HALF a century ago, a glorious cinematic phenomenon occurred: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Cert. U). To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this remarkable film, it is being re-released today. After a spectacular opening image, the “Dawn of Man” sequence traces a particular group of apes’ development into humans after encountering a mysterious dark monolith emitting radio signals.
The transition significantly alters their range of behaviour. A dry bone is used as a tool, a weapon even, which morphs, millions of years later, into a spaceship en route to the moon, where an ancient monolith has been excavated. Needless to say, we haven’t seen the last of it. The main action takes place aboard a flight to Jupiter with two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood), plus three others in hibernation. The film then takes us on a puzzling but intriguing journey, with many mishaps and surprising moments, culminating in a dramatic conclusion.
The film is open to numerous interpretations, including being perceived as a dire warning about nuclear weapons (like Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove) or artificial intelligence. Most critics, however, see it as a reflection on the infinite. It is a work full of awe at the mystery of the universe. Kubrick himself said that on the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolised the search for God.
The director strove to discover a scientific definition that transcended materialist atheism’s lack of humility and imagination. There is yearning for a new dawn of humanity, illustrated towards the end when the spacecraft, aptly named Discovery, travels through a stargate corridor to the heavenly realms.
The film’s beginning is accompanied by Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, which led to speculation that the film was a consideration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, in which the Übermensch — the Overman or Superman — is a successor to humans: one who breaks through to his full potential when theistic beliefs are rejected. This is unlikely, as the choice of soundtrack music was a late decision by the director, after ditching Alex North’s commissioned score. One could just as well argue that the film’s later use of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna implies a belief in life eternal, given the composition’s association with the requiem mass.
In fact, for many viewers, a religious interpretation — offering meeting-points with Christianity — is the most satisfying one. Humanity is on a quest of Homeric proportions, an odyssey of discovery, though often failing to pick up signals of the eternal in our midst. Attempting to penetrate outer space is symptomatic of this. We can change our sky, but not our souls.
It is a matter of where we put our trust. Computers disappoint us; space missions simply reveal how much there still is to learn; old certainties must yield to new revelations. We are being invited to dance with the stars, empty ourselves of human clutter, and be transformed from glory to glory. Finally, 2001 seems to suggest that the end of all our exploring will be to realise all over again that this begins with our response to the birth of a very special child.