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2001: A Space Odyssey Revisited and Reinterpreted for Today

The All Seeing Eye of HAL9000 - Cryteria
Visionary, profound, astounding, a visual experience and epic, the movie was a cinematic special effects landmark with messages that speak still.

Tim Dirks, senior editor and film historian at American Movie Classics (AMC) wrote an extensive commentary on the structure, meanings, purpose and parallels of Kubrick’s 1968 film masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film has entertained, intrigued and mystified audiences ever since it came out; today, astonishingly, it has much to teach the world.

Dirks described it as “a landmark classic, probably the best science-fiction film of all time about exploration of the unknown.” Coincidentally released at the height of the US-USSR space race, it “prophetically showed the enduring influence computers would have on our daily lives” and how man is dwarfed by technology and space.

It broke conventions – no spoken dialogue for 40 minutes, long periods of deadly silence, all scenes with dialogue or music/silence; never both together. Orchestral music from Richard and Johann Strauss, Ligeti and Khatchaturian were in symphonic movements. It won four Academy nominations, took one Oscar, was initially panned by critics, but embraced by psychedelic hippies.

The First Mysteries

Space conjunctions of Earth, Moon and Sun heralded the planting of an eerily humming monolith, smooth obelisk on the Moon. The Dawn of Man was the first episode, timed to Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, from Nietzsche, as primeval ape man discovered weapons from animal bones as the sun rose in front of the monolith. The tribe was attacked by a leopard and forced to defend a waterhole from other ape tribes.

“Man” thus became carnivore and killer. One reached out cautiously to touch the monolith, representing the mystery of religious experience. Dirks likened it to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in Eden. The use of the bone weapon gave the tribe power/authority over others.

Symbolically, the bone transformed into a space ship. Countless thousands of years later, a similar monolith was seen on the Moon signalling to Jupiter that man had reached another milestone in his evolution, triggering an official cover up to avoid panic among people. Astronauts seeing the object for the first time felt a religious experience as deeply as the apes did four million years earlier.

Later, in 2001, there was a futuristic (but realistic) 18-month mission to Jupiter to find the alien source of the monolith, across space’s vast universe, revealing the boredom of the travellers and the complexities of the onboard HAL computer. This machine could reproduce or mimic almost all human functions. The name was derived from Heuristic and Algorithmic learning types, and it alone knew the true purpose of the mission.

The Wonder of the Computer

A neutral voice of calm reason was given to the computer, and a scene showing it playing chess with an astronaut to while away the time, flagged later conflict when HAL had to be destroyed by slowly removing its functions from within its brain. Diagnosis, prediction of failure of a unit, and cross checking with a sister HAL on Earth were all part of the deadly game HAL played to preserve the mission, including lip-reading humans discussing it secretly.

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite was the final section, a mystical experience in an unspecified time and dimension. Symbolically, HAL’s demise represented the failure of technology, as the sole survivor entered Jupiter’s outer limits in search of the life-source, only to be caught in a light-show caused by a third monolith. He was sent racing through a vortex or corridor of light/time warps, a maelstrom.

Dirk described the ending as a new realm of physical reality, in surroundings created from his own subconscious memories, a cosmic bedroom, where the astronaut saw reincarnations of himself as his original aged rapidly. In his death throes, he reached out a hand to another monolith, before entering new birth as a “star child,” watched by aliens.

Dirk viewed the end result of the space odyssey was “not a greater and more infallible machine, but a greater, more fully-realized being produced in a second childhood.” It completed the cyclical evolution from ape to man to angel/starchild/superman. And the next step? Not given.

Interpretations and Influences

This movie had elements of postmodernism, with the juxtaposition of ideas/eras, and people could take what they wanted from it. Parts were close to surrealistic and other parts stemmed directly from influences of the late 1960s. It was, and remains, a film that stays in the mind for ages afterwards (for many people, years afterwards).

There was religion, psychology, sociology and sheer creativity in there. Was Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote the story) mad, or was Kubrick insane who put it onto film? No, but the differences may be thin; they worked the screenplay together. Some observers found the novel easier to follow, more intimate and less complex than the movie.

George M. DeMet published an edited version of his honors thesis at Northwestern University, 1997-1998. He did not search a single meaning for the film, but studied how it has been interpreted in so many ways, and how the Information Revolution of the past 30 years influenced our reading of the movie now.

2001 was marketed as “The Ultimate Trip,” aimed at the youth/college audience, changed from “an epic drama of adventure and exploration.” He connected it to the “Space Race and the Decline of Hollywood”, and “1960s Counterculture”. He acknowledged that some people saw it as a satire on future living with an influence on later films.

Possibly a commentary on humanity’s arrogance, like other Kubrick movies (Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange), DeMet identified how prior to 2001, sci-fi movies were low budget, poorly written, laughable affairs. Post 2001 and the US moon landing in 1969, science fiction stories became more down to earth, like Planet of the Apes (and sequels).

He showed how THX-1138, Soylent Green and Logan’s Run depicted bleak, dystopian futures . Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) reignited interest in big budget sci-fi blockbusters, followed by ET, Alien, Blade Runner, Contact and Back to the Future. His point was that these serious movies were only feasible in the light of the opening that 2001 gave the industry. That people have watched and wondered, enjoyed and talked about it for over 40 years, is tribute indeed.

First published on Suite 101, 24 February 2011.

Image: The All Seeing Eye of HAL9000 – Cryteria

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