This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.
The opening chapter of Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey is entitled “The Dawn of Man” and depicts the evolution of apes from animal to wielder of tools—a transition marked by the mysterious appearance of a black monolith standing upright to frame the moon at its tip. We watch this scene as metaphor, seeing this otherworldly structure as a symbol of God or science ushering in a new age of machine and therefore weaponry. It’s simultaneously enlightenment and destruction, technology providing that which it is meant for as well as that which man has always warped at the whim of power and superiority. God gives us this gift to help our path forward and we thank Him with prayer. Then we promptly seek to usurp Him.
I say this because that monolith reappears later, buried beneath the lunar surface. The men and women who find it and study it might be God-fearing people, but answers aren’t built on faith. So rather than allow us to inject the same sense of spiritualism here as we did previously, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) speaks authoritatively about extra-terrestrial beings. We take it in stride because that clarification is provable. Earth can send a spacecraft out to find those who put it there. They can’t do the same to find God. Instead of separating these two entitles through science, however, we do so by vanity. This idea that God saved humanity and made us in His likeness is purely self-serving of a philosophy where we’re His favorite creation.
Suddenly any notion of alien life automatically becomes “the other.” They aren’t human and therefore they aren’t of God despite His creating the universe and inherently them. The existence of extra-terrestrials therefore shatters our perception of religion. But doesn’t it also confirm it? What if that which we believe is God has always been the hand of another creature existing much like us in this world rather than some after-life. What if that monolith signifies both God and alien—our Gods from a distant planet and/or time long since out of reach? They awakened those apes to grow into creatures with the intelligence to turn the concept of bone as mallet into a vessel with the capability of moving off-planet and perhaps following in their footsteps.
What changes in this truth is our importance. Rather than the creation of an omniscient being shepherding us forward, we discover we’ve simply been a plaything experiment: destined for study instead of ever hoping to be free. Suddenly we’re the beasts in a cage, our destinies set to a clock of discovery that they put in motion. As such, we should take our journey into the unknown with extreme caution. But we are man and consumed by ego. We’d rather travel confidently blind with a creation of our own as formless, all-seeing, and powerful as them. Nothing exposes just how helpless we are in this world than that which we manufacture to serve our God complex and laziness alike. We’ve forever used that bone to ignite our annihilation.
This to me is the beauty of what Kubrick and co-writer/author Arthur C. Clarke (his short story “The Sentinel” is the uncredited inspiration behind this epic science fiction) have made. The answers to life’s questions don’t automatically place us in divine light by right. The reason we should be so skeptical of religion on principle is that it refuses to let us be wrong. When there’s a built-in method for forgiveness as there is with Catholicism, the stakes and consequences born from our actions shed weight. By believing we act in God’s name, we sanction exactly that which He abhors. And there’s no checks or balances save His voice booming down from a mountain demanding that we stop. Without that voice, everything we do is condoned via silence.
So why not provide a story with the power to humble? 2001: A Space Odyssey takes us on a journey from past to future that cements our role as pawn to our creators and creations. It shows violence, deception, and hubris as built inside our DNA with permanence fated to fuel our demise. Kubrick and Clarke usher us “beyond the infinite” to go face-to-face with the divine, but it’s not like how many pray. Instead of white light and cleansing calm we’re propelled through a kaleidoscope of dark abstraction, ourselves (or in this case Keir Dullea as Dr. Dave Bowman) frozen in distress along the way. And rather than pearly gates we see the neoclassical gaudiness of a prison representing the solitude our entitlement will forever render true.
It’s a film about power: the power to kill (Daniel Richter‘s ape Moon-Watcher), manipulate (Dr. Floyd), and survive (Dr. Bowman). And what does that power reap? The apes learn how to get what they desire by any means necessary and thus create the idea of enemy factions we have today. Humanity seeks to horde its information from potential allies, wanting discoveries all to itself at the risk of being susceptible to its danger or a slave to its siren’s call. By the end we still witness a war more sinister and scary than any utilization of blunt force trauma or words. By pitting an artificial intelligence in HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) against Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), we confront a utilitarian conundrum of trust and motivation.
Our evil becomes masked by naiveté whether it’s saying we live in a dog-eat-dog world or that our actions don’t have broader consequences beyond their intent. We insulate ourselves until we become guided by a warped version of morality suiting our specific needs. We weigh one life against many and create fail-safes to ensure a result our soldiers aren’t aware exists. We humanize the inhuman, rendering its dismantling sympathetic by projecting ourselves upon its surface until the line separating us disappears. Questions are then asked as far as what our creators hoped to accomplish. Did it want HAL to fulfill this journey into its arms or Bowman? Would the former have been proof of humanity’s transcendence? Would the latter therefore force the cycle to begin anew?
This existential quandary is magnificent. Are we anointed or merely a stepping-stone to our desired, non-physical form? And it’s presented in this big budget experimental film that confounds as easily as it amazes. The special effects are insane—the seamless compositing of multiple sets onto a working model a feat of magic. Couple the visual splendor with a rousing classical score creating mood and atmosphere while becoming immortalized as emotional language onscreen and we risk sensory overload. Every single second proves absolutely necessary as a means of environmental, political, and spiritual understanding. Each scream of sound envelops us in the drama as we watch our species’ missteps play out with horrible familiarity before an unforgettable ending puts us in our place as one single imperfect star amongst many.