Since, it's initial 1969 release, Stanley Kubrick
's 2001: A Space Odyssey
has been a hotbed of debate over interpretation and meaning within the world of film criticism
. However, one point that has been generally agreed upon is the relationship between man
and machine in the movie.
Timothy E. Scheurer sums up this relationship when he addresses it as part of the science fiction film formula: "For all the science, technology, and intellectual speculation about the future that courses through science fiction films, they are still primarily concerned with the human condition and the reaffirmation of our humanity...Science fiction traditionally has also been a site where the belief in progress (especially scientific of technological progress) comes up against a distrust of the very same science and technology" (3). Humanity becomes ruled by technology so they, in the form of Dave Bowman, must overcome it, in the form of HAL.
This widely accepted explanation of the film generally goes hand in hand with the belief that the three chapters of the film are disjointed and somewhat unrelated. The first chapter deals with our rising above other creatures, the second chapter deals with being trapped by our own technology, and the third chapter has a giant cosmic space baby in it.
In fact, I disagree with this interpretation.
An excerpt from the very beginning of Arthur C. Clark's adaption of 2001 seems to set the stage for humanity
throughout the film: "...the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight. In this barren and desiccated land, only the small or the swift or the fierce could flourish, or even hope to survive. The man-apes of the veldt were none of these things, and they were not flourishing" (77). This excerpt describes the terrible situation of our human ancestors before the monolith, when they were an inferior species on the brink of annihilation. However, it also describes the human race of 2001; inferior and similarly on the brink of annihilation. What happens in the year 2001 is a mirror of what happened 4 million years before. Man is the inferior beast and must compete for survival, this time against the technology that has evolved beyond man's control.
The match cut from man's first tool to a satellite four million years in the future is a
disturbing edit that sets the stage for the world of 2001. "When 'Moon-Watcher' (as Clark
calls him) exultantly flings his natural cudgel high into the air, that reckless gesture is the
film's only image of abandon and its last 'human' moment of potentiality -- for, as the match
cut tells us, it's all downhill from there" (Miller 19). Kubrick is making the "disturbing
intimation that, since 'the dawn of man' so many, many centuries ago, the human race
has gotten nowhere fast. The subversive notion is legible not only in the famous match
cut from the sunlit bone to the nocturnal spacecraft...but throughout the first two sections
of narrative: indeed, the negation of the myth of progress may be the film's basic structured
principle. Between the starved and bickering apes and their smooth, affable descendants
there are all sorts of broad distinctions, but there is finally not much difference -- an oblique
uncanny similarity that recurs in every human action represented" (Miller 14). "The match
cut tells us not just that we're on the down swing once again, but that, this time, what has
reduced us is our absolute containment by, and for the sake of, our own efficient
apparatus" (Miller 19).
Not only has man become trapped and entangled by it's own technology, it has been replaced by it, as well. "The dawn of man" sequence is done in the style of documentary-like realism, relying primarily on straight far shots and cuts, simply presenting what is there. the
camera conveys no real feeling. When "Moon-Watcher" finally discovers how to use the
bone cudgel as a weapon, we suddenly get a very stylized, formalistic sequence in which
the camera, from below, looks up at him in slow motion, cutting to a head shot to capture
the passion in his face. The camera is conveying the new beauty of this advanced race.
However, when the match cut takes us into the future, it is no longer man that the camera
is favoring. Giannetti says about the match cut: "The bone-cudgel and the spaceship are
being compared: both are machines, and both represent giant leaps in human intelligence"
However, the camera disagrees with Giannetti. It's not about humans at all. "There
is, of course, no human figure in this frame -- nor should there be, for in this "machine
ballet" (as Kubrick has called it) live men and women have no place. Out here, and at this
terminal moment, all human suppleness, agility and lightness, all our bodily allure, have
somehow been transformed to these exquisite gadgets, Thus, the hypnotic circularity of
Strauss's waltz applies not to the euphoric roundabout of any dancing couple, but to the
even wheeling of that big space station" (Miller 22). When the camera chooses to favor a
simple pen floating in zero gravity over the sleeping Doctor Floyd, it becomes very apparent
that man is no longer the subject of the camera's affection. Similarly, the camera favors
the novelty of "grip shoes" over the stewardess who is wearing them. The master race of
2001 is that of technology.
Jay H. Boylan believes that the match cut occurs so that we see that both the bone-cudgel and the satellite are "...merely an extension of the lever principle...the bone is an extension of our arm, a telescope an extension of our eyes, other machines, extensions of
our nerves, our brain" (53©54). While that's a nice idea, Boylan seems to miss the fact we
are not seeing the people who are operating these machines. The machines appear to be
autonomous and, as a result, alive. In the moon pod, even though we can finally see the
pilot steering, the steering mechanism is small and requires little movement. it doesn't look
like he's actually in control. When the space shuttle lands near the monolith site, we watch
the pilot press a button from behind, but the camera then pans past him and to a monitor
on the dashboard which is beeping and flashing. There is a cut to a close up of the monitor
flashing furiously and changing displays as it becomes apparent that this monitor has much
more control over the shuttle than the pilot. When the shuttle is seen landing in the
background, there is another flickering display on an operations panel in the foreground.
This panel is also helping to land the ship. There is not a single person in this shot. Finally,
when the shuttle is lowered on the mechanical lift, we first see computer panels flashing.
The camera pans to show the ship being lowered and it is apparent that these flashing
panels are lowering the lift. The tiny windows in the background are much smaller than the
flashing monitors off to the left side in the foreground. People are barely distinguishable
in these windows because the people have nothing to do with these mechanical operations.
The machines move themselves. When we see the moon pod beginning its descent to the
moon's surface, the angled camera takes a normal descent and makes it beautiful and
stylized, as if there were a natural attraction between the pod and the surface. The landing
gears extend slowly and smoothly, like a graceful animal extending its limbs. Meanwhile,
the cockpit is only a tiny portion of the pod. It isn't even centered in the shot. The only
reason we notice it at all is that the red of the cockpit against the white of the pod creates
a subsidiary contrast that the audience might notice only after being awed by the pod in its
entirety. The cockpit, the source of human control, is only a tiny piece of this great
machine. Man is not significant in comparison to the machine.
And what role does man play in the future? How does it compare to the machines
we see? The fact that the camera and music don't glorify the humans of the future is only
the tip of the iceberg in this film. In fact, the camera and music don't do anything for
humans. The shots generally consist of uninteresting far shots that do as little as possible
to convey anything more than bare story line. There is no music at all. This creates a
bland portrayal of the human race that is accurately reflected by the characters we meet.
Right after we see the highly stylized moon pod lift sequence, we cut to the board room
where there is a sudden absence of music. The colors are bland: light greens browns and
white. The camera never angles, nor does it do much in the way of movement. It simply
pans and tracks when appropriate. There are no edits at all until Floyd speaks. This
sequence contains a complete absence of style. It is more realistic and less formalistic.
These are just some people in a board room.
The people, however, are truly the most bland aspect of this scene. There is no
passion or excitement in them, despite the odd and intriguing nature of the mission that
they are discussing. There is also no real interaction between them. As Miller points out,
no one goes up to Floyd afterwards and says " 'Y' know, that was an excellent speech you
gave us, Heywood!' 'It certainly was!' 'I'm sure it beefed up morale a helluva lot!' "(21). In
contrast, the moon pod had an extremely passionate relationship with the moon upon which it landed. Somehow, in this futuristic world, the humans are the ones who act as cold as
machines, while the machines seem to radiate an almost life-like aura. As Thomas Martin writes: "These humans are creatures
with problems. they are hollow to an extent -- They lack a joy or fulfillment in their lives..."
(81). Another example of this cold unfeeling is when Frank gets a message from his
parents on the Discovery 1. "He views the tape as ludicrous and watches with disinterest.
I get the feeling that he hardly knows who they are or, at the least, does not care" (Boylan
54). It's difficult to decipher whether or not these people have any humanity left in them at
all. Do they have any redeeming qualities that justify their existence?
Ultimately, we are presented with a clashing duality: Independent Life-like machines
and robot-like humans who depend upon these machines for their everyday living. This
contrast comes into full view aboard the Discovery 1; a ship containing the most intelligent
and life-like artificial mind ever created. Not only does the Discovery have a life-like brain;
it has a life-like body to go with it. As the Discovery 1 moves across the frame in the establishing shot
for "The Jupiter Mission" segment, we can see that it looks very much like a head and
spine. This machine is very much alive, which brings us to the central conflict of the film.
While unbeknownst to HAL and the human crewmen, the next evolutionary step lies waiting
on Jupiter. The conflict that will ultimately arise between HAL and Dave is really a battle for survival
and evolution. When HAL says "This mission is too important for me to allow you to
jeopardize it", one must wonder whether the point is for man to get to Jupiter at all.
Which sentient life form will go to Jupiter and become the master race, machine or man?
It is on board the Jupiter 1 that the sharp contrast between man and machine must resolve
itself and, in doing so, select a champion who will go to Jupiter and evolve into a higher life form.
At first, it does not look promising for the humans. We first see Dave jogging within
the ship. This moment is incredibly symbolic. Dave is trying to stay in shape, attempting
to be "fit", yet he is literally moving in circles, going nowhere, because he is entrapped in
machinery. Still, there is something about Dave that we don't see in the other humans. For
one thing, there's still music playing. Also, the camera is being creative with him. It tracks
him with a head shot on a 90 degree angle, then switches to tracking with a full body shot
from behind him, then tracks from below him. The odd and slightly eerie music, along with
the shots, make this moment very uncomfortable. Kubrick is making us sympathize with
Dave. Why? because Dave is not like other humans. The very fact that he is keeping in
shape shows that he has a desire to improve himself, whereas the other humans we have
seen have become too caught up in machinery to care...a tragic flaw for the human race.
When Dave and Frank are watching the interview transmission, we get a very clear picture
of the characters competing on this ship. Frank, an embodiment of human slothfulness,
gorges himself with sickening food as he watches the interview. HAL, as portrayed with a
single eye and two monitors (one displaying the interview, the other computing) works while
he watches. Dave, however, is operating the food dispenser. While he must stop to eat,
he is not being passive about it in the same way Frank is. He presses many buttons on the
machine and, while the action may seem insignificant, it's the most effort any human has put forth
in operating a machine throughout the film, thus far. Dave is working harder to cook a
meal than the moon pod pilot was working to land his ship. Dave may be sheltered, but he
is not totally dependent.
In fact, it is his very independence that saves him. There are five humans on board
the Discovery 1 and four of them die, all because they depend on HAL to a sickening
extent. The most obvious of these are the three survey team members who, quite literally,
trust HAL with their lives as they rest in deep freeze chambers. The other member is
Frank Poole. Frank is a total glutton. He is never seen doing work and one is forced to wonder what he actually "does" on this ship. "For instance, at one point when
we see Poole 'taking the summer sun' under a heat lamp, he says 'HAL, raise the back of
the seat.' The seat comes up. 'HAL, a little more on this side.' The lamp moves to a new
position" (Boylan 54). It is ultimately this dependence that kills him. When he is out in the
pod, his breathing is the only sound we hear. It is a reminder of his frailty. He is depending
upon HAL to provide him with air, his basic survival need. Ultimately, HAL cuts the
Dave must, in a sense "evolve" beyond the laziness of humanity to beat HAL. He
rushes out to rescue Frank's body without even a helmet on. He initially demands that HAL
open the door and let him into the ship but, as he learns, that will get him nowhere. He
cannot depend upon machines any longer. He must find a way to get into the ship without
the help of HAL and without the aid of a helmet. "Bowman is able to defeat HAL by an act
of will and by the use of that built-in natural lever, his hand. When he exposes himself to
the vacuum of space, he is surely naked and without technology, but his hand saves him"
(Boylan 55). Dave has learned to fend for himself.
Dave also reclaims his humanity in this conflict. When we first meet Dave, he
appears cold and expressionless. In some ways, he seems even more mechanical than
the other humans we've seen. However, his humanity begins to surface when problems
arise with HAL. When he addresses HAL about his malfunction, there is inflection in
Dave's voice and in his facial expression. We also see him in a head shot for the first time,
letting us get a little bit closer to what's going on inside him by allowing us to see what's
happening on his face.
This is just the beginning, though. We really begin to see
Dave's humanity emerge when he is forced to deactivate HAL. As Boylan writes "Part of
that humanness we have given away is the ability to feel, to get emotionally involved.
HAL's death scene demonstrates this strongly. He is obviously afraid and...his words are
full of tension and emotion." (Boylan 54). Dave reacts very strongly to this. We see a
profile head shot of Dave undoing HAL's circuits as HAL repeats "I can feel it" in a sad and
haunting way. Dave has a look of apprehension on his face. His breathing is erratic, his
head can't stay still and his mouth is wide open. In contrast to the cold and calculating
Dave who spoke of deactivating HAL in the pod, this Dave knows he is committing murder.
When HAL asks if Dave would like to hear him sing a song, Dave replies "Yes, I'd like to
hear it, HAL" desperately. This is clearly intensely painful for Dave and he wants to end it quickly.
Arguably, one could say that Dave's evolution into a higher being begins on the
Discovery 1 and not at Jupiter. Dave's actions are what finally raise man (or, at least,
him) above machines and enable man to make the next evolutionary step (i.e. giant cosmic space baby), making him the dominant race again. The Discovery 1 incident
is one that necessarily needed to occur for humanity to continue forward. This helps to
explain why the monolith is now near Jupiter, and not on the Earth. As Clark writes in "The
Sentinel": "Perhaps you understand now why that crystal pyramid was set upon the moon instead of on the Earth. Its builders were not concerned with races still struggling up from
savagery. They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved our fitness to
survive" (177). By placing the monolith on Jupiter, the only way man can reach it is by
becoming extremely adept at using machinery. Inevitably, the conflict between man and
machinery would have occurred before man could get to Jupiter. By getting there,
man must first learn to use machinery and then learn how not to become victim to it.
Boylan, Jay H. "Hal in '2001: A Space Odyssey': The Lover Sings His Song."Journal of Popular Culture". Spring, 1985: 53-56
Clark, Arthur C. "The Sentinel". 1951
Clark, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. United States: Arthur C. Clark and Polaris Productions, Inc., 1968
Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies: Eigth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1999.
Martin, Thomas M. Images and Imageless. London: Associated University Press, Inc., 1981.
Miller, Mark C. "2001: A Cold Descent" Sight and Sound. January, 1994" 18-25.
Scheurer, Timothy E. "The Score for 2001: A Space Odyssey." Journal of Popular Film and Television. Winter, 1998: 172-183.