Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ambiguous Symbols in 2001:A Space Odyssey


When asked by the Mason’s to write about a symbol and it’s meaning, I chose one of the most enigmatic in cinematic history.  The film 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with a group of australopithecines in an African desert struggling to survive in finding food and battling with rival clans of their species.  Seemingly from out of nowhere a rectangular black monolith appears.  The australopithecines are confused by what they see.  Regardless of what they did see, after encountering the monolith they gained the capacity to use tools.  This made them better hunters and better able to fight off rivals.  This first part of the film is called The Dawn of Man as the australopithecines were the first primates to walk upright and are thought to be a link between chimpanzees and humans.

The film then leaves the earth as a US spaceship is flying towards the moon to investigate a strange sighting there at the US moon colony.  A cover story about an epidemic in the colony was created to keep the Soviets away.  When the people on the spaceship arrive at the strange sight we see that it is the same monolith that the australopithecines saw.  They discover that the monolith is sending radio signals to Jupiter.  In this segment, human’s use of tools has advanced greatly but groups of humans (represented by the US and the Soviets) are still in conflict with each other. 

After encountering the monolith on the moon, the US sends a top secret mission to Jupiter to investigate what it is sending radio signals to.  The spaceship is controlled by the ultimate human tool, the supercomputer HAL.  As the ship nears Jupiter, HAL malfunctions and kills all but one of the astronauts on board and lets the air out of the ship.  The lone survivor on the ship, played by Kier Dullea, has no choice but to investigate the monolith alone after disconnecting HAL. 

As Dullea approaches another monolith in orbit around Jupiter he has a psychedelic experience while being transported to a strange room where he ages rapidly.  As he approaches the end of his life he encounters the monolith and is then transformed into the star child floating above the Earth.  The ending is ambiguous and has had people debating it ever since.  When asked about the ending, the director Stanley Kubrick said “If you understood the ending, I failed.”

At every moment in the film where the monolith appears, the next step in human evolution is complete.  This seemingly inanimate object has the power to direct evolution.  The film 2010: The Year We Made Contact (without Kubrick as the director) addresses some of the ambiguities about what happened to Dullea’s character and why the computer HAL turned homicidal.  This time a joint US-Soviet mission returns to Jupiter and encounters HAL, Dullea and the monolith.  Exactly what the monolith is is not addressed to leave something to the imagination, and a possible sequel.  It could represent a supreme being, it could simply be a tool of a more advanced alien society to achieve some positive aim, or it could mean nothing at all.  This ambiguity is what makes the monolith so fascinating.

**Related Posts**

The Civil War in a Larger International Context: Darwinian Edition