If there is anything scarier than the twin girls showered in their own blood in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it would be his earlier masterpiece in 1968 that, shockingly, is still relevant in today’s society. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science-fiction film that deals with several themes such as man vs technology, the concept of God, Darwinism and many more.
TECHNOLOGY: A BOON OR BANE?
The heart of 2001: A Space Odyssey lies in the debate of mankind’s growing reliance on technology in all parts of our daily lives. Since the first Moonwatcher arc where we see a bone being used as a weapon to fight against the rival ape clan, the use of technology has evolved to be no longer just a tool for survival but something that poses a dangerous threat to our lives. As proven later in arc three, the super-computer HAL-9000 revolts against the crew onboard Discovery One by switching off the life support machines of the remaining hibernating crew and fellow onboard astronaut Frank Poole.
It seems as though that as time escalates, man’s dependence for technology increases exponentially. After the signature graphic match cut which brings audiences to millions of years later, we see that technology has advanced and man has explored space travel. But it is not as developed yet as the space personnel still struggled with space walking. They were merely having liquid food for meals, a sign that food technology has not evolved to that level of sophistication. Kubrick’s choice of “The Blue Danube” waltz only serves to show how at this point, humans are still at peace with technology.
The troubling and disturbing concern only started 18 months later where technology has become a major driving force in society. By then, humans have already conquered space travel. David Bowman and Frank Boole are capable of running and moving easily in the spacecraft, men are eating solid food, and HAL-9000 has commanded control over Discovery One. The space odyssey is going well until HAL shocks the crew with a glitch, prompting Bowman and Poole to disconnect HAL. But unbeknownst to the spacemen, HAL is intelligent enough to lipread their mouths. While Poole spacewalks outside, HAL retaliates against its creator – mankind – and cut off Poole’s oxygen hose. This startling chain of human violence continues to intensify when HAL switches off the life support functions of the hibernating scientists, making Bowman the only human being onboard capable of confronting HAL.
But what makes this scene so effective is Kubrick’s use of mise-en-scene and silence. The way the scientists’ deaths are depicted are unlike conventional Hollywood films. Instead of loud screaming noises and blood dripping all over the floor, it was represented by silence and the flashing of bright red screens with giant capitalised white fonts that serve to warn Bowman. It is as if the passing of humans is merely another computer malfunctions. The bright white interiors of the spacecraft give off a cold, clinical and indifferent attitude towards the deaths and the absence of sounds only makes the whole scene more uncomfortable to watch.
As we start to lose our faith in humanity, here is our hero David Bowman who preferred to rely on himself than technology. Just after HAL locks him outside the ship, Bowman opened the emergency airlock manually instead of depending on technology. As a Star Wars fan myself, this part seem to resemble how Luke Skywalker counted on the Force to fight the Sith. Anyways, back to the topic. Bowman’s symbolic discard of technology here represents a hope in mankind, and maybe as a result of his achievement he is deem worthy to progress to the next phase of human evolution: the Star Child.
DEATH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT
The technological advances seem to run parallel with the dehumanisation of mankind. In the first segment, we are presented with tribes of barbaric apes brawling over a waterhole. While acts of violences are expressed explicitly and loudly back then, we do see moments of intimacy as the apes cuddled each other when they faced threats by the leopard which had devoured the zebras. Mankind still has the very emotions that distinct us from robots.
Cutting to millions of years later, tensions between human groups still exist and this time, it is no longer over water or food but over territories. This made absolute sense bearing in mind that the movie aired during the hike of the Cold War. It is interesting to note that the very first human voices are only heard after more than thirty minutes into the film. While Dr. Heywood Floyd still maintained courtesy with the Russian scientists on the Space Hilton Station, one can easily detect the political tensions beneath the conversation. Not to mention, in that birthday video call Dr. Floyd had with his little girl, the whole scene is so emotionless. The birthday girl is not able to communicate her excitement of seeing her dad (he is light-years away from home!) or the fact that it is her birthday, maybe, as a result of dehumanisation.
Eighteen months later, we see the humans getting increasingly detached from one another. As a parallel mise-en-scene to the scene described earlier, Frank Poole is indifferent to his parents’ birthday wish. Bowman and Poole also exchange few conversations and when they do so, it is all about detaching HAL from the system. Additionally, there exist few differences between the two astronauts. In fact, if you did not pay close attention you might not remember who is Poole and who is Bowman; there lies not much difference!
In an unexpected turn of events, HAL, shockingly and very alarmingly, is the one who acts and behaves like a human. Other than his logical thinking abilities, HAL shows curiosity, he fears and he displays more emotional capacities beyond Poole and Bowman combined. This resemble the scenario where man exchanges his emotional skills with technology in return for greater knowledge.
ALIENS, GOD, HIGHER INTELLIGENCE
As said by the Stanley Kubrick the man himself, the concept of God is at the heart of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whether you believe in a God or not, you cannot deny the presence of a higher intelligence or alien; the metallic black rectangular monolith is its symbol. We first see it before the ape learnt that bones can be used as weapons; the second time was on the crater Tycho where the monolith emits a burglar-alarm-like high-pitched sound as though informing the higher intelligence that humans are another step closer to reaching them; the third is not in the third segment, surprisingly, but it emerged just before Bowman is sucked into the “light-show”. Finally, the monolith presents itself to us right before Bowman passes through it to emerge as a Star Child.
Each time it appears, mankind takes another step forward in its pursuit of technology and knowledge and this proves that the monolith must be a very powerful being. I would go as far as to say that this being is omnipresent and omnipotent; it knows what humans want and need without us uttering a single word.
And finally, among many other puzzling questions, who or what exactly is the giant floating baby with sparkling eyes at the end? Did Bowman die or did he evolved? There are no answers to these at all but from my point-of-view, I have an optimistic view of our’s reliance on technology at the end. David was chosen to continue and finish the space odyssey. He has reached the last phase, won against the hands of technology, and after the higher intelligence (note the animal sounds in the Enlightenment era room at the end) has observed Bowman, he was allowed to be a Star Child. This is solely my view and others may share differing opinions on the film’s ending.
I have to give Stanley Kubrick credit. How a man like him could create an outstanding piece that outshines today’s science-fiction movies , I have no idea. Kubrick does not force upon a story to viewers, no he expects and wishes viewers to understand the sights and sounds and establish a theory of their own. 2001: A Space Odyssey is truly a masterpiece.