2001: A Space Odyssey is an enigmatic film. It is a science – fiction film that meticulously portrayed a scientifically accurate picture of the space but is also puzzle riddled with many mystic symbols. It starts as a conventional story of space exploration but ends with a mysterious spirit approaching the Earth. It is a film with so many conflicting notions, that I was stupefied at the end of the screening. In Stanley Kubrick’s own ironic terms, this film is a ‘mythological documentary’ or a ‘controlled dream’.
Despite such complexity, the plot is simple. In its essence, the film is about the quest for a black monolith that has descended 4 million years ago and endowed the early man – apes with intelligence. The monolith was discovered in Moon, and a science team led by Dr. Heywood R. Floyd was sent to investigate it. They were soon overtaken by a loud and high – pitching sound emanating from the slab.
Eighteen months later, the American spaceship Discovery One was bound for a mission in Jupiter. It was installed with HAL 9000, the world’s most sophisticated and intelligent computer. Hal, as the crew called it, boasted to have a service record that is ‘completely without error’, but made a wrong diagnosis of a component piece. Hal subsequently eavesdropped a conversation between David Bowman and Frank Poole, the two astronauts in the mission, who were hatching a plan to disconnect the computer in the worst – case scenario. Feeling threatened, Hal engineered the death of Frank Poole during a space walk and also terminated the life supports of three other hibernated scientists. David risked his life to get back to spaceship and disconnected Hal, who in his agony, sang ‘Daisy Bell’.
By the time it was finally disconnected, the spaceship arrived to Jupiter and a prerecorded video from Floyd played. He told them about the signal that the monolith sent to Jupiter and was still ‘a total mystery’. Then David entered into the Star Gate, a strange kind of psychedelic sequence, and arrived to a room decorated in Louis XVI-style. He saw himself becoming progressively older and finally lied on a bed, with the black monolith in front of him. He touched it and was transformed in a fetus – like being that floated to the Earth.
The film, spanning for more than two and a half hours, is sparse in dialogues. As Kubrick said in an interview, ‘Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words’. 2001 is an embodiment of this idea. Inevitably, much attention has been spent on the music and images, which in the absence of words, are de facto languages of the film.
Kubrick commissioned Alex North, a celebrated Hollywood composer, for original scores but decided to reject them in favor of pre-existing recorded classical musics known as ‘temp tracks’. It was a curious decision. North was never informed of this decision, until he attended the screening in New York and recalled that he was ‘very very frustrated by it all’.
Kubrick had complete editorial freedom with the ‘temp tracks’. North’s scores were by no means unimaginative or unoriginal but they try to give emotional cues, like all traditional soundtracks do. The music that Kubrick desired was to transcend the visuals and move the audience to think about the meaning behind the images. Through music, he wished us to consider our place in cosmos and our relationship with technology – questions that we normally won’t come across in daily life.
Consider a few examples. The appearance of the monolith is accompanied by Ligeti’ Requiem, that is a strange piece of music composed of soprano, mezzosoprano, mixed choruses and orchestra. The music has such a dense texture that it resembles more like noises than harmonious sounds. Kubrick relied on this borderline between musicality and noise to present the monolith as a higher order of intelligence that went beyond our boundary of comprehension. Just like an unknown language will sound as babbles and noises in our ears, the ‘voice’ of the monolith was no more than disorder in our perspective but it is only an illusion, as Arthur C. Clarke’s has said that ‘any technology far in advance of our own will be indistinguishable from magic’.
With a toss of a bone, the scene shifted to the modern space travel and we heard the soft and smooth Blue Danube by Strauss. It was an attempt for Kubrick (as he admitted) to get ‘as far away as you can get from the cliché of space music’. He has done so with beauty and grace. As the waltz flows, the movements of elegant space plane and wheeled space station seem to synchronize, beautifully, with the pace of the music.
As the language of the film, the choices of music have gone as far as setting a cyclical structure in the narrative of the film. The opening of the film starts with the famous Thus Spoke Zarathustra – the uplifting tone poem also by Strauss. It is accompanied with the awe-inspiring alignment of the Moon, Earth, and Sun – a phenomenon that the ancient people tried hard to recapture in their architecture. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is played the second times when the man – ape learnt to use bones as a weapon – tool, signifying the attainment of human consciousness. The final times is the arrival of the fetus – like David Bowman, the ‘Star Child’, to the Earth. The three instances, together, constitutes a full cycle as the attainment of human intelligence is followed, after 4 million years, by the invention of Hal whose destructive artificial intelligence outmaneuvered the astronauts and eclipsed human agency. The Star Child, therefore, represents a new stage of human being, and hence a new beginning heralded by Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Far from being a patchwork of unconnected and unrelated music, as some critics said, the scores underlie the whole structure of the film. By closely looking at the incipits and the tonal quality of the music, Patterson observed that ‘Taken individually, these properties [the signature incipits] are meaningless. But when assembled in order in which they first occur in the film, these groups of intervals fall into place with starling grace as the interlocking components of the most fundamental of all musical systems – the harmonic series itself’. Music is such a overriding component that he also found a certain pattern of speech in Hal’s dialogues that resemble the arch and strophic forms in chorus singing.
Altogether, the music exists outside of the film that moves us, the audiences, to feel the space and universe as something not only awe – inspiring but also mystical. This kind of mysticism is exemplified in the ending which is so strange and bizarre that it sparked numerous interpretations; none no more convincing than the other. Looking at the film as a whole, the man – apes’ attainment of intelligence is the first breakthrough of the human natural history. The second breakthrough comes from Hal. Humans can finally act like the monolith by endowing artificial intelligence in a machine. The irony bites when human intelligence empowered the early man – apes to survive but it was this same intelligence that precipitated their downfalls. Trying to continue the mission at all costs, Hal masterminded the death of four crews and almost finished off the last remaining one. Artificial intelligence almost triumphed over human agency and just as the mammoth’s oversized fur is no longer appropriate in a warm weather, intelligence is not adequate for human survival anymore. Something completely different is required.
David Bowman is the heroic figure who brings forth the third breakthrough. He showed himself worthy of this role as he remained undaunted when Hal refused to let him. He calmly gave up his colleague’s corpse and risked death in vacuum by attempting to enter through the emergency door. He ignored Hal’s pleads and proceeded to disconnect him finally. By conquering Hal as the enemy who tried to block his way beyond the boundary (or ‘ Jupiter and beyond the infinite), he can continue his journey to a place that is dark, mysterious and unknown. (In this regard, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not different from any other ancient myths, that are discussed at length by my another article).
In this context, Bowman’s passage in the Star Gate is the hero’s experience that can not be laid down in precise terms but can only be represented by a series of psychedelic sequences. The visually troubling images in the sequences are like Ligeti ‘s Requiem. Like the noises, the bizarre colours shows no meaning whatsoever to unenlightened eyes. Bowman is passing through a ‘place’ where no one has gone before. Yes, ‘place’ in quotation mark because temporal and spatial ideas are only concepts for us to make sense of this world, but the world that Bowman is entering is, again, beyond our comprehension, and where the earthly time and space dimensions make no sense.
This may explain the strange room, the Star Chamber, that Bowman arrived afterward. Kubrick called that a ‘human zoo’ where Bowman aged, died and reborn. Recall that human intelligence is no longer adequate and that something extra is required. Bowman is in the transition to get that something extra. The visual representations of the Louis XVI-style decorations, Bowman in dress, his eating and drinking are illusions to the fact that his spirit is undergoing some kind of cleansing, making him ready for a rebirth.
Bowman came out of this room as Star Child. He was transformed into a new being that transcends all homo sapiens. Either out of his own will or not, as a hero, he floated back to the Earth in the form of a spirit, energy, power or whatever form you may call it, and share his enlightenment to us. The cycle of birth (human intelligence), death (Hal triumphed over human) and rebirth (Bowman as Star Child) is accomplished. A new round revolves and everything starts afresh.
Unlike Arthur C. Clark’s novel of the same name, Kubrick deliberately left out a lot of explanations. He intended the film as a purely subjective experience. The lack of dialogues, unapologized use of music, the spectacle of images and finally a break of logic force us to resort to our imagination to fill in the gaps. ‘How much would we appreciate La Gioconda [the Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth or because she’s hiding a secret from her lover? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001‘, Kubrick said. And just like Mona Lisa’s smile, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film much argued about but never to be understood completely.
Extended reading: Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Stanley Kubrick’s Revolution in the Usage of Film Music: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Film Director as Superstar and Interstellar: A Tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey?