Yesterday, I rewatched 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the best movies ever made and #7 on my personal top 100 list. This is a film that's completely unique, an almost completely visual experience that uses the medium like no other movie. What movies are at their core is the fusion of visual and sound, that sound can be dialogue, but the medium is really best suited to moments that reliant more on music or sound effects to support strong visual storytelling. 2001's visual storytelling means that its narrative is more ambiguous than your average movie. Without dialogue to clarify things, it can be difficult to understand what is going on at the end of the movie. I know that the first time I saw the film, eight years ago when I was twelve, I immediately dashed onto the internet seeking some clarification of what I had just seen. After seeing it a bunch more times, I think I have an understanding of the movie that works for me, and more importantly, recognize that there is no definitive explanation for the end of the film, it's more about what you bring to it and finding what works for you.
But, besides the narrative, the most remarkable thing about the film is the visual storytelling. The first twenty-five minutes are dialogue free, and yet we are able to follow the story of these apes. The ape suits are still phenomenal, and this primordial world seems completely realistic. The use of music here is quite legendary, particularly in the sequence where the ape first discovers tools and his reverie is intercut with the animal bodies hitting the ground, the cuts making us aware of how the implications of his discovery.
The visual storytelling continues all through the film, and nearly every sequence in the movie has something amazing about it. I think Kubrick may have been a bit too much in love with the world he created, because the film does move at a very slow pace. I think it works well for most of the film, allowing you to get lost in the world, but the Heywood Floyd sequence could probably be speeded up a bit. Still, that's semantics, it works for me, but I know others who found the pace just too slow.
The whole HAL sequence is great, I love the production design throughout. The stark white environments and the streamlined suits, it's very visually appealing. It's astonishing how Kubrick is able to create a fully realized character out of just a camera and a voice, HAL is the most developed character in the film and even though he's the villain, you can't help but feel a bit sorry for him as he's disconnected, singing 'Daisy.' Basically, everything after the intermission is absolutely brilliant. Dave's slow journey to disconnect HAL, and then that video teasing you about what's to come. That sets up such anticipation, even on later viewings, because it signals the beginning of what I'd consider the best half hour of any film ever, the journey beyond the infinite.
The thing I love about that sequence is the way that it's purely visual storytelling, the only thing I can think of that rivals it is the last half hour of the final episode of Twin Peaks. The film becomes briefly abstract, presenting images soley for their aesthetic value, with questionable connection to the narrative. Rather than serving a specific narrative purpose, the images serve as a rorshach test for the viewer, you can see what you want in them. On this viewing, there were a lot of images that looked to me like the star child in utero, the colors were the same and the loose shape was much like what you see in photos of embryos in the womb. My favorite images in the sequence are in the journey through space sequences, the colors are so vivid and still dazzling. I love the diamonds of light that appear at one point.
Then, the 'hotel room' sequence is the type of sequence I love more than anything else, purely symbolic, drawing off what we know of a narrative, but totally open to interpretation. It's like the Twin Peaks red room, something where every single object has a meaning and it's up to the viewer to discern what that meaning is. I'm a huge fan of the way time passes, Bowman looking over and seeing an older version of himself. The entire sequence is so stately, and you get the strangest feeling watching it. This culminates in the incredible image of the star child, so simple, yet incredibly powerful. The ending of this movie absolutely owns and leaves you so alive with ideas to explore and discuss.
The most I've seen Kubrick say to describe the end of the film is this:
No, I don't mind discussing it, on the lowest level, that is, straightforward explanation of the plot. You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man's first baby steps into the universe -- a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there's a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.
When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he's placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man's evolutionary destiny.
What's notable for me is that this pretty much jives with my thoughts on the film, and I feel like I was on the right path in my analysis. Still, as Kubrick intended, I came away with my own interpretation of what happened in the film, an interpretation that's largely influenced by reading and analyzing The Invisibles a few years ago. I think 2001 was a huge influence on Grant's work, particuarly in the creation of Barbelith. In the Invisibles, Barbelith was a sattelite on the dark side of the moon that sent messages to select humans to help them evolve to the next stage of consciousness. In 2001, the monolith serves basically the same function. It appears at crucial times to provide guidance for humanity and help them progress forward evolutionarily.
The sequence that seems most periphery at first, but in retrospect is absolutely essential is the ape sequence. This is a microcosm of everything that happens later and is a good guide for understanding later events. Here, we see ape beings on the verge of evolution, but unable to make that leap. They are visited by a mysterious alien force, incarnated in the monolith, and this force gives them the impetus to use tools. This creates a schism in the ape community, the tool users go on the path to evolution, while those who don't use tools head for extinction. The use of tools is such a mind blowing leap for these beings, what seems commonplace for us is compeletely alien to them, but with this little nudge, they find their way to a higher mental plane.
Leaping forward thousands of years, we once again find ourselves with a humanity on the verge of a major evolutionary breakthrough, this time moving out into the stars. The Heywood Floyd sequence doesn't add that much to the thematic development, the most interesting thing is comparing the reaction of humans there with the apes in the past. There's still the same wariness about the monolith, but there's much more angst over what to do here, and when they finally do get there, the technological leap is less clear.
The HAL sequence is the most famous from the film and for good reason. HAL represents the limits of man's current evolutionary paradigm. What began with a bone has turned into a computer whose intellect arguably surpasses man's own. So, now rather than tools aiding man in his progress forward, it is actually limiting him, HAL sabotages the mission and this sabotage is indicative of the fact that man has lost control of what once aided him. This is why man needs to evolve, because the tools have become too powerful. This menace is implied in the cuts to the dying animal during the first sequence where the ape figures out how to use the bone as a destructive tool.
So, Dave uses his ingenuity to defeat HAL and in essence kills man of the present. Man has advanced beyond using tools, where can he go now? The answer lies beyond the infinite. What is it that happens during this sequence? I think Dave is transported to an alien planet, a completely different world, the light show is this journey, as he leaves behind earth and finds himself on another world. According to Kubrick, this is a 'zoo,' I see it more as a holding area, Dave must first leave behind his body before the alien intelligence can transform him into the new version of humanity. He sees his life passing quickly, and by extension, humanity itself grows older, eventually dying and transforming into a new younger version of itself, the starchild, a new type of being. This leap is as great as the intelligence leap between man and ape and the implications for humanity's future potential as great. I think we can only understand this jump by considering the leap from the bone to the spacecraft, that sort of advancement will be replicated. What this entails we can only speculate upon, apes couldn't guess what we'd be doing today, and we can't guess what this new Starchild race will be doing in the future.
Something else that should be addressed in the 'hotel room' is the breakdown of linear time. This is another idea that's quite similar to The Invisibles, the idea that when we evolve we will become 4D beings who are able to view our lives from a detached perspective, taking in the entirety of life all at once. In that room, Dave has that perspective. He finds himself aged by his journey, but then he ages a lot more, not in a linear fashion, rather he sees older versions of himself and then we transfer over to them. A question that lingers is whether the cut to the new version indicates a transfer of the current Dave's consciousness to an older body or if it's a leap through time. Dave himself may live thirty years in that room, but because he, and by extension us, are no longer bound by the conventions of linear time, we can just move through his passing much quicker. We don't get enough information to make a definitive statement, but that's what works best for me, the idea that the thirty years are there, but we don't have to see them because we have moved beyond the need to stay within time, it's just a part of the evolution into a higher form, first we're not bound by time, then we're not bound by a physical body.
The entire film is about this evolution, showing us man's roots, his present status and then his future. It's about our journey as a species towards higher and higher planes, leading to this eventual massive evolutionary jump. It's the same thing as The Invisibles 2012 event or the Promethea 'apocalypse,' they're all describing a move beyond simple physical reality towards a heightened existence.
There are very few films so ripe for analysis as 2001 and that's a large part of the reason that I love it. I think it's the sort of film that is a great reflection what your beliefs are, if you're looking for something in this film, you can probably find it, which isn't to say that it has no intended meaning, it's just that Kubrick created a film that is much about what the viewer brings to it as it is what's contained in the text.
As much as I love Kubrick's other films, I sometimes wish he would have made another film as abstract and cosmically concerned as this. Each of his projects is completely unique, but I think this is such a vital, pure filmmaking, I can't help but want more. Nearly forty years later, 2001 the year has come and gone, but 2001 the movie is more relevant to the world we live in than ever before, providing a vision of a humanity that could be if we finally get our act together and evolve.