2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t just depict a quantum leap forward in human consciousness — it practically requires such a leap, on an individual scale, from the viewer. Like the hominid in the first act who looks at a bone and suddenly sees what no hominid has ever seen before, one must watch 2001 in a different way from other films.
Inspired by a short story by Arthur C. Clarke and co-written by Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, 2001 has been called a cinematic Rorschach ink-blot test. Its mysterious monoliths have been likened to everything from the philosopher’s stone to Moses’ tablets, but might best be seen as what they are: literal "black boxes" whose nature and workings are unknowable. They are loci of mystery, of ineffable meaning and inscrutable purpose, of transcendence.
Clarke is an atheist, and in his novelization 2001 is unambiguously anti-theistic. Kubrick (who was of Jewish heritage) is widely assumed to have held similar views, though evidence seems lacking: He apparently disavowed belief in any of "Earth’s monotheistic religions," but also had dismissive words for "the lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema."
The joint effort of these two artists, 2001 may on the one hand be considered as a secular ascent-of-man mythology. A primeval encounter with a non-human intelligence results not in a new knowledge of good and evil and a fall from grace, but in a technological advance into a world in which moral considerations seem neither here nor there. Beyond that, mankind’s ultimate destiny is not glorification, but metamorphosis.
On the other hand, 2001 articulates not only mankind’s sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of existence, but also our intractable sense that our existence and consciousness is not self-explanatory, that we are indebted to some sort of higher outside power. That the film posits a contingent and finite higher power only pushes back the question (who called and guided that power?).
As the "Odyssey" subtitle suggests, 2001 is a mythology of life as a journey. But where Homer’s Odyssey is an ultimately reassuring mythology of journeying home, passing through the strange and alien before returning to the familiar, 2001 is a bewildering, alienating mythology of leaving behind the familiar and venturing out into the unknown, the unimaginable. In a poetic climactic image that resonates strikingly with Judeo-Christian spirituality, the film suggests that this life is a kind of gestation, and that one day we will be born into a larger world as inconceivable to us now as our world to an unborn fetus.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.