Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
Note the Second: this post will contain spoilers for 2001: A Space Odyssey, as much as revealing the actual events can spoil anything in this strange, strange movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey is possibly the best regarded movie of all time that not a single viewer can entirely explain. We all seem to agree that it’s a masterpiece and there are certainly major touchpoints that everyone covers (the impersonalness, the masterful craft, etc). But anyone who claims to understand what it means once and for all, to the exclusion of all other interpretations, is selling something I just can’t buy.
I watched this movie for the first time for this project, and it was the first movie in this project that I watched a second time before writing about. In terms of a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review, I’d heartily endorse it. In terms of explaining what happens, well, let’s dig in. Having armed myself with my own notes, I’m ready to add my voice to such titans as Wikipedia and Roger Ebert on this fascinatingly baffling topic.
While the four segments are all very distinct, they all make internal sense. The problems arise when you try to draw through lines from one segment to another, or to link all four. To quote directly from my notes on the second viewing: “Monolith as agent of change(?). Leading toward what? The new evolution? But does the monolith act? On behalf of whom? Why so long? Is there an overarching goal? Was the Star-Child intended four million years ago? Was it in place all along? Why?”
Taken as a whole, the movie seems to outline a general progression. Apes to man (man in space, no less!) to whatever the Star Child is at the end. But at the same time, the same drive that led the apes to touch the monolith drives us to follow its signal to Jupiter four million years later. In that sense, is it a progression so much as history repeating itself for four million years? We’re curious, we reach out to what we don’t understand, and we have to live with the results. Is it progress if we use new developments to make the same choices?
Roger Ebert, who also makes a very compelling point about the role of the machine, says the following:
What Kubrick is saying, in the final sequence, apparently, is that man will eventually outgrow his machines, or be drawn beyond them by some cosmic awareness. He will then become a child again, but a child of an infinitely more advanced, more ancient race, just as apes once became, to their own dismay, the infant stage of man.
Wikipedia corroborates, as much as Wikipedia is a definitive source on anything, that the Star Child is David Bowman, in the new iteration of humanity (or whatever we might call it then). While that can make perfect sense given his strange progression in that last section of the movie, I didn’t follow that particular jump. I saw it as David Bowman, David Bowman older, David Bowman really old (dying?), and then BOOM, giant Star Child, not now-he-is-become-the-Star-Child. I see the Star Child as something other than what we’ve seen so far. Rather than an extension of the progression we’ve seen David Bowman go through as he ages, I see it as pulling back the curtain to reveal an Other who has possibly been at work the whole time.
The other Other we’ve seen is the monolith. In my initial reading of the movie, the monolith was the agent of the Star Child, guiding the apes/men towards some eventual end Beyond the Infinite, as the titles say. If the Star Child is David Bowman, that resolves one Other, but the role of the monolith is still unclear.
The primary problem with the monolith is that it doesn’t seem to be entirely consistent. It certainly seems like touching it leads the apes to discover violence, in the way that correlation naturally leads one to think of causation. But when the humans touch it four million years later on the moon, even if it touching it causes it to send the signal to Jupiter (if that’s what that noise is), we aren’t necessarily more violent or more corrupt as a result. Frank Poole and David Bowman are robotic, certainly, but it’s not the direct kind of correlation we see with the apes. And when it appears at the end, standing ominous at the foot of David Bowman’s bed… who the heck knows.
On a completely unrelated and even less formulated note, I feel like the recurring motif of food means something significant. No movie that’s so manicured as 2001 has anything in the frame by accident, and the fact that people are so often eating seems worth noting.
(A quick summary of times when food appears on screen: At the beginning, the apes are eating grasses, then when they discover hunting they’re shown eating an awful lot of meat. Dr. Heywood Floyd is served a very space-agey drinkable meal of various flavors on his way to the moon base, they have drinks in the lobby (well, he doesn’t, but his companions do), they have sandwiches on their way to the site of the monolith, Frank and David eat super space-agey goop while they watch their broadcast on the news on their way to Jupiter, and aging David Bowman has quite a lovely meal he’s working on in one of the stages of his life Beyond the Infinite.)
I’m not completely sure what any of it adds up to, since the quality of the food and the eater’s interest in it doesn’t seem to directly correlate with scientific or other advancement. But if it correlated directly, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting to ponder, and that’s really what’s at the heart of this movie after all. If we could explain it in one breath, we wouldn’t be talking about it and mulling it over for the last almost fifty years– as well as, undoubtedly, for the next fifty to come.