The Odyssey Continues: Relevance of 2001 Resounds in 2001.
It is the only film about space travel that is regularly chosen by critics as one of the ten best films every made, a film that continues to fascinate audiences and provoke lengthy discussions over thirty years after its initial release in 1968. And, even though Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has now become officially outdated as an accurate prediction of humanity's future, it remains a film with much to say about what humans are and where we are going.
has been analyzed countless times, and no single theory can hope to explain all of its mysteries to everyone's satisfaction. Still, most would accept that there is one unifying theme in the film, what could be called the Standard Interpretation, involving humanity's development and the use of tools. By adding a wrinkle or two to the Standard Interpretation, one can argue that 2001, despite its apparently excessive optimism about human progress into space, correctly predicted why space travel would prove so awesomely difficult and presented its own ambitious solution.
In the film's opening "Dawn of Man" sequence, the problem facing our ancient ancestors, it seems, is that they do not understand how to use tools, dooming them to lives of constant hunger and fear. Then, the alien monolith appears and enlightens one member of their band, named Moon-Watcher in the novelization of the film by Arthur C. Clarke (who also collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay). He figures out how to use an animal jawbone as a tool, kills a pig, leads a successful bone-wielding assault on a rival tribe, and triumphantly throws his bone into the air. Then, a famous jump cut replaces the bone with a futuristic spaceship. The bone was our first tool; the spaceship, our very latest tool. The trouble is, as the film will demonstrate, tools can only take people so far, demanding the appearance of a new monolith to advance humanity to the next level.
However, one could complain that this Standard Interpretation is incomplete, on the grounds that the monolith was surely teaching those prehistoric man-apes something else as well. Consider: we first see Moon-Watcher using the bone all by himself; but later, Moon-Watcher and his entire band collectively descend on their opponents, bones in hand, to drive them away. It is hard to believe that the monolith simultaneously gave everyone in the tribe the same idea to use bones as weapons, inspiring a spontaneous joint attack. Instead, Moon-Watcher must have been able to use language effectively to explain to his comrades how to use bones, and how to work together to overcome their rivals.
Did the monolith, then, also grant prehumans an enhanced ability to communicate, advancing them from expressive grunts and groans to a genuine language? While there is no specific evidence to suggest that shift, the visible progression from individual action to group action in the film conveys that definite improvements have occurred in people's ability to work cooperatively, improvements that demanded complex language skills. (It is also significant that, after the soaring bone is replaced by a soaring spaceship, we immediately observe, within the spaceship, a third soaring object—Dr. Heywood Floyd's pen, floating in the weightless compartment, which is both a tool and an instrument to communicate by means of language.)
The key events of the opening scenes further illustrate both the power and the danger of these new talents. With the capacity to create tools and communicate complicated ideas, humans can become masters of their environment (as shown when they slaughter the pig)—but they can also misuse these skills to kill other humans (as shown when they bludgeon one member of the opposing tribe). When the film leaps into the world of 2001, subsequent events will reveal the same drawbacks when humans rely solely upon tools and language to accomplish their goals.
During the next sections of the movie— Floyd's journey to the monolith on the Moon, and David Bowman and Frank Poole's expedition to Jupiter—here is a game to play if you are watching the film for the sixteenth or sixtieth time: count the number of tools displayed on the screen. From the straws and scrapers employed during the film's meals to the elaborate spacesuits donned for extravehicular activities, humans in space are constantly accompanied by tools— necessarily so, of course. On a warm summer's day on Earth, it's still possible for people to strip down and briefly enjoy life without clothes or tools in the manner of our distant ancestors. But to survive in space, you constantly need special equipment to provide you with oxygen, protect you from the deadly vacuum, eat your food, and walk upright in weightlessness. Even though they are essential, one notices, as another motif, the negative effects of tools. The eating utensils are awkward. The stewardess's shoes for weightlessness demand a slow, ungainly style of walking. And the spacesuits are clumsy and make people unrecognizable, which makes the scene where the visitors to the lunar monolith are photographed so amusing—why take a picture when no one will ever know that it was you inside of that spacesuit?
As people in space constantly rely on tools, they are also constantly communicating—in person and by radio, television, film, and written messages—and communication is the other recurring motif in the main part of the film. Everyone, it seems, is always talking to everyone else on a fairly regular basis. Yet this communication is consistently stilted or ineffectual. Most of the conversations are consistently banal compendiums of cliches. Floyd must intently study an interminable list of instructions to use the zero-gravity toilet— another of the film's deliberate jokes. A conversation between Floyd and the Russians at the space station comes to an awkward halt due to security concerns. After Floyd delivers a stunningly insipid speech to residents of the lunar base, it is laughable to hear him lauded for his excellent work. And on his birthday, Poole receives an expensive, but vacuous, phone message from his parents. Commentators often note how detached from each other the characters in 2001 seem to be; to a large extent, they have discovered that language can at times become only a matter of formula and ritual, something that hinders communication more than enhancing it.
All these problems with tools and language are insignificant, but a major crisis eventually ensues involving the computer HAL 9000, the brains of the spaceship Discovery and, in effect, humanity's ultimate tool. As such, despite its miraculous abilities, HAL is also a fatally flawed tool, as it reaches the decision that the only way to ensure the success of the mission to Jupiter is to kill all of its crew. Virtually by definition, this is not a well-designed piece of machinery.
Yet HAL's murderous mistake also reflects, again, a problem in communication, as is better explained in Clarke's novel and the film's sequel 2010. HAL's original programming included the lethally contradictory instructions to keep the mission a secret from the crew, tend to all of their needs, and ensure that the mission is completed. HAL's creator recommended against these instructions, but his advice was ignored, and Bowman and Poole were handicapped in their efforts to deal with HAL because they were not told the real reason they were going to Jupiter. If there had been better communication between HAL, his programmers, the ground crew, and the Discovery astronauts, in other words, the entire situation could have been avoided. Instead, just as in the film's opening sequence, a combination of misapplied tools and misapplied communication skills has led to both an astounding technological advance and a series of homicides.
So, if inherent limitations in the use of tools, and in the use of language to communicate, are causing problems in humanity's world of 2001, what is the solution? First, humans must be weaned away from their reliance on tools and language, which defines what happens in the final scenes of the film. Bowman turns off HAL, depriving himself of an important tool, and in approaching the monolith orbiting Jupiter he uses only the absolutely essential spacesuit and his space "pod." Once through the Star Gate, and lodged for many years in an elaborate mansion, he is systematically stripped of all of his tools. First, he sits in his space pod within a spacious room. Then, the space pod vanishes and he walks around the room in his spacesuit. Next, his spacesuit is replaced by a black robe as he sits and eats a meal, dropping and breaking a glass. The fourth Bowman lies in bed, clad only in a white covering and completely without tools. Finally, he appears as the Star Child, a huge, naked fetus.
Along with tools, language is removed from the picture: while Bowman disables HAL, the computer's articulate language slows down and regresses to a childish song (involving tools, by the way—a "horseless carriage" and "a bicycle built for two"). Then, a videotape comes on to explain the purpose of the mission: to investigate an alien monolith, its "origin and purpose still a total mystery." And, after the words "total mystery"—an apt preview of what Bowman is about to experience, perhaps—not another word is spoken in the entire film.
Now completely deprived of tools and of language, Bowman becomes the Star Child, floating in orbit around the Earth. He no longer needs tools to survive in the vacuum of space, since his embryonic new body seems invulnerable, and he no longer needs language to communicate, since his large, knowing eyes suggest new telepathic powers. (This is more clear in the novel, where the Star Child immediately employs his new abilities to destroy all of Earth's nuclear weapons with a single thought.) The use of tools and language allowed us to advance from prehuman to human; but to advance to a superhuman level, we must develop spectacular new mental abilities to transcend our reliance on such crude mechanisms to control our environment and communicate with others.
This is all well and good, one might say, as a vision of humanity's eventual future in space, to be achieved either through millennia of natural evolution or accelerated genetic engineering. But this is hardly helpful advice for the men and women now engaged in the practical business of maintaining and expanding the human presence in space. To them, the film might seem only a utopian dream of tremendous space advances standing in stark contrast to the dismally minimal progress evident in our actual 2001. Still, there are relevant lessons to garner from the film for the NASA engineers and mission specialists of today.
First, before criticizing what 2001 got wrong, one must celebrate what it got right. Even after thirty years of additional experience, the equipment that Kubrick imagined would accompany humans into space still looks absolutely authentic, even if frustratingly beyond current budgetary constraints. More impressively, 2001 perfectly reflects the rhythms of space activity. On the one hand, to get anything done in the vacuum and weightlessness of space, an astronaut must engage in a long series of incremental steps, executed slowly and painstakingly. On the other hand, something can go horribly wrong in an instant, demanding immediate, accelerated action. The first time Bowman goes outside to replace that piece of equipment, the task demands many careful actions, accomplished with meticulous care; when Poole goes out to do the same thing, HAL cuts his air hose and sends him hurtling through space in an instant. Bowman takes several minutes to prepare for his perilous lurch into the airless airlock; the actual journey takes less than ten seconds. To prepare new astronauts for both the slow-motion rigor and sudden perils of extravehicular activities, a screening of those scenes from 2001 might serve well as an introductory orientation.
Acknowledging its accuracy in predicting the ambience of space, NASA has paid tribute to 2001 in a noteworthy, though unacknowledged fashion. Everyone recalls the tremendous publicity when the prototypical space shuttle, which never entered space, was named Enterprise, to honor the starship of the television series Star Trek; but no one noticed that one shuttle in the actual fleet was named Discovery, to honor the spaceship of 2001. Yes, NASA officially maintains that the shuttle was named after one of Captain Cook's ships, but someone in NASA's corridors of power was surely thinking in part of 2001 when that name was originally chosen.
While the name might have seemed inauspicious, in light of what happened to the crew of Kubrick's Discovery, it was another space shuttle, Challenger, that actually ended up killing its crew—for two reasons that might have been anticipated after a screening of 2001. First, there was a problem with faulty tools: the o-rings used in the fuel tanks were not designed to function properly in cold-weather conditions, leading to that fateful explosion. Yet there was also a problem in faulty communication: at least one person who worked for the company that manufactured the tanks understood the danger, and he attempted to warn those responsible for scheduling shuttle launches. Yet his concerns never reached the proper level of authority. The commission that investigated the Challenger disaster thus was obliged to recommend both changes in the design of the fuel tanks and improvements in communication between the various entities involved in shuttle flights.
Perhaps the same two problems are continuing to hinder humanity's efforts to expand into outer space. Are we really using the right tools to get there—large, chemical-fuel rockets? Probably not, most experts would agree. Yet what are the alternatives? Over the years, hundreds of people have presented their own plans for new approaches to space travel that would be more safe, efficient, and economical than our present-day vehicles. The vast majority of these people, undoubtedly, are dead wrong—but one of them may be right, and that right idea simply hasn't been properly communicated.
It is finally important to recognize that the film was no so far off the mark in its prediction of human advances into space by the year 2001. Today, we actually have a functioning space station, though it is not nearly as large and attractive as Kubrick's spinning wheel. And while humans haven't been to the Moon for quite a while, returning there and establishing a few bases, as were seen in the film, is certainly something that could be done now, given the institutional will and resources. What seems hopelessly idealistic, in light of current progress, is what happens in the film eighteen months after the discovery of the lunar monolith in 2002 and 2003— namely, a manned flight to Jupiter in a huge, nuclear-powered spaceship. Such an expedition would seemingly take us decades, not months, to achieve. Yet, we must remember what inspired that mission in the film—new and indisputable evidence of intelligent alien life elsewhere in the universe.
Today, humanity is in fact progressing on two fronts towards indisputable evidence of alien life, if not intelligent alien life, elsewhere in the universe. As scientists continue to examine old and new Martian meteorites, suggestive signs of alien microbes may be supplanted by hard, undeniable evidence. And, with the Galileo space probe lingering in orbit around Jupiter and the Cassini space probe having just left its vicinity, additional data may emerge proving that there is a liquid ocean beneath the ice of Europa, making it a likely home for alien life. (Also, as it happens, Europa was the world chosen by the monoliths as the cradle for a new alien civilization in the novel and film 2010.) With several months to go, it remains possible that 2001 will go down in history as the year in which humans first learned, beyond any doubt, that we are not alone in the universe. And it remains possible that the electrifying news will inspire a crash program to send humans to investigate the distant world where that alien life exists. Perhaps, then, 2001: A Space Odyssey will turn out to have been an accurate prediction of humanity's future after all.
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