The match-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, from a hurled prehistoric bone to an orbiting spacecraft, is One of the Most Analysed Cuts of All Time™ .
So, to try keep it brief:
- The cut is a pronounced example of how films use editing to ‘tell’ time: in this case eliding three million years, give or take.
- The cut has meaning; for example, what does it mean that our entire history can be elided in the blink of an eye? It’s like those analogies: if the universe were a ruler then life on Earth would be the last millimetre; if the universe were a tower block then humans would be the roof insulation of the penthouse suite, and so on.
- The cut also highlights what is being elided: the story not only of the human race but human civilisation. Seconds after the cut, we hear the Blue Danube waltz - from one frame to the next, we’ve covered the history of all culture and society. And why that waltz? Because, in particular, it’s High Culture and High Society: we have jumped from the dawn to the peak (maybe limit?) of our civilisation.
- Related is the contrast the cut gets us to make between the before and after, between the crude bone tool of the past and the high-tech satellite of the future. The traditional progressive view: look how far we’ve come.
- But also there’s the comparison of the cut: the form of things might have changed but not the content: in the past, a weapon, albeit a bone club; in the future, a weapon, albeit an orbiting nuclear platform. (Arguably the nature of the spacecraft is never explicit; but the logic of a match-cut should be enough for us to know that we’re back to a weapon.)
This is just a sample of the meanings that have been read over the past almost 50 years. But if so much meaning can be found in the transition and relation between two shots, then perhaps we should pay more attention to the arrangement of the scenes before and after the cut. Widen your comparison and you begin to realise that the cut is also a line of symmetry.
2. The Mirror
Before the cut, there’s a scene of two hominid tribes fighting over a waterhole. (It’s at the end of this fight that one of the hominids throws the bone into the air.) On the other side of the cut is a scene of Soviet and US personnel on a space station, probing and stonewalling respectively in a polite stand-off over drinks.
Unlike the waterhole shrieking, the interaction on the space station is pleasant - in a dry kind of way - with both sides asking after loved ones, insisting on meeting up again. To an audience in 1968, it must have felt marvellous to watch an American, Heywood Floyd, and these Soviet Russians beaming at one another. O brave new world! But the dialogue - “What would you like to drink?” / “I really don’t have time for a drink.” / “Are you sure you won’t change your mind about a drink?” - insists you keep making comparisons. Slowly you realise that Floyd is lying to his Russian ‘friends’. War might be more civil, Colder, better sublimated in the year 2001, but it’s far from over yet.
Moving further back before the cut is a sequence showing the recently turned carnivore hominids eating tapir meat. Further after the cut is a scene of astronauts in a spacecraft on their way to the moon’s Clavius crater, chatting and eating lunch.
Maybe the point of the astronaut scene is to bring down to Earth (ho ho) what was a year before Apollo 11 still the glamorous dream of lunar exploration. But even then the scene is mundane, not to mention artificial - that is, it appears so, until you remember what’s on the other side of the mirror. There we saw the hominids step up the food-chain: once competitors with other herbivores for vegetation, now predators of herbivores themselves.
Meanwhile, the astronauts’ chit-chat is only mundane on the surface: the dialogue makes a point of listing the sandwich options: chicken, beef. Millions of years have passed, and the table talk has improved, as meanwhile the human carnivores get stuck in to animal flesh. (And what do you need to get flesh, now as back then?)
Of course, the ultimate symmetry is the way the story is bookended by monoliths, those mysterious evolution jump-starters.
Two other monoliths appear (or occur) in the story but have more obvious functions. Firstly, a lunar monolith that acts as both alarm and beacon: it announces that Homo sapiens is now a spacefaring species, and it directs the Discovery One crew to the next monolith at Jupiter. That monolith also appears to be a node in a transit system, sending the astronaut Dave Bowman to whatever point in outer or inner space he reaches by the film’s end. But with the mirror pattern in mind, and considering that the first monolith inspired pre-humans to the use of tools, maybe it’s not too hard to work out the function of the final monolith, and the nature of any change that it’ll catalyse.
Unfortunately though, the one thing that a mirror doesn’t do is mirror. When you look at yourself in a mirror what you see is familiar, but at the same time it’s not exactly what you expected (“Look how _____ I’ve got!”). Remove yourself from the frame and it’ll show you a room in angles and corners that you’d never noticed. By the end, the mirror itself has become uncanny, like a TV left on in an empty room, the way it keeps reflecting when no-one’s around, pointlessly showing the furniture its open doorway. It’s not only the enchanted ones, then: all mirrors show the future: they do not replicate what is or was, but reveal what has become.
The cut in 2001 functions just like this sort of mirror (for one thing, the scenes either side are positioned symmetrically but otherwise last for different lengths). Comparison by comparison, contrast by contrast, the film is showing us the similarity in difference and vice versa, showing what has changed for humanity in form but stayed the same in content. But most of all, it shows us what is a rising cycle of crisis, conflict, and of potential.
3. The Drought
The key example of this is the most subtle. In the opening Dawn of Man section of the film, there are multiple shots of the rocky landscapes of prehistoric Earth. After the cut, in the Clavius mission section, there are multiple shots of the rocky landscapes of the moon.
The prehistoric landscapes appear in sequence with shots of skeletons in the sand and herbivores competing for sparse vegetation, and are followed by the scenes of the contested waterhole: the Dawn of Man happens during a drought, a time of crisis for the species. So are modern humans also meant to be in crisis? Then what is the nature of the drought on the other side of the mirror?
It can’t simply be a repeat of a drought of physical resources. Not only does the logic of the mirror as described above suggest otherwise, there’s also the fact that humans are travelling the solar system, they have invented Artificial Intelligence, there are Hilton Hotels in space - a real Age of Aquarius. But although there isn’t a literal water shortage, something else does seem to be absent, depleted, dry.
Ever since 2001 came out, people have criticised the human dialogue and performances in the film’s Lunar and Discovery Mission sections for being almost cornily phony. Floyd and his Russian counterparts on the space station chat with the grinning awkwardness of mis-seated wedding guests, while the two Discovery crew-mates who aren’t in hypersleep only ever interact to make shop-talk. Just who are these one-dimensional men?
Perhaps you’d expect astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole to have been drilled into the Right Stuffiness; but when Heywood Floyd calls home from the space-office, he talks to his young daughter like she’s one of his friend’s daughters. (They talk to each other like what they are, actors.) This is repeated, and so emphasised, when Poole gets a video message from his parents: he watches their stagey performance, and blinks. And not by accident are the other video messages in the film a BBC newscaster and a newscaster-like announcement from mission control.
For some reason everybody in the future, whether public or private, sounds like TV.
4. The Machine
A.I. bots, interplanetary travel, futuristic gruel. Space Skype! No wonder so many people place 2001 in the tradition and legacy of science fiction stories that predict and even herald our technological progress.
And technology is on the rise in the film. The sequences of space travel are testament to this, both via what they’re doing in the story, and via their groundbreaking visual effects. In fact, our technology is speeding ahead of us. For HAL 9000 to beat Poole at chess was an almost jokily outrageous prediction back in 1968 when chess computers were still trembling over their first move. By 2017, we’ve conceded to their superiority. (It’s OK, we’re better at cryptic crosswords, for now.)
In an interview during the preproduction of Solaris, Tarkovsky scorned what he took to be this craven attitude:
For some reason, in all the science-fiction films I’ve seen, the filmmakers force the viewer to examine the details of the material structure of the future. More than that, sometimes, like Kubrick, they call their own films premonitions. It’s unbelievable! Let alone that 2001: A Space Odyssey is phony on many points even for specialists…
For example, if one shoots a scene of passengers boarding a trolley, which, let’s say, we’d never seen before or known anything about, then we’d get something like Kubrick’s moon-landing scene. On the other hand, if one were to shoot a moon landing like a common trolley stop in a modern film, then everything would be as it should… That’s why a detailed ‘examination’ of the technological processes of the future transforms the emotional foundation of a film, as a work of art, into a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth.
What other reason could there be for this detailed examination, than to fetishise technology? In this vein, the writer Landon Palmer explicitly compared Tarkovsky’s film against Kubrick’s:
Where 2001 examined the technological progress of man through a notably distant lens from its characters, Solaris devastatingly explores the inner psychology of its protagonist … Where 2001 can be argued as having a relatively positive view towards progressing space travel and thus forwarding the Apollo agenda, Solaris is quite pessimistic towards human space travel. Where technology in 2001 is intended an awe-inspiring display of choreographed beauty, the technology of Solaris is decrepit and useless…
The monolith at the start of 2001 is, among other things, an ‘awe-inspiring’ technology, giving primitive humans the idea for their own kind. It’s easy to see why people think the monolith at the end is giving modern humans a similar upgrade. And taken that way, the film is a premonition, forecasting ever greater progress through technology - not without struggle, but towards the power and the glory. Or as Arthur C Clarke himself once said, “It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God but to create him.”
This idea, or cliché, that technological advance is the road to godhood, has been subverted over the years, but keeps reoccurring in our visions for the future. In fact, it reached its nadir not too long ago in a viral video that combined those two great pillars of the awfulness of our decadent machine age: TED Talks and the film Prometheus.
Why would the audience of a TED Talk of all things murmur in shock at the revelation that a silicon CEO fancies himself as a god, as though omnipotence avenging former impotence isn’t already the fantasy of every rich nerd? Why does the dialogue try to sound intelligent and elegant by that old genteel trick of swapping the word ‘liked’ for ‘favoured’? Most of all, what’s going on with Guy Pearce’s accent?
Striking a more cautious - and cautioning - note in The Wanderer and his Shadow, is Nietzsche (a man whose shadow, for better or for worse, stretches long over 2001). As he wrote, “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph, are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”
2001 does dare to draw a conclusion, and it’s far from positive.
5. The Deaths
After all, maybe you can’t really describe a film in which a computer murders five people ‘optimistic’ about technology. One of the last uses of technology is to kill us, while its very first use is to kill others.
It’s not a new idea to say 2001 is agnostic towards technology (point: spaceships; counterpoint: killer robots). Perhaps though you’d argue there’s an unintentional doublebluff at work, with the subtext betraying the text, and the film so enamoured with the trappings of technology that this undercuts any apparent anti-technology message. But by paying attention to how the film works and to what end, you realise that 2001 does not ultimately locate progress in technology, neither does it call for further advance through it. For one, the film’s ‘detailed examination’ has a different purpose entirely. In 2001 technology is again and again associated with death:
Soon after this sequence, Bowman shows HAL his drawings of their crew-mates, each in a hyper-sleep sarcophagus:
How easily the intelligent machine recognises these examples of living death.
Then, some less figurative death: HAL kills nearly all of its crew-mates, including Frank Poole who is cut adrift in space. After Bowman tries to rescue him, the film gives us one of its best images, repeated over three shots:
Peter Kramer, author of the BFI Film Classic on 2001, sees this as a visual metaphor for humankind sacrificed on the altar of technology, and you can appreciate why. But the meaning of movie imagery doesn't consist solely in what is being depicted but also in what’s happening. Bowman isn’t in a propitiatory mood in this scene, he’s not offering Poole as a sacrifice that is then refused by the God of Machines. (If anything, Bowman is the one who has to sacrifice his colleague in order to get back on board.) It’s more like he’s showing HAL what it has done, and through HAL, its inventors: us.
Next, yet another death, this time of the machine itself. Bowman burrows around HAL’s red brain, ignoring its begging as he kills it, the computer rewinding senilely back to its birthday via a song about marriage. Only in this scene does Bowman show emotions that are in any way affecting; his voice breaks as he accepts HAL’s offer of a song to get him through the act of shutting his colleague down. This is more emotion than he showed when trying to rescue or choosing to abandon his human colleague.
You can imagine an alternate 2001, where Bowman’s decision to abandon Poole is dramatically anguished instead of quick and quiet, because there’s been real warmth between the two of them. (“Wilson! I’m sorry!”) Over the years, a reaction to this perceived lack of humanity has been to make warmer updates to the 2001 story. The sequel, 2010, had angel-like visitations to dying mothers (as well as a literal drought, and such excellent dialogue as “How far away is Jupiter?”/ “Far.” / “Mommy says you’re gonna be asleep for a long time!”). The Tree of Life, in a way Terrence Malick’s answer to Kubrick, went as far as sanctifying its protagonists, while films like Sunshine and Interstellar also used video messages crawling through space, but instead to try and bring out the pathos of distance.
Humanising, all too humanising. Because what if the drought in the modern-day sections of 2001 is meant to be of this very kind of pathos? Any more feeling would disrupt the structure and hence the meaning of the film. For 2001 to work, it must show human being itself, not human historical circumstances (as they are in 2010, Sunshine and Interstellar) in a kind of drought. The human characters are supposed to be nice and polite only, while lacking any passions, at once clever and blandly automatic. Lo, the film shows you the Last Man. And only via its pattern of mirrors are the performances elevated, from mere social commentary on the artificial life of modern humans, to the film’s entire conceit.
6. The Births
Even taking the film’s ambivalence into account, what else other than greater technology could pull humans out of their new drought by the end of the film? What’s striking though about the climax, when Bowman makes contact with the Jupiter monolith, is how unlike a technological process going ‘Beyond the Infinite’ feels.
Maybe it’s like that other old line of Clarke’s, how “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But considering the cut, its function as a mirror that shows the familiar but more importantly change, and the scenes showing the literal and metaphorical deadening of our machine age, the film’s ending can’t simply be a repeat of the monolith’s first trick: a lurch forward through and to technology.
As the chess scene demonstrated, we can no longer beat machines at the computer game. Bowman later outwits the machine, but he also destroys and so moves beyond it - not for nothing does he wipe HAL’s mind. (Imagine if instead he’d reprogrammed HAL, and so remastered technology, and they’d entered the Star-Gate together.)
The wiping causes HAL to regress to its birthday. Alongside this we have the birthday of Heywood Floyd’s little daughter, which he is missing because of his trip to the moon (absent parent). Then there’s the video message from Earth to Poole from his parents, with a cake in honour of their travelling birthday boy (absent child). Then at the end of the film, when Dave Bowman is kept until his death in a simulation of a refined hotel room (back to the Blue Danube Waltz…) we have a new kind of birthday, one absent of both parents and child, or where the parent and child are the same: in other words, a rebirth. Transformation.
7. The Mirrors
Kubrick explained something about the nature of this transformation, again through the structure of the film. It would, after all, have been odd and unbalanced had the mirroring device between the first two sections only occurred there and nowhere else. But as with the birthdays, the reflections keep on going.
By taking them all into account, you realise that 2001 is structured dialectically, in that each section contains the previous but also pushes a central idea forward. So, the Dawn of Man section is reflected in the Lunar section (similar but also changed), which is reflected in the Discovery Mission section, which is reflected in the Beyond the Infinite section - with each subsequent stage another ratchet in our transformation. Think about the orbiting weapons platform - an example of technology from the militarised Space Race: an unintelligent machine that humans control to kill each other. Whereas in the next section, technology has become the intelligent machine of HAL, out of our control, and with its own homicidal intentions.
Or think about food, which begins as bloody meat in the Dawn of Man section, then in the Lunar section becomes astronaut mush and meat sandwiches or “something like that. Tastes the same anyway.” Both already starting to abstract from what we might recognise as the Being of food. Then in the Discovery mission section, we have astro-mush again but also a video of a birthday cake, which Poole himself can’t eat but instead knows will be eaten for him. Then in the Beyond the Infinite section, we move from this simulacrum of food - a recording of an otherwise real cake - to a simulation of food itself, with the hidden alien intelligences conjuring up Dave Bowman his last meal. Does he even need to eat in that speeded-up timeline, or just feel like he needs to, alone and so far from everybody else?
Human existence has narrowed there, like it did in each previous section; in each section as well, a birthday, a meal, a monolith, but most importantly: a tool. Because it’s from these tools that we get the conflict that leads to each subsequent section. The starving pre-humans are in conflict with their environment, but the bone club helps them to master it. Civilised humans are still in conflict with each other, but their Cold War spacecraft helps one side discover the lunar monolith. The men of the resulting Discovery mission come into conflict with technology itself, but Bowman destroys HAL and so reaches the last monolith and what’s beyond it.
At that point, however, doesn’t the idea of technology in the film run out of further stages? Remember during his last meal, Dave Bowman stares at his wineglass, takes a sip, puts it back, stares at it some more, then accidentally knocks it off the table. It smashes, the sound effect high in the mix, and the camera cuts to a close-up of the broken stem. We then watch Bowman stare at the glass shards for a good 15 seconds. The film may as well have flashed subtitles saying ‘This is important!’
Over the years people have tried to work out what could be so important, for example seeing in this moment a reference to the Jewish wedding custom of breaking glass to symbolise the destruction of the Temple, i.e. the irrevocability of the change to one’s life that is marriage. Hence, the end of 2001 is a marriage (we can’t afford a carriage, unless the Discovery launch-pod counts). A marriage of what though, the machine and the human? Of the bright mechanistic Appolonian and the grunting Dionysian? Whatever it is, this marriage, as per tradition, is meant to result in a baby, and we do get one.
But think again about all the film’s reflections and rhymes, and so what the stem of the wineglass might look like:
Nevertheless, if each section is meant to push the idea from the previous section forwards, haven’t we now gone backwards? A glass is a tool, like the bone club, but it’s not violent. Neither is it an advance on computer HAL. Think of it though in the context of the design of the rest of the hotel suite at the end of the film, remember the Blue Danube Waltz from the start. Our civilisation is refinement and sophistication whose foundation is violence. As for our technology, it’s a succession of ornamentalised tools that satisfy age-old drives (survival, dominance, discovery). The crystal wineglass isn’t a more advanced technology, it’s a summary of technology. Because it’s not the destruction of the Temple we’re meant to be considering at the end, but of the profane space outside it
8. The Killing
Pauline Kael wrote that 2001 “says man is just a tiny nothing on the stairway to paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway. There’s intelligence out there in space controlling your destiny from ape to angel, so just follow the slab. Drop up.”
To believe that, you’d have to ignore how the film’s rhymes of image and sound keep pointing you towards what humans are capable of and hence responsible for. Seen this way, the story is no longer about inferior humans nudged here and there by alien nursery teachers, but about the need for us to continually overcome ourselves, and to reach beyond technology. (Sorry Elon Musk.)
But beyond to what? The clue’s in the names - the film’s and the protagonists’. Admittedly, searching for meanings in character names can often have the glint of the crystal ball about it. But when a film has ‘odyssey’ in its title and a main character called ‘Bowman’, we have a bit more license to keep on digging. And when you do, you find a stone-cutter, or ‘Kaminsky’, the name of the Discovery crew-mate who is, of all things, the ship’s on-board geophysicist… More to the point, his first name is ‘Victor’, from Latin for conqueror.
As for the rest:
Charles Hunter: Charles - derived from Germanic word for a warrior; Hunter - self-explanatory;
Frank Poole: Frank - Germanic, derived from the word for spearhead;
Jack Kimball: Kimball - war chief / leader of warriors, in old Welsh / Anglo-Saxon
Hardly surprising that a crew of European-descent astronauts would have Celtic, Germanic, Slavic or Latin names. And maybe it’s not surprising either that surviving male names would have a violent or warlike origin. But every man on the Discovery has such a name, whereas all the named characters left behind do not.
Over and over, 2001 has shown us how violence and technology have been intertwined, usually in the form of a weapon or what can be weaponised. Camille Paglia argues further that the film - as seen with the brawls of the Dawn of Man section - locates progress and all its fruits in male violence and the urge to conquer (despite the fact that the gender of any of the hominids is never clear from the film). But even taking Paglia’s idea for granted, this history is explicitly advanced and concluded (the glass foundation is smashed). We see humans reach the sterile limit of where civilisation’s Will to Technological Power can take us, let alone any violent male impulse behind it. Nearly all the crew of the Discovery One - the warrior, the conqueror, the hunter and the spear - are destroyed; while the last, Odysseus, wanders to Jupiter then beyond the infinite, where the bowman has to die and change before he can get back home.
9. The Door
What Tarkovsky saw as an over-fascination with technology that betrayed a lack of spiritual or human truth turns out to be much more meaningful than he allowed. Especially since the ‘examination’ of spaceship technology almost always involves doors.
In fact, once you start noticing the doors, you see them everywhere. (Doors that are opening…)
We even call the climax the ‘Star-Gate’ sequence though the term is never used in the film. Think as well of how often the words ‘door’ or ‘doors’ occur in the script; or how the film’s crisis involves a door that won’t open. Then of course there’s the biggest door of them all:
As with the film’s match-cut, the monolith bridges the past and future: it looks ancient and Stone Henge-like but at the same time completely advanced and alien. And though in plot terms the monolith might simply be a technology, its subtext is in its design; the monolith comes in the form of its own inscrutability, like a censor-bar. Hence for years people have read everything into it from the third tablet of Moses to a cinema screen.
But all this time the ending of 2001 has been guiding our way to the monolith’s meaning (literally guiding)…
In the concluding section, we have one of the best sequences of shots in cinema. The pattern is as follows (repeated three times). We see Bowman looking at something:
Then we cut back and forth to what he is looking at: in this case, a doorway, in which he notices an older version of himself:
The film then cuts to Bowman’s reaction (his breathing gets even heavier) before appearing to cut back to the previous POV shot (it’s framed in the same way). But in this shot, the breathing has gone, and the future Bowman we can see also notices something: he gets up and moves towards previous Bowman / towards us - and we cut to his perspective, of what he is seeing (in this case, what will be a deathbed).
Moment by moment then we look through Bowman’s eyes, but once an older Bowman appears in shot, we are outside again. This captures not only Bowman’s in-and-out-of-body experience, but it creates a woozy sense of your own self dissolving and resolving, from viewer to protagonist and back, from subject to object and back, a kind of demonstrative peeling down or turning inside-out of the ego, until we are left with - what?
An old man pointing us towards a door.
Following the POV pattern set earlier, we know next it’s through the dying Bowman’s eyes that we're seeing, then through the eyes of the reborn Bowman / Star-Child. To hammer home the door idea, the section even finishes with us pushing through the monolith:
Because what better symbol of change could there be, what more mythically simple, than a dark open doorway?
The door motif tells us something too about the nature of the change coming. “Open the pod bay doors HAL” / “I’m afraid I can’t do that.” The door of technology is closed. True, Bowman forces his way through the door by applying his wits and high explosives. But in doing so he enables himself to beat the technology that it represented.
This doesn’t mean that 2001 is calling for humans to get rid of the machines, any more than living in the Space Age means no more stone, iron or bronze. The future will have technology but it shouldn’t be the drive or spirit of the age any longer. It will need to be another spirit. And one that the floating kindergeist in the film’s closing shots is meant to embody.
10. The Body
Along with the earlier cliché, of our tools turning us into gods, is another that’s equally embedded into our predictions for the future. It’s that as humans become ever more technologically advanced, we will shed physical form, and gladly. We’re so married to this idea of the life of the mind being what’s important, and it being at best temporarily supported and at worst held back by our bodies, that it’s become received wisdom that our future evolution will involve cybernetic or virtual being - like HAL.
The question is, can super-intelligent, all-seeing HAL 9000 see itself?
Self-consciousness is sometimes defined as seeing oneself as a subject. Hence in countless films, mirrors have been used to dramatise characters really seeing and understanding themselves. And while the monolith appears to be the antithesis of a mirror, in that it absorbs all light rather than reflects it (if anything it’s the back of a mirror), at the same time it has many mirror-like functions. Each monolith projects us to the next section of the film in which we see the previous section reflected and updated. Think as well of how the film cuts to a shot of the monolith while a hominid is looking at some bones, rather than cutting to a shot of a bone while the hominids are looking at the monolith: perhaps instead of putting the idea for tools into the hominid’s head, the monolith simply got the hominid to regard itself as a subject (a subject therefore that can use objects).
HAL has eyes throughout the ship - crucially, it’s always regarding others - but it’s unclear what self of its own it has to regard. In fact, HAL is everywhere and nowhere. It is part of the Discovery but it is not the Discovery. And as the newscaster points out, it relies on the support of humans for many physical functions - when Bowman manually opens the airlock and begins to switch it off, it’s powerless to stop him.
In being switched off, HAL is afraid of its own destruction; the computer does have a sense of self-preservation. But is that the same as self-consciousness? We often hear about how increased intelligence must entail increased consciousness, but what about another axis? What if the less embodied you are, the less conscious you can be?
Earlier, in the Lunar section, we see Heywood Floyd scrutinising some text on a wall, and as the camera zooms out, the punchline is that he’s reading the vast instructions for a space toilet. This isn’t just a gag. Combined with the shots of Heywood napping, and the extreme close-ups of the hominids eating raw meat, it’s another example of the film’s constant concern with what it’s like to be a body, whether at the Dawn or the Twilight of Man.
These references to human life-processes - eating, excretion, death (though notably not sex) - might suggest a dialectical move beyond the physical is being proposed by film’s end. And perhaps the sex is there in the subtext. The images of the climax form an obvious biological pattern, with the phallic Discovery spaceship, the sperm of its launch-pod headed towards the egg of Jupiter via the yonic door of the monolith; then nine months or nine millennia later, the star-foetus that has to be pushed through another dark door into the world. This birth, this ghostly synthesis arguably confirms the move beyond the physical. And certainly the concept Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke offered in interviews of the godlike intelligences behind the monoliths were of ‘beings of pure spirit’, whatever those are.
“Beware the despisers of the body!” Zarathustra warned, sounding less like a prophet than the mad herald character near the start of a horror film. But then most of us do live in a body-despising society, where the various demands across age and gender, for good diet, beauty and lifestyle is evidence not of an elevation of the body but of a deep discomfort. (‘Punishing work-outs', ‘purging your system’, ‘No make-up? Oh you look tired.’)
This is the worst of accommodations with being a body, and yet its opposite - ‘being pure spirit’ - just ends up as another reflection. Wanting to be liberated from your physical self is by definition just another lack of accommodation; paying no heed and too much heed are on a par. And the middle of the road offers no solution either. “One still works, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one…”
There has, however, always been another path open, both for our stories about the future and our concept of the self. Imagine if human advancement meant not a disgusted divestment of our bodies but at long last truly inhabiting them. 2001 doesn’t prophesy further progress through technology, and neither is it about shedding the body. Instead, it’s about the body no longer being a problem. A good old-fashioned reconciliation with self and world.
Because though the Star-Child might be floating wispily in space (in fact, it seems very much at home there: its birthday isn’t just an overcoming but a homecoming) it still has a specific form. And what form did the filmmakers choose? Now with added consciousness, the human type that we associate with being most reconciled with its world and body: the pre-conscious child.
Maybe another kind of reconciliation is out there, a change to human being itself; but the film does not expand further on it or on the nature of the Star-Child. It doesn’t specify whether what’s next for us is a biological, spiritual or metaphysical leap through the dark open door. The ‘premonition’ it makes is only about what can’t and won't help us any longer.
It’s in the door, in the monolith, where everything meets, from where everything emerges. The monolith has become awe-inspiring once again, though this time, and for us, by revealing itself to be the lodestone of all the film’s elements, just as the film’s mirroring structure embodies its overall idea. The catalyst that has evolved the human animal is self-consciousness - self-regard, seeing ourselves as if in a mirror - the stages of which have given us technology to further cement our progress. But we get stuck and go stale the more that technology itself becomes the object.
Yet even so, we keep making films and books and TV shows that long for our replacement by superior mechanical, virtual or non-material beings. For 2001, if there’s more progress to be had, it’s not in the machines, but in the only subjects that we know of. It’s been 15 years, though, since the future the film imagined; nearly 50 years since the film itself. And how are we all doing with reconciling ourselves and the world? With getting beyond violence and technology?
Mazin Saleem is a writer of fiction and non-fiction at Open Pen, Litro Magazine, The Literateur, Big Other and Little Atoms, where he has written stories about teeth and islands, and articles on the merits of Veep, the sins of Jurassic World and what Lost has in common with The Tree of Life; he is also a contributor at the London Graphic Novel Network and various S.M.A.S.H. comics panels. Mazin also had some opinions about Arrival.