2001: An Odyssey of Tools

Ambiguity can be the enemy of comprehension, but artistry can override this. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example of this. Depending on who you ask, 2001 is either an ambitious piece of cinema or a dull, incomprehensible film. Critical analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s space-age epic will often come up with creative solutions to fill in missing data. Theories abound as to what this briefest sketch of a story is actually about. What is the monolith, exactly? Is the glowing star-child in the final scene meant to be the next step in humanity’s evolution? Why did HAL murder the astronauts?

This essay is confined to what’s seen on-screen during the movie. The book and the film have sequels, but they contradict the original film–and each other. Going only by what’s on the screen, questions like these are impossible to answer fully without resorting to some heroic guesswork, but it’s possible to point out some interesting questions. Popular theories involving meta-cinema and the evolution of consciousness miss the point. 2001 is a cinematic essay on tool use and its place in our lives, but the story is open enough that this theme doesn’t become pedantic.

As human beings, we define ourselves by our tools, how we use them, and what we do with them. Please note that communication is itself a tool. (“Communication” includes screenplays and books.) Our use of tools shaped how we evolved, and the human body is that of a generalist: We can’t run very fast and we’re not particularly strong, but we have brains with language centers and hands that can operate an AK-47 or a pencil–or a moped or a forklift.

It’s usually considered obvious that the “dawn of man” monolith affected the primates by causing them to use tools. But it might also have been there to witness the beginning of tool use. I think this ambiguity is fascinating, and the possibility of the monolith as a witness and not a prime mover has an interesting implication: that the monolith’s operators knew something significant was about to happen. But whether the monolith is a machine operated by other beings for observation or a mechanism of manipulation, it’s a tool.

The very first use of tools by humanity in the film–a bone used as a weapon–is made clearer by a single shot: The bone is thrown in the air, and then there’s a match-cut to a satellite. This implies the satellite is a weapon of war as well, but this is never confirmed.

Another monolith is discovered on the moon in Tycho crater, the first known monolith in living memory. Of course, the human race knows not of the earlier one. A ship is soon sent to Jupiter to follow a transmission that the Tycho monolith (the one found on the moon) sent in that direction.

Did the monolith cause the trip or hasten it? We really don’t know, although the fact that the US launched the Discovery within a couple of years after the Tycho event hints at a mission that was already in the planning stages.

Aboard the spaceship Discovery, an impending technical failure is reported by HAL, the ship’s intelligent, personable computer. A pair of attempts to repair and diagnose the problem end with the death of Poole, the astronaut replacing the unit. After Poole’s death, HAL kills the three additional astronauts in suspended animation. That HAL, a tool and also possibly an intelligent being, caused these deaths is made plain. Why he did this is less certain.

Bowman, the only surviving astronaut, is stranded outside of Discovery without a helmet. To get back in the ship, he must exit his pod, a short-range utility craft, and jump across empty space into an airlock. Bowman abandons the corpse of his fellow astronaut, and re-enters the ship without a helmet. He then disconnects Hal, his would-be murderer and last remaining co-shipmate.

That HAL is a living being is something the astronauts conclude in a half-hearted, roundabout, philosophical way when being interviewed by the BBC. HAL may be a branch of the evolution of human consciousness, but also is a weapon of sorts.

Just as who directed the monolith at the dawn of man is never known, who or what caused HAL to act so bewilderingly, homicidally odd is never made clear.

The success of the mission to Jupiter was HAL’s purpose, and his final act is consistent with this: His dying act is to trigger a recording that gives Bowman understanding of the real reason behind the mission. He must now investigate the Jupiter system alone, to find what the Tycho monolith was transmitting at. Bowman has, in effect, cut himself off from all immediate contact, and excluded HAL as a resource. He is all alone, without even a computer for company.

What we know about the events in the last act of the film, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”:

  • Bowman is all alone on the Discovery, and exits the ship in what the astronauts–and HAL–called a “pod”. He approaches the Jupiter monolith. He’s subjected to an experience that draws him away from the neighborhood of Jupiter and its moons. While the imagery we see implies very fast movement, we have no evidence of where this is. He may (or may not) have been brought to other planets, star clusters, and galaxies. He could even be hallucinating all of this.
  • Bowman and the pod are suddenly no longer in space, but in an ornate room; Bowman is shaken severely, he could even be in shock.
  • The astronaut ages, experiencing the rest of his quiet, calm life in a suite of hotel rooms. The monolith appears in Bowman’s room as he dies, and it witnesses–or causes–his transfiguration into an embryo. The embryo leaves the room for outer space. Bowman may experience these events himself or see it happening from the outside, and the aging may happen in the time it takes for a human being–or it may be sped-up. The film is ambiguous on these points, as on many others.

Both Clarke and Kubrick enjoyed stories that answered questions with other, grander questions. Are the monoliths tools that caused all of these events, or witnesses to them? Did they (or their operators) know that these things would happen? Over how much time does the final act take place?

If the monoliths are tools, sent by an unseen intelligence, they may have in turn caused humanity to build tools like weapons and language and intelligent computers. Our tool use allowed us to approach the Jupiter monolith. Did the monolith transform him into a state where he no longer needed them? What of the rest of humanity, left on Earth? (Interestingly, proposed endings for the film included a thermonuclear holocaust, but this was rejected as being too similar to Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s previous film.)

If the monoliths are impartial observers, there to witness events, that implies that someone knew that these critical moments in humanity’s development were going to happen. Although it’s certainly possible that this is an illusion created by the film: The monolith at the dawn of man could have been popping in and out for millions of years, spot-checking the development of the primates. We as viewers are just seeing a critical moment–the development of the first weapon. The monoliths on the moon and around Jupiter, of course, were placed there long ago.

A more open story leaving more to the imagination can be much more powerful and compelling than a story that spells out every detail. Creating a story that raises as many questions as 2001 is probably going to alienate viewers, but it may resonate with others.

But success as an artist has always been more about finding the right audience than the biggest one.


This essay is based on this post on a Stack Exchange site.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.

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