An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Monolith
Image credit: Taste of Cinema

In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick thematically expresses that there is a cyclical evolution of man where his intelligence will continually evolve in order to survive in the hostile environment in which he exists until he reaches a state of perfection.  To signify moments of man’s evolutionary intelligence, Kubrick uses a mysterious black monolithic figure that appears or is mentioned in each of the film’s four separate segments, and Kubrick’s theme of an evolutionary cycle is present in each of the four segments as well. 

The first of the four segments is subtitled “The Dawn of Man.”  In this segment, Kubrick explores his evolutionary theme in the prehistoric past where the human race was born from apes.  Kubrick begins this evolutionary process by immediately indicating the hostility of the man-ape environment as well as the their inability to defend themselves in it.  This is shown five minutes into the film when a leopard leaps from a rock and easily slays a man-ape.  Thus, it is obvious that the man-apes live in fear and are scavengers.  Kubrick represents the first shift in evolution when a black rectangular monolith materializes in the man-apes’ den.  This attracts the curiosity of the apes and they all embrace the foreign object.  Following the encounter with the monolith, Kubrick illustrates that the man-apes are evolving in order to survive in their hostile environment.  This is exemplified in the scene during the afternoon after the monolith arrived. 

Ape using bone as tool
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

In this scene, a man-ape is seen looking for food.  He begins to play with a bone found on the ground from an animal’s skeleton.  A quick shot of the monolith appears indicating that it has inspired a new step in the evolution of the man-apes.  In a montage of shots set to Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the man-ape begins to smash at and shatter the skeleton on the ground symbolizing the discovery that the bone can be used as a weapon.  Kubrick includes in this montage a shot of an animal falling to the ground further symbolizing that the man-apes have learned to hunt for food as well as to protect themselves from danger.  In a later scene, the man-apes, with their newfound discovery, war with other weaponless tool-less tribes easily overcoming their adversaries.  This symbolizes that man has become capable of survival in their hostile environment, however more importantly, the environment has remained hostile.          

Satellite from 2001 A Space Odyssey
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The Dawn of Man segment of the film quickly transitions into the film’s second segment.  This segment is untitled illustrating that mankind is in a new setting but he is essentially the same aggressive man from the dawn of time who must again struggle to survive in another hostile environment, thus continuing Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme.  In the previous segment, an ape-man throws a bone into the air in slow motion and the camera follows it upwards.  Then, in a brilliant transition, the bone dissolves into the image of a space satellite in the year 2000.  This dissolve from a tool/weapon of the man-apes to a satellite of 21st Century man connects the satellite as a distant evolutional and intellectual development from the first tool/weapon.  Here, technology is quite advanced and is relied upon for almost everything from guiding ships in to dock to talking to family members.  The reliance upon technology in this segment foreshadows the hostility technology will cause in the third segment. At the end of this segment, man once again finds the monolith, this time on the moon.  This uncovering of the monolith once again signals that man is about to reach another more improved level of intelligence. 

The third segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later,” and it is here that man’s hostile environment is once again realized.  The second segment ended with the monolith emitting a loud radio signal toward Jupiter.  The Jupiter mission is a nine-month expedition to search for the destination of that signal.  Kubrick again reminds the viewer that the crew of the Jupiter Mission spacecraft Discovery are completely reliant upon technology and are in fact using technology to follow a radio signal from a different alien form of technology.  It is in this segment that Kubrick introduces the film’s protagonists Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as well as the ultimate realization of man’s reliance upon technology, a “thinking” and “feeling” super computer named HAL-9000.  The HAL-9000 computer maintains the systems of the spaceship, thus putting Dave and Frank at the complete mercy of technology. 

HAL 9000
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The HAL-9000 is introduced on a BBC television program that Dave and Frank are watching and is said to be “capable of virtually all functions of the human brain, [including insanity and homicidal qualities].”  Thus, the monolith’s unearthing eighteen months earlier yielded another jump in man’s evolutionary intelligence, the ability to virtually recreate the human brain in computer form.  However, with this intelligence comes the possibility and realization of a new level of hostility in man’s environment.  Only HAL-9000 knows the actual purpose of the Jupiter Mission.  The computer has been designed to withhold this information from Dave and Frank until they are to Jupiter; therefore, man has in fact created an artificial intelligence that knows more than the men who control it.  Thus, a false trust is put into HAL because the computer is not ever supposed to make an error or malfunction.  The computer does malfunction creating a hostile conflict between the astronauts and HAL who ironically justifies his behavior by saying the astronauts “jeopardize the mission,” a mission they do not completely understand anyway.  HAL proceeds to murder Frank by ejecting him into space while he was outside the ship replacing a part HAL had misdiagnosed as faulty allowing the audience to realize HAL had planned this murder.  Dave is now alone and Kubrick brilliantly creates a sequence where man must improvise a non-rational solution to survive much like the man-ape that discovered weapons in the first segment.  In a failed attempt to retrieve Frank’s body from space, Dave exits the ship in a space pod leaving his space helmet on the ship.  HAL locks Dave out of the ship allowing no way back in except through a small air lock, but without a helmet, Dave can not leave the space pod.  Dave devises a complex and creative solution using his “human tool” of intelligence that ejects him from the pod and into the air lock.  Dave deactivates HAL and once HAL’s voice is silenced, the ship enters into Jupiter space triggering the announcement of the discovery of the monolith and the true purpose of the Jupiter mission.  This message symbolizes Dave’s intellectual triumph over HAL by mentioning the monolith and revealing the one piece of information previously known only by HAL.      

Monolith
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The final segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”  In this sequence Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme is fully realized.  Dave completes the flight to Jupiter without any dependence upon the ship’s computer.  Dave then partakes in a transcendental journey through time and space activated somehow by the monolith that floats by his pod.  This journey is symbolic of a final transformation into an eventual higher form of intelligence of evolutionary life.  This transformation is further completed in the ingenious sequence after Dave arrives at his destination.  In this scene, Dave arrives at some obscure white bedroom decorated in a luxurious style. Kubrick shows Dave transitioning through four different stages of his natural human life.  In the final stage of his life, Dave is a dying old man lying on a bed.  At the foot of the bed, the monolith towers over him.  Dave is then transformed into a fetus in utero, evolved, and reborn as an innocent, intelligent, superhuman being orbiting through a non-hostile universe without any dependence on technology.  The cyclical evolution from ape to man to spaceman to perfect superhuman is complete. 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick expresses an evolutionary theme that man will constantly evolve in order to survive in his hostile environment.  He illustrates, with the use of a cyclical evolutionary theory, a rather hopeful and confident future for mankind and leaves open what future stages of evolution the superhuman creature is capable.  

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