room meetings are hobbled by dreary slideshows and an is-it-happy-hour-yet detachment. But the point of all of this is the discovery of something special, a Monolith buried deep below the surface of the Moon, where it has been waiting for us for millennia.
Shortly after a face-to-face encounter between the suits and the Monolith, the details of which we are never told, the crew of the Discovery One is dispatched on a top-secret mission to Jupiter. At the helm are astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole and the supercomputer, the HAL-9000. Much is made of Kubrick’s attempt to interject the realities of space travel into the picture — it’s lonely and quiet and slow and repetitive and completely boring. However, it’s almost as if the director is suggesting to viewers, many of whom will likely be bored by all of this, that mankind has fallen into a waking sleep.
While the appearance of a second Monolith may have pushed man closer to his next awakening, the black block’s appearance isn’t enough. Man must come to the realization that he has become a slave to his tools. Even worse, he is its prey.
Enter the HAL-900.
The supercomputer, sensing perhaps its own impending irrelevancy, decides to stop Bowman and Poole from conducting their mission — reaching a giant Monolith floating in Jupiter’s orbit. First, HAL kills the remaining crew members in suspended animation and then it kills Poole. After that, HAL turns its sights on Bowman, who we’ll refer to as Dave from here on out. HAL ultimately fails, Dave unplugs the super-computer, and we witness its devolution, if you will. As HAL dies, he sings a song, one the AI was taught in the earliest moments of his consciousness.
Dave, knowing that he has to finish his mission, exits the Discovery One, piloting a small craft toward a gigantic Monolith. Once again, the strange music that accompanies any encounter with the Monolith begins, but for the first time, we are given a visual representation of what the Monolith does to the mind, as Dave is taken on the ultimate psychedelic trip.
Once the outerspace acid trip ends, the small craft has come to a stop in a luxuriously decorated white room, the kind of stark environment that Kubrick would continue to be so fond of in future films. The craft sits silently, and Dave shakes, physically suffering from the initial shock of his encounter with the Monolith. As he begins to process the next step in human evolutionary development that is taking place, Dave sees himself standing outside of the space craft, but he has noticeably aged. Then he is out of the craft itself, having become the older Dave. The astronaut soon encounters another, even older version of himself, which he then becomes, and then finally he sees himself on his death bed, all of which happens in the same series of white rooms. The Monolith appears again, the dying Bowman reaches for it, and he is transformed into a glowing baby, or what is typically called the Star Child. At this point, mankind, as evidenced by Dave, has not only abandoned the physical tools that helped and then later enslaved him, he has transcended the boundaries of space and time and entered a world of pure mind, one that seemingly all of mankind can reach. And so Dave returns to Earth as the Star Child to transform the human race and to save it from self-destruction.
However, Kubrick did not intend for this to be solely a trippy ending to a trippy sci-fi movie. The key to understanding this truth begins with this simple, overlooked fact: the shape and proportions of the Monolith roughly match the shape and proportions of a movie screen, although a screen is positioned horizontally. When that bit of information is factored into the experience of watching the first two minutes and 50 seconds of the film, the director’s true message is revealed— the movie itself is the Monolith.
When it comes down to it, Stanley Kubrick crafted a film that was designed to wake us up to the fact that we are standing on the edge of the abyss and the blackness is staring back and it is telling us something — if we don’t evolve, if we don’t abandon our lust for war, we as a species will die. But if we overcome these obstacles, mankind will not perish from this Earth. Instead, we will embark on the ultimate trip and as a species find immortality among the stars.
That is the message of the Monolith and the movie and Stanley Kubrick. And in the end, they are one and the same. Listen and learn.