Through the Star Gate

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kubrick once said of 2001 that “on the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God.” It’s clear from other interviews that his idea of God, such as it were, hewed closely to Clarke’s oft-cited third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Kubrick appears to have seen God not as a theistic concept — some divine, all-powerful Creator — but as a higher evolved form of life that humans lacked the capacity to understand.

Clarke’s companion-piece novel, written in tandem with the script for the film, communicates this idea more clearly. Yet it almost seems antithetical to the spirit of 2001 to use the novel or Kubrick’s quotes as a means of explaining it. To explain it too much is to run the risk of reducing it.

This is a movie that strikes at the subconscious, utilizing sound and imagery as a kind of visual poetry. It’s tempting to see it as deliberately opaque, but the film’s ambiguous nature comes as more of a byproduct of its lack of dialogue. The first spoken line does not come until 25 minutes into the movie. 21st-century films like Dunkirk or even There Will Be Blood with its 15-minute wordless opening feel heavily indebted to 2001, Kubrick’s triumph of pure visual storytelling. Whether it be a piece of classical music or the protracted sound of an astronaut breathing in his suit in space, Kubrick was less interested in verbalizations than he was in elemental sounds coupled with evocative moving pictures that would appeal directly to the brain’s irrational side, where the imagination is seated.

This poetic quality, the symbolism at play, is a big part of what helps the movie maintain its raw power half a century later. Adhering to Shakespeare’s idea that “the play is the thing,” you could watch 2001: A Space Odyssey in a total vacuum without anyone telling you what it means, and it would lend itself to any number of interpretations. Yet the movie also plays upon certain basic fears and universal truths of the human condition, such as aging and death. It’s not quite Cain and Abel, but the scene where the hominids take back their watering hole using those weaponized bones does hint at the “ignoble savagery” that Kubrick saw in humanity and that he would soon explore in great depth with the ultraviolence of his next feature, A Clockwork Orange.

The scene where the astronaut Bowman, played by Keir Dullea, enters the mainframe and disconnects HAL’s higher brain functions is a harrowing depiction of a sentient being losing its awareness. In a very literal fashion, Bowman strips HAL of his memories, sliding memory blocks out of the computer’s brain, sending him winding down into the abyss until all that remains is a slo-mo children’s song. The scene stages a vivid mimesis of what happens in our own brains at the point of death: how a person’s life flashes before their eyes, synapses firing off last echoes of what was important to them.

With Planet of the Apes fresh in mind, it’s hard not to think of the lobotomized Landon during this scene.

On the other side of the Star Gate — in a brightly lit neoclassical bedroom that looks like part of the same house as the bathroom in The Shining — Bowman himself has to suffer the indignity of watching himself grow older. The scene offers yet another visual representation of something that resonates deep in the mind on an instinctual level: namely, the ravaging effects of time, how it skips ahead fast and before you know it, your life is gone.

When Bowman is an old man on his deathbed, the monolith, that persistent emblem of a cosmic intelligence greater than our own, appears at the foot of the bed. Bowman stretches out his finger toward it in a way that mirrors Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, the fresco painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He is then transfigured into the Star Child, an angelic being that floats toward Earth and watches over it from a translucent space bubble.

The cumulative effect of moments like these is to create a chain of primal responses in the viewer. 2001: A Space Odyssey engages the imagination before the intellect, and it does so in powerful ways. It is not always easy to understand or articulate what the actual movie (considered separately from Kubrick and Clarke’s submerged artistic intent) is trying to say. Is it a hopeful ending that sees the Star Child hovering over Earth, pivoting its eyes until it is looking directly at the camera and the screen cuts to black?

I think it is. I think that’s what distinguishes 2001 from the more blatantly cynical Planet of the Apes. I think it’s an uncharacteristic gasp of grand optimism in Kubrick’s earlier filmography before we were treated to A Clockwork Orange and everything that followed thereafter.

But I could be wrong. Maybe the Star Child’s arrival near Earth’s atmosphere signals an impending extinction event for humankind. Maybe it means life has moved beyond homo sapiens at that point, and the feeble remnants of humanity down on the planet’s surface are in for another apocalypse like the one that ushered in the Planet of the Apes.

If it’s true that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then perhaps 2001’s Schrödinger’s-Star-Child ending can simultaneously fulfill both readings, with optimism and pessimism co-existing in the movie on the same level plane. Perhaps that’s what makes the movie such a genius work, one that has often ranked in the top ten films of all time in cinematic polls.

Time will tell which reading has more bearing on the real world, but unless we nuke ourselves and all trace of movies into oblivion, or unless the Internet becomes artificially intelligent and decides to purge humans and their culture from the face of the planet, then Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey will probably outlast us all by another half-century or more. Just remember: the Star Child watches.

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