Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 1

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Viewers sometimes find 2001 to be opaque, baffling, boring, slow, tedious and pointless. I find it the opposite — it’s fascinating, suspenseful and, when one considers the wealth of narrative packed into its running time, quite fast-paced indeed, almost humorously so. What baffles people about 2001 is not in the nature or purpose of its collective scenes, but in the choices Kubrick made early on in the devising of the screenplay.

Depending on the way you approach narrative, Kubrick has done one of two extraordinary, innovative things in the narrative of 2001. One, my personal belief, is that he’s created a narrative in which the protagonist never appears. The other, a slightly more conventional way of looking at it, is that he’s created a narrative with three protagonists, three protagonists who never meet but are related thematically and whose motivations all revolve around the same item, the maguffin of the piece, the mysterious black monolith.

Here is my notion of the story of 2001:

A group of extraterrestrials, or someone, for reasons never explained, decide one day, a few million years ago, to grant a bunch of monkeys the power of an intelligence greater than they already possess. The monkeys respond to this gift in interesting ways, eventually getting to the point where they can get a single man in the same room with the extraterrestrials, or whoever. The extraterrestrials, or whoever, then grant this single man the gift of greater intelligence.

That’s it, that’s the whole movie. Everything else is subplots. It’s incredibly simple (if 2001 has flaws, over-plotting isn’t one of them), which is not the same thing as saying it is without resonance or nuance, because it drips with resonance and nuance. The reason people find it baffling is that Kubrick has made the ground-breaking, mind-blowing decision to never show his protagonist, the extraterrestrials (or whoever) who set the plot into motion and who come around at the end again to settle accounts. Instead, he gives us three reactive protagonists, Moonwatcher (an alpha-monkey), Floyd and Bowman, and then gives them things to do, very little of which directly involve the extraterrestrials. Either way, it’s a rather incredible stunt for a cinematic narrative, especially since the movie remains so elegiac and suspenseful in spite of it.

ACT I begins at "The Dawn of Man." Specifically, a sort of "day in the life of the Dawn of Man." How does Kubrick imagine the Dawn of Man? Well, it ain’t fun, that’s for sure. The monkeys kicking around at the Dawn of Man live in the dirt, eat weeds and die. (In fact, we see the bones of a dead monkey before we see a live monkey.) The monkeys at the Dawn of Man are indistinguishable from the tapirs who mope around them. They are animals, and not at the top of the food chain. They eat plants and are devoured by leopards — that’s their life.

But not quite! They also fight each other. Over what? Over the same things nations fight over now — natural resources. In the Dawn of Man neighborhood, one group of monkeys has laid claim to a watering-hole, and another group of monkeys tries to move in, precipitating a fight. Moonwatcher, the alpha monkey of the monkey-team we’re watching,is triumphant in this fight and the other monkey-team has to go home.

Next, we get a brief scene of the monkeys at night. Night-time of the monkeys at the Dawn of Man is even worse than daytime. They huddle in fear underneath an overhang, watchful of leopards and whatever else might decide to come along and make their lives harder. They are ruled by fear. We see two tiny bits of business in this brief scene — one monkey tries to take a tiny scrap of food from another, and is beaten away for it, and a mother monkey clutches a baby monkey. And, like it or not, there you have it, that’s human existence — squabbling for food and protecting the young from the leopards who want to eat them.

Then, one day, this monolith shows up. No note, no explanation, no spaceship, nothing. It just shows up. Boom. Why here? Why now? The narrative doesn’t say. But the extraterrestrials, or whoever, for some reason, has decided to leave it there, seemingly only for a day or so. Moonwatcher, the alpha monkey, is the first to approach this mysterious object, and the first to touch it. (And the first to taste it, for that matter — and without an Eve to hand it to him.) And that’s the end of that scene.

Then, it’s like nothing ever happened. The monolith never shows up again. I don’t know what was going on in the monkeys’ minds the next day: "Hey, remember that monolith thing? That was weird." But the effect of the monolith is immediate and obvious: Moonwatcher gets an idea. What’s his idea? His idea is to use a bone as a tool. Fists can injure, but a tool can kill.

Next thing we know (the sequence is slippery on time, maybe it’s the next day, maybe it’s years later) our monkey team are eating tapir instead of weeds, and they’re flourishing. Not to mention, no more leopard attacks. They have just moved up a notch on the food chain. They now know how to kill, and the protein in their diet is helping them stay strong and live longer.

But not everything is going well in Dawn of Man-land. Because now the rival gang of monkeys come back for another fight at the watering-hole. Moonwatcher isn’t putting up with this nonsense — he takes his bone-tool-weapon and opens a can of whup-ass on his rival alpha-monkey. His rival, a weed-eating simpleton, has brought his fists to a bone fight, and suffers the consequences. Kubrick has shown us the beginning of the arms race: one monkey has his fists, the other has a bone — end of contest. If the other monkeys want to beat Moonwatcher, they’re going to have to think up something to beat his bone — a pointed stick, maybe, or a hurled rock.

So the monolith has, for whatever reason, granted Moonwatcher and his tribe the gift of intelligence, and Moonwatcher’s reaction to that gift is to pick up a bone and start killing stuff — first tapirs, then other monkeys. He swiftly goes from hunter to murderer. Evolution, the act shows, involves murder as a necessary component: men are as they are because they are murderers, that’s what defines them.

Having completed the evolution from animal to murderer, Moonwatcher hurls his bone, triumphant, into the air. Which leads to one of the greatest edits in the history of cinema, from the bone in the sky to a satellite in space. They are both the same thing, they are both machines, they are brute objects manipulated by monkeys to achieve a certain end, thanks to the gift granted to them by the never-seen extraterrestrials.


42 Responses to “Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 1”
  1. jbacardi says:

    Even though I remember a lot of TV and newspaper coverage when I was a preteen, and owned the 8-track of the film soundtrack, it took me five times over three decades before I finally watched this one from beginning to end. I liked the 70’s future-style scenery and set design as well as the well-considered musical choices, and the streamlined plot is welcome, but Philistine that I am, I’m afraid I fall in with the “boring” crowd due to the deliberate, glacial pace. I didn’t expect (or want) lightsaber duels, but jeez is this flick inert. In my opinion, of course.

  2. tawdryjones says:

    men are as they are because they are murderers

    I’ve never heard that take before and it’s curious. It makes me start wondering about Hal. Do Hal’s actions make him a “man”?

    And I agree with you. Once you know what the opening sequence is saying, it’s wonderfully paced like many classical music overtures. I believe Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing.

    • Todd says:

      Re: men are as they are because they are murderers

      Well yes, HAL represents a new phase in the evolution of machines, in exactly the way Moonwatcher is a new phase in the evolution of monkeys. He is the best computer ever, is practically human, has been given the gift of extraordinary intelligence, and so therefore, of necessity, murders.

      • selectnone says:

        Re: men are as they are because they are murderers

        I think HAL is thought of as such by The Whoever, he’s given the same uplifted status as Bowman in 2010, along with a copy of Floyd.

        (this is from my recollection of the book, I’ve just borrowed the DVD, the movie might not make this clear)

        I suppose that’s not really relevant to an analysis of 2001 though 🙂

        • notthebuddha says:

          Re: men are as they are because they are murderers

          It’s Bowman who uplifts the other two – and they’re all copies, Floyd being the only one with a still-living original.

          3001 makes it clear that the monolith’s makers have long gone on to other things since the original intervention. There’s no way to tell if this was intended as far back as in 2001, but that book and the film both allow for it.

        • Todd says:

          Re: men are as they are because they are murderers

          Whatever the merits of 2010, I don’t consider it as helpful in explaining the events of 2001. It’s a whole different kettle of extraterrestrials.

      • popebuck1 says:

        Re: men are as they are because they are murderers

        And Bowman in his turn has to “murder” him by removing his brain – asserting his dominance by taking away intelligence, the opposite of the aliens.

  3. selectnone says:

    I recently got this on Bluray, and was amazed by how much of it still looks really good.

    They’re not monkeys, they’re apes, including the baby chimp. 🙂

    I always got the impression that the Moonwatcher’s tribe were the ones that were shooed away from the watering-hole, with the later killing showing how superior technology allowed them to take what they couldn’t take previously.

    I’ve not read the book in a very long time, so I’m not super-sure – I wouldn’t rely my monkey-recognition abilities 😉

    • I think that makes more sense actually. If you look at the monolith as and experiment being conducted by the unseen aliens, what would produce more interesting results:granting greater intelligence to the already dominant tribe and seeing what happens or granting intelligence to the currently inferior tribe and seeing how that changes things?

      • Todd says:

        I’m not sure the monolith is necessarily an experiment, though. And since the extraterrestrials (or whoever remain utterly opaque on their reasoning for granting the monkeys this boon, I don’t think it matters — I think the story is more about what we do with the gift, not the giver’s intent.

        • That’s true, though I still think it adds a little extra oomph to the opening scenes if part of the idea is how intelligence and tools allow this tribe of apes to triumph over a stronger one. But you’re right; if Kubrick thought it was really important that we know which apes are which, he would have made it easier to tell them apart.

  4. voiceofisaac says:

    The edit of bone-to-satellite is absolutely perfect. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the most compelling visual in a movie filled to the gills with rich images. Takes my breath away every time I see that transition.

  5. teamwak says:

    A fantastic read as usual, Todd 🙂

    And the bone/spaceship cut is near perfect cinema from where Im sitting.

    After this, I’d love to hear your views on 2010 (which is a personal favourite of mine)

  6. jwz says:


    Many years ago, I was driving to work and put on one of the local college radio stations. It was an odd time of day for it, but they were playing some kind of droning, ambient industrial music: lots of environmental clicks and hums, the sound of unidentifiable machines and metal things sliding around. Then in the middle there were some strange, stilted dialog that sounded like a board meeting full of uncomfortable rich men. What was going on? Then back to the droning and hums for another half hour, until the DJ came on for a station ID and gave up the gag: he was playing the entire audio portion of 2001.

    It was fantastic. I had always known that movie had amazing sound design, but I had never realized how amazing until I heard it this way. It’s actually really interesting even without the rest of the movie! Another thing I noticed on the rest of that drive is that my memory of the sound in the “space” scenes had been completely faulty. I remembered that 2001 was remarkable in that, unlike every other science fiction movie ever made, there’s no sound in space. In my memory, the space shots were completely silent, and minutes would go by with no sound at all. That’s not the case. Those shots always have an observer, and Kubrick always knows where the observer is. Sometimes (but rarely) the observer is outside, and then the shot is silent, but most of the time the observer is inside a ship, or a space suit, and then the sound is a noisy wash of pumps, fans, and panicked breathing.

    • Todd says:

      Re: sound

      The sound design in 2001 is indeed wonderful and sophisticated, and decades ahead of its time, in terms of what people expected to hear in a movie theater, even in a science-fiction movie.

  7. greyaenigma says:

    I might have said this before, but…

    A few years ago, 2001 came on TV while I was channel surfing. I remember saying to myself that there was no need to watch it, I already had it on DVD, but it was so compelling I just got sucked in.

  8. adam_0oo says:

    has brought his fists to a bone fight


  9. notthebuddha says:

    Evolution, the act shows, involves murder as a necessary component: men are as they are because they are murderers, that’s what defines them.

    I can’t agree – there are numerous animals that kill their own from crocodiles to chimps, without tools. The arms race part is closer to the mark, it is the ability to come up with new ideas like tools and adapt to changes faster than glacial evolution that defines man-like intelligence.

    • Todd says:

      I often wonder what would have happened if the extraterrestrials had left the monolith next to a river of crocodiles. The world would be a much different place now.

      Evolutionary science aside, Kubrick’s notion of men being defined by their desire to kill is a motif that runs through runs through almost all his movies.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        He does? Then he’s got things upside down. Most men don’t want to murder. They don’t even want to kill in order to defend themselves. They have to be given special training to overcome the deep-seated imperative to avoid killing anybody. Until the US army developed that homicidal rifle training in the 1950s most US soldiers would shoot their rifles in the air, even when the enemy was coming at them. This has been so in all armies in all the wars since the invention of firearms. Of course, cannons don’t count since people are too far away.

        • Todd says:

          The first act of Full Metal Jacket is, of course, about this very phenomenon, how the army turns ordinary teenage boys into killing machines. But Kubrick’s deep pessimism, starting with Strangelove and going through Jacket, discusses, compellingly, that men are driven to kill, that it is endemic to their nature. Whether that’s true or not I have no idea, but that’s what’s presented fairly clearly in his movies.

          • The odd thing though is that all of the killing that happens in 2001 – if I recall correctly, since i haven’t seen it in a while – is for the purpose of self preservation. The only killer in the film that I can think of who kills for reason other than stopping a direct threat to his existence is Moonwatcher, and he’s the one who’s supposed to be just one step removed from savage animal. In the greater scheme of things, Moonwatcher kills to gain natural resources that will ensure the long term survival of himself and his tribe. But his life is not in immediate danger, as the damage the rival apes can do to him with their bare fists is probably limited. Killing for the purposes of self-preservation is not only something that animals do as well, it’s also something that humans perceive as justifiable. “I had to kill him or her would have killed me.” So I’m not sure about calling it “murder” either. “Murder” implies a choice, while a kill-or-be-killed situation suggests that there is no choice. Is it possible that Kubrick’s message is that humans are nothing more than animals with bigger brains, which we use primarily to invent more efficient ways of killing each other?

            • Todd says:

              I think that’s very much a part of Kubrick’s message, yes, and if the extraterrestrials made a “mistake” in their experiments it was granting intelligence to an animal that was bound to misuse it.

        • notthebuddha says:

          The reluctance to kill in infantry combat can have a lot to do with it being an impersonal affair. There’s no shortage of people giving in to homicidal urges against personal acquaintances and family, who have much more contact time to generate animosity. Moonwatcher is putting the beat down on the guys who ran his family off of their waterhole and have been personally hassling him with aggressive behaviors, not some anonymous Huns.

      • notthebuddha says:

        Kubrick’s notion of men being defined by their desire to kill is a motif

        “Desire to kill” I can buy – Moonwatcher seems to really enjoy killing with his new tool, and Hal has “the greatest possible enthusiasm” for the fatal mission.

  10. noskilz says:

    Awfully quibbly, but isn’t “murder” a pretty strong term for creatures that have only just recently been introduced to the idea of a tool? I’m probably just being silly, and I doubt the choice of term was an accident, but murder just sounds a little strange when applied to animals/proto-hominids.

    • igorxa says:

      but they understand what death is, and they fear it. murder probably should sound strange when applied to animals, but i think that’s the point. these animals have just been given something that will let them evolve beyond being just an animal.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The bone/satellite jump cut (technically match cut, but intended to imply a conceptual jump cut) is even better if you read the book or screenplay which specify that it isn’t just a satellite, but an orbital nuclear missile silo. So it’s not just a jump from the first tool to the last/greatest tool, but from the first scientific discovery used for killing to the latest/greatest scientific discovery used for killing. Man throws his first weapon in the air in his (evolutionary) infancy, and no matter how old or mature he becomes, he keeps throwing weapons up into the air. And we’ll get to it in part 2 or 3, but HAL (the most pure, perfect, and efficient human mind) still can’t help but rely on murder for it’s survival. I think Kubrik was definitely trying to make a statement on man’s inescapably murderous nature.

    • Todd says:

      I knew that the satellite is “supposed to be” a nuclear silo, but they don’t mention it specifically in the movie. For this piece, I decided to stick to only what’s in the movie, not what the supporting documents tell us.

      • Anonymous says:

        if you look closely on each satellite there is a nation’s flag. from the u.s. to china to germany etc. its logical to make a militaristic connection here.

        • Todd says:

          Wow, really? I’ll have to look at those shots again. I’m watching the blu-ray on a pretty big screen, the flags must be pretty small. But you’re right, if there are flags on the thing it implies a nationalist purpose at the very least.

  12. pbastien says:

    Men are defined by murder.

    I concede two primary points
    Men are defined by the act of violence and murder
    Hal can be defined as a man

    HOWEVER: I can only concede to these two primary points under two primary conditions.

    1: Humans are defined by violence and murder, yes but not the drive to commit said subversive action. I thereby postulate that while humans are defined by violence and murder, they are primarily defined by the relatively inane and stupid reasons that allow people to rationalize and enable such destructive actions. (resources completing the mission, etc)

    2: Secondly I agree that Hal can be defined as a man. Only by proxy to humans. Hal was a machine primarily, its goal to accurately and honestly process and display info. Hal was given an order to with hold information from the crew, effectively lying. Telling, what is essentially a machine, something that is by its very nature honest to lie to give the spark of humanity, which is paradox. Now that Hal is a creature of paradox, its sole focus is to lie but avoid the possibility of telling the truth. Its final result is that it used its now paradoxical, and inexplicably human nature to rationalize ‘having the cake and eating it too’.

    Its thought process goes like this…
    It is a creature built to tell the truth
    but it was ordered to lie (not tell the crew)
    But it cannot defy its own nature!
    But it cannot defy its orders.
    So it should do both Lie and tell the truth at the same time
    It cannot tell the crew the truth, but if there is no crew to tell, then there is logically no reason to lie.

    And with this inane, contradictory rationalization, Hal, a machine, learns to kill and becomes inexorably human.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Men are defined by murder.

      To be fair, Kubrick didn’t write this himself and had help developing this story, a co-author.


      • pbastien says:

        Re: Men are defined by murder.

        you mean AC Clarke? guy who wrote the book/ co wrote the script at the exact same time. Sort of. There is far less ape on ape action in the book (which I assume was the insistence of kubrick) and much more focus the spiritual side of evolution. Also the original monolith on earth was clear, then turned opaque gray. The apes were also forcibly abducted through psychic means to run physical tests on them.

        and hal was far more insane/paranoid in the book. He de-pressurized the cabin with Bowman and the sleeping crew and almost killed him, while also killing the sleeper crew. He had to hide in an emergency pressure cabin to survive.

        but seriously, Clarke was a notoriously positive writer. Almost everything about his stuff was good natured and positive. Seriously, childhood’s end (the book Kubrick originally wanted to do) has the entire human race and earth blown up at the end, but thats a good thing because thats what it took for the last generation to evolve into non corporeal super beings.

        Any pessimism is the result from leaked influence from another author (kubrick in this case)

      • Todd says:

        Re: Men are defined by murder.

        I think it’s fair to say that, co-author or not, at this point in his career, anything that happens in a Stanley Kubrick movie happens because Stanley Kubrick wants it to.

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Men are defined by murder.

          ac clarke was angered at the fact that during production he was not allowed to see any of the rushes. he developed his story out of pre-production sessions with kubrick and they worked on their stories separately.

          • Todd says:

            Re: Men are defined by murder.

            I’m sure that Clarke was neither the first nor last writer that Kubrick angered in his career. In fact, it’s my understanding that he angered pretty much everyone he worked with at that level.

  13. Anonymous says:

    the monolith is the cinema screen rotated 90 degrees. this is determined by musical cues (thus spake zarathustra plays during the prologue and only when the monolith is on screen). this is key to understanding and unraveling all the sub-narrative mysteries in this film, and there are multitudes of them. you need to hit up rob ager’s exceptional 13+ chapter analysis of 2001. you can find it here: http://www.collativelearning.com/2001%20analysis%20new.html
    i consider it the finest work on the film’s true meanings.
    and this video will provide you with visual proof of the monolith being the cinema screen (think of how this completely changes the prologue for the viewer). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P95NWAHWLrc