Stanley Kubrick, the genius behind this masterpiece and many others is often discussed as making films in a generally nihilistic mindset. They are often bleak and generally become about having a belief in nothing. Nihilism is “a philosophical position which argues that being, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.” Does this common attribute really add up to Kubrick’s magnum opus also following suit with what his supposed ideology is?
Arthur C. Clarke stated in his short essay “The Myth of 2001” that they had “made the first 10 million dollar religious film.” Now religion normally “relates to the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities and divine involvement in the universe and human life”. Why would Kubrick take such a huge leap with this film to suggest there is a meaning to be found in existence when he takes so much time and effort on other films saying the opposite? The truth is Kubrick explores the lack of meaning and gives a meaning to it.
The film begins and a card appears with the words “The Dawn of Man” strewn across it. We are brought into a group of apes, but as the title card suggests these apes are about to usher in the next step of the evolutionary process. They scavenge around fighting off pigs for their food, seeming to barely make it. All of the sudden a tall, black monolith appears out of nowhere. The apes make contact with the monolith, but other than that nothing happens with it. The viewer is left bewildered and wondering what the point was. As the deliberately paced sequence goes on we see an ape begin to learn to kill. Thus ends the ape’s need to scavenge and begins the ape’s time to hunt. As this comes after the monolith appears, it isn’t totally clear but it can be assumed that such knowledge grew from the ape’s contact with the monolith. At this point we can safely begin to wonder; what is it that the monolith represents here? If it is obviously overseeing what is going on, as the film goes on we see that it is omnipresent, or at least able to travel far distances and survive as long as man has. It can be said that the monolith represents God, or a type of god. Is this Kubrick’s vision of religion?
The monolith brought good for the apes. It gave them everything they needed, but all it does to the rest of existence is hurt it. It seems the monolith might have given the apes the idea that to survive you have to be on top, attack any person who has the chance at overtaking you when they are least expecting it. Religion then is the cause of war. Most likely we see, especially in today’s world that most wars are brought on because of religious beliefs. Whether it be George Bush saying God told him to invade Iraq, or Bin Laden claiming Allah told him to attack the United States. On a smaller but no less disgusting scale it is the KKK’s excuse for their hatred of other races.
As the film goes on, we are still under the title card “The Dawn of Man” when we reach Dr. Floyd. Dr. Floyd is headed to an excavation on the moon where a monolith has been discovered. Why does this, the year 2000 A.D., still have the title card “The Dawn of Man”? It seems that although man has evolved technologically they are still “spiritual and emotional infants” as so profoundly stated in the film Angry Red Plane (1960, Melchior). We first see them as apes evolving technologically with the invention of war (in a sense) and now they lack the ability to understand that such a magnificent thing as the monolith is that they should have respect for it. Instead they opt for a photo and a smile, which the monolith appears to be unhappy about as it lets out a loud piercing noise. From this point we head into our next title card.
“Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later” appears on the screen and we are introduced to Dave Bowman, Frank Poole and the infamous HAL 9000. Neither we nor those on board know the purpose of their mission at this point. This is where the technological advances of man have reached a maximum. We see throughout this piece of the film that HAL is not only capable of conversation and human understanding, but perfectly capable of emotion and feelings. This can be seen as another evolution of man because man has created a being in his likeness, at least mentally. Man has, in a sense, become a god. It is at this point that man can no longer evolve as man anymore, but to reach the next point man must destroy what it is that he has made of himself. When Dave “kills” HAL we feel the devolution of HAL, we can see a clear, determined Dave seemingly changing before our eyes.
When we reach “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” we have reached the last step in man’s evolutionary process. Dave goes through some sort of portal which leads him to a room where he is able to see himself at different stages in his life just before he becomes it. Once reaching elderly, Dave also sees the monolith and reaches towards it (just as the apes did and Floyd) and begins his rebirth.
This film is filled with birthdays. There are 5 in total; the birth of man, Dr. Floyd’s daughter, Frank, HAL, and the Star child. This only enforces the idea that the main ideology behind this film is rebirth, or redemption.
Dave has reached a state of redemption at the end of the film. He has messed up as a man by putting so much trust in technology while becoming a robot himself. By this point he is overlooking earth and seems to be given a purpose. It is so easy to categorize this film into any religion or belief/idea but the film boils down to redemption and rebirth. He has reached a state of absolution, by overcoming what man is. He only reached this point when no longer allowing technology to hold him back from reaching his destination. He was determined to do things on his own, to make something of the mission no matter the cost. In this instance the film is very religious, not specific to any religion, but in an overall sense it is saying to believe in something, even if that something is yourself.
Through Clarke’s novelization we see that he is of the belief that the Star child is a God-like figure even proclaiming he was “master of the world” but “doesn’t know what to do next”. This brings up an interesting thought that the next logical step, especially since man has already created in his own likeness (HAL), would be God. At the same time, this is only the next logical step because at this point we lack understanding of what could happen next. In context of the film I think it is an interesting idea to explore but completely stating it would simply disfigure the mysticism of what 2001: A Space Odyssey is.