“You are free to speculate, as you wish, about the philosophical meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” – Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey has meant many things to many people: Evolution. Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The relationship between humans and technology. A mere regurgitation of Clark’s novel.
Given that we are free to speculate, 2001: A Space Odyssey can be interpreted as any of the above. Well, it can be interpreted as any of the above provided that we back up our claims with evidence and explanation.
Having written that, I’ll do my best to extrapolate the strange interpretation that spoke to me upon my first viewing. It goes something like this:
The embryonic traveler witnessed in the film’s last scene is a lone form of consciousness–perhaps the only conscious being in the universe. We have witnessed its awakening, having fought its way out of a delusion borne of loneliness and madness known as human history.
I understand that there are interpretations that relegate the Star Child to some final tier in a process of evolution that has a beginning and ultimate end. I see the evidence for it, and I do except it as Clark’s literal handling of the story in novel form. The odyssey, the journey could be an evolutionary one. I view it as the story’s progression, it’s chronology. There’s something more underneath.
What’s underneath calls into question the nature of consciousness. It also says that viewers naturally take reality for granted.
I think that there’s enough evidence to suggest that Dave doesn’t become the “Star Child.” I believe he was a projection of the “Star Child” all along. That the star child is the only consciousness in the universe and has long gone mad from loneliness and confusion. The delusion of human history and life were the only escape from madness caused by the vast nothingness.
Well, that certainly sounds weird. Like a version of the Matrix where the oppressor turns out to be yourself in the end. But care to hop down the rabbit hole with me and consider that human history is a delusion and fabrication of one lonely conscious being drifting through the void?
Fabrications and Self Preservation
The truth is hard. It is difficult to handle at times and sometimes we’d rather not comprehend it to save ourselves the trouble of being jaded or horrified. Truth can be life-changing and perspective-changing. It can alter our current state of being if it threatens to change our perspective and mood. In this case, the avoidance of truth is for self preservation.
On a larger scale, truth is hidden to preserve the current dynamics of society. This is the reasoning behind the coverup story mythos: if the masses were exposed to the truth, it could cause disorder and possibly revolt. It could threaten the cohesion of a functioning society.
The cover story mythos is first introduced to us in 2001 on Space Station V. Dr. Heywood Floyd is catching up with a few Russian scientists in the Hilton lounge who are concerned about the state of the Clavius base on the moon. There has been no contact with the base, and the scientists speculate that there is an epidemic there. They are worried it might spread. They question Dr. Heywood, who informs them that he is not at liberty to speak about the situation.
We learn later that the story is a fabrication, designed to shield the public from knowledge of the artifact that has been uncovered.
As the movie continues, the audience finds that this isn’t the only bit of information that’s withheld. There is the infamous battle between Dave and HAL, an A.I. who ultimately knows more about the space mission than the astronauts do. HAL is forced to conceal the real reason for the Jupiter mission, which is only revealed after Dave shuts down the A.I. in a process that degrades its consciousness until a prerecorded message is revealed. It states that the mission’s purpose is linked to the artifact found on the moon.
With a theme of coverup and deceit in the film, one can’t help but wonder if it hints at a bigger delusion.
The Monolith: The Call
Let’s consider the sleek monolith and the eerie siren song that accompanies it. In the basest level of storytelling, it serves as a device that moves the story along. It is linked to tool use and species dominance, as we recall the apes aggressive use of skeletal remains after encountering the monolith.
In our second encounter with the monolith, we find that it is sending a signal to Jupiter. These plot elements work to paint the artifact as a catalyst for advancement in the sense of technological development as well as advancement in simply getting from point A (Earth) to point B (Jupiter’s stargate).
The artifact is not only a breadcrumb but a stimulant of sorts, considering the Dawn of Man. We are introduced to a red desert world with shared resources. We are also introduced to a routine that is disrupted by the introduction of the monolith, suggesting this routine might’ve gone on forever without its appearance. Indeed, the apes find the object after having awakened from sleep. It is as if the apes have also been awoken from a metaphorical sleepwalk by this otherworldly artifact.
The monolith itself is black like the void. It’s taller than it is wide, like a hovering doorway into the unknown. It starkly contrasts the environment, and is a totem of sorts. If life is but a dream it is the unnatural object that’s calling us forth from the dream.
Within the realm of the story, the monolith seems to be a breadcrumb placed by an alien species. In this analysis, I propose it is a breadcrumb offered by the subconscious.
Headspace: Journey of the Mind
The spacecraft journeying toward Clavius looks like a human head. It’s round, has parts lit up that look like eyes. It’s subtle enough to think for a second that it might not be intentional. Though, there’s little denying that the spacecraft headed toward Jupiter is a head and spinal cord. This odyssey is a journey of the mind.
I propose that it is a journey of the mind out of a false reality.
Throughout the audience’s journey, there has been a dark undertow hinting at something sinister beyond glitchy technology. Something agitating and awaking the most primal fear: that of being alone.
It can be found in the lack of dialogue and the silent moments that give the audience more than enough time to ruminate on events in the film. The lingering shots of desolate desert during the dawn of man and the long scenes of objects hovering in space. It allows time for thought to drift. To stew in the silence and immerse ourselves in the barren land- and spacescapes.
There a sense of what it means to be alone with only your thoughts. It’s eerie, but the audience is always eventually saved from the nothingness by a community of apes coming out of their caves or a gathering of scientists in the Hilton lounge. The feeling is forgotten momentarily, until the communities become smaller and smaller, eventually being reduced to two men and an A.I. on a spacecraft.
Then a man and an A.I. on a spacecraft.
Then it’s just a solitary man alone in the vastness of space.
It would’ve been a very different movie if more than one person made it to the stargate. But as large tribes of apes are reduced to smaller and smaller gatherings of people, the bleak reality of being alone sets in.
In a sense, the monolith has lured humans away from community, its sleek darkness an invitation to the void.
Reality Breaks Down: Time in the Stargate and Alien Zoo
When Dave journeys into the stargate, the expression on his face is not one of rapt wonderment. It is of pure terror. Throughout the mystic parade of lights and color we are allowed glimpses of Dave’s reaction to this phantasmagoria–his eyes are wide, face contorted as if trying to resist what is before him.
This part of the journey is not exactly welcomed, and if it is enlightenment, enlightenment is terrifying.
This section of the movie is representative of a psychotropic trip to the ends of the universe. Like the shaman who uses drugs to travel to the universe’s end to bring back mystic and universal understanding to his tribe, Dave is witnessing some horrifying truth coupled with the knowledge that he won’t be journeying back home. It is the end of his universe. There would be no where to go back to, which sets us up for the breakdown of human life and history.
We find Dave in a classical room with a lit floor–a representation of past and present. This room has been referred to as a cell in an alien zoo. The classical style of the room is a bit off-putting, as it’s hard to relegate this detail to Dave’s own personal memories, if his memories were farmed when designing the cell. The room is more reminiscent of a collective human memory, specifically the Age of Enlightenment. The mixed design is a hint at the meltdown about to ensue.
Like the communities that dwindled down to one throughout the film’s journey, objects begin to disappear. Dave’s space pod vanishes, so does his suit, and so does his youth. Is it a montage to show the passage of time? There must be more to it as we witness Dave view himself. Audio of the first Dave’s shallow breaths mesh with the sound of robed Dave’s cutlery clanking against a plate. The basic laws of chronology are diminishing.
Once you know, you can’t go back. This is the Starchild’s attempt at recreating the story it was familiar with. But now that the enlightenment has happened, the story can’t continue. The fabrication must unravel to reveal the truth. Objects and coherent structure is peeled away, moving the audience away from the coverup story.
So, what happens when you die in a dream? You wake up.
If the world is a dream, if human history was all a distracting break from insanity, its last character must die in order for the Starchild to awaken. Thus Dave is ultimately found on his deathbed. Before him is that doorway to the void, the monolith: the guide out of the maze of subconscious distraction.
Old and dying Dave disappears to reveal the Starchild. Its eyes are wide open. The room vanishes. The Starchild is alone in space, perhaps as it has been this whole time.
Is this the one true interpretation? Nah. We all view things through our own unique lens forged by experience and circumstance. But the creative process can be a lonely one involving much internal scrutiny and solitary inquiries into the imagination. Which makes me believe this interpretation to be relevant when viewing a work from a creative genius such as Stanley Kubrick. Thanks for reading!