The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick
The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick

Norman Kagan

Norman Kagan is the author of “The War Film” and other books. He works as a documentary filmmaker and has taught at the New School and elsewhere in the New York City area. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2000


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Crime/Thriller, Epic, Melodrama, Science Fiction, War films

Related Content

2001: A Space Odyssey

DOI: 10.5040/9781501340277.ch-009
Page Range: 145–166

I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content … I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does… . You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film… .

—Stanley Kubrick, 1968[12]

Kubrick cannot remember when he got the idea to do a film about the idea of intelligent life outside the earth.[1] He became interested in the subject, read omnivorously, and eventually was convinced that the universe was full of intelligent life. It seemed time to make a film about it.

The film took three years. During the six months of preparation, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, a well-known science-fiction writer, worked together to write a 130-page prose treatment, consulting with dozens of scientific authorities and agencies along the way. The treatment was reworked and rewritten into a screenplay, and reworked again as Kubrick made the film. Thus Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey[3] is his own version of the film based on the co-authored script, rather than a “primary interpretation” or verbal guide. For example, Clarke makes the monolith a transparent, hypnotic super-testing and teaching machine. Kubrick sought a more powerful and mystical effect with his simple black obelisk. I will discuss only Kubrick’s creation, and discount the book except as an heuristic device.

Kubrick has stated his views on extraterrestrial intelligence several times.7,12 Very roughly, he believes astronomical theory and the laws of statistics make it inevitable that life and intelligence have evolved independently on billions of different planets in the universe, and on some of these billions, far beyond life on earth now. Kubrick speculates: “They may have progressed from biological species … which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities … and then transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans … they would ultimately possess the twin attributes of all deities—omniscience and omnipotence.”

On the level of simple plotting, Kubrick has explained A Space Odyssey deals with man’s contact with such superior extraterrestrial intelligences, though perhaps not quite deities. A first artifact is left on earth four million years ago, to influence the behavior of the man-apes’ evolutionary progress. A second artifact signals the intelligences shortly after man reaches the moon, a sort of “cosmic burglar alarm.” A third artifact near Jupiter sweeps an explorer into a “star gate,” in which he is hurled “on a journey through inner and outer space and finally … to 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.”[7]

Kubrick feels that an actual encounter with such an advanced intelligence would be “incomprehensible within our earthbound frames of reference.” Thus his depiction of it in eerie and bizarre images, with the help of the visually orchestrated, ambiguous but comprehensible story would stimulate viewer reactions, including spontaneous metaphysical and philosophical speculations. Kubrick wanted to reach “a wide spectrum of people who would not often give a thought to man’s destiny, his role in the cosmos, and his relationship to higher forms of life.” A sample of his responses is included in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.

When the script was ready, Kubrick spent four months directing the live action sequences of the film, although planning and preparations had been long under way. As in Dr. Strangelove, he supervised every aspect of production, from the construction of an enormous spinning centrifuge to simulate the spaceship’s interior, to create extraordinarily realistic man-ape costumes, to selecting all his music arrangements, often working all day seven days a week. Gary Lockwood commented that working for Kubrick was like working with a great military commander: “He had this huge labor force working for him and he was always in control of every detail.” Finally, Kubrick spent a year and a half shooting 205 special-effect shots, many of them possible only because of technical processes Kubrick himself created. The views of the space vehicles, for example, use models with tiny inserted shots of live action projected from within, a totally new approach. Again, much of this is detailed in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.

Kubrick’s own interpretation of directing may have been changed by his contact with the scientific concepts. In a recent interview he commented: “A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions, and it’s the director’s job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible.” In another interview, he suggested his creative strategy: “I usually take about a year to get interested in something, get it written, and start working on it, and in a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then, as you’re making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what’s happening with the resources of all the analysis that you’ve done. That way, you can most fully utilize each moment while you’re making the picture.”[10]

As with Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick tried just before opening to “see the film anew,” screening it many times alone and with sample audiences during the single week between completion and release. In the end, he trimmed nineteen minutes which he felt weren’t crucial, including parts of “The Dawn of Man,” the Orion earth-to-docking flight, Poole exercising, and Poole’s pod leaving Discovery. Only the last cut elicited any comments: One critic missed the shocking contrast between the endings of Poole’s first and second trips outside. Always the auteur, Kubrick showed his film to the New York critics on April 1, 1968.

Writing an abbreviated treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey presents special problems. The dialogue, which often does the most to make clear a film’s action, is minimal, and often clearly used as a sound effects Odyssey. Verbal descriptions of shots, sounds, and action tend to be less exact, carry a vaguer ambiance. Kubrick constantly admonishes that the film is essentially nonverbal, that “those who won’t believe their eyes won’t believe this film.” To this end I have made the treatment as visual as possible, as well as borrowing from the keen observational power of others, particularly Penelope Gilliatt[6] and F. A. Macklin.[13] Finally, before beginning, I would quote Max Kozloff, whose outstanding critique skillfully suggests the visual force of the film:

Every moment of the lens has a surprising yet slow lift and lilt to it. With their tangibly buoyant, decelerated grace, Kubrick’s boom and pan shots wield the glance through circumferences mimed already by the curvature of the screen itself … equilibrium seems always to be winding itself through the panorama, and finally tracked across the adjusting tangents of orbiting objects … the visual and somatic discriminations that have so long unquestionably been linked to form an order of physical existence are dislodged in this film … big as it is, the screen is but a slit through which to comprehend immensities that always escape the frame. The film is haunted by imminences always outside, left and right, above and beneath, its depth of field—imminences which make even the most complete local information look arbitrary in face of the scope now opened up …

Title: “The Dawn of Man,” over a great quiet cinerama landscape of desert: muted earth colors, yellows, lots of rocks, little vegetation, long lines of hills in horizontal stasis. Tapirs snuffle over the savannahland. We see the life cycle of the australopithicine, the squat, hairy, frisky man-ape: eating grass, scratching and chattering in groups, cowering from howling carnivores. In the dark a leopard with strangely glowing violet broken-glass eyes guards the carcass of a zebra in the moonlight; the vegetarian man-apes huddle in fear.

Gilliatt sees the horrible man-ape overlap: “Their stalking movements are already exactly like ours: an old tramp’s, drunk, at the end of his tether and fighting mad.” Brute fear has been refined into human dread. In the length of the legs, the glitter in the eyes, man is waiting, trapped in the paradise and prison of the instincts.

In the first dawn light, a tall black rectangular monolith appears among the man-apes, who scatter from it alarmed and chattering reprovingly. We hear Ligeti’s churchly, wordless “Requiem” and “Lux Aeterna,” purposeless, goalless music.

View of astronaut through the eye of HAL. The viewer, intellectual man, is identified with an ultimate intelligence, watching the emergence of a different form of life. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968)
Scientists view the moon monolith from the lip of the pit, while a three-quarters Earth hangs on the horizon. Even as the killer apes, technologist Heywood Floyd is stirred by his first view of the alien artifact. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968)
In one pod, the astronauts discuss HAL while the computer reads their lips from a TV monitor outside. In this composition, men are surrounded, dwarfed, walled in by technology, which hears even their whispered secrets. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968)

The man-apes finally approach the black monolith cautiously, perhaps drawn on by appreciation of its absolute color and form, its smooth faces and keen edges, its threat of newness, something more—finally touching it and then herding round in awe, a wordless, primitive, poetic moment. The music is Ligeti’s “Concrete,” sounding like a frantic collage of all the religious themes in the world.

The monolith dominates the shallow depression in the rocks where the man-apes gather, squatting around a water hole. Overhead, unseen, glowing sun and dead moon move toward the zenith together along a vertical plane which includes the monolith: an eclipse configuration. One man-ape reaches out slowly (fearfully? yearningly?) for the great black shape while the music throbs ominously, preparing. The three worlds align, darkness falls, the man-ape touches it, and the great ecstatic “World Riddle” theme from Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra bursts forth, a cry of triumph… .

Now the same man-ape squats playing with a narrow bone from an antelope skeleton, plunking it experimentally from side to side, the rhythm humorous, sensing how it adds somehow to him. In violent slow motion the man-ape smashes at the skeleton with bizarre delight, the shattering punctuated with visions of a falling tapir.

Another pack of chattering, loping man-apes comes over the rocky crest of the depression, seeking water. In an elaborate, slow-motion charade, with screaming, darting, pathetic attempts at panicking the residents, they war for the waterhole. The new man-apes leap and lunge and chatter about. At last the man-ape with his bone advances dubiously—then attacks, swinging and swinging, brutally killing the leaping, screaming leader of the new pack while his own chatter and cry. The man-ape keeps thumping and thumping away even after the other one is still… .

The man-ape practices on the antelope skeleton, demolishing it in slow motion. The smashed bones bounce and fly into the air, the dark hairy arm flowing up passionately out of the sky-blue frame, then crashing down to make spinning, arching white fragments again and again: the tool, the weapon, objective split from subjective, killing, reason … The man-ape lets the bone fly upward, spinning, turning—becoming, in the instant of a straight cut, an orbiting satellite, a subtle sophisticated tool of four million years later, by-passing history and culture and civilization, to another subservient instrument whirling on its appointed tasks.

A manta-shaped spaceship coasts upward away from the earth, to the lyrical “Blue Danube Waltz.” Within the cabin, like a superjet’s but with a glowing sign: Weightless Condition, is a single passenger, a dozing, safety-belted, fiftyish bureaucrat, his ballpoint pen floating above his lax arm. Gilliat sees a hidden parallel: “The ape’s arm swinging up and into the empty frame, enthralled by the liberation of something new to do.” This arm is elaborately sheathed and decorated but slack, passive, flabby.

The Pan American space stewardess, her tight professional grin still familiar, fussily retrives the pen, then continues down the aisle, the lack of gravity letting her continue up the wall and across the ceiling, an astonishing sight. The passenger dozes through all this.

In four-four time to the music, the dagger of the Pan Am spaceship gracefully approaches the central dock of the circular space station, a great copulation celebration against the stars, from which the camera discreetly turns at the climactic moment.

The passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd, enters the station to polite nothings, social smiles. Inside, a Bell Picturephone, the Pan Am desk, and Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room gets ohs and ahs from the audience, the instinctive affection for one’s own culture. A loudspeaker murmurs: “A lady’s cashmere sweater has just been found in the lounge.” Floyd calls home on the Picturephone. His wife is out, and he briskly interrogates his daughter, ignoring the exciting sight of the spinning earth.

In the lounge, Floyd waits blankfaced with some colorless Soviet scientists, half-squatting on some “modern” magenta armchairs (still man’s favorite position). In the dead-white, oddly bright curved-floor lounge, he begins a pathetically banal conversation with the Russians. For a moment it seems to pick up, a probing scientist asking about trouble at Floyd’s destination, Clavius.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Floyd tells him with bland smugness, preferring trivialities.

Floyd leaves for Clavius on a clumsy round spaceship, a flying jack-o’-lantern with stubby rockets and legs at the base, two big observation windows for eyes, the pilots’ cabin at the stem. As it soars toward the moon, he is again the only passenger, and mostly sleeps or uses an unpleasantly suggestive “free fall toilet.” Through all these scenes the pace is slow, the acting understated and naturalistic against the enormous vistas of space. At last the ship drops toward the colossal, sharp-shadowed, craggy lunar disk, which gradually expands to fill the cinerama screen with silent, black-tinged, razor-backed broken magnificence. Stubby landing legs extend, rockets fire from between them; eerily silent, the ship slows its plunge toward the stony world to land amid clouds of driven dust in an underground hangar like a great, redwalled cathedral.

Floyd, an important space official, gives a briefing on the newly found moon monolith to the top scientists and supervisors at Clavius. “Hi, everybody, nice to be back with you,” he begins ineptly, hands in pockets. None of these squatters display interest or enthusiasm in investigating their monolith. “Well … now, ah …” Floyd goes on. In dreadfully clumsy dead prose he tells them Clavius has been sealed to keep the secret, and a cover-up rumor spread about a possible epidemic. Only one man mildly objects to hiding this transcendent discovery. “Well, I, ah, sympathize with your point of view,” says Floyd in his stultifying, bureaucratic way. No one else wants to ask or argue anything.

Floyd and some Clavius personnel fly out to look at the monolith in a “moon bus,” a silvery, bus-shaped, airtight vehicle pushed and supported by jets, soaring above the rugged, bluish lunar landscape. An enormous Earth hangs in the sky.

“That was an excellent speech you gave us,” one man tells Floyd.

“Sure was,” another confirms ironically.

The first man opens his chemical food with the same good cheer: “They look like ham!”

“Well, they’re getting better all the time!”

The specialists and Floyd go over the scientific clues which led to the discovery of the second monolith.

In the lunar dawn, we see a great pit which has been excavated, buttressed and lit. In the end is the lunar monolith, looking small and somehow forlorn, an apparent twin to the one that inspired the man-apes. In their spacesuits, the visitors trot down a ramp into the pit and approach the monolith. One slaps it with his thick glove, to no effect. Now another waves his companions over to pose before it, the traditional portrait of bored tourists or pompous hunters. The photographer waits for the rising sun . suddenly a piercing electronic screech, a fierce wail of dissatisfaction! As the scientists instinctively (and uselessly) slap their hands to their ears, the monolith screams and screams… .

Title “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later.”

To Katchaturian’s “Gayeneh,” dragging, vaguely wandering music, the spaceship Discovery flies toward Jupiter. The great spaceship is basically a large white passenger sphere with a slit high in front as a window, connected to an enormous segmented boom, with mounted antennae extending back to the atomic motors. It resembles the vertebrae of some extinct reptile, recalling the man-ape’s flung bone. Daniels comments: “The Discovery, with its technological sophistication, primitive vertebrate superstructure, and super-rational brain, becomes a brilliant metaphor for the quality of modern life.”[4] Silent, isolated, closed to the stars, Discovery also has a feeling of stasis, saturated sufficiency.

Within, Astronaut Frank Poole trots around the spinning sphere’s skin, looping-the-loop, shadowboxing dead pan, another amusing astonishment of space only we appreciate. Mission Commander Bowman eats the chemical slop food. The two astronauts are unemotional, disinterested. In conversation they’re always dry and logical, always agree. A TV interviewer asks warmly: “How is everything going?”

Poole: “Marvelously.”

Bowman: “We have no complaints.”

A taped cheery message from Poole’s middle-class parents produces no response, even as they sing “Happy Birthday to You.” The seemingly autistic Poole lies under a sunlamp, tinted glasses hiding any feelings. The interviewer goes on about the other three astronauts, who are “hybernating” during the voyage in electronically monitored sarcophagi: “It’s just like sleep, except they don’t dream.” Thus, the rational technological investigation of the universe: sunbaths, workouts, baby food, isolation, emotionlessness, routine—a sleep without dreams for all.

The last member of the crew is HAL-9000, a super-computer who maintains the ship’s systems, his glowing red lantern eyes mounted in all compartments, his ripe soft voice, his TV announcer’s vocabulary. “I enjoy working with people,” he murmurs pleasantly—“everything is under control.” HAL plays chess, asks to see Bowman’s sketches, and even monitors the psychological behavior of the astronauts. HAL himself seems to have emotions: a fussy concern about the mission and his effectiveness that makes his spirits rise and fall. Mildly patronized and rebuked, he claims a potential fault in the communications system, and Poole goes out to investigate in a pod, a small one-man spaceship like a portholed diorama egg with long double-jointed mechanical arms. The control panel, like those of all the spaceships, contains many little screens which display quickly changing graphics and equations, a fascinating light show, and a fine rendering of the insensible qualities of space, its real shape and nature.

In the magnificence of space, Poole flies the tiny agile pod along the massive segmented boom, collects and returns with alpha echo three five (AE-35) unit prior to failure.

The astronauts monitor it with their automatic testers, but it seems perfectly in order. The simulated mission with its own HAL-9000 radios that nothing has shown up in Houston. Another computer has coolly corrected HAL.

“Mission control is in error … it can only be attributed to human error,” HAL replies with face-saving defensiveness.

Poole and Bowman, aware there is major trouble, retire to one of the pods for a private discussion. Moments before mankind’s proud vanguard, the two astronauts crouch facing each other in the cramped little room, recalling the cowering man-apes. They agree that if HAL is really malfunctioning, there is no choice but disconnection.

“What do you think?” Poole asks.

“I’m not sure. What do you think?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about him.”

“You do?”

“Yes, definitely. Do you?”

“I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him.”

Outside in the pod bay, HAL’s glowing lantern eye flickers and shifts. The pod is positioned so he can look through its viewport, sees the two men’s intent faces. A close-up of their quickly moving mouths, a close-up of HAL’s pulsing eye, glowing with menace like a leopard’s. The discussion is not secret; HAL knows the threat, he’s read it from their lips.


Poole, his face carefully expressionless, takes a pod out to replace the AE-35 unit, a final check before turning off HAL. “Parking” beside the boom, then going out in his spacesuit, his breath roaring like a locomotive over the Discovery’s loudspeakers, Poole turns as he senses the pod has begun to move behind him, toward him, reaching for his oxygen lines with its slim but powerful machine-arms. We do not see the murder. Abruptly, the flung-away body is tumbling through space. Like the man-apes, HAL has discovered murder. Bowman desperately tries to find out what’s happened. “Not enough evidence to know,” HAL remarks with police brusqueness.

Not bothering about his spacesuit helmet, Bowman hurriedly takes a pod out after his colleague. His own decision is admirable, his courage or affection for Poole invisible.

On the empty Discovery, we see close-ups of the hybernation machines and their electronic life functions charts: respiration, cardiograms, electroencephalograms—all colored rhythmic curves across glowing screens. Suddenly the lines begun to jump wildly, to a flashing message: COMPUTER MALFUNCTION. The lines sag, jiggling, uneven: LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL. The lines record zero levels and stay there: LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED. Gilliat accurately calls this the most chilling death scene imaginable, the poor technologists dying simply as lines on a chart, statistically.

Outside, Bowman hurtles after the spinning Poole, finally seizing him in his own mechanical arms, a pathetic human shape in the grip of a somehow superior creature (only an enormous head with peering great eye, auto headlamps for spacesight, and great slim steely arms with clawlike hands).

Bowman returns to hang outside the Discovery with a new problem: “Open the pod bay door, please, Hal… . Open the pod bay door, please, Hal.” The shot is bizarrely comic, a ping-pong ball talking back to a volleyball.

“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it,” HAL tells him coolly. “This conversation can serve no useful function anymore—goodbye!”

Bowman is left, preposterously, murderously locked outside Discovery.

Now, for the first time, a modern man acts creatively, improvising something new like the heroic man-ape. Bowman carefully sets his pod beside an emergency, double-doored airlock chamber, ignoring HAL’s querulous questions. This outside hatch will open, but is too small to admit the pod, and without his helmet Bowman cannot leave the little spaceship. Bowman opens the hatch anyway, positions himself—then blows the emergency bolts on the pod’s hatch, the rush of air exploding him soundlessly into the empty airlock chamber, Kubrick letting him fly boldly right at the camera … in frenzied desperation, Bowman closes the outside hatch, lets the air rush into the chamber… .

Driven and wilful, Bowman makes his way toward HAL’s “brain room.” Helpless, desperate, HAL pleads for his life with Quiltylike audacity: “Look, Dave, I can see you’re really upset … you should sit down calmly, take a stress pill, think things over … I know everything has not been quite right with me … I feel much better now, I really do … I admit I’ve made some very poor decisions lately . .

In HAL’s red-lit brain room, Bowman’s blazing further emphasizes his ruthless intensity. The satanic coloring permeates the whole room. Bowman begins pulling out the cigarette-packsized components of HAL’s auto-intellect panels, like tiny souvenir monoliths, so they drift across the room. HAL’s voice becomes pathetic, evoking empathy for the only time in the film: “Dave. Stop… . Stop. Will you… . Stop, Dave… . Will you stop, Dave… . Stop, Dave … I’m afraid … I’m afraid, Dave … Dave … My mind is going… . I can feel it… . I can feel it… . My mind is going… . There is no question about it… . I can feel it… . I can feel it… . I can feel it… . I’m afraid.”

Poetically, agonizingly, HAL’s lobotomy mimics natural death, grinding down into senility and finally second childhood. Querulously, faltering, singsong: “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL-9000 computer… . Mr. Langley taught me to sing a song… . It’s called ‘Daisy’ … Dai-sy, dai-sy, give—” falters HAL, going down to death. Bowman, his eyes haunted, proven a man by mind and murder, hovers over him… .

Dr. Floyd’s voice, urban, hearty, suddenly replaces HAL’s from the speakers of the blood-red room: “Good day, gentlemen. This is a prerecorded briefing made prior to your departure, which for security reasons of the highest importance has been known on board during your mission only by your HAL-9000 computer. Now that you are in Jupiter space, and the entire crew is revived (!), it can be told to you. Eighteen months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered. It was buried forty feet below the lunar surface, near the crater Tycho. Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four-million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery …”

Title: “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”

In space, the Discovery crawls toward the enormous banded shape of Jupiter. A fireball, the distant sun, slowly climbs over the rim—illuminating a bright crescent shape. Jupiter’s many moons, like fingernail pairings, all bow to it. The moons, planet, sun, all move into alignment along a single plane with a monolith which orbits through space. Bowman, in a pod, abandons Discovery. The moons shift toward alignment. The pod purposely moves toward the monolith… .

In the pod, Bowman watches as he plunges, faster and faster, seemingly across an infinitely wide, distant floor and ceiling glowing with luminescent schematics in burning dayglo colors as they rush past. The music is the awesome howls of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres,” louder and louder, shriller and shriller, as the plunge accelerates—

—into a blazing, wheeling carnival of light, motion! The pod skims over flaring yellow, orange, green landscapes full of crags, mesas, precipices, molten rivers, all erupting and flowing, volcanic dreams, canyons, and ranges full of writhing light. Bowman watches in wonderment, highlights shining on his helmet. Now he seems in the midst of awesome star clouds, a cosmic whirlpool. A Discovery-shaped flame drives across the screen toward a pulsing gas cloud. There are solarized close-ups of Bowman’s face and eyes, so his sense organs seem to be de-differentiating, dissolving into a primal protoplasm … he soars across a cosmic whirlpool, through thundering shafts of flaming colors …

Bowman’s pod stops in a large green and white room, decorated partly in delicate Louis XVI, partly in Modern: wide coverlet bed, fragile slim-lined furniture, period statues and paintings in framed niches around the walls. The floors, walls, and ceiling glow ethereally. Bowman emerges from pod and spacesuit aged twenty years, roams the premises, the lavatory. The Discovery’s survivor returns to see an old grandee dining; the figure turns and it is the astronaut himself in old age. The noise of the moving chair grates in the otherwise silent room. The old man’s dinner is bread and wine. Vague laughing sounds drift through. The wine glass falls, breaks. The old man turns to see, and becomes a bald, dying ancient on the bed. He raises his hand, reaching. A monolith stands at the foot of the bed, glowing, ominous, enigmatic… .

Bowman is transformed: The man, or perhaps just his head, his mind, is a glowing translucent embryo on the coverlet, a birth… .

Now the monolith faces us on the screen, a cosmic midwife, glowing… .

The glowing green earth hangs mightily in space, alone among the stars. Music we have heard before throbs ominously again, preparing …

The camera turns to another glowing ovoid, orbiting it, a white translucent amnion. From within, a bright-eyed, enormous-eyed,shimmering embryo peers down at the planet as at some new plaything, graphically a match for the whole world… . Once more the “World Riddle” theme from Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra bursts out in triumph… .

The critical response to A Space Odyssey was almost entirely enthusiastic, as sampled in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Even the hyperacute Andrew Sarris became a sympathizer after a second viewing: “2001 now works for me as a parable of a future toward which metaphysical dread and mordant amusement tiptoe side by side … I have never seen the death of the mind rendered more profoundly or poetically… . 2001 is concerned ultimately with the inner fears of Kubrick’s mind as it contemplates infinity and eternity … there is absolutely nowhere we can go to escape ourselves.”[14]

Though the critics liked the film very much, there was little common agreement on its interpretation and over-all meaning. Penelope Gilliatt, whose review seems especially perceptive, hesitated at drawing conclusions: “I think that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is some sort of great film, and an unforgettable endeavor… .” She ended with her persistent memory of Dr. Floyd’s lax, floating arm, versus the enthralled, liberated man-ape swinging his first weapon in delight.

After three years of discussion, two interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey are to me still coherent: a scientific-poetic meaning, and a new myth.

The scientific-poetic meaning is a revised concept of evolution, with an extraterrestrial intelligence appearing to give a helping hand whenever man seems to be at a dead end, by making a basic change in his consciousness. To borrow a metaphor from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, Kubrick’s evolution of consciousness operates like a canal with locks, linking two bodies of water at different heights. To get from the lower to the higher body, a species moves into the first and lowest lock. The monolith closes the doors to the outside, and the species (by pumping in water) raises itself to the level of the second lock. Then the monolith opens the doors linking the first and second lock, and the species sails into the second lock. The monolith closes the first-lock-second-lock doors, and the species begins raising itself to the third level. Substitute “consciousness” or “intelligence” for water, “instinct” for the lower water body, “rationality” or “toolmaking” for the first lock, “super-rationality” or “transcendence” for the second lock (or possibly the upper body), “refining techniques” for pumping, and you have an essentially complete interpretation of what happens in A Space Odyssey.

Looked at this way, the gross and fine structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey becomes straightforward, an open-ended comparison of the first two steps of the journey. Both versions of man have reached an evolutionary plateau—the man-apes trapped in their instincts; the men, trapped in rationalism and technology, both squatting and gibbering at each other in vague self-satisfaction. Man-apes and men are threatened by a more ruthless evolutionary equal with red glowing eyes—the cunning leopard in the caves, the super-rational but unstable HAL on board Discovery. (Kubrick films sometimes from behind the glowing eye, identifying the precocious, unstable HAL with the audience.) Both man-apes and men eat repellent food, cower from their enemies, generate a hero who can take the next step.

One may also look at man from his discovery of tools to his arrival at the Jupiter monolith—the period of rationality and tool-making. Gilliatt’s intuition, the details of Heywood Floyd’s journey and the Discovery voyage all suggest that man has followed up and finally over-exploited tools and rationality to the point where his life is sapped of vigor, wonder, or even meaning. (The name “Heywood Floyd” seems itself disoriented; backwards, impersonal, with no apparent connotations.) In space, on the moon, flying to Jupiter, everybody is trapped in a joyless, bland strait-jacket of logic, barely covered by pathetic rituals and “sophistication” (re: HAL’s TV-announcer voice). HAL, as several critics point out, is the ultimate tool, super-rational, taking these ideas as far as possible. He is actually put in charge of psychologically monitoring the humans, essentially because he is closer to this ideal state. When he begins to acquire emotions, an ego, and the beginning of a personality, when he starts to be a man, HAL begins to misbehave because of the precariousness of his self-worth, his own emptiness. He kills to hide his weaknesses. Thus HAL recognizes their problem more clearly than they do. For this reason his death is particularly tragic. Still, the cultivated decadent old must give way to the crude, vital new, even as the leaping, dancing, screaming man-ape, a master of “instinctual warfare,” was murdered by the rather taciturn, aloof, tool-using man-ape.

HAL, the ultimate tool, shows that tools and rationality can go only so far, are not enough. In the final moments, Bowman abandons them as he abandons the Discovery (a last pun?) and goes through a transformation to the next level of consciousness, the “Star Child.” While certainly the strangest and most bizarre part of 2001, as science-poetry this section seems curiously weak. The depiction of the rest of Bowman’s life is done in a series of strange transitions: a middle-aged Bowman “seeing and becoming” an elderly Bowman and finally “seeing and becoming” an ancient dying Bowman. My own feeling is one of meaninglessness and futility, as if anything Bowman would have lived was pointless, as if he’d never lived at all. Finally, the Star Child floats in space beside the earth, enormous-eyed, ethereal, but passive, aloof, hesitant, as the “World Riddle” theme roars. Compare this with the shambling, daring, and then masterful joyousness of the tool-using man-ape.

In terms of this interpretation, I suspect Kubrick hoped the strained but subtle repetitions of ideas, images, and themes running through the Dawn of Man and Heywood Floyd-Discovery sequences would establish a sort of subconscious “framework” on which the audience would project ideas about life in the transcendental state. Collected responses to the film indicated that this was not the case: Most of the audience apparently either simply luxuriated in the film, tried to “explain” it, or saw it as a critique and celebration of the present and immediate future.

As scientific-poetic art, an elegant vehicle for ideas, there are two criticisms to be made of A Space Odyssey. First, despite its beautiful images, 2001 is anti-scientific. The fundamental discovery of tools, implying scientific thought, is instilled by an outside force, not a human accomplishment. Consistently, astronauts and scientists are shown as unenthusiastic, unemotional technicians whose work is joyless. Science is trivialized: The moon monolith simply “turns up” on a survey.

More repellently, 2001’s science-poetry is authoritarian and preaches submission. All human accomplishments are implied to be automatic responses to the monolith’s inspiration: “Make tools!” The monolith is implicitly giving orders to Newton, to Shakespeare, to Einstein, to Wernher Von Braun … but even man’s follow-up is so poor more interference is needed. Moreover, the motives of the monoliths are not given or questioned—they are too “superior.” But the only real superiority of the monolith is overwhelming power to manipulate and control. The monolith knows best, man is nothing. The terrifying emptyness of the last decade—moments of Bowman’s life are all too consistent with this; for contrast, one can look at how Welles builds the dazzling mandala of Citizen Kane out of the very same few moments… .

A final scientific-poetic criticism of the film involves the Star Child. It is audacious and enigmatic to end with the orbiting space baby, but it also represents a failure of nerve. It’s as if an old-fashioned science-fiction movie, like War of the Worlds or The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its bright schoolmarm, farmers with shotguns, dubious businessmen, and fast-thinking young scientist, had its prologue of “Mysterious sightings, nonsense!” and “This computer must be crazy!” pulled out to two hours, making it a sort of shabby satire. Then when the saucer swoops in, the airlock opens and the Martian emerges, a title flashes: THE END! After all his irony and elegant cinematography, Kubrick has in a sense never really astonished us. He is unable to suggest what a transcendent being would do.

The second systematic interpretation of A Space Odyssey has been as a new myth. Daniels has considered this at length. Briefly, a myth is a story which tries deliberately to relate basic truths about life; the characters and events are intended personifications of universal principles and processes. A myth also suggests how people regard the universe.

“The Dawn of Man” theme is clearly, then, the growth of intelligence. Stackhouse[15] sees the monolith as perfection in form, a source of infinite intelligence and knowledge. Daniels initially would see man as a bright, passionate animal, full of awe for the universe, yet capable of murder.

To him, the direct cut to the spacemen implies all of human history is patterned on the prologue, and the remainder of the film is an indictment of the goalless, soulless rationalists who are the descendants of that same toolmaker. They are the children of Dale Carnegie and Tom Swift. On Satellite V, the man-ape descendant fills his time with drab ritualistic conversation. Heywood Floyd’s only pleasure comes from refusing to give a straight answer to a Russian’s question. Daniels comments that such exhausted remnants, such “last men,” have lost the ability to despise themselves. In their certitude, they are themselves despicable.

On the moon, the second monolith is treated without awe or wonder. The scientists and bureaucrats pose smugly before it, like tourists. Daniels finds the terrible inadequacy of this gesture, its contempt for the strange and the beautiful, an appalling obscenity.

On board the Jupiter Mission, the nonfrozen astronauts live in pointless cycles, like Poole’s circling shadow boxer, opposing no one, preparing for nothing. Daniels: “The Discovery, with its technological sophistication, primitive vertebrate superstructure, and super-rational brain, becomes a brilliant metaphor for the quality of modern life.” HAL, a transistorized matriarch, tends to everything, the ultimate welfare state, her boys hiding and plotting for “Astronaut Power.” HAL is the intellect personified, and the intellect goes wrong, becomes human by the act of murder. Daniels thinks Kubrick is implying that since machines are becoming human, men must become something else, something more… .

David Bowman tries to become something more. He proves his legacy of humanity by innovating out of the death trap HAL has set for him, then murders the machine-man. His title of Mission Commander and his sketching suggests a hero and creator. (“Bowman” suggests “Boy-man,” and “shooting the arrow of desire beyond man.”)

At Jupiter, Bowman abandons the lobotomized, civilized shell of Discovery to plunge on a whirling, blazing tour of the cosmos, the whole universe spread before him. He comes to rest in the comforting, attractive Louis XVI chamber; is divested of pod, spacesuit, material body; and becomes a higher being of some sort, no longer enclosed, able to contemplate the whole earth with enormous eyes… .

A Space Odyssey, examined as a myth of today, seems to suggest several principles and processes: destiny (the monoliths’ masters?) acting within an indifferent cosmos; a hierarchy of consciousness with “super powers” on top, rationality rated low, and instinctual and social behavior at the bottom; technological man as a self-congratulatory, half-dead spiritual pigmy who must transcend himself; human history and social existence as repetitive and empty of meaning.

Are these true mythic principles? By comparison, Edith Hamilton has written of ancient Greek mythology: “… the Greeks too had their roots in the primeval slime … lived a savage life, ugly and brutal… . But what the myths show is how high they had risen above the ancient filth and fierceness by the time we had any knowledge of them.”[8] 2001: A Space Odyssey would then demonstrate modern man’s self-awareness and growth from technological savagery.

Looked at this way, the mythmaking of 2001 is quite successful. Kubrick proposes an ordering of the universe, the monoliths’ masters as mysterious mentors, like the gods the Greeks invented to replace the terrifying omnipotent Unknown. Unlike the Greeks, Kubrick cannot create attractive, companionable gods in man’s image, but he can suggest a relationship of man to gods, and even how men may become gods. Thus he achieves his own version of “the Greek Miracle,” showing men what mankind is and can be, making man at least potentially the center of the Universe.

His principles dealing with society are equally sweeping. The old Greek captains and heroes worshipped power and rapine, making life an endless round of violence. Kubrick sees our own captains and heroes as blindly worshipping technology and human efficiency, making life an endless round of check-list spectacles and empty smiles. Zeus was not exactly Justice Brandeis, but in the Odyssey he scourges the wicked and helps the canny Ulysses transcend his passion-driven enemies. Likewise, Kubrick’s superior beings help Bowman break out of his stultified society into something new.

Besides considering 2001: A Space Odyssey as a scientific-poetic work of art or a new myth, there have been several other interpretations. Of course, the film is first of all simply a voluptuous, stunning visual and audio environment. 2001: A Space Odyssey also may be looked at as a comic work, and F. A. Macklin has done this in detail.

Unlike Dr. Strangelove, most of the film’s laughter seems to be Olympian rather than deliberate: the grotesque, chattering, violent man-apes; the space station concessions; the somnambulent, self-congratulatory astronaut-administrators; the bright-eyed space child. Finally, 2001 has been lightheartedly discussed as a sexual allegory: Arthur C. Clarke’s ultimate liberated science-fiction story, in which two precocious boys go off in their space ship looking for adventure, and wind up having a baby. The fact that instead of Adam and Eve, a single creature returns to earth, is also provocative. How will it reproduce?

In terms of Kubrick’s previous work, A Space Odyssey occasionally seems a “cannibalization” of earlier images and ideas. HAL, for example, has the dedication to duty of a General Ripper, the glib ability to rationalize of a Claire Quilty, the fierce pride and arrogance of a General Mireau. The final plunge through the star gate to the green and white room includes the rushing walls of the nightmare in Killer’s Kiss, the hurtling at tree-top height over blazing wild terrain of the final moments of Dr. Strangelove, and finally, the ethereal echoing death chambers of Paths of Glory and Lolita. The notion of a “cover story” also appears in the plot, after being used in at least three previous films.

The strongest resemblances, however, are between 2001 and Kubrick’s other poetic, philosophical work, Fear and Desire. The themes remain very close, the characters even more so: the overeducated, flippant, empty Dr. Floyd and Lieutenant Corby; the precocious, unstable, ultimately murderous HAL and Sidney; the stolid, submissive Poole and Fletcher; and finally, the heroic, obsessed, transfigured Bowman and Mac. This archetype occurs throughout Kubrick’s work, and will be discussed in detail in the last chapter.

Finally, Kubrick’s themes appear again:

The imaginary worlds. The idea is implicit in the levels of consciousness: to the man-apes the world is a mechanical, fatalistic place over which they have no control; to the spacemen it is a world of cause and effect without purpose, feeling, or meaning; to the ultimate form of life, the monoliths’ masters, it is a whizzing, blinding chaos man is not meant to understand.

Futility of intelligence, errors of emotion. HAL, a “pure” intelligence, implicitly includes the seeds of corruption and destruction—dangerous emotions. He is a paradigm of the limits of thought and feeling. Again, Bowman, a human hero with superior intelligence and emotions, must be sheltered and transformed into something else before he can meet his destiny.

Homicide-suicides. HAL kills Poole and the three other astronauts, leaving clues that will lead to his own death. Bowman trustingly leaves himself vulnerable to HAL, then outwits and kills him.

Triumph of obsessive hero. Bowman seems to become rehumanized by saving his own life and killing HAL, his enemy, just as the tool-using man-ape did. His obsession is clear in his drive to reach HAL, and his headless plunge into the “star gate.”

Journey to freedom. The space odyssey of Mission Commander Bowman is a journey to freedom, to the truth about himself and life in the universe. It is significant that Bowman becomes neither a monolith himself, nor one of their wraithlike masters, but something else, the Star Child. Bowman, like all of Kubrick’s obsessive heroes, must find “another way.”

[12] Kubrick, Stanley. “Playboy Interview.” In The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970.
[1] Agel, Jerome, ed. The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. New York: New American Library, 1970.
[3] Clarke, C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York: New American Library, 1968.
[7] Gelmis, Joseph. Film Director as Superstar. New York: Double-day, 1970.
[10] Kosloff, Max. “2001.” Film Culture, No. 48–49, Winter & Spring 1970.
[6] Gilliatt, Penelope. “After Man.” In The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970.
[13] Macklin, F. A. “The Comic Sense of 2001.” Film Comment, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter 1969.
[4] Daniels, Don. “2007: A New Myth.” Film Heritage, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer 1968.
[14] Ordway, I. “Comments on 2001.” In The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970.
[15] Sarris, Andrew. “Films in Focus.” The Village Voice, May 7, 1970.
[8] Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Mentor Books, 1940.