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Since its premiere in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey has been analysed and interpreted by multitudes of people ranging from professional movie critics to amateur writers and science fiction fans. The director of the film, Stanley Kubrick, and the writer, Arthur C. Clarke, wanted to leave the film open to philosophical and allegorical interpretation, purposely presenting the final sequences of the film without the underlying thread being apparent; a concept illustrated by the final frame of the film, which contains the image of the embryonic "Starchild".
Kubrick encouraged people to explore their own interpretations of the film, and refused to offer an explanation of "what really happened" in the movie, preferring instead to let audiences embrace their own ideas and theories. In a 1968 interview with Playboy, Kubrick stated:
You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point.
Neither of the two creators equated openness to interpretation with meaninglessness, although it might seem that Clarke implied as much when he stated, shortly after the film's release, "If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we've failed in our intention." When told of the comment, Kubrick said "I believe he made it [the comment] facetiously. The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not—and should not—require further amplification." When told that Kubrick had called his comment 'facetious', Clarke responded
I still stand by this remark, which does not mean one can't enjoy the movie completely the first time around. What I meant was, of course, that because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man's comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in "2001", and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.
In a subsequent discussion of the film with Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick said his main aim was to avoid "intellectual verbalization" and reach "the viewer's subconscious". He said he did not deliberately strive for ambiguity—it was simply an inevitable outcome of making the film nonverbal, though he acknowledged this ambiguity was an invaluable asset to the film. He was willing then to give a fairly straightforward explanation of the plot on what he called the "simplest level", but unwilling to discuss the metaphysical interpretation of the film which he felt should be left up to the individual viewer.
Arthur C. Clarke's novel of the same name was developed simultaneously with the film, though published after its release. It seems to explain the ending of the film more clearly. Clarke's novel explicitly identifies the monolith as a tool created by an alien race that has been through many stages of evolution, moving from organic forms, through biomechanics, and finally has achieved a state of pure energy. These aliens travel the cosmos assisting lesser species to take evolutionary steps. The novel explains the hotel room sequence as a kind of alien zoo—fabricated from information derived from intercepted television transmissions from Earth—in which Dave Bowman is studied by the invisible alien entities. Kubrick's film leaves all this unstated.
Physicist Freeman Dyson urged those baffled by the film to read Clarke's novel:
After seeing Space Odyssey, I read Arthur Clarke's book. I found the book gripping and intellectually satisfying, full of the tension and clarity which the movie lacks. All the parts of the movie that are vague and unintelligible, especially the beginning and the end, become clear and convincing in the book. So I recommend to my middle-aged friends who find the movie bewildering that they should read the book; their teenage kids don't need to.
Clarke himself used to recommend reading the book, saying "I always used to tell people, 'Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary'", although, as his biographer Neil McAleer points out, he was promoting sales of his book at the time. Elsewhere he said, "You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick's. Nor is his necessarily the 'right' one – whatever that means."
Film critic Penelope Houston noted in 1971 that the novel differs in many key respects from the film, and as such perhaps should not be regarded as the skeleton key to unlock it.
Stanley Kubrick was less inclined to cite the book as a definitive interpretation of the film, but he also frequently refused to discuss any possible deeper meanings during interviews. During an interview with Joseph Gelmis in 1969 Kubrick explained:
It's a totally different kind of experience, of course, and there are a number of differences between the book and the movie. The novel, for example, attempts to explain things much more explicitly than the film does, which is inevitable in a verbal medium. The novel came about after we did a 130-page prose treatment of the film at the very outset. This initial treatment was subsequently changed in the screenplay, and the screenplay in turn was altered during the making of the film. But Arthur took all the existing material, plus an impression of some of the rushes, and wrote the novel. As a result, there's a difference between the novel and the film. ... I think that the divergencies between the two works are interesting. Actually, it was an unprecedented situation for someone to do an essentially original literary work based on glimpses and segments of a film he had not yet seen in its entirety.
Author Vincent Lobrutto, in Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, was inclined to note creative differences leading to a separation of meaning for book and film:
The film took on its own life as it was being made, and Clarke became increasingly irrelevant. Kubrick could probably have shot 2001 from a treatment, since most of what Clarke wrote, in particular some windy voice-overs which explained the level of intelligence reached by the ape men, the geological state of the world at the dawn of man, the problems of life on the Discovery and much more, was discarded during the last days of editing, along with the explanation of HALs breakdown."
In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Stanley Kubrick stated, "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 [...] The film revolves around this metaphysical conception[,] and the realistic hardware and the documentary feelings about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept."
The film has been seen by many people not only as a literal story about evolution and space adventures, but as an allegorical representation of aspects of philosophical, religious or literary concepts.
Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical tract Thus Spoke Zarathustra, about the potential of mankind, is directly referenced by the use of Richard Strauss's musical piece of the same name. Nietzsche writes that man is a bridge between the ape and the Übermensch. In an interview in the New York Times, Kubrick gave credence to interpretations of 2001 based on Zarathustra when he said: "Somebody said man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilized human beings. You might say that is inherent in the story too. We are semicivilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Man is really in a very unstable condition." 
Donald MacGregor has analysed the film in terms of a different work, The Birth of Tragedy, in which Nietzsche refers to the human conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of being. The Apollonian side of man is rational, scientific, sober and self-controlled. For Nietzsche a purely Apollonian mode of existence is problematic, since it undercuts the instinctual side of man. The Apollonian man lacks a sense of wholeness, immediacy, and primal joy. It is not good for a culture to be either wholly Apollonian or Dionysian. While the world of the apes at the beginning of 2001 is Dionysian, the world of travel to the moon is wholly Apollonian, and HAL is an entirely Apollonian entity. Kubrick's film came out just a year before the Woodstock rock festival, a wholly Dionysian affair. MacGregor argues that David Bowman in his transformation has regained his Dionysian side.
The conflict between humanity's internal Dionysus and Apollo has been used as a lens through which to view many other Kubrick films especially A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Eyes Wide Shut.
2001 has also been described as an allegory of human conception, birth and death. In part, this can be seen through the final moments of the film, which are defined by the image of the "star child", an in utero fetus that draws on the work of Lennart Nilsson. The star child signifies a "great new beginning", and is depicted naked and ungirded, but with its eyes wide open.
New Zealand journalist Scott MacLeod sees parallels between the spaceship's journey and the physical act of conception. We have the long, bulb-headed spaceship as a sperm, and the destination planet Jupiter (or the monolith floating near it) as the egg, and the meeting of the two as the trigger for the growth of a new race of man (the "star child"). The lengthy pyrotechnic light show witnessed by David Bowman, which has puzzled many reviewers, is seen by MacLeod as Kubrick's attempt at visually depicting the moment of conception, when the "star child" comes into being.
Taking the allegory further, MacLeod argues that the final scenes in which Bowman appears to see a rapidly ageing version of himself through a "time warp" is actually Bowman witnessing the withering and death of his own species. The old race of man is about to be replaced by the "star child", which was conceived by the meeting of the spaceship and Jupiter. MacLeod also sees irony in man as a creator (of HAL) on the brink of being usurped by his own creation. By destroying HAL, man symbolically rejects his role as creator and steps back from the brink of his own destruction.
Similarly, in his book, The Making of Kubrick's 2001, author Jerome Agel puts forward the interpretation that Discovery One represents both a body (with vertebrae) and a sperm cell, with Bowman being the "life" in the cell which is passed on. In this interpretation, Jupiter represents both a female and an ovum.
An extremely complex three-level allegory is proposed by Leonard F. Wheat in his book, Kubrick's 2001: A Triple Allegory. Wheat states that, "Most... misconceptions (of the film) can be traced to a failure to recognize that 2001 is an allegory – a surface story whose characters, events, and other elements symbolically tell a hidden story... In 2001's case, the surface story actually does something unprecedented in film or literature: it embodies three allegories." According to Wheat, the three allegories are:
Wheat often uses anagrams as evidence to support his theories. For example, of the name Heywood R. Floyd, he writes "He suggests Helen – Helen of Troy. Wood suggests wooden horse – the Trojan Horse. And oy suggests Troy." Of the remaining letters, he suggests "Y is Spanish for and. R, F, and L, in turn, are in ReFLect." Finally, noting that D can stand for downfall, Wheat concludes that Floyd's name has a hidden meaning: "Helen and Wooden Horse Reflect Troy's Downfall".
As with many elements of the film, the iconic monolith has been subject to countless interpretations, including religious, alchemical, historical, and evolutionary. To some extent, the very way in which it appears and is presented allows the viewer to project onto it all manner of ideas relating to the film. The Monolith in the movie seems to represent and even trigger epic transitions in the history of human evolution, evolution of man from ape-like beings to civilised men, hence the odyssey of mankind.
Vincent LoBrutto's biography of Kubrick notes that for many, Clarke's novel is the key to understanding the monolith.:310 Similarly, Geduld observes that "the monolith ...has a very simple explanation in Clarke's novel", though she later asserts that even the novel doesn't fully explain the ending.
Rolling Stone reviewer Bob McClay sees the film as a four-movement symphony, its story told with "deliberate realism". Carolyn Geduld believes that what "structurally unites all four episodes of the film" is the monolith, the film's largest and most unresolvable enigma. Each time the monolith is shown, man transcends to a different level of cognition, linking the primeval, futuristic and mystic segments of the film: McClay's Rolling Stone review notes a parallelism between the monolith's first appearance in which tool usage is imparted to the apes and the completion of "another evolution" in the fourth and final encounter with the monolith. In a similar vein, Tim Dirks ends his synopsis saying "The cyclical evolution from ape to man to spaceman to angel-starchild-superman is complete".
The monolith appears four times in 2001: on the African Savannah, on the moon, in space orbiting Jupiter, and near Bowman's bed before his transformation. After the first encounter with the monolith, we see the leader of the apes have a quick flashback to the monolith after which he picks up a bone and uses it to smash other bones. Its usage as a weapon enables his tribe to defeat the other tribe of apes occupying the water hole who have not learned how to use bones as weapons. After this victory, the ape-leader throws his bone into the air, after which the scene shifts to an orbiting weapon four million years later, implying that the discovery of the bone as a weapon inaugurated human evolution, hence the much more advanced orbiting weapon 4 million years later.
The first and second encounters of humanity with the monolith have visual elements in common; both apes, and later astronauts, touch the monolith gingerly with their hands, and both sequences conclude with near-identical images of the sun appearing directly over the monolith (the first with a crescent moon adjacent to it in the sky, the second with a near-identical crescent Earth in the same position), both echoing the sun-earth-moon alignment seen at the very beginning of the film. The second encounter also suggests the triggering of the monolith's radio signal to Jupiter by the presence of humans, echoing the premise of Clarke's source story "The Sentinel".
In the most literal narrative sense, as found in the concurrently written novel, the Monolith is a tool, an artifact of an alien civilisation. It comes in many sizes and appears in many places, always in the purpose of advancing intelligent life. Arthur C. Clarke has referred to it as "the alien Swiss Army Knife"; or as Heywood Floyd speculates in 2010, "an emissary for an intelligence beyond ours. A shape of some kind for something that has no shape."
The fact that the first tool used by the protohumans is a weapon to commit murder is only one of the challenging evolutionary and philosophic questions posed by the film. The tool's link to the present day is made by the famous graphic match from the bone/tool flying into the air, to a weapon orbiting the earth. At the time of the movie's making, the space race was in full swing, and the use of space and technology for war and destruction was seen as a great challenge of the future.
But the use of tools also allowed mankind to survive and flourish over the next 4 million years, at which point the monolith makes its second appearance, this time on the Moon. Upon excavation, after remaining buried beneath the lunar surface for 4 million years, the monolith is examined by humans for the first time, and it emits a powerful radio signal—the target of which becomes Discovery One's mission.
In reading Clarke, or Kubrick's comments, this is the most straightforward of the monolith's appearances. It is "calling home" to say, in effect, "they're here!" Some species visited long ago has not only evolved intelligence, but intelligence sufficient to achieve space travel. Humanity has left its cradle, and is ready for the next step. This is the point of connection with Clarke's earlier short story, "The Sentinel", originally cited as the basis for the entire film.
The third time we see a monolith marks the beginning of the film's most cryptic and psychedelic sequence, interpretations of the last two monolith appearances are as varied as the film's viewers. Is it a "star gate," some giant cosmic router or transporter? Are all of these visions happening inside Bowman's mind? And why does he wind up in some cosmic hotel suite at the end of it?
According to Michael Hollister in his book Hollyworld, the path beyond the infinite is introduced by the vertical alignment of planets and moons with a perpendicular monolith forming a cross, as if the astronaut is about to become a new saviour. Bowman lives out his years alone in a neoclassical room, brightly lit from underneath, that evokes the Age of Enlightenment, decorated with classical art.
As Bowman's life quickly passes in this neoclassical room, the monolith makes its final appearance: standing at the foot of his bed as he approaches death. He raises a finger toward the monolith, a gesture that alludes to the Michelangelo painting of The Creation of Adam, with the monolith representing God.
The monolith is the subject of the film's final line of dialogue (spoken at the end of the "Jupiter Mission" segment): "Its origin and purpose still a total mystery". Reviewers McClay and Roger Ebert have noted that the monolith is the main element of mystery in the film, Ebert writing of "The shock of the monolith's straight edges and square corners among the weathered rocks", and describing the apes warily circling it as prefiguring man reaching "for the stars". Patrick Webster suggests the final line relates to how the film should be approached as a whole, noting "The line appends not merely to the discovery of the monolith on the moon, but to our understanding of the film in the light of the ultimate questions it raises about the mystery of the universe."
The internet-based film critic Rob Ager produced a video essay, "Meaning of the Monolith Revealed", which claims that the monolith is Kubrick's representation of the cinema screen itself. He outlined his interpretation to Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly. The academic Dan Leberg has complained about the influence that Ager's interpretation has had in his own film study classes.
The HAL 9000 has been compared to Frankenstein's monster. HAL is an artificial intelligence, a sentient, synthetic, life form. According to John Thurman, HAL’s very existence is an abomination, much like Frankenstein’s monster. "While perhaps not overtly monstrous, HAL’s true character is hinted at by his physical 'deformity'. Like a Cyclops he relies upon a single eye, examples of which are installed throughout the ship. The eye’s warped wide-angle point-of-view is shown several times — notably in the drawings of hibernating astronauts (all of whom HAL will later murder)."
Kubrick underscores the Frankenstein connection with a scene that virtually reproduces the style and content of a scene from James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. The scene in which Frankenstein's monster is first shown on the loose is borrowed to depict the first murder by HAL of a member of Discovery One's crew—the empty pod, under HAL's control, extends its arms and "hands", and goes on a "rampage" directed towards astronaut Poole. In each case, it is the first time the truly odious nature of the "monster" can be recognised as such, and only appears about halfway through the film.
Clarke has suggested in interviews, his original novel, and in a rough draft of the shooting script that HAL's orders to lie to the astronauts (more specifically, concealing the true nature of the mission) drove him "insane". The novel does include the phrase "He [HAL] had been living a lie" — a difficult situation for an entity programmed to be as reliable as possible. Or as desirable, given his programming to "only win 50% of the time" at chess, in order for the human astronauts to feel competitive. Clarke also gives an explanation of the ill-effects of HAL being ordered to lie in computer terms as well as psychological terms, stating HAL is caught in a "Mobius feedback loop."
While the film remains ambiguous, one can see evidence in the film that since HAL was instructed to deceive the mission astronauts as to the actual nature of the mission and that deception opens a Pandora's box of possibilities. During a game of chess, HAL misstates what move is to be made (by using a hybrid of algebraic and traditional chess notation) and how many moves it will then take to mate him (assuming a move is forced that is not). Frank Poole is seen to be mouthing his moves to himself during the game and it is later revealed that HAL can lip read. HAL's conversation with Dave Bowman just before the diagnostic error of the AE-35 unit that communicates with Earth is an almost paranoid question and answer session ("Surely one could not be unaware of the strange stories circulating...rumors about something being dug up on the moon...") where HAL skirts very close to the pivotal issue concerning which he is concealing information. When Dave states "You're working up your crew psychology report," HAL takes a few seconds to respond in the affirmative. Immediately following this exchange, he errs in diagnosing the antenna unit. HAL has been introduced to the unique and alien concept of human dishonesty. He does not have a sufficiently layered understanding of human motives to grasp the need for this and trudging through the tangled web of lying complications, he falls prey to human error.
The follow-up film 2010 further elaborates Clarke's explanation of HAL's breakdown. While HAL was under orders to deny the true mission with the crew, he was programmed at a deep level to be completely accurate and infallible. This conflict between two key directives led to him taking any measures to prevent Bowman and Poole finding out about this deception. Once Poole had been killed, others were eliminated to remove any witnesses to his failure to complete the mission.
One interesting aspect of HAL's plight, noted by Roger Ebert, is that HAL, as the supposedly perfect computer, actually behaves in the most human fashion of all of the characters. He has reached human intelligence levels, and seems to have developed human traits of paranoia, jealousy, and other emotions. By contrast, the human characters act like machines, coolly performing their tasks in a mechanical fashion, whether they are mundane tasks of operating their craft or even under extreme duress as Dave must be following HAL's murder of Frank. For instance, Frank Poole watches a birthday transmission from his parents with what appears to be complete apathy.
Stanley Kubrick originally intended that when the film does its famous match-cut from prehistoric bone-weapon to orbiting satellite that the latter and the 3 additional satellites seen would be established as orbiting nuclear weapons by a voice-over narrator talking about nuclear stalemate. Further, Kubrick intended that the Star Child at the end of the film would detonate the weapons at the end of the film. Over time, Kubrick decided that this would create too many associations with his previous film Dr. Strangelove and he decided not to make it so obvious that they were "war machines". Kubrick was also confronted with the fact that during the production of the film, the US and USSR had agreed not to put any nuclear weapons into outer space by signing the Outer Space Treaty.
Alexander Walker in a book he wrote with Kubrick's assistance and authorisation, states that Kubrick eventually decided that as nuclear weapons the bombs had "no place at all in the film's thematic development", now being an "orbiting red herring" which would "merely have raised irrelevant questions to suggest this as a reality of the twenty-first century".
In the Canadian TV documentary 2001 and Beyond, Clarke stated that not only was the military purpose of the satellites "not spelled out in the film, there is no need for it to be", repeating later in this documentary that "Stanley didn't want to have anything to do with bombs after Dr. Strangelove".
In a New York Times interview in 1968, Kubrick merely referred to the satellites as "spacecraft", as does the interviewer, but he observed that the match-cut from bone to spacecraft shows they evolved from "bone-as-weapon", stating "It's simply an observable fact that all of man's technology grew out of his discovery of the weapon-tool".
Nothing in the film calls attention to the purpose of the satellites. James John Griffith, in a footnote in his book Adaptations As Imitations: Films from Novels, wrote "I would wonder, for instance, how several critics, commenting on the match-cut that links humanity's prehistory and future, can identify—without reference to Clarke's novel—the satellite as a nuclear weapon".
Arthur C. Clarke, in the TV documentary "2001: The Making of a Myth", described the bone-to-satellite sequence in the film, saying "The bone goes up and turns into what is supposed to be an orbiting space bomb, a weapon in space. Well, that isn't made clear, we just assume it's some kind of space vehicle in a three-million-year jump cut". Former NASA research assistant Steven Pietrobon wrote "The orbital craft seen as we make the leap from the Dawn of Man to contemporary times are supposed to be weapons platforms carrying nuclear devices, though the movie does not make this clear."
The perception that the satellites are nuclear weapons persists in the minds of some viewers (and some space scientists). Due to their appearance there are statements by members of the production staff who still refer to them as weapons. Walker, in his book Stanley Kubrick, Director, noted that although the bombs no longer fit in with Kubrick's revised thematic concerns, "nevertheless from the national markings still visible on the first and second space vehicles we see, we can surmise that they are the Russian and American bombs."
Similarly, Walker in a later essay stated that two of the spacecraft seen circling Earth were meant to be nuclear weapons, after asserting that early scenes of the film "imply" nuclear stalemate. Pietrobon, who was a consultant on 2001 to the Web site Starship Modeler regarding the film's props, observes small details on the satellites such as Air Force insignia and "cannons".
In the film, US Air Force insignia, and flag insignia of China and Germany (including what appears to be an Iron Cross) can be seen on three of the satellites, which correspond to three of the bombs stated countries of origin in a widely circulated early draft of the script.
Production staff who continue to refer to "bombs" (in addition to Clarke) include production designer Harry Lange (previously a space industry illustrator), who has since the film's release shown his original production sketches for all of the spacecraft to Simon Atkinson, who refers to seeing "the orbiting bombs". Fred Ordway, the film's science consultant, sent a memo to Kubrick after the film's release listing suggested changes to the film, mostly complaining about missing narration and shortened scenes. One entry reads: "Without warning, we cut to the orbiting bombs. And to a short, introductory narration, missing in the present version". Multiple production staff aided in the writing of Jerome Agel's 1970 book on the making of the film, in which captions describe the objects as "orbiting satellites carrying nuclear weapons" Actor Gary Lockwood (astronaut Frank Poole) in the audio DVD commentary says the first satellite is an armed weapon, making the famous match-cut from bone to satellite a "weapon-to-weapon cut". Several recent reviews of the film mostly of the DVD release refer to armed satellites, possibly influenced by Gary Lockwood's audio commentary.
A few published works by scientists on the subject of space exploration or space weapons tangentially discuss 2001: A Space Odyssey and assume at least some of the orbiting satellites are space weapons. Indeed, details worked out with input from space industry experts, such as the structure on the first satellite that Pietrobon refers to as a "conning tower", match the original concept sketch drawn for the nuclear bomb platform. Modelers label them in diverse ways. On the one hand, the 2001 exhibit (given in that year) at the Tech Museum in San Jose and now online (for a subscription) referred merely to "satellites", while a special modelling exhibition at the exhibition hall at Porte de Versailles in Paris also held in 2001 (called 2001 l'odyssée des maquettes (2001: A Modeler's Odyssey)) overtly described their reconstructions of the first satellite as the "US Orbiting Weapons Platform". Some, but not all, space model manufacturers or amateur model builders refer to these entities as bombs.
The perception that the satellites are bombs persists in the mind of some but by no means all commentators on the film. This may affect one's reading of the film as a whole. Noted Kubrick authority Michel Ciment, in discussing Kubrick's attitude toward human aggression and instinct, observes "The bone cast into the air by the ape (now become a man) is transformed at the other extreme of civilization, by one of those abrupt ellipses characteristic of the director, into a spacecraft on its way to the moon." In contrast to Ciment's reading of a cut to a serene "other extreme of civilization", science fiction novelist Robert Sawyer, speaking in the Canadian documentary 2001 and Beyond, sees it as a cut from a bone to a nuclear weapons platform, explaining that "what we see is not how far we've leaped ahead, what we see is that today, '2001', and four million years ago on the African veldt, it's exactly the same—the power of mankind is the power of its weapons. It's a continuation, not a discontinuity in that jump."
Kubrick, notoriously reluctant to provide any explanation of his work, never publicly stated the intended functions of the orbiting satellites, preferring instead to let the viewer surmise what their purpose might be.
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