I recently went to the cinema to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course I had seen it (several times) before, but never on the big screen (@CamPicturehouse deserves a credit here). Although there isn’t much molecular biology or biochemistry in there, I still wanted to share a couple of thoughts as I found myself struggling to enjoy this film fully. And I suspect this as something to do with being a scientist working on evolution, and an atheist. Stanley Kubrick himself reportedly said he encourages spectators to come up with their own understanding of the film, so I figured that a very personal and totally amateurish analysis of the film was a good way to test what I actually make of it.
Here is where my science- and film-lover souls have to come to an agreement. Scientifically, it’s utterly inaccurate (one for all: the transition between apes and hominids did not happen in a desert..) and gives the slightly annoying feeling that changes happen all of a sudden, possibly due to external forces. Yes, the monolith (at least it isn’t a divine glowing sphere). In terms of narrative, these ~10 min are an absolute triumph. All the key themes of the film are introduced: life, fear, death, and then innovation (and murder). The newly-acquired skill of tool-handling is immediately put to use as a weapon. Is men’s nature to be aggressive or is it a result of innovation (the monolith)? In one of the most effective match cuts, the murderous bone becomes the pure essence of innovation: a spacecraft.
4M years after learning how to manage a simple tool, men made it to the Moon. But it turns out this latest achievement is still a source of fear and death (the ‘cover-up’). An apparently innocuous ‘videophone call’ reminds us, however, that everything men desire is ultimately linked to the propagation of life, here shown in the form of the director’s young daughter.
A space exploration mission turned fight for survival serves as an evocative, innovative and beautifully orchestrated ortholog of the first act: innovation (lying) is turned into a weapon (and used to kill) by another extremely docile life form (HAL 9000). The two astronauts play the role of the tapirs for most of the act (they show no sign of emotions and seem to follow ‘standard protocols’ in all of their actions), only to be instrumental to one of the most powerful on-screen deaths of the history of film.
Apparently, artificial intelligence wasn’t at the verge of an evolutionary jump (an ape was killed by a jaguar before the use of tools was perfected).
The astronaut Dr. David Bowman travels through time and space and meets/becomes increasingly older versions of himself, until he’s finally reborn. This visionary description of a life’s journey has been interpreted in endless ways. The dropping of any pretence of a linear narrative to follow a purely graphical and symbolic climax reminded me of the equally visionary end scene of Akira (not for the faint hearted). Just when I was resisting any form of analysis, we are faced with the monolith as both the end and the beginning of life (a white light serves the same purpose in Akira). It sparkled innovation, directed men’s journey of discovery, stands in silence in front of his ultimate fate, and never discloses its nature. I have to understand the point of monolith as it might otherwise ruin this film for me, forever.
The most common understanding of the monolith is that of an extraterrestrial influence on mankind, the sort of ‘awakening’ that has been featured in many other films since. (NOTE: this is the idea featured in the original the novel, but the film diverged considerably from it, and I’m interested in the messages more than in the screenplay). Besides the obvious reasons for not finding this interpretation particularly fascinating, I also find it rather boring. Sure, it implies that our fate is not of our own making, but aliens, really? Moving on, the most convincing meaning of the monolith is that of a divine intervention. Its first appearance in a desert (strangely populated by apes, I hasten to remind), the immediate effects it has on (cultural) evolution and (material) life, together with the Aristotelian use of perfect shapes throughout the film are more than enough to sell me the religious perspective. It took some willpower to keep an unbiased perspective on the remaining of film after the ‘dawn of men’ sequence, which by the way means another good ~120 min.
Would it be wrong to see the monolith as a symbol of chaos and necessity though? We are shown the most relevant events only (for theatrical reasons), but there is nothing in the film that actually suggest Men’s only maker cannot be just Men (or Apes or unicellular organisms, depending how far back you are willing to go). It might be that I come from a very catholic country and hence am particularly receptive to religious messages, but a quick online browsing reveals that the core figure of 2001: A Space Odyssey (you guessed, the monolith!) calls for an explanation that transcends all tangible aspect of life.
A purely natural perspective on the film’s core message allows even a biologist to enjoy every aspect of this masterpiece, not only its photography, screenplay, silences and futuristic scientific vision, but even its underlying implications: we are tool-handling mammals, hence continuously strive for discovery and are willing to travel light-years for it, but at the end it is with the irrelevance of mankind in natural evolution that we have to come at terms with.