How The Solar System Was Won: Thoughts on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

A few months ago, I did a post on my five favorite movies, and included Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wrote a short piece on it just to explain why I liked it. I’ve always wanted to do a legit analysis of the film and now I’m taking the time to do it.

This is going to be fairly long. I’m going to break it up over three posts, taking an episode of the film for each chunk: The Dawn of Man, Jupiter Mission, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. I won’t approach this in any kind of traditional essay format. I plan on just watching the film and writing my thoughts as I go along.

Pitter patter let’s get at ‘er…

*      *      *

The Dawn of Man

The film begins with a black screen and ominous music. There’s a video on youtube that discusses this at length, building an argument that the film itself is an experience of the monolith. I think this is a stretch because the music that is played at the beginning is different from the “music” that is played during the three encounters with the Monolith in the film – the apes, Dr. Floyd and the excavation team, and finally Bowman outside Jupiter.

I think the purpose of the overture is simply to establish a mood. The music is beautiful and slightly dissonant, which not to suggest the two terms are mutually exclusive. The film is interested in growth, a phenomenon that can be enlightening and painful. Accordingly, the overture’s music conveys that sensibility.

After the MGM logo, the hors d’ouvre is over and the main course begins. It starts with Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” over the alignment of the planets and the sun with the main title sequence. The music is an interpretation of Nietzsche’s book of the same name. Zarathustra was an ubermensch that was as far distant from man as man is from apes. Clearly this is a reference to the ascension of man. (I want to be clear that I’m not claiming this to be the point of Nietzsche’s book; I haven’t read it, and I’m well aware of the infamy of trying to associate Nietzsche with evolution.)

Of course, this begs the question, what does one mean by ascension, progress, etc. The film certainly seems to be suggesting a type of intelligent evolution, but can we be more precise. I think the point of the film is showing that ascension is a kind of mastery of matter.

Ratio, alignment, order, all these things are imposed upon a chaotic reality. Order is the product of intelligence; it isn’t discovered. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist or it is an illusion. Intelligent beings create order by engaging with reality. I will develop this thought through out the analysis.

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The first part of the film is appropriately titled “The Dawn of Man.” The setting is a barren, rocky desert with man’s earliest ancestors living amongst tapirs and other predators. They’re not dominant in that the tapirs roam freely amongst them, and they are hunted and killed by cheetahs. We then cut to a watering hole, where the clan is chased off by a group of rivals. Life is desolate and sparse.

Cut to night. The defeated clan is sleeping in some shelter under rocks. They’re huddled together for warmth. Some of the apes are watching the sky. One ape, referred to in the script as Moonwatcher, has especially keen eyes. There’s a sense of anticipation. In the morning, they awake to find a giant, black obelisk in the midst of their shelter.  The soundtrack emits strange voices and dissonant sounds. Is this the language of the Monolith? Is it speaking to the apes?

The apes are worked into frenzy until one, presumably Moonwatcher, dares to touch it with his hand. The others do the same. Touching and directly contacting the Monolith will prove to be an import factor for soliciting its knowledge. There is a repetition of the alignment of the universe from the title sequence.

(I don’t own this image)

Moonwatcher is now amongst the bones of an animal. There is another repetition of the alignment, and “Also sprach Zarathurstra” beings to swell. Moonwatcher, by virtue of the Monolith’s visit, has now begun to use tools, technology. The issue of technology is central to the film and I will also develop this through out the analysis, especially in the “Jupiter Mission” episode where we are introduced to what can interpreted as the film’s antagonist, HAL 9000.

This is the first great leap of evolution. Moonwatcher has extricated himself from the animal magnetism of early consciousness and has begun to order his universe. They are eating meat now and are increasingly becoming the masters of their domain. In the next scene we see the clan take back the watering hole from the previous altercation.

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It’s important to highlight also the violence and death that surround this leap forward. Moonwatcher discovers the use of technology in a heap of bones, a kind of cemetery. Moreover, the use of this new technology is to kill prey and would-be predators. Then, when Moonwatcher throws his bone into the air, we get the famous cut-scene where it transforms into a satellite and we are in the future. The connection is obvious, the bone and satellite, though light-years apart in regards to mechanics, are the same.

It is also worth noting that the satellite has traditionally been taken to be a nuclear missile satellite. During production, Kubrick intended to be more explicit about this point. However, for various reasons (perhaps most prominently was his wish to distance this film from his previous work, Dr. Strangelove), Kubrick omitted the explanation and left the satellite fairly ambiguous. Nonetheless, cast and crew still referred to the satellite as a missile launcher, and interpreters and viewers followed suite. Is this fair? I’m no aeronautics or rocket science specialist so I don’t know how whether this satellite could be interpreted as such without a narrative voice telling me so.

Whatever it is, it is certainly technology. And whether the satellite in 2001 is a weapon or a device for gathering information, it is a device used to order the universe. Marshall McLuhan reasons that once you have man-made environment of satellites rotating the planet, nature would have to programmed. Through technology, nature is increasingly mechanized.

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There is another controversial point I want to address here. The film is often divided into 4 sections: The Dawn of Man, TMA-1, the Jupiter Mission, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. I take issue with this because Kubrick makes no explicit differentiation between “the Dawn of Man” and “TMA-1,” in the way he does with the other sections. (It’s also worth noting that film is also spilt up with an Intermission.) I would argue that the “TMA-1” sequence is still part of “the Dawn of Man” section. This suggests that man, while technologically advanced by 2001, isn’t much different from his ape predecessors on the African veldt over millions of years ago.

What links them beyond family resemblance? A dependence on technology. My interpretation of the three sections is that in “the Dawn of Man,” man develops technology and uses it to order his universe; in The Jupiter Mission, man encounters a crossroads with technology and must overcome it; finally in Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, man is finally beyond the crutch of technology and is able to order the universe without resorting to any external prosthetics, having transcended matter. This will be further developed in parts 2 and 3.

We cut now to our new protagonist, Dr. Floyd. It’s significant to note here also that the majority of the depictions of technology are related to food and shelter. There are high tech gizmos all pretty much to give man shelter from the elements and allow for the consumption of food.

We see Floyd carry out various minutiae until he meets with some Russian scientists. They discuss a situation that has arisen on the moon and what it may imply. Floyd is hesitant to discuss it. Kubrick’s contemporary audience would feel the coldwar albatross hovering above their heads. The tension is rising.

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Then we have “The Blue Danube.” It’s a classic sequence. There is certainly something irreverent about it. Personally, the music conjures images of pomp and circumstance; puffy 18th century dames and dukes in cumbersome ball costumes, waltzing with faces covered in gaudy make-up. But it’s also very beautiful. A waltz is obviously a dance, one that, given also its historical milieu, is one especially structured. It is an ordering of human contact and interaction, something otherwise natural and spontaneous.

As well, Kubrick was smart in using it because it’s such a familiar and iconic tune, giving the audience something recognizable to hold on to while they are in, what is arguably still, totally alien territory. When Kubrick shot the film, man hadn’t even landed on the moon, and no sci-fi film had ever been produced at this scale. This kind of representation of space travel was unprecedented. Some would argue, at least artistically, it has never been surpassed; but let’s avoid gushing over a film that has received more than its share of gush.

Roger Ebert has an interesting point on the soundtrack: “North’s [rejected] score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for 2001 because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action – to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals” (Wikipedia).

The idea of the sublime is also very important to the film. I will develop up this more fully in the final section, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” but I will make a brief reference to it here. Immanuel Kant defines the sublime as that which overwhelms our cognitive faculties. A recalcitrant experience of something so massive, like a volcano or a tornado, that mind cannot reconcile is sublime. Space and celestial bodies are excellent examples of sublimity.

For various reasons, people desire to experience the sublime. In a word, and I swear I will cash this out more fully, sublimity is instrumental in expanding our consciousness. However, sublimity is a nauseating and potentially dangerous experience. Therefore, we want to experience the sublime but still have something comfortable to fall back on. I think this goes a long way in explaining the attraction of horror movies and amusement rides, etc. There is thus an interaction of the sublime and the banal. This is clear in the way Dr. Floyd travels to the moon, and all the time Kubrick devotes to the minutiae of travel.

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Now we are at the excavation site on the moon. Turns out the object that they discovered is the monolith, and it was buried there 4 million years ago – roughly the same time that man began the earliest stages of evolution from apes. The same eerie sounds and voices from first encounter with the apes can be heard. Dr. Floyd touches the monolith and there is a piercing noise. Like the apes, the scientists are distressed by this. Clearly, we can conclude that there is a relationship between the monolith on the African veldt and the one on the moon.

What are we to make of this? Whoever planted the monoliths seemed to have reasoned that the first step was introduce technology to humanity. From there, man would gradually develop the sophistication needed to travel to the moon and explore it. At that point, man would be deemed ready for the next evolutionary step. But what is this next step? That will be developed over the next two sections until the climax of the film.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on December 19, 2011.

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