Perceived as one of the greatest films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” has become subject to many philosophical analyses over the years. Stylistically poignant, beautifully shot and abstract in story, it is a difficult but powerful film to digest on first listen. The slow pace of the film is hypnotising, and with minimal dialogue, the emphasis is on how the cinematography and soundtrack evoke feelings of sadness, anger, inspiration and despair.
The analysis of the film will be broken down in the following sections:
– Prequel I: The Big Bang
– Prequel II: The dawn of man
– Chapter I: The era of hope/the era of failure
– Chapter II: The era of triumph
– Chapter III: A new beginning- a new dawn of civilisation
The origin and purpose for the monolith is still unknown. Kubrick used it as symbolism for evolution, and a step for mankind. Nietzsche’s book “Also Sprach Zarathustra” provides the theories to describe the overarching concept of the movie. “Strength is our only virtue, weakness is our only fault.” Tying in with the theory of evolution, he explains that the evolution of man comes in three stages: the primitive man (ape), the modern man, and the übermensch (the superman). He explained that the ape to man was “a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment” and that man to the übermensch is “a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.” In conclusion, man is the bridge between the ape and the superman, and that is the period of progress, failure, but ultimately triumph. The monolith represents the new paradigms of human knowledge.
Prequel I: The Big Bang
The movie starts with 4 minutes of darkness, and what represents the period between the big bang and the dawn of civilization. György Ligeti’s eerie “Atmosphères” symphony creates an uneasy atmosphere, one of uncertainty and darkness, and perfectly symbolises the start of life on earth.
Prequel II: The dawn of man
The dawn of man represents humanity’s first step in the evolutionary process. There are a couple of things to note about this scene. The first is the element of unity and community between the apes. It also shows dependency on one another. The apes’ lack of knowledge made it difficult for them to find their own progression, but all that changed with the monolith. Another theme which is important, is the one of dominance, and in this case, the lack of it. The scene where the cheetah attacks one of the primates exemplifies a weaker and more unstable version of mankind. The monolith appears out of nowhere (still one of the big mysteries of the movie). At first, the apes were unaware of the origins or the purpose of the monolith. Naturally, their curiosity got to the better of them. Also important in relation to the monolith is the sun, which powers it. The sun is the source of life, and it powers the apes’ progression as well. As they gather around the structure, there seems to be a build-up of energy between the apes, and it is definitely powered by “Requiem, for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs & Orchestra” by György Ligeti. This gives one of the apes the ability to teach itself how to use bones as a weapon, and ultimately scares another community of primates. A pivotal moment in the development curve of man.
Chapter I: The era of hope/the era of failure
This segment is associated with the American Dream. Here, we’re introduced to Dr. Heywood R. Floyd, who is leading the investigation on an identical monolith found on the moon. The scene opens with the famous “Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss II. With scenes of the Pan American Express, the space station and the secretive Calvius base Dr. Floyd goes to, there is a sense of accomplishment, and more importantly, patriotism. There’s a scene where Dr. Floyd talks to a group of Russian scientists who ask him about an epidemic (which is used by Dr. Floyd as a cover story for the operation’s secrecy), and Dr. Floyd refuses to cooperate. This signifies the period of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. The “competition” between the two nations is one which channels the desire for progress, which is one of the reasons this segment is named “the era of hope.” “The era of failure” is an essential element to the development of mankind. Without failure, how can we progress? The monolith scene on the moon exemplifies the transition between man and superman. The difference between the two stages is that the übermensch creates new values, a new paradigm, as mentioned in the analysis of the monolith.
Chapter II: The era of triumph
Chapter II introduces Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, two scientists and mission pilots of the Jupiter-bound Discovery One spacecraft. The ship is controlled by HAL 9000, a computer “foolproof and incapable of error.” An interesting thing to note is that HAL sounds similar to “hell” and can allude to the devil in this story. He mentions “I enjoy working with people.” When talking with the doctors about HAL, Bowman stated that “he acts like he has genuine emotions,” which is a statement proven by scene where he sings about “Daisy.”
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half-crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”
Already acknowledging HAL as the devil, or the antichrist, the song sends out a powerful message about conflict and the need for a love/hate relationship for good and evil. Without a counter-force, humankind would not be able to grow and learn. The “bicycle built for two” is a perfect lyric for that, and both the Christ and the antichrist need each other in order to generate power and influence. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie. Another thing to note is the progress in technology, and our ability to build something more powerful than our own human mind, though the movie shows us that no matter how powerful machines are, humans will always have control over them. Humans are the future, not robots and artificial intelligence.
This leads to one of the most bizarre and challenging scenes to analyse- Bowman being exposed to the existence and the power of the monolith (mentioned by one of the scientists in a pre-recorded briefing). The monolith opened up a new dimension for Bowman to see. The colours, shapes and movements were symbolic to the change in perception humans have when in contact with the monolith. The avant-garde nature of the scene shot in the bedroom gives a glimpse into the future. He looks towards the future, losing the concept of time and is able to see the monolith from his bed. It’s a symbolic moment, one which could represent the end of an era, the end of a generation, and the beginning of a new one. This leads to the final chapter of the story, “a new beginning.”
Chapter III: A new beginning
Does Bowman actually touch the monolith? From the scene, it looks virtually impossible, yet he seems to, transforming from a dying version of himself to a foetus enclosed in a transparent orb of light. The orb represents the new generation, and the foetus represents all human knowledge. The moment where the foetus gazes in space over the earth is a powerful and moving scene. Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” represents all stages of Nietzsche’s man theory, with the 3 stages being represented by the symphony beautifully. This is the beginning of the übermensch.
It makes us think about the state of human beings presently and our capacity to discover, progress and succeed. It’s an extremely deep philosophical question which has challenged our perception of success and our own accomplishments. A daring and thought-provoking tale about the need for humanity to constantly innovate, and it carefully studies the relationship between man and machine, the dangers and benefits it may bring to our civilisation.