Even after 50 years of astonished viewing, the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey remains open to discussion.
It was a joint project from renowned movie director Stanley Kubrick and famed novelist Arthur C. Clarke. Since its debut in 1968, science-fiction enthusiasts and fans of great films have been debating its meaning.
That’s why many of them were hoping with the 2018 release of his book, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, which celebrates the enigmatic film’s 50th anniversary, author Michael Benson would finally provide definitive answers to their questions.
However, despite years of researching, Benson readily admits he still isn’t certain exactly what Kubrick and Clarke were trying to say in their “implicit rather explicit” film.
“It is a masterwork of oblique visceral and intuited meanings which permits every viewer to project his or her own understanding on it. And that’s an important reason for the film’s enduring power and relevance,” Benson says.
In 1968, Kubrick claimed he wanted audiences “to pay attention with their eyes” as they viewed his epic, evolutionary journey of humans from “ape to angel.”
When it was released 50 years ago, the film was initially dismissed as incomprehensible. But it quickly found favor with hipper elements of the Baby Boom generation, who were looking to drugs and ancient Eastern philosophies to take them on an inner journey.
They viewed the film as a similar attempt to grasp the complexities of an even more mind-boggling universe.
Soon the movie began receiving critical praise as well. Today, it is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. 2001 was named the number 1 science fiction movie of all-time by the American Film Institute (AFI).
In 1991, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on 2001, but I have seen the film a half-dozen times in my life.
I first watched it as a 16-year-old when it was released, and most recently as a 66-year-old at a recent viewing at the Smithsonian Museum of American History which was followed by an engaging, thought-provoking talk by Benson.
So, after five decades, what do I feel certain about when talking about the film?
First, as its title implies, it is a saga about a journey, one loosely informed by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, a sequel to the equally famous The Iliad.
While The Iliad is about the fall of Troy, The Odyssey follows the 10-year, action-packed journey of one of the greatest surviving Greek warriors, Odysseus – known in Roman myths as Ulysses – as he struggles to return to his kingdom in Ithaca.
But while Homer’s tale was bound by the limited knowledge of the ancient world, 2001 tackles the vastness of interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space with a fantastic adventure encompassing 400 million years of human evolution – from howling apes discovering that bones could be weapons of death to the fictional rebirth of a sole surviving space explorer as a new superhuman “star child.”
The greatest homage to Homer is the fact that the eerily calm-speaking, yet decidedly-evil rogue super-computer Bowman must “kill” in the film is represented by a glaring single eye, echoing the central characteristic of the mighty, one-eyed Cyclops Odysseus must overcome in his journey.
There is no question that Kubrick and Clarke were determined to offer their story of human evolution in mythic terms and were steeped in the ideas of author Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
In his book, Campbell contends that rite of passage for any mythological hero encompasses “separation-initiation-return,” a sequence which perfectly captures the tale of both Odysseus and Bowman.
Much of the mystery of the movie comes from the giant black monoliths – the first seen in the opening scene with the apes.
Another black monolith, later discovered buried on the moon, proves the finding that launches Bowman and his fellow astronauts – who like Odysseus’ men do not survive – on their incredible journey to Jupiter and beyond.
Here I concur with the belief that the monoliths are the creations of a super-alien race which, like the overlord gods of ancient Greek legend, has continued to have a hand on affairs on planet Earth.
Of course, the biggest impact of the film rests in its visually spellbinding scenes, which can still astound today.
From the disturbing appearance of the murderous apes, to the various spaceflights, to the lobotomization of HAL-9000 – “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that” – to the final strange, abstract “Star Gate” sequence where Bowman ages, only to finally materialize as an ethereal floating fetus, the film offers an experience which has yet to be duplicated even with our modern technological advances.
There is no question 2001 deals with some of the major issues of modernity including evolution, the benefits and perils of technology, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and the concept of God. However, the film poses more questions than it answers.
In fact, the lasting brilliance of Kubrick and Clarke’s creation continues because it allows us to make our own decisions of meaning. Much as in the reality of our actual lives, we must weigh the possibility of human transformation through technology against the warnings of the dangers of that same technology.
Much of the disagreement about the film lies in the perception of its meaning. Some viewers regard the film – especially its ending – as an optimistic statement of humanity. Others argue the film is a pessimistic account of human nature and humanity’s future.
And so, if its first 50 years are an indication, it appears that unlike Odysseus’ travels in the ancient Odyssey which did finally conclude, the journey depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey will continue as long as there are questioning humans on Earth, enticing planets to visit, and bright stars to light the sky.
If you have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, what do you think of the film – is it optimistic about the future of humanity or a warning about the dangers of technology? What impact did it have on you as a viewer? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.