5 Nov 2013

An Introduction to 2001: A Space Odyssey

By Peter Krämer

2001: A Space Odyssey was the result of a collaboration between the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and the Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. This collaboration started when Kubrick wrote to Clarke in March 1964 to suggest that they work on a Science Fiction film together. Soon thereafter they decided that they would first write a novelistic treatment which would then serve as the basis both of a script and of a novel to be published under Clarke’s name. The novel was published by New American Library a few months after the film’s release in April 1968, and it offers explanations for much of what remains unexplained in the film.

For most of its long production history, the film itself was meant to contain explanatory material, including a prologue consisting of interviews with scientists, extensive voice-over narration throughout the story as well as a lot more dialogue. Only a few weeks before the release of 2001, Kubrick decided to remove all of these so that the film became very mysterious indeed – much like the alien monoliths in the film. 

Kubrick had embarked on his collaboration with Clarke with a view of offering an optimistic alternative to the pessimism of his previous film, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which ends with the explosion of a nuclear “doomsday” device that will destroy all life on the surface of the Earth. One might say that, having produced a black comedy about how humanity will destroy itself on Earth, Kubrick was now looking into the heavens for a non-human force that could save humankind. Other people might call this force “God”, but for Kubrick it was extra-terrestrial intelligence. 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey the extra-terrestrials act upon humankind through monoliths, which means that, by turning the film itself into a kind of monolith – a perfectly designed and beautiful, yet utterly opaque object -, Kubrick suggested that the film might have transformative powers with regards to its audience. Amazingly, many viewers did indeed experience the film precisely in this way (as is evidenced by the letters people wrote to Kubrick after the film’s release). 

'The Monolith' in 2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Let’s take a closer look at the unique qualities of this monolithic film. Except for the absence of a huge curved Cinerama screen, today’s DVD versions of the film present it in the same way as it was presented during its initial, so-called “roadshow” release in spring 1968. There is a three minute musical overture, an intermission (once again with some music), and additional music (for about four minutes) after the conclusion of the end credits. This was typical for the initial release of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters until the late 1960s; they were staged as special events, modelled on a night out at the opera or musical theatre. While this presentation was typical, the film itself was not. It departs from the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in many ways. Instead of following the actions of a main character or group of characters, pursuing a well-defined set of goals, the film tells three different stories, each with their own protagonists whose goals are not always obvious.

First, there are ape-like creatures – or hominids – who can be difficult to tell apart from each other and whose behaviour can therefore be puzzling. Then there is a scientist travelling to the moon, whose motives for doing so are revealed only towards the end of his journey. Finally, there are two astronauts on a spaceship to Jupiter, one of whom goes on a further, utterly mysterious journey after reaching the planet. 

3 'stories' in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Instead of outlining clearly how one thing leads to another, 2001 breaks down the cause-and-effect chain of events. It does so at the level of the film as a whole; it is, for example, difficult – but not impossible - to determine how its three stories are connected to each other. And also at the level of individual scenes. It is often unclear how the events of one scene arise from those shown in earlier scenes. This applies especially to the final sequences of the film. 

What is more, instead of selecting only those parts of an action that might be deemed relevant for the on-going story, much of the film consists of shots leisurely and meticulously depicting earthly landscapes or celestial formations as well as the often very slow movement of people and spacecraft through these with little or no concern for moving the story along. 

Landscape in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

So what is the best way to relate to this unusual film? Of course, after seeing it, one can go to Clarke’s novel so as to get some explanations. But while one is watching it, one might want to pay attention to the implications of its title – “2001: A Space Odyssey” – and of the title shown at the beginning of the pre-historic sequence: “The Dawn of Man”. One might want to ask: what is a 'space odyssey', and who is going on an odyssey through space in this film? What is the dawn of man, and when does the rise of man begin? When is it completed?

With regards to these last questions, we could say that the pre-historic sequence shows hominids being transformed into proto-humans, while the bulk of the film concerns modern humans, and the final sequence shows the transformation of one of these humans into something else, something post-human. Or we could say – as Kubrick himself has indeed suggested – that the humanity that “dawns” in the opening sequence is only fully achieved at the end; what we call “humanity” is merely a transitional stage between animal and the rise (in the shape of the Star Child) of that which is truly human.

What are the characteristics of the “human” in both readings? The first reading suggests that, in contrast to their herbivorous, non-violent and rather ineffectual predecessors, humans can be defined as highly effective carnivorous and murderous tool-users. Since their first weapon in the film is a phallic bone, we can also say that humans are strongly associated with maleness here. 

'Murderous tool-users', the hominids turn in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Perhaps the project of human civilisation can, in this reading, be defined as sublimating (male) violence: The film’s space sequences would appear to suggest that in the 21st century such pacification has been achieved. The encounter with the Russians on the space station is perfectly peaceful (despite underlying political divisions and tensions), and space food is merely meat-flavoured, most likely without animals having been killed to produce it. 

The 'Hilton' Space Station in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

At the same time, humanity’s most advanced technology – the supercomputer Hal – turns out to be a murderer, and women are still marginal in this world (although the presence of female Russian scientists hints at potential equality). It is only after David Bowman’s transformation into the post-human Star Child that gender is finally left behind, as is, for all we know, the use of technology. However, we can’t know what the Star Child’s intentions are; could they be murderous?

Let’s go back now to the idea that what we call humankind is merely a transitional stage between animal and genuine humanity. In this reading we might say that what we know as “human” history is fundamentally flawed due to our killing of animals for meat, the murder of members of our own kind, and our dependence on technology. We might go further by noting that, both in the space sequences and in the few scenes set on Earth, 21st century “humanity” is completely divorced from nature as it was experienced by its hominid predecessors.

And the life of 21st century individuals is characterised by increasing separation from each other. In contrast to the band of hominids forever huddling together and cuddling and grooming each other, “human” families are dispersed and there is hardly any physical contact between people at all. Indeed, the film shows how Bowman’s journey finds him ever more isolated – millions of miles from Earth, his fellow astronauts being killed, his only companion – a computer – being switched off. 

Isolation,  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

It is important, in this reading, that at the very end of the film the Star Child returns to Earth (thus Bowman completes his odyssey). As far as we can see, it is no longer gendered, no longer dependent on killing animals or on technology. Should we understand the final images as saying that true humanity is in fact spiritual? Without need for food or sex or a real body, without physical companionship or interaction with natural surroundings? Or should we concentrate on the similarity between the bubble containing the Star Child and the Earth floating in space next to it, and on the fact that the Star Child at the very end turns to the camera to look at us? Does this imply that the Star Child recognises itself in the life-filled planet Earth and therefore that full human consciousness encompasses the planet as a whole? At the same time, is the Star Child not looking for companionship in the auditorium?

'Starchild' in  2001: a Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

While asking ourselves such questions, we must not forget the very last words spoken in 2001: a Space Odyssey, which state that “the origin and purpose” of the monoliths “remain a total mystery”. Rather than trying to solve the film’s mysteries, we should perhaps accept that its mysteriousness is among its greatest qualities.

You can hear more of Peter's thoughts on 2001 here or read his 'BFI Film Classics' book on the film 


  1. Yes: I take it as crucial to the entire film that in the final shot, at last, the StarChild looks the viewer in the eye.

  2. This gesture forms of course a direct connection between Avatar (which ends and also begins with 'the same' gesture) and 2001, as transformative films aiming to facilitate in the viewer a self-therapy. See my two pieces, below.