Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 2

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ACT I of 2001 begins with a long, dialogue-less sequence describing a day in the life of its main characters. ACT II begins similarly, but is set a few million years later. Act I’s hardscrabble hominids were hard pressed to make it through a day without being eaten, but the humans of Act II whiz through space in sophisticated machines and it’s all perfectly boring. This is the "day in the life" of modern humanity, and it’s as true today, in the real-life 2009, as it was regarding the pretend-future of 2001 — we are surrounded by the most astonishing triumphs of human ingenuity, telephones and televisions and computers and the internet, airplanes and space shuttles and electric cars, and the thing that rivets us most is the cheap drama of petty gossip. Moonwatcher had to fight over weeds and worry about leopard attacks, but the alpha-monkey of Act II, Dr. Heywood Floyd, falls asleep while zooming through space en route to the moon. The bone-to-satellite cut at the top of Act II is justly cheered, but an even better cut might have been from Moonwatcher’s bone to Floyd’s pen, drifting lazily in space while Floyd snoozes in front of his in-flight entertainment of some lame movie or other.

Kubrick enjoys watching processes unfold, and loves to construct long sequences illustrating those processes. And so we get eight minutes of watching Floyd’s shuttle dock with a space station, somewhere in the vicinity of the Moon. There is a little bit of nuts-and-bolts science fiction filmmaking showing-off here: "How exactly does a spaceship dock with a revolving space station?" relates to Strangelove‘s "How exactly does a B-52 drop a bomb?" And the use of "The Blue Danube" in the sequence (altering the meaning of that piece of music for a generation or more) suggests that docking spacecraft are lovely and impeccable, the height of grace and elegance, the pinnacle of civilization, at the opposite end of the spectrum of life from Moonwatcher and his hard-knock life.

Floyd shows up at the space station. We don’t know anything about him, except that he’s got an entire space-shuttle to himself, so he must be someone pretty important: the alpha-monkey of Act II. He is deferred to and treated with respect by the staff and bureaucrats of the space station, and all without having to beat anyone to death with a bone. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Floyd has never beaten anyone to death with any tool — human life no longer requires hand-to-hand combat.

I have to admit, I’m a little confused about the structure of space travel in the year 2001. Plus, Floyd seems to be some sort of big deal, but I can’t tell who he works for or what his job is. The space shuttle is operated by Pan Am, and the space station seems to be some sort of commercial enterprise as well, except that there are security clearances upon entering. Maybe it’s like Iraq’s Green Zone, where it’s a government-run station, and a political-free zone, where people from all different countries can come and go (maybe a sort of UN-sponsored endeavor?), but there are franchises within the station from Hilton, Howard Johnson’s (Howard Johnson’s!) and the Bell System (nice to see they got re-monopolized).

I think it’s safe to say that Floyd works for a government-backed space program, or at least a government-backed science program (a government-backed science program — now that’s science fiction!) of some sort, but his job is not to explore strange new worlds or to seek out new life and new civilization. That’s someone else’s job. Floyd’s job, instead, seems to be to conceal. There’s this weird thing that’s happened on the Moon, and it’s Floyd’s job to make sure no one finds out about it. That’s it — that’s all Floyd does in Act II. He’s not a scientist, he’s not politician, he’s not an astronaut, he’s in public relations, some sort of political adjutant, or maybe a lobbyist. Or maybe in intelligence. (Ha! Intelligence! The extraterrestrials granted Moonwatcher intelligence and Floyd works in intelligence! I like this idea.) Four years before Watergate, Kubrick devised an act of his most well-known movie around an act of cover-up. The most astounding discovery in the history of ever has been made on the Moon, and the first thing the humans in charge have done is get Dr. Floyd on the case, because he’s the guy who’s the expert in covering things up.

Space life in 2001 is plush: there’s all kinds of room in the spacecrafts and space stations. One looks inside an Apollo capsule and is shocked — how could three men spend weeks inside this thing and not go insane? But the crafts of 2001 have acres of space to roam around in, and no one to fill them up. Floyd has a shuttle craft to himself, the space station is deserted and pristine, there’s a man at the Hilton desk but no weary space-travelers waiting to check in or complaining about their bill. Obviously money is not a problem here in space: they can hire a kooky 1960s designer to give the space-hotel lobby a charming retro look with enormous pink chairs and a view of the spinning Earth.

Floyd checks in on his daughter on Earth, thanks to the Bell System’s space phone — picture phone, pardon. It’s the girl’s birthday! And so we see another parallel — the mother ape who clutched her baby to her chest in Act I has morphed into the man who can casually check in with the family — from space — in Act II. Birthdays are important in 2001: Floyd calls his daughter on her birthday, Poole’s parents call him on his birthday in Act III, HAL discusses his birthday later in Act III, and and Bowman is, literally, reborn at the end of Act IV. Act I, we could say, begins on Man’s birthday, and the movie ends with the birth of a "new" man. Whether or not the re-birth of Bowman is a good thing is a matter of conjecture, which we’ll get to later.

The other thing to mention about Floyd’s phone call to his daughter is the utter banality of it. Kubrick loves banal phone calls for some reason, Strangelove has a number of them, 2001 has more, The Shining still more. The impetus seems to be to show the utter ordinariness of human interaction, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances. The phone calls in Strangelove are made regarding the most important issues imaginable, but are filled with minutiae and conversational dead ends, and the phone calls in 2001 describe the most everyday of human interactions — in space. In freaking spaceships.

Dr. Floyd is shanghaied by a group of Russian scientists (I think they’re scientists, maybe they’re in the same hard-to-define business as Dr. Floyd). "Russians," of course, had a heavily-weighted significance in 1968, when 2001 came out. What we’re watching is Dr. Floyd’s playing out of his place in the Cold War — there’s "something going on at Clavius" and it’s Dr. Floyd’s job to lie to the Russians about what that might be. And so the Cold War — in space! — is shown to be the evolution of human battle, from Moonwatcher’s bone beat-down to Dr. Floyd’s sly, slippery denials and deferrals. The alpha-monkeys are both doing the same thing, they’re protecting their resources from the enemy. Moonwatcher uses a bone and Floyd uses words. Which is why the cut from the bone to the pen would have worked as well as the cut to the satellite.

Next, there’s another "process" sequence. Floyd travels by shuttle to the Moon, then by moon-bus to Clavius, "his" moon-base. (They don’t say "America’s" moon-base, but that’s the implication. There are no national insignias anywhere in 2001, but plenty of corporate logos. Captialism has lasted in Kubrick’s future, but nationalism seems to have fallen by the wayside. It’s also worth noting that there are, apparently, more than one base on the Moon.

On the way to the Moon, Floyd, again in a deserted shuttle, eats dinner from his microwaved space-dinner pack (a far cry from picking tapir-meat off the bone) while the waitstaff watch sumo wrestling on TV — right next to a window looking out into space. Why star-gaze when you can watch sumo wrestling on TV? After Floyd has his meal, Kubrick shows him perform the next logical act — pooping in space. As far as Floyd has come from Moonwatcher, he’s still tied to the poles of animal existence — eating and shitting.

Floyd chairs a bureaucratic meeting regarding whatever-is-happening-on-Clavius. A photographer takes pictures of what apparently is an illustrious event. The conference room is enormous, and way over-lit, and half the chairs at the U-shaped table are empty. Plenty of room on the Moon! The bureaucrats of 2001 have left the grit and sweat of Earth behind, human life is largely an abstraction. No wonder Floyd is the protagonist of Act II — his job is to keep the populace docile and unaware of the momentous event that has befallen humanity.

The people in the conference room are hugely impressed with being in the presence of the famous Dr. Floyd. They applaud him for his presentation, even though his presentation tells them nothing they don’t already know, and contains no visual aids — not even a Powerpoint display! Obviously, the folks in the conference room are a bunch of sycophants, pleased with themselves for being on the inside track of a big secret. They’re the "cool kids," the alpha-monkeys of the Information Age. They have control of the water-hole now. They’re not applauding Floyd, they’re applauding themselves.

Floyd takes the moon-bus to the whatever-it-is that’s causing all the hubbub, and Kubrick treats us to another conversation staggering in its banality. Floyd and his sycophantic co-workers discuss sandwiches (the processed, imitation meat a hearkening-back to the flesh stripped off the tapir of Act I) and the mystery of the purpose of whatever-it-is that everyone’s talking about.

As well they might. What is the purpose of the monolith (for that is what Floyd is going to see) in Act II? It’s not "to grant intelligence" like the monolith in Act I. It is "to send a signal" or "to point in a specific direction," to guide humanity toward the next step in its evolution. It’s a sign post. Moonwatcher is the recipient of a gift in Act I, and Bowman is something like a detective in Act III, but Floyd is a mere functionary, granted nothing but directions to the next clue.

Floyd and his team of sycophants amble on over to the hole in the ground where the monolith is, and again a photographer is on hand to record the momentous event. Vanity is paramount to these modern humans — I’m surprised Kubrick didn’t include a scene in Act I where Moonwatcher takes the time to record his precious first kill. Floyd, like Moonwatcher, feels he must touch the alien artifact, but unlike Moonwatcher, Floyd must wear gloves — again, modern human experience is seen as abstracted and removed in comparison to its hominid origins.

The act abruptly ends when the monolith emits a piercing scream, audible to Floyd and his pals even on the surface of the Moon. The entire act is about this one moment — the question is "What is the purpose of the monolith on the Moon?" and the answer is "To emit this piercing scream when the Earth and Sun align." Floyd and his pals are abruptly forgotten and never enter the narrative again*, and Act III begins: "The Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later." Color me impressed! Humanity has not only discovered a monolith buried on the surface of the Moon, they’re able to design, build, man and launch a mission to Jupiter 18 months later! Clearly, science rules the world in this alternate future.

*I err!  As quick-on-the-draw reader chris_walsh notes, Dr. Floyd shows up at the end of Act III to explain things to Bowman.  My apologies to Dr. Floyd.


30 Responses to “Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 2”
  1. chris_walsh says:

    Nicely done.

    Slight nitpicks: the first space station is still in low-Earth orbit, nowhere near the moon. Floyd recorded the message Bowman sees at the end of the “Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later” section.

    There are answers to who Floyd’s working for and why, and how the Discovery gets moving so soon, but that’s in the books and I know this analysis tries to avoid bringing in the books, sticking to what Kubrick and Clarke put onscreen. But I’ve long loved how relatively little this film explains. Confused the hell out of me when I first saw it, but I was like 6 or 7.

    Tidbits you may know: the zero-G toilet was a deliberate joke (and the full text has been reprinted in at least one of the books about the film). The satellite in the famous bone/satellite edit is supposedly a weapons platform, but of course that’s never explicitly stated. The shuttle-docking-with-the-space-station sequence was originally much shorter and temp-scored with the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; it’s the music Alex North was asked to emulate for that scene when he scored the film’s first half in late 1967, during his aborted attempt to write an original score for 2001.

    I count myself hella lucky to have seen 2001 on the big screen more than once. I’ve seen it on what I think was a former Cinerama screen; the screen was still curved. BIIIIIIIG and immersive. Even had the overture and the intermission.

    I’m enjoying these essays. steered me towards them.

    • Todd says:

      If the first space shuttle passed by a sign that said “LOW EARTH ORBIT” I’d consider it narratively important. Otherwise it’s all just happening “in space.” But I see your point.

      I’ve got many books on Kubrick in general and 2001 in particular, and it’s nice that there are so many ways to find out what the movie’s “about,” but I am firm in my conviction that a work of art has to stand or fall on what it is, not on what people have written about it to help it out. That said, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel does gain in impact from an understanding of the Bible.

      My small Illinois town where I grew up was too small for a Cinerama screen, but I did get to see 2001 for the first time in its 1972 re-release, and yeah, it pretty much blew me away. I was 11 and had never seen anything remotely like it, and kind of haven’t ever since. Look at the other top-grossers from 1968: Funny Girl, The Odd Couple, Planet of the Apes, Hang ‘Em High, all noteworthy in their own way, but nothing remotely like 2001 in narrative daring.

      Fun fact: 2001 is the only Kubrick movie rated G!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Piercing Scream

    I’d always assumed that some freaky energy given off by the monolith caused feedback in the com systems of the space suits, as opposed to the monolith itself actually making noise. But hey, what do I know? I thought we went to Jupiter a mere 18 months later because the second monolith DID “grant intelligence.”
    – Doctor Handsome

  3. nearside says:

    I like your idea about cutting from bone to pen, though that strikes me as almost tragically mundane. In a good way. I think the culture shock of bone-to-spaceship is as astonishing today as it was then, or when I first saw it in the late 70s.

    • Todd says:

      Made even more shocking by the silence — no “whoosh” or musical sting to heighten it. Talk about a director in command of his tools. So to speak.

      • malsperanza says:

        To me, Kubrick’s use of sound in 2001 is the single greatest innovation in a work packed with innovations. I can’t think of another movie that uses directed sound, ambient sound, silence and music the way this one does. Standout moments: the use of the Blue Danube and Also Sprach Zarathusra (which will never be the same again); Dave Bowman breathing as he maneuvers the space pod; Bowman breathing as he dismantle’s HAL; the sound of knife and fork on plate as old Bowman meets young Bowman; and the silence as HAL reads the lips of the 2 astronauts.

        No other film of Kubrick’s did this; no other filmmaker has tried to borrow or steal from it (AFAIK).

        • Todd says:

          And not just the sound, but the silence: Poole’s murder takes place in complete silence and is all the more frightening and heartless because of it.

  4. adam_0oo says:

    One looks inside an Apollo capsule and is shocked — how could three men spend weeks inside this thing and not go insane?

    Trufact, all the original Apollo astronauts were quite short and petite, because space was at such a premium on-board those rockets.

    In freaking spaceships. You should do PR for NASA.

    • taschoene says:

      Not so true fact. Neil Armstrong is 5′ 11″ and Buzz Aldron was either 5′ 9″ or 5′ 10 depending on your source. The height limit for the first astronaut calls (whih produced most of the Apollo crews) was 183 cm, or 6 feet. That’s not gigantic, but it ain’t short either, unless you’re in the NBA.

  5. I think the problem with the bone-to-pen transition (aside from the fact that it lacks the change of scale that is part of what gives the transition its power) is that it might tip the film’s metaphorical hand too early. Again, I haven’t seen 2001 in a long time, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think part of the film’s point is that human intelligence, rather than the tools made with that intelligence, is our greatest asset. We’re about to meet the most advanced tool humanity as ever constructed, a tool that will soon decide that it has to kill humans and could potentially replace us a the dominant “life form,” for lack of a better term. If Kubrick says right at the start that human power is human intelligence, and not just the neat tools that we can make with it, then the question of whether and how we will survive when our tools turn on us is already answered.

    • mimitabu says:

      i think the scale transition is the most powerful aspect, and also part of why bone-to-pen tips the metaphorical hand too early, as you say. by emphasizing the scale of human tools (“freaking spaceships”) you heighten the impact of how banal everything is. i think the rhythm of starting at freaking spaceships and gradually revealing the banal feels better than going straight to the banal.

      i also think it’s more dramatic to frame the start of technology as bone and the end as nuclear weapons outpost/spaceship than it is to frame the end of technology as pen; or maybe more precisely, i think the beautiful start/end dynamic just drops out if you use the pen. it’s thematically more accurate to go bone-to-pen, considering how words have replaced bones as dominant style of weaponry (as todd says), but i think it has less aesthetic impact. one could argue that bone-to-pen could get the same sense of “here’s the history of human work,” but again i think bone-to-station has further virtues.

      and honestly, i think the actual cut from ship to (cabin to) pen achieves the best of both worlds. it’s interesting (to me) to think of the difference in impact there would be had the cut to the cabin had the pen actually onscreen in the first moment. i guess i’m pretty trifling. finally, i like the way cutting from spaceships to what’s obviously the familiar inside of an airplane, prominently featuring such a lo-tech object as a pen, is a nice way of playing on expectation that gets further elaborated as we see how boring life in space is; this play is set up by cutting to freaking spaceships first.

  6. kevinm126 says:


    Are you going to break down “2010” at some point? I’m really interested to read your reaction and analysis to that in light of what you’ve touched upon here.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It’s interesting to me that he cuts to the satellite (which is supposed to be a nuclear bomb) and cues “The Beautiful Blue Danube”. The song is appropriate for all of the obvious reasons, but “The Blue Danube” was also the name of Britain’s first nuclear weapon. I’m sure Kubrik didn’t choose it for that, but it’s interesting none the less.

    I’ve read that Kubrik originally planned for the movie to end with the Starchild version of Dave returning to Earth and setting off all of the orbiting bombs, showing that man would still kill even at that level of evolution. I’m glad he held back and left the ending open to interpretation, though. He had decided against it, apparently, because it was too close to the ending of Dr. Strangelove.

    One of my favorite things about this movie is the minutia of the dialogue in this (and even the following) act. Not only does it illustrate that all this technology and grandeur is sort of old-hat and no big deal to the humans, but it helps link these humans to the ones we saw in act 1. The apes at the dawn of man grunted at each other and we can only somewhat understand what they are trying to convey. They make a lot of noise without really saying anything, and I feel like that’s what is happening with the humans in space. They speak quite a bit, but say very little. I see their over-abundant pleasantries the same as the grunting apes. Not that humans have nothing to say, or are as dumb as apes, but that Kubrik is trying to cement the fact that these are still the same animals. They eat, they sleep, they procreate, they defecate, they defend themselves violently, and they make noise at each other. It doesn’t matter so much to us what they are TRYING to say. We could probably get just as much out of the movie if the English dialogue were replaced with more guttural noises.
    Interestingly, HAL is probably the most humanized and colloquial character in the movie (Dave comes close toward the end of act 3), the rest are shown as a bunch of animals to be examined.

  8. pbastien says:

    no bone to pen please

    I’m going to defend kubrick’s decision here. Because for all intents and purposes it really was an orbital missile silo and nothing more. The switch to a pen defuses the metaphor he was trying to go for, changing ‘no matter how advanced we are, we still invent things to kill each other’ to ‘man mankind has got coddled and doughy since it’s ancestors were killing each other in that piece of shit gorge”

    Also another possible meaning of the movie is that no matter where we are, who we are, how advanced we are, every place we go and every thing we do will always devolve into warfare. Wether its shows of dominance in olduvai gorge, battles of politics in orbit or a battle of wits in deep space, everything we do and every step we take is marked by conflict and violence.

    People also have a tendency to fail to notice that the movie is the book, literally. You strip away the context and deeper meaning and you realize that this movie is as literal a translation of the physical events and dialogue spoken in the book as humanly possible.

    though the space flight scene was cooler in the book (the monolith was used with janus, a moon around saturn where BigM was in the book, to jump into subspace). He passed over alien planets, around abandoned ET space station, etc.

    In fact kubrick was going to do this and had all the artwork and matte paintings finished, but he chose to do psychedelic thing at the last moment. It’s not really much of a detractor though. I guess he assumed that it was just too literal and took away from the metaphoric elements of the story. I kind of agree with that but still, other planets would be cool.

    A couple other little cool tidbits though

    -This movie is generally (at least the people I talk to) believed to symbiotic to the book. One can’t be fully understood without the other.

    -The star Child was not going to blow up the missile platforms, just shut them down, signifying that he was the first human ever to exceed the impulse for violence as a means of solving problems. Which he actually did (the last scene of the star child over looking the earth and the events of 2010 were supposed to coincide.

    -“My god it’s full of stars” was never actually said in the movie, signifying the first (i assume) time a book quote ever became more widely memorable than a movie quote.

    -the scene where Bowman lobotomizes Hal always had some strange parallels with me to moonwatcher dashing the brains of his enemies. Am I crazy?

    -despite the general consensus that the protagonists, the aliens, are never seen, that is actually not true. Due to the extreme lack of dialogue and exposition in the movie, people assume that. In reality, they appear very briefly in the space travel sequence. In the sequence, you get to a point where you see crystalline and geometric shapes in the psychedelic tunnel. those ARE THE ALIENS!!!! dun dun duuuun.

    -no, seriously they are. The book describes them as beings who evolved from organic to immortal mechanical bodies and eventually to a point where they wove themselves into the crystaline structure of space itself, as the book the describes.

    -in that way it adds almost a huge other layer of meaning to the movie for me. These inscrutable, ununderstandable things have been driving human evolution for millions of years just appear for a moment and then are gone. to see such a tiny glimpse of them, without understanding their meaning or context is like seeing the face of god for a moment. You sit there wondering what the hell your staring at and what it means and by the time you get it, its gone.

    • Todd says:

      Re: no bone to pen please

      Regarding the bone-to-pen cut, I defer to mimitabu above, who says it much better than I do.

    • chris_walsh says:

      Re: no bone to pen please

      -This movie is generally (at least the people I talk to) believed to symbiotic to the book. One can’t be fully understood without the other.

      Clarke once said that they considered the film credit should read “Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick” and vice-versa for the book. That seemed to sum up the complexities of their work together in the simplest and most all-encompassing way.

      I love how well they worked together. It’s a stunningly thorough collaboration. Maybe the only thing approaching it is when James Cameron hired Orson Scott Card to novelize The Abyss; Card wrote before-the-events-of-the-movie chapters that Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio incorporated into their preparation for their roles, Card got to stay with the production and could watch the actual takes that were going to be used in the final film, and Card got to expand on some of the alien ideas that Cameron only hinted at. And what they did is nowhere near the level of what Kubrick and Clarke did.

      In the sequence, you get to a point where you see crystalline and geometric shapes in the psychedelic tunnel. those ARE THE ALIENS!!!! dun dun duuuun.

      Maybe, maybe not. I can see your point, but I’ll stick with not being sure what those shapes were. Or what was causing the noises in the “hotel room” (noise created by manipulating some of the music).

    • notthebuddha says:

      Re: no bone to pen please

      -The star Child was not going to blow up the missile platforms, just shut them down, signifying that he was the first human ever to exceed the impulse for violence as a means of solving problems.

      Not like that thug Gandhi, eh?

    • viktor_haag says:

      Re: no bone to pen please

      moonwatcher dashing the brains of his enemies

      I don’t think you are crazy, at all.

    • Re: no bone to pen please

      I could almost believe that both possible endings existed, with Clarke being more optimistic and believing that the next evolutionary step would include humans transcending the need to violence and more pessimistic Kubrick feeling the star child would say “Screw you, humanity!” and nuke the lot of us because humans can never get past inherent animal nature and need for violence, and the more ambiguous ending was a compromise between the two viewpoints. It may not have been what actually happened, but it’s a thought that appeals to me.

  9. viktor_haag says:

    Another motif you can trace through the film: humans watching violence and the increasing distance from which this is done as an attempt to be civil. In the first act, the onlookers are so close to the observed violence performed by MoonWatcher that they could very easily (do?) get gather up in the frenzy. In the second act, humans have stepped back to watching violence more remotely: it’s stylized to be non-lethal and televised (the Sumo wrestling). In the third act, the violence is abstracted and stylized even more: it’s a game of chess played between Dave and Hal.

    Of course, as you point out, the distance between observer and participant is, even in the third act, disturbingly close the surface as Dave and Hal’s chess game transforms into a mortal struggle between the two, until in the end Dave resorts to the blunt instrument of removing Hal’s forebrain by hand.

  10. Anonymous says:

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    – Camden

  11. jbacardi says:

    It’s also worth noting that there are, apparently, more than one base on the Moon.

    Did you mean to type …there IS, apparently… ?

    I nitpick because I care.

  12. chrispiers says:

    I think one important element to note is that while humans have made space travel ordinary, they are still children in space. They eat through straws, poop with helper toilets, wear blankies while traveling, need help walking. It seems that every time we begin an act, humanity is really at the beginning of a new stage.