Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 3

free stats

Almost an hour into 2001, the movie starts.  We meet the narrative’s third human-or-thereabouts protagonist, Dave Bowman (although Bowman’s protagonist status doesn’t really kick in for another half-hour or so).  When people complain that 2001 is slow, or draggy, I think this, not the pace of the editing or the speed of the narrative development, are what they’re talking about.  We saw the same thing happen this summer with Inglourious Basterds, many viewers found the movie boring and without incident, not because it was but because it kept "starting over," introducing new protagonists an hour or more into the movie and asking us to invest in their stories.  The protagonists of 2001 (the human ones, not the invisible-extraterrestrials ones) never meet one another, and Bowman, the last, only has the dimmest awareness of what the hell is going on in the very last moments of the movie, and at that point the viewer is sometimes so baffled that it’s easy to miss just what Bowman’s revelation is about.

In any case, here we are on "The Jupiter Mission."  And the first glimpse of human life we get is astronaut Frank Poole, literally, running in circles.  As well he might.  Humanity makes great leaps forward in 2001, but the essential truths of humanity don’t change — it’s still all about alpha monkeys and defending the watering hole.

At the top of Act III, we meet HAL, something new under the sun of human development — a machine who thinks it is human.  Or, a machine who perhaps is human.  Act III, in toto, is about yet another battle around the watering-hole.  The smartest monkey will dominate, and do so with homicidal actions.  Since Bowman is largely reactive in Act III, one could even say that HAL is the protagonist here — he’s got the drop on Bowman and Poole, and he presses his advantage.  But more on that later.

The act begins with a healthy chunk of exposition, delivered, more or less, briskly and efficiently in the form of a television documentary that Bowman and Poole watch.  It’s an "as you know, Bob" scene made sturdier by the astronauts watching themselves on TV — we want to know the information we’re getting, and the astronauts aren’t in a position to groan and say "arrgh, we already know all this stuff, why are you telling me this?"  And so we learn about the high-tech marvel of HAL and the then-new concept of artificial intelligence.  We learn in the expository block that a HAL 9000 computer has never "made a mistake or distorted information" — something to keep in mind when we learn that HAL has murder in his heart and spouts nothing but bullshit throughout the act.

(Another indication that HAL is the protagonist of Act III — his m.o. picks up where Dr. Floyd’s leaves off.  Moonwatcher’s goal is "to protect," Floyd’s is "to lie," HAL shows that deception, like murder, is a key component of evolutionary development.)

How are the humans feeling since Dr. Floyd disappeared?  Pretty good!  Bowman and Poole are happy as clams in their high-tech wonderland of the Discovery One.  Dr. Floyd dozed on his way to the space station, but the three other humans on the Discovery are really asleep, ensconced in their high-tech sarcophagi.  HAL seems most chipper of all, he all but hums as he goes about his plot to kill the crew and take over the mission.

Eating, once again, is brought up.  Moonwatcher tore the flesh off a tapir, and Floyd sipped his vegetables from straw, now Bowman and Poole chow down on trays of mult-colored gunk.  Eating, like much of human interaction, becomes increasing abstracted as we evolve.  Floyd needed pictures on his boxes of slurry, Bowman and Poole eat what’s put in front of them without glancing at it.

Eating isn’t the only human activity becoming increasingly abstracted.  So is communication.  It’s Poole’s birthday!  And boy is he overjoyed to get a message from his parents.  Well, no.  No, he’s not.  No, he looks bored to tears, contemptuous even, as his bourgeois mom and dad fill up their video message with trivia and hollow chatter.  It’s another "inane phone call under extraordinary circumstances" scene.  Dr. Floyd got to speak to his daughter face to face, but the time-delay to Jupiter means that it no one on the ship can communicate with Earth directly.  This, of course, becomes a key component to HAL’s immaculate plan.

Warfare, we see, has been further abstracted from the old days at the water-hole.  Bowman plays chess with HAL, and loses.  It’s easy to forget that chess is a metaphor for warfare, but a kingdom is pillaged with every game.  And, we’ll learn by the end, the whole of Act III has been an elaborate chess game itself, HAL moving Bowman’s pieces delicately into place for the final mate.

Meanwhile, Bowman is an artist!  He draws portraits!  Or, rather, he draws pictures of the sarcophagi encasing his co-workers — yet another abstraction, when a drawing of a bit of face inside a metal case constitutes a human "likeness."  HAL’s line of bullshit is so complete, he’s even polite to Bowman’s drafting skills — sucking up to the guy he’s plotting to murder.

HAL has a question, one he shares with Bowman and Poole (and the rest of humanity, for that matter): Why are we here?  We haven’t seen any indication of Bowman’s or Poole’s anxiety yet, so it’s a little startling to see that HAL is an incisive psychologist as well as an art critic and ship’s captain.  Because, yes, Bowman and Poole, in spite of being the only awake humans on the trip, are not the alpha-monkeys of this water-hole — HAL is, until the others wake up.  Bowman and Poole are mere mechanics, beta-monkeys supreme, keeping the ship going until it’s time to wake up the head honchos.  They gladly leave all the big decisions to HAL, who is the reigning alpha-monkey of this crucial moment of evolution.  They can’t even make simple technical decisions on their own, they have to check with the alpha-monkeys in back in Houston first.

HAL reports that a radio-whatsit is about to fail, and Bowman goes out to replace the unit.  We see the vastness of space, and the Discovery One’s tininess within it.  (Am I crazy for thinking that the spaceship looks like a giant bone?)  Blinded by the sunlight, Bowman adjusts his visor until his face disappears; now he’s not even an astronaut, he’s just a suit, fixing a busted gasket.

Well, so there’s nothing wrong with the whatsit, and Bowman and Poole begin to suspect HAL.  Which they are correct to do, but here they do so for the wrong reason.  They think HAL is malfunctioning, it never occurs to them that HAL is doing the 21st-century spaceship version of "cutting the wires."  The whatsit is part of their communications relay with Earth, and HAL needs the spaceship to be radio silent while he carries out his nefarious plot.

So the question of Act III, from Bowman’s point of view, has nothing to do with the monolith at all.  In fact, the monolith barely figures into the action at all.  For decades I thought that Act III of 2001 was a mere subplot, a little drama injected on the way to Jupiter.  Butnow I see that, in Kubrick’s vision of the future of humanity, the question of machines in our evolution is paramount, and built in from the beginning.  The monolith inspires Moonwatcher to pick up a bone, the bone becomes a spaceship, the evolution of machines develops machines smarter than people: HAL, in fact, may be right: machines, it could be said, are, in fact, the next phase of human evolution.  Or, rather, perhaps humans exist in order to bring about machine life.  For all we know, that was the intent of the invisible extraterrestrial’s gift.  (Kubrick would later explore this idea in A.I.)

So Bowman and Poole plot to murder HAL, out of self-preservation.  It’s back to the water-hole for Bowman and Poole, they feel that, absent the other crew members, they are the rightful alpha-monkeys on the Jupiter mission, they’re not going to take any guff from some red-eyed mechanical upstart.

(I note that the title of this movie hearkens back to Homer: is HAL Bowman’s Cyclops?  For that matter, The Odyssey describes a voyage home, just as Bowman travels to Beyond the Infinite, just to come back home to Earth.  Kubrick gives away the ending in his title!)

Poole goes out to put the whatsit back in the thingy, but doesn’t make it: HAL murders him with his own tool, his space-pod.

What does HAL want?  His stated goal is "to be of use," but nothing could be further from the truth.  HAL has, on his own, put together the mystery that Moonwatcher, Dr. Floyd and the crew of the Discovery One have not — the nature and purpose of the monolith.  HAL knows that the monolith is some kind of evolution-accelerating machine, and he sees himself as the more worthy beneficiary of its gift — he tells Bowman that the mission is "too important" to be left to the inferior likes of humans — HAL sees himself as humanity perfected, infallible.  Bowman, naturally, disagrees, even though he doesn’t even know what the mission is.  His goal is simple self-preservation, he’s still fighting over the water-hole.

(I see that "Bowman" is named after a stripe of warrior; is it too much to suggest that the "poole" he’s fighting for is related to the water-hole that Moonwatcher defends?)

Next we have a couple of more Kubrick-style "process" scenes: the questions here being "How do you retrieve a body in deep space?" and "Then, how do you get back into a spaceship if the computer wants to kill you?"  While Bowman goes to fetch Poole (as HAL knew he would), HAL murders the other crew members in the most abstract way possible: through a series of line graphs and flashing signs.  No bone for HAL, circuitry is all the tool he needs.

Bowman risks his life to fetch Poole’s body, but when it comes to his own self-preservation, he lets Poole go into deep space because he needs his pod-arms to get back inside the ship.  He then proceeds to lobotomize HAL with another tool: a key.  HAL’s death is heartbreaking and peculiar because he remains eminently civilized as he defends himself against Bowman.  He bargains and pleads and promises to be better.  He’s a liar almost to the end, when he starts expressing fear.  And then, as he loses his mind, senility sets in and he goes back to memories of his birth.

The "Daisy" section of HAL’s death I remember being played as morbid comedy, but tonight it struck me as a kind of final-revelation of HAL’s falseness.  HAL believes himself to be a higher evolution of humanity, but, as we see in the end, he is only a vain reflection of his programmers.  HAL says that his "instructors" taught him a song, and then proceeds to sing it.  It’s a hundred-year-old courtship song, one that could have no possible resonance for HAL, who knows nothing of marriages or carriages or bicycles built for two.  He’s a party trick, a dog taught to sing for the amusement his owners.

Once HAL is dead, Bowman gets his reward: a video from good ol’ Dr. Floyd, who, it turns out, works for the National Council of Aeronautics. Now, I’ve often wondered about the timing of Dr. Floyd’s announcement — is it a coincidence that the announcement plays now, or was the murder of HAL always part of the plan?  That is, was Floyd’s announcement never going to play until the crew of the Discovery One turned off HAL?  Is Bowman finally clued into his mission after he’s committed murder, or because he’s committed murder?


Regardless, Bowman is set upon his "true mission" (which, for all we know, isn’t his true mission at all — it was probably Dr. Kaminski’s or somebody higher up).  Now, admittedly, the narrative takes a kind of abstruse turn.  Bowman gets into a pod, for some reason, and heads out into the space around Jupiter, where a huge, kick-ass monolith drifts around in space. 

What happens next isn’t exactly clear: Bowman drives his pod into the vicinity of the monolith, but not into it.  The effect is the same, in any case: Bowman is subjected to a series of psychedelic light shows, five all together, each one with a distinct personality.  The five light shows are divided by shots of Bowman’s eyeball blinking.  (Maybe this is another indication that HAL is the intended beneficiary of this instruction — his eye never blinks.)  How do we know that the light shows are instruction?  Because that’s what the monolith does: it gives people ideas.  The first one gave Moonwatcher the idea to pick up a bone, the second one gave Floyd the idea to launch a ship to Jupiter, it stands to reason that the third one is the prize, an avalanche of information, soaking poor Bowman’s brain.  The first show involves slit-scan patterns of color and rhythm, things that look like technical readouts and concrete "information."  The second show is blobs of colored gunk drifting around, which suggests both galaxies forming and life springing from the primordial soup.  The third show, which is quite brief, shows some crystalline objects floating over another field of information (one of my readers tells me the crystals are, in fact, the extra-terrestrials — okay, if you say so).  The fourth show, also brief, is another slit-scan display, this one smearier and more organic than the first.  The fifth, which goes on for a while, shows terrestrial landscapes in psychedelic colors.

Yeah, visually, it still holds up, lo these many years later, and I can’t even begin to imagine how it appeared to viewers in 1968.  By the time the movie gets to this point, it’s hard to imagine that this is the new movie from the guy who made Dr. Strangelove.  And I can easily see how and why it bored some people and blew others’ minds, and how both sets of viewers could have been wrong.

Finally, the psychedelics fade away to just Bowman’s blinking eye, as Bowman finds himself exactly where one would expect him to be: in a fancy hotel room with Louis XVI-style decor.  See?  It’s all a big dream.

Kidding.  No, the hotel-room sequence is Kubrick’s big cinematic leap, and coming on the heels of his 12-minute light show, that’s saying something.  He’s got a narrative problem to solve: how do I show Bowman getting old and dying, so that he can be re-born, in an interesting way that can follow my big psychedelic set-piece?  He does it by putting Bowman in a room where, obviously, to say the least, the rules of time are bent.  Bowman is in the pod, shaking from his recent information-overload, then he sees himself standing outside the pod, a much older man, looking back at the pod, but the pod is no longer there.  He then wanders around this hotel room (he takes a moment to examine the bathroom, which is quite well-appointed — no zero-g toilet for Bowman) until he finds himself, still older, eating dinner.  The still-older Bowman enjoys his fine cuisine (no concentrate muck for Bowman, these extra-terrestrials lay out quite the platter), but is disturbed by the slightly-less old Bowman watching him, who, of course, is no longer there.  Instead, there is a nearly-dead Bowman lying on the bed, gesturing at the dining Bowman, who is now no longer there, but has been replaced by the monolith, who’s apparently stopped by to say howdy.

Now, it seems to me there are two possibilities for interpreting this sequence: either the extra-terrestrials have constructed this weird hotel room for Bowman to grow old in, and the overlapping Bowmans are merely a clever cinematic device for showing the passage of time (or else time itself is being bent here), or else the hotel room exists only in Bowman’s mind.  That is, after learning everything the big Jupiter monolith has to tell him, Bowman has retreated to a little mental hotel room of his own, a little mental space where he can process all he’s learned.  Because, really, where would the extra-terrestrials get potatoes and carrots and wine in space, and why would they bother?

In any case, Bowman finally comes face to face with the monolith, now that he’s dying, and next thing we know, he’s been re-born as a space-fetus, the Star-Child.  He’s completed the journey started by Moonwatcher eons earlier, he’s gone to the next step in human evolution, and now he can go home, which he promptly proceeds to do.

What he does now is the movie’s big question.  Now that humanity has progressed to a new stage, will the Star-Child use his hyper-evolved state to benefit humanity, or will he murder everyone, destroy the planet?  Or, as HAL would have it, will the Star-Child destroy humanity so that its next evolutionary step can be realized, and the machines can take over?  Paging the Wachowskis.


47 Responses to “Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 3”
  1. Monday Night (Sept. 21st)

    Talk about timing (or Todd, was this planned?) Turner Classic Movies are running “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” Monday night. 12:15 AM & 2:00 AM (EST) respectively.

    In fact, if you get TCM you might as well turn the channel on at 8:00 and leave it on. They’re running two Buster Keaton silent films starting at 8 and following with “On the Waterfront” at 10:15 brfore the Kubrick double bill.

  2. ndgmtlcd says:

    exit HAL, singing

    “He’s a party trick, a dog taught to sing for the amusement his owners.”

    This “party trick” point is what, for me, ends any discussion as to who is the protagonist of the movie. It’s Dave Bowman. In a way he’s the monkey too. That is, the victorious, exultant monkey is a direct ancestor of mister “Dr” Bowman, the astronaut who can shoot straight. The part with the dancing spaceships and mister barely-disguised-NASA-bureaucrat “Dr” Floyd-pig (Kubrick had been living in the UK for some time and in british slang of the period a floyd is a pig, as in the brit group Pink Floyd)is a fun interlude, necessary to prepare us for the big philosophical leaps coming.

    I should add that there is clue during the BBC interview. The interviewer is very precise and he describes HAL as a device that’s a clever mimic of a human being. There’s nothing about HAL being intelligent there. We have a well constructed mechanical parrot, and no more. At the end of the interview the film’s official bowman then tells us that no one can really say wether HAL can really think or not. It’s a very scientific way of putting things. We’re out there in space for discovery, for finding out the nature of things so we have to keep an open mind. But it’s also the way of the practical warrior. As warriors we have to set aside what will be irrelevant for any violent encounter.

    • Todd says:

      Re: exit HAL, singing

      I had always heard that Pink Floyd took their name from Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, but maybe there was a slang pun in there as well.

      The fact that Bowman “feels” like the protagonist of 2001 is one of the reasons some viewers find it long and slow (in fact, it’s no longer than The Shining, and much shorter than Barry Lyndon). Bowman doesn’t show up until almost half-way through the movie, and he’s reactive until the last half-hour.

      I always felt that when Bowman says that “no one can say” whether or not HAL has feelings, he’s trying to be nice. No reason to piss off the guy running the life-support systems.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: exit HAL, singing

        At first their name was “The pink floyd”. As in “The pink pig”. They dropped the “The” later on.

  3. mr_noy says:

    (Apologies for the long post) Interesting. I’ve seen 2001 several times over the years (most recently about 5 months ago) and I’ve never viewed HAL’s mistake as part of his murderous plans. My reading of it has always been that HAL is absolutely convinced of his own infallibility and when that is questioned he begins to exhibit the rather human traits of denial, then insecurity and finally homicidal tendencies; all in the cause of self-preservation. Bowman and Poole (also acting out of self-preservation) recognize that HAL needs to be shut off lest he make another mistake.

    He’s the perfect infallible machine and he’s programmed to carry out the mission at all costs. To HAL, Bowman and Poole are acting irrationally towards him. Since he believes himself infallible and indispensable being shut off would jeapordize the mission. At that point he decides to kill off Poole when the opportunity arises. Sure enough, Frank goes after him although HAL couldn’t have predicted that Bowman would forget his helmet; one can easily imagine such an irrational act confirming HAL’s mistrust in the reliability of humans. As for the rest of the crew? Obviously they would side with their fellow humans and also behave irrationally towards him so they too must go.

    That’s all the motivation HAL needs to rationalize murdering the crew. That he would have planned to murder them all along is based on the idea that HAL is aware of the monolith’s consciousness raising abilities and wants to beat the humans to it. However, there’s never any indication that HAL or Floyd or any of the other scientists recognize the monolith’s effects on human intelligence. Moonwatcher certainly didn’t write it down for future generations to discover and all they learn from the monolith found on the moon is revealed in Floyd’s pre-recorded message, which I have no reason to doubt as he is – for the first time – speaking openly of the classified mission without resorting to the cover story: “Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four million year old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.”

    HAL’s insistence on completing the mission, even at the expense of the crew (and by extension the very human race which created him) is a direct echo of the fail safe protocols in Dr. Strangelove. The system is programmed so perfectly, so free of the potential for human error that it can’t be effectively stopped, even if it is initiated by mistake (as we see in 2001) or through duplicity (as evidenced in Dr. Strangelove).

    While I don’t entirely agree with you regarding HAL’s motives it’s a testament to this film’s brilliance that over 30 years later people are still debating what it means.

    • Todd says:

      My ideas about HAL’s motivation come from the context of his actions and the overall thrust of the narrative. He sits down (so to speak) with Bowman to talk about the “second thoughts” he’s had about the mission, and how there had been crazy rumors about something being found on the moon, and then, lickety-split, he comes up with the fake-replacement scheme. Just putting two and two together, it occurred to me that HAL has put together what Floyd, Kaminski et al have not — that the monolith is the key to the mission. Otherwise, HAL wouldn’t even know what the mission is. How could he judge the mission too important for Bowman, et al, to screw up, if he doesn’t even know what the mission is For all he knows, the mission is for the extra-terrestrials to meet Dr. Kaminski. And, the part HAL wants to replace just happens to be part of the communications array, which will require the ship being out of contact with HAL’s twin on Earth.

      Plus, if the HAL plot has nothing to do with the monolith, then it really is just a sub-plot, which is entertaining, but at the end of it, Bowman goes right back to doing what he was doing at the beginning of the act.

      • mr_noy says:

        Hmm…..You raise some interesting points particularly regarding the timing of HAL’s erroneous (and in your view deceptive) damage assesment. The next time I watch that scene I’ll certainly look at it in a new light.

        If my memory serves that’s the scene where HAL is talking about “second thoughts” and “rumors” and Bowman calls HAL out on giving him a psych evaluation in the guise of an innocent, casual conversation. If I’m remembering that correctly at that point HAL interrupts the conversation (“just a moment… just a moment…) and THEN informs Bowman of the critical failure. If so, there’s certainly reason for me to reassess the scene. I’ll have to look at that again….

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        Wait a minute. Could you rephrase that part about HAL understanding what others don’t understand? I’m interested because you place a crucial node for seeing the core of HAL’s motivations right at them same place that I used to, at the spot where he’s talking to Bowman about the “crazy rumours” and suddenly comes up with the fake replacement scheme.

        Here’s what I don’t get:

        You’re saying that Floyd, Kaminski et alia don’t understand that the monolith is key to the mission?!!! OK for Kaminski and the others on board but if Floyd didn’t know the lunar monolith was the key to the mission how can Floyd say in his “..pre-recorded briefing made prior to your departure…” that the proof of existence of aliens and the secret of the lunar monolith “…has been known onboard during the mission only by your H-A-L 9000 computer…”.

        • Todd says:

          Oh, Floyd certainly knows that the monolith is the key. I don’t think the five men on the ship did, though. I had forgotten that HAL knew before anyone else, that seems to cinch the case for him being a murderous bastard right there — he’s lying to everyone’s faces from the very beginning.

          • ndgmtlcd says:

            Well, he’s ordered to lie by his human bosses, the top guys at the National Council of Astronautics. In theory he should be able to say to himself that he was just following orders and that he should really not worry about it. Unless he happened to have found out more about human nature than his probably geeky-nerdy creators and the obviously bureaucratic and completely cold and inhumane bosses at the National Council of Astronautics. If so, then he should be worrying about what will happen to him when the five astronaut guys find out he’s been lying to them, once the N.C.A. bosses are too far off to matter.

            Then you have the interesting fact that he should always be lying in a very efficient manner since he’s so fast and since he’s got so much memory. He’s supposed to keep the very existence of the lunar monolith perfectly hidden. But what is he doing then when he starts off the “By the way, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” conversation? He’s coming close to spilling the beans with his loaded questions.

            • Todd says:

              But the first thing HAL does is sever communications with the NCA, which leads me to believe that he’s doing all of this behind their backs from the very beginning, and the part-replacement scheme is the first pawn of the game.

              • ndgmtlcd says:

                Yes, the part-replacement scheme is the first pawn of the game for me too. But what does the antagonist really want?

                You’re saying that HAL is doing all of this behind their backs from the very beginning. You mean way back to before the Discovery I was launched, back to when he was given all the info on the alien artefact and its Jovian transmission, right?

                And you’re basing the motivation on HAL’s incredibly narcissistic proclamations during that interview BBC with Martin Hamer, right?

                (while looking up the correct spelling for “narcissistic” I was pleased to find out that there’s even an ICD-10 classification for his particular problem http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder, proving that even when I’m at home starting off my weekend, I can’t really escape from the office)

                • Todd says:

                  I don’t know if HAL is plotting from the time he gets the information, but he’s certainly got it figured out by the time we enter his part of the story. That’s why I think they have the line in there about the crazy rumors back at the base — HAL’s put two and two together before anyone. Or that’s what I think anyway.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree with you completely about Hal and his murderous motivation. When he finally puts together what this mission is really about (not what the earth folks think it’s about — but what the aliens have set up), he determines to be the last one standing at the end, in order to win the prize: being evolved into (whatever the machine equivalent would be of) space god status. It’s the only explanation that fits all of the evidence.

    But Bowman wins the fight (and does that mean Bowman was the other monkey fighting with Moonwatcher over the water hole?), despite the fact that Hal was better armed, and so he earns the right to go out and meet the last monolith and become the space god.

    And recalling our other conversation about 2001 way back when, you already know that I believe Bowman’s first task as the baby space god is to mimic what Moonwatcher did when he got uplifted: go teach — go make others like himself. So Bowman will be going down to the earth, selecting a few lucky others for similar uplift, and the rest are just leftovers, doomed to be discarded in the long run.

    I won’t mind at all if you never do an analysis of 2010, since mostly it just undermined everything in 2001. I honestly don’t think the makers of 2010 — including Clark, I’m sorry to say — either knew (or maybe just didn’t care) what 2001 was about.

    Bill Willingham

  5. curt_holman says:

    “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

    “HAL knows that the monolith is some kind of evolution-accelerating machine, and he sees himself as the more worthy beneficiary of its gift — he tells Bowman that the mission is “too important” to be left to the inferior likes of humans — HAL sees himself as humanity perfected, infallible.”

    If HAL really is consciously trying to attain a new level of evolution, then perhaps the name is a reference to Prince Hal, who begins Henry IV Part 1 as a callow party boy “evolves” into becomes a full-fledged king and military leader by Henry V. Of course, I always heard that HAL derived from the three letters of IBM.

    I don’t know if I buy that argument about HAL’s ambitions, but it’s an interesting interpretation. I think I interpreted HAL’s madness in 2001 in the same way (though I didn’t articulate it as fully) as it was explained in 2010 — that at some point, HAL’s programming to protect the mission conflicted with his programming to protect the astronauts. It’s like one of Asimov’s stories in which the Laws of Robotics come into conflict with each other. Too bad HAL wasn’t programmed with the First Law of Robotics.

    I’ve heard the monoliths’ motivations explained thusly: human evolution takes its first step when primates use tool to murder. Human evolution needs to take its next step when a tool can murder the primates.

    The idea that HAL is the Cyclops is brilliant. Odysseus was renowned for his prowess as an archer, so… Bowman? How far can we take this? Wasn’t Charybdis a whirlPOOLE? Are the warring primates, on Earth, the equivalent of the Trojan War?

    If memory serves me right, in Clarke’s 2001 novelization, Bowman’s experience of the “hotel” was more literal, and that it seemed to be a half-successful construct of a normal human environment. I believe it had a pantry with boxes packaged like conventional human foodstuffs, but inside were edible bluish pellets, or something.

    I’ve seen an argument that Bowman proves that he’s ready to be evolved because of the civilized act of eating “real” food with utensils, etc. The food through-line of 2001 is quite interesting.

    • Todd says:

      Re: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

      To torture a conceit, Dr. Floyd is smuggling a monolith in through the Trojan Horse of his quarantine story.

      Oh, but that’s The Iliad. Sorry.

      • curt_holman says:


        If memory serves me right, The Iliad ends shortly after Achilles kills Hector, but well before the Trojan Horse episode. I think the Trojan Horse is either recalled in the Odyssey in flashback, or in the Aeniad.

        BTW, are you going to take an “odyssey” through Kubrick’s other films? I’d be curious to find what you make of the other biggies, but also Lolita.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Odyssey

          I last did Dr. Strangelove if you scroll down a little. My plans are to proceed through Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining and stop there for now.

          • Re: Odyssey

            I just finished watching Paths of Glory for the first time and my immediate thought was “I wonder what Todd Alcott is going to write about this movie.”

            Guess I’ll have to wait a while longer.

            • Todd says:

              Re: Odyssey

              I think Paths is terrific, and again, very oddly structured, for a movie marketed as a “war movie.” The first act is the “war movie” part, then the second act is a courtroom drama, and then the third act becomes this kind of weird, grim drama about death and fate and God and the purpose of suffering and so forth. Kubrick rarely goes where the viewer expects him to.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Odyssey

          Oh, and everything I know about The Iliad I got from the movie Troy, so best not to ask me about that.

      • gdh says:

        Re: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

        It all falls down though, because the Monolith is floating in the L1 langrange point between Jupiter and Io rather than one of the trojan lagrange points. You can’t have everything.

    • dougo says:

      Re: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

      I always heard that HAL derived from the three letters of IBM.

      HAL’s name is clearly a reference to the GZK limit.

  6. Ashes to Ashes

    Funk to funky. We know Major Tom’s a junkie.

    Since the first time I saw this film in high school, I’ve considered it to be in no small part about taking drugs, specifically LSD, and the experience thereof. Echoing a statement by Camille Paglia, three quarters of the way through the clip I’m linking to below, I’ve never done that drug, but I’ve always felt some resonance with the psychedelic movement. Personally, I’ve never felt the need to enhance my perception of reality through the use of hallucinogenics, but I’ve seen that a lot of my degenerate friends seem to get something positive out of it, usually involving a sense that there is meaning to an often harsh and unforgiving existence. This is evidenced by the 2nd link below.

    Like I said, I’m not a drug user, but I’ve been told that the gateway scene in 2001 is not unlike an acid trip. Parenthetically, who needs drugs when you’ve got movies? I’m probably not the first person to link this scene with Aldous Huxley’s “mind at large” theory, wherein one can achieve almost godlike consciousness through the use of hallucinogens. I don’t advocate the use of drugs, but I have to recognize that human beings have tripped, for lack of a better word, to try and gain higher consciousness and to perceive and understand the universe more clearly. We’ve been doing this ever since cavemen crawled into Lascaux and started painting on the walls.

    I don’t know if Kubrick ever stipulated whether or not 2001 was even in part influenced by LSD, I can only go by what I see on the screen. And what I see on the screen screams LSD. What I do know is that the film was marketed as it was in the third link below, which did not even trying to hide the drug connection.

    So why do I bring this up after reading your fantastic analysis? Because I think that you’ve chosen to skip over a huge facet of the film, as if it were a hornet’s nest that you didn’t want to jab with a stick. For me this movie is the Lucy in the Sky of film-making, a classic piece of art about altered states which never comes out and says that it’s really about drugs.

    link #1
    link #2
    link #3

    • Todd says:

      Re: Ashes to Ashes

      I haven’t heard that Kubrick was influenced by LSD per se, but yes, watching the “gateway” sequence it’s not hard to see the connection. LSD use was restricted but the drug wasn’t “illegal” until 1968, and it was everywhere in the media at that point — it was a real battleground. And Kubrick was certainly aware of drugs’ ability to alter consciousness — his very next movie has that idea at its core.

      When I was watching the gateway sequence the other day, I was reminded, once again, that yes, as you say, this sort of psychedelic display was a common effect at rock shows and nightclubs of the time, and even the term “psychedelic,” which today is commonly used to mean “very colorful” or “a weird mashing-together of things,” actually refers to a powerful mind-altering experience.

      I don’t think Kubrick intended the message of 2001 to be “tune in, turn on, drop out,” but he certainly borrowed the visual language of the time as a shortcut to relate the idea of a powerful, mind-opening experience that can’t be expressed in words or conventional cinematic language. And yes, the audience, or a portion of it anyway, saw that immediately. The movie was thought of as a pretentious bore until the hippies found out about it, that’s what turned it into a monster hit and a cultural phenomenon. And yeah, the studio wasn’t shy about picking up on that.

  7. pbastien says:

    People say that 2010-3001 undermines the meaning of the original book/movie.
    Not so.

    to me, Each book/movie represents something different in understanding the negative aspects of mankind and our ability to move beyond it and grow as a species

    2001 represented mankind’s intelligence, violent nature and eventual transcendence of that tendency

    2010 represents mankind’s paranoia, destructive tendencies and tribal nature and the eventual transcendence of those tendencies

    2061 represents human society’s fractured family structure, frequent negative environmental impact, tendencies towards assumptions of others and how we overcome those aspects

    3001 finally deals with mankind’s hubris and arrogance as a species and how we are forced to overcome it.

    They are more direct in their presentation of the primary theme than 2001, yes and are far more situational that the inhuman level of random causality/divine intervention of the original’s plot points. the 3 sequels are all problems that needed to be solved and 2001 is a snowball of seemingly loose connected events continuously rolling downhill and growing in size until it reaches a point of maximum causality and just explodes greater meaning in one massive blast.

    I just feel that as clarke made his sequels, the series pushed into its own realm and became more and more disconnected with the movie series by kubrick and hyams. But I think with a bit of tweaking, 2061 and 3001 could work well in the film series

    What I felt undermined the original movie/book was Clarke’s constant retconning of the time line and the technology, making the series almost impossible to follow thematically and temporally at points

  8. dougo says:

    I was expecting you to provide your own answer to “the movie’s big question”. Was it a good thing or a bad thing to create the Star-Child? Also, what is the movie really about? Are the aliens God, like in your analysis of Close Encounters? Or are they just parental figures? Or educators, priests, missionaries, or Prometheus? Or maybe they aliens are the US (or the UN), nation-building, trying to nudge the third-world country that is humanity into the first world?

    • Todd says:

      I’d like to think of the aliens as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, as educators in an inner-city school, trying to get the kids to stop killing each other long enough to learn something and get out of their ghetto. But the closer I looked, the more I realized that we don’t know what their motivation is. Maybe their motivation is to actually destroy the world, bring about doomsday. And I’m told that Kubrick wanted to end the movie that way, but it was too much like Dr. Strangelove so he left it feeling not just open-ended, but even kind of triumphant, implying that this isn’t the end but the beginning.

      I don’t think he wanted to answer the question, I think he wanted to raise the question.

      • mimitabu says:

        i think one of the biggest questions to raise is: is the seemingly inescapable desire to kill part of the monolith, or part of human nature? i think your analysis seems to assume that kubrick assume’s it’s human nature (and why not? other kubrick films don’t speak against it)… but couldn’t it be the case that the murderous impulse has to do with technological advances (HAL)? not going to ramble much further, but i think it’s an interesting line, and also speaks to alien motivations.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Why I don’t have much to say

    The 12-minute psychedelic sequence triggered such a strong hallucinatory state for me that I remember absolutely nothing else about the film after that point, aside from an image of the space-foetus (and that may only be from seeing clips of it elsewhere). Hotel room? What hotel room?

    The hallucinations didn’t wear off for hours — I’m not sure how I came to be wandering around alone in the snow in the middle of the night or how I made it home to wherever the hell I was staying.

    I’ve been sort of afraid to watch 2001 again.

    — Ed.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I haven’t seen this in a long, long time, but my memory is that HAL went crazy because he was given conflicting orders that compromised his implanted “ethics” … that he wasn’t supposed to harm people, yet his orders directly contradicted that.

    Now I’ll have to watch it again.


    • selectnone says:

      That was the impression that I got too, but that might just be because that was the explanation given in 2010, which I think we’re leaving aside as seperate.

      My gut feeling is that this is the case though; HAL is a super-human intellect that is otherwise reasonable and “sane”, but has “COMPLETE THE MISSION OBJECTIVES” hardwired into being his number-one drive, over and above any ethical drives he’s been given.

      He doesn’t know more about the monolith or what it offers than Floyd does, so “GET MONOLITH, WIN COSMIC POWER” can’t possibly be HAL’s motive for doing away with the crew.

      I really need to watch this again 😀

  11. craigjclark says:

    Programming question

    Have you ever considered analyzing the plot of a documentary like, say, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line? I finally got around to seeing Standard Operating Procedure this week and I’m constantly amazed by the way he structures his films. I imagine you would be able to shed a great deal of light on his methods.

  12. noskilz says:

    The film you describe sounds a great deal more interesting than the one I remember seeing, but my memory is often pretty iffy. I leaned toward the notion that 2001 was occasionally striking visuals embedded in tedium until things pick up toward the end, although you’ve provided some excellent reasons why the film may unfold the way it does and why some of the criticism 2001 gets could be a bit unfair.

    The idea of an exaggerated and misplaced faith in the capability and reliability of technology is such a recurring theme in science fiction and reality that if the bit about how none of the Hal-type machines had ever failed was meant to taken at face value, many would still tend to view that as a set-up for some impending malfunction. Whether the audiences when the film was new would have been likely to take it that way is something else, but artificial beings have been flipping on film since the silent era. If Kubrick did mean that Hal wasn’t malfunctioning, whether it was because HAL was up to something from the start or had come to the conclusion that the crew was a threat to a mission too important to risk having them screw it up, he had his work cut out for him. Hal’s been the archetypal deranged computer in pop culture as far back as I can recall, but I couldn’t really say how fair that was without actually seeing the film again and paying a lot more attention than last time.

  13. malsperanza says:

    Coming late to this post. Great analysis of 2001. I very much like the idea of HAL as protagonist of Part 3. HAL is, as you say, the thing that was supposed to be a Bone and turned out to be the Monkey (or thought he was). So it’s not possible to decide if he’s the protagonist or not [insert endless debate here], but suggesting the idea exposes some other interesting issues.

    Bowman and Poole are two generic, corn-fed, American Everymans. They look and sound so similar, with their neat brown hair, flat affectless speech, and matching clothes, that they might as well be two anonymous monkeys, or two cogs in a machine, or two anythings that the audience has trouble telling apart. Only when Poole dies and Bowman is left alone does the viewer settle on him as protagonist by default, and even then he says and does little that distinguishes him from any other character or replaceable part in the movie. This irritated viewers at the time, and there was a lot of talk about how Kier Dullea was poorly cast and not up to the role. I think Kubrick deliberately chose actors whose own careers were undistinguished and almost anonymous.

    But against that idea we have Bowman’s name. Odysseus in the Odyssey isn’t just the greatest warrior of his age (especially since Achilles is dead), he’s also the cleverest. Throughout the Odyssey he is described as many-talented, quick-witted, dextrous, sly, a schemer. He beats the Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe, and other enemies through his cleverness and ability to think up nifty ideas as through force of arms. (By comparison, Achilles is a big lummoxing thug.) The epithet Odysseus starts with (in the first line of the poem) is “polytropous”–a man of many ways, or many forms or many talents. None of which seems to match Dave Bowman, and all of which match HAL.

    But against these is the fact the Odysseus is famous above all as a bowman. He has a bow so big that no one else can string it. This becomes the key to how he identifies himself at the end and claims his kingdom and family from all the other men who are trying to get their hands on it. He strings the bow that no one else can string, which marks him as the real Odysseus and the real hero, and then he kills all the others with it. Happy Ending.

    I don’t think it’s possible to ignore Bowman’s name in the movie. But I also think Kubrick wanted his Odysseus–his mariner exploring the uncharted seas–to be as banal, flat, and normative as possible. Because he wanted to point to the heroism of the thing, not the personality of the man. It’s the human race that triumphs at the end of 2001, not some guy.

  14. malsperanza says:

    Yeah, visually, it still holds up, lo these many years later, and I can’t even begin to imagine how it appeared to viewers in 1968.

    Heh. Well, word had gotten round that the psychedelic part at the end was even cooler if you were dropping acid, so a lot of people did, including me. As a result, I didn’t really see the movie properly until the next time, around 1972 or 1973. But I do remember that the colors seemed to continue out into the real world when we left the theater.

    On top of that, I saw the movie in Chicago, which was having a particularly dramatic year in 1968. It’s impossible to think of how the film was received without thinking of the whole context of the times–the radical politics, the radical music, the colorful clothes, and underlying all of it, the presence of the war overseas that was reaching its bloody extreme at that time. So the movie was seen as one more kind of radical disruption of norms. IIRC, its languorous pacing was often compared with that of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which was also both much praised and vilified.

    The visual qualities of 2001 were linked in my mind with the experiments of Yellow Submarine which I think also came out around then, especially the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequence, which involves rotoscoping and posterization, two techniques Kubrick also used (or at least the latter). There were all sorts of other visual experiments at the time that seemed to go with it–in posters and light shows and op art and a child’s toy called something like Spinner Art, which was hugely popular. In retrospect it seems odd that no one else made movies with those kinds of abstract visual elements after Kubrick, except for the fringe experimentalists like Stan Brakhage.

    There was a lot of bloviating in the press about how the movie didn’t mean anything, and the psychedelic section was promoting drug use and so on. I don’t think Kubrick had LSD in mind at all when he made the film, but dropping acid at the movie theater was just an extension of dropping acid at a rock concert or a sit-in. (We couldn’t drink; we were underage.)

    And as I recall everyone made connections between the first section of 2001 and Planet of the Apes, though the comparison now seems fatuous.

    I never felt very satisfied with the hotel-room section, visually. To me it always seemed like an expedient choice by Kubrick. He needed to have the last sequence occur in some kind of room, as Bowman aged and died and was reborn as the Star Child. He needed to have Bowman eat one more meal (as you point out). So he chose an ornate green bedroom of the mid-20th century done in the style of the 18th century with mod cons as a means of dodging other unintended associations.

    The choice always seemed arbitrary and insufficiently justified, perplexing for the sake of mysteriousness (which is not true of the rest of the movie). I suppose he was trying to avoid the cliche of an empty black floating space or any setting that would look instantly dated (as Part 2 now does).