Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time. First University of Texas Press, 1989. Pg. 179.
Given the competition with commercial cinema, a director has a particular responsibility toward his audiences. I mean by this that because of cinema’s unique power to affect an auditorium – in the identification of the screen with life – the most meaningless, unreal commercials film can have just the same kind of magical effect on the uncritical and uneducated cinema-goer as that derived by his discerning counterpart from a real film. The tragic and crucial difference that if art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably.
Stanley Kubrick’s most popular and enduring film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work he co-wrote with noted Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. It’s considered the best of its genre. Which is strange when compared against popular science fiction like Star Wars, Alien, and the Star Trek franchises. For unlike typical character and plot driven narrative, its structure is that of an odyssey portraying the span of millennia. There is no central protagonist to root for or conflict with an antagonist to oppose. The few depicted characters seem disconnected from one another, and their dialog is often irrelevant to expository action. Its pacing is slug slow, and excessive montage shots though visually beautiful doesn’t move plot forward. And if classical music seems an odd score choice for a film genre most associated with action-adventure and space-fantasy, much of the music is often disturbingly postmodern. And then there’s that crazy final sequence, a kaleidoscope of moving colors and seemingly incoherent imagery ends without answers and a pile of confusing questions.
In almost every way this film should have failed. But it didn’t. Instead, it’s considered a great masterpiece. Why?
Even its detractors agree that 2001 was meant to be more than mere entertainment. That, in the tradition of serious film, its creators attempted to explore deep philosophical issues about the nature of humanity and thereby craft a work of art. Something if not timeless, then at least a film with the relevance of longevity. And like it or not, nearly fifty years after release 2001 remains ingrained in culture. It’s iconic imagery is recognized even by those who’ve never seen it.
Detractors may call it stuffy, slow, and boring, but there’s an emotional release at the end that can’t be explained away by calling it bad. There’s a sense of transcendent human triumphalism to the final star-child shot. It thematically ties together seemingly disparate segments, showing them as having depicted a progression of human evolution. So, even if 2001 steps away traditional call of the hero structure, the climactic ending evokes wish fulfillment toward a universal human hope that we will become something more than the sum of our petty conflicts. Few films can claim such an achievement.
Yet even if the evolutionary message of the film is obvious, there remains tremendous debate about its meaning. For with every viewer there seems another interpretation. That underneath this hopeful story of ape to man to superman, helped along by beneficent aliens, there’s something more. That, like narrative russian dolls, 2001 is a riddle wrapped within a mystery inside an enigma. One that takes many viewings and much debate to tease apart. This essay is my attempt at adding to that discussion.
Three layers of message intertwined
There seem to be three layers of message that have been intertwined, often in contrast and not congruence, making for a powerful intellectual and emotional experience at the unconscious level while remaining difficult to interpret rationally.
Realism: The film appears to be a realistic depiction of events that span millennia. There is great attention to detail throughout that appears to suggest that the events on screen exist entirely within a physical and rationalist realm. Even the monolith, which is taken symbolically for extraterrestrial intervention, can be interpreted in positivist terms as a physical object that engenders a cause and effect relationship to those it molds and transforms. This seems to make sense until by the end, with the appearance of the Star Child, the film appears to have transformed from a documentary experience to something more surreal. Viewers are left confused as to the meaning, but having enjoyed a good ride nonetheless.
Philosophy: Underneath this surface message depicting explicit realism of events is an implied philosophical message referring to Nietzsche’s Ascent of Man thesis. Here, an eternal recurring cycle of development, stasis in consolidation, decay, and then radical change is proposed whereby man advances due to universal principles of existence. At the beginning, we see Moonwatcher and the apes transformed into the beginning of man. At the end, we then see man transformed into the Star Child. Each step appears to represent the beginning of this cycle.
Irrationality: Upon multiple viewings, the documentary realism appears to break down, becoming less a depiction of linear events with a direct cause and effect relationship within the narrative, and more an aesthetic style that draws the viewer in to enforce preconceived rationalist notions that the filmmaker then dashes. A series of irrational implications about incommensurable supernatural forces outside human awareness are embedded within thematic repetitions, motifs, and the use of visual superimposition. This layer of the film appears to negate the message presented on the surface level.
It is from combining these perspectives that another interpretation for the ending emerges, one less triumphal for mankind.
The viewer is thus faced with the confusing dilemma of choosing which of these perspectives to use in forming an interpretation. Most take the documentary approach and assume the film depicts events with typical cause and effect relationships. Some perceive the suggested relationship to philosophical theory. But it takes many viewings to recognize repetitions that suggest by theme and motif a message that contradicts both the overt Nietzscean philosophy as well as preconceived notions of rationalism embedded within its documentary aesthetic.
Beyond the conceptual layers of Realism, Philosophy, and Irrationality, one must also consider the filmmaking and storytelling techniques used as well. There are several additional layers to consider: characterization of intent expressed by the actor’s micro-expressions; visual and auditory themes and motifs suggested by repetition across scenes in the frame and soundtrack and musical score; and emotional contrasts evoked by the difference between Kubrick’s often contrapuntal musical score choice in contrast to the imagery and situations presented. Examining all of these elements is necessary to understand Kubrick’s intent.
It is from combining these perspectives that another interpretation for the ending emerges, one less triumphal for mankind. But one cannot see this by looking strictly at plot elements of action and dialog, for it’s embedded within implications presented as repetitions within imagery, sound, and score choice, and not as explicit expository events within the narrative. Thus, underneath that surface presentation of a seemingly realistic imagery that flows across vast spans of time, Kubrick’s use of sound, score, and repetition of imagery suggest theme and motifs often in opposition to a rationalist viewpoint. Instead, these choices seem to imply irrationalist outcomes, leading to an ambiguity of intent by the filmmaker.
This uncertainty for the viewer can be summed up by the question: Did Kubrick intend to create a ‘hard science fiction’ film, one where a depiction of believable technology is crucial to a linear cause and effect narrative? If so, why do many nonhuman elements, such as the monolith and its makers, repeated celestial alignments at crucial plot points, and the formation of the Star Child at the end, appear to be supernatural plot elements? And why did he choose a musical score that seems to evoke emotions contrary to what’s expected by imagery and situations? This essay will attempt to answer those questions with a detailed scene-by-scene analysis. It then ends with a review of cultural antecedents and reactions to the film to provide context of its lasting legacy.