As we approach the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the visionary cinematic of the space age by director Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke, it would be appropriate to reflect on the symbolic significance of the film as a milestone for cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is, of course, exactly what the movie explores thematically.
The film’s release night was no less a shock to the American imagination of 1968 than it is to prototypical stoned movie-goers of our own time. According to the New Yorker, the audience jeered throughout the film on opening night, M.G.M. studio executives walked out, and Arthur C. Clarke was found to be in tears during the intermission.
HAL-9000’s iconic glowing red eye, voiced by Douglas Rain, (“I can’t do that, Dave”), the eerie Black Monolith, the hominids discovering toolmaking to the musical accompaniment of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, have all been parodied and referenced endlessly through pop culture. It’s easy to retrieve the film as a cinematic archetype — a meme — than to really encounter it seriously.
And watching 2001 isn’t easy for the modern viewer, either. The film is uncompromisingly slow—glacial in both its immensity and tempo, deliberately symbolic and, as Kubrick would describe, “picture-oriented” over “word-oriented.”
But not everybody missed the point — or rather, the picture. It was the 60s, after all, and the evolution from Marshall McLuhan’s print culture to electronic culture in the “Global Village” was in full swing (Understanding Media was published in 1964, after all, and McLuhan’s influence on media studies was at its high watermark around this period). David Bowie was said to drop a dose of cannabis tincture before viewing the film (remember that “Space Oddity” would release only a year later, in 1969), and John Lennon allegedly watched it “every week.”
We may also be better equipped to appreciate the film, too. With the rise of ambient genres in music and film that prefer atmospheric immersion rather than any quick-stepping plot, the iconographic (think memes, GIFs, emojis, think picture-oriented) millennial generation might “grok” the movie in a way that the previous generations couldn’t. An evolution has taken place. A quickening.
Filmmaker and author J.F. Martel writes that, “in its abandon of all but the rudiments of narrative, its use of trance-inducing imagery and its open-endedness, 2001 is not a movie but an ecstatic vision… Kubrick showed us for the first time the shamanic potential of cinema to induce visionary states.” Martel also writes that it is a “film as entheogen,” (meaning god-within or becoming divine within) which relates back to an overlapping concept of initiatic art or what Benton Rooks and I once dubbed “entheogenic storytelling.”
So: let’s talk about that.
Specifically, let’s explore how 2001 functions as both a cinematic experience and an actual, direct aesthetic encounter, a leap from the word to image, from mentation to mystical imagination. Kubrick wanted to mythologize the space race, not for any anachronistic feelings of nationalism but for its exact opposite and emergent trend: a Teilhardian planetization of consciousness. The film can be understood as a work of art — a cinematic cathedral — for planetary culture.
A Symbolic Tale of Cosmic Evolution – 3 Fragments
What follows is a (hopefully) interesting way of appreciating 2001.
I. The beginning of 2001: our hominid ancestors live out a dreary day on the sun-beaten planes of a prehistoric savannah. Our tribe in question survives the odds — for the most part — confronting other hominid bands and escaping the toothy maws of predatorial cats. The sudden appearance of the Monolith disrupts the punctuated ambience of the film to confront both us and our ancestors. Whatever it is, it is an unthinkable thing: a geometric void, signifying something truly and totally Other. The hominid band yells and screams at it, but the Monolith is like a gravity well, a dark attractor. They become entranced by its unfathomable nature, reaching out to touch it. A shrill chorus reaches a fever pitch, and the unending gaze of the camera leaves us in a sympathetic mix of awe and dread. Kierkegaard’s Biblical “fear and trembling,” an encounter with holy terror. What is interesting about Clarke and Kubrick’s take on the alien is its deliberate move away from the midcentury flying saucer—Jung’s archetype—for a considerably platonic adaptation. There’s something uncomfortably true about it. Even familiar.
The idea of some irruption (a bursting forth) into history by an infinitely superior and mysterious intelligence speaks so deeply to our theological and mystical minds it’s no wonder that only a few years later, in the 1970s, Julian Jaynes would pen a wildly popular book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, inducing a similar fascination and mass intrigue with the idea that the gods once spoke to us through auditory hallucinations.
These are cosmic myths that, while they may not be literally true, are arguably real on some more profound level of meaning than the material facts. We intuit something about our origins that only mysticism and myth can reveal to us, so we retrieve and re-tell it, not with the masks of the gods but the guises of super intelligence in science fiction, or we literalize it in the form of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos (“aliens” meme guy) or Erik von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods through an act of what the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described as “misplaced concreteness.” You can’t work with myth when you bring it down into our reality and use it as a blunt instrument. Myth is meant to raise you up, or sometimes carry you down into deep waters. Fortunately, as Martel reminded us, 2001 is not just a movie but cinema elevated to an ecstatic, visionary state—a planetary myth of noogenesis (the birth of mind) drawn across vast, evolutionary time.
II. Jumping forward a million years or so — from the bone weapon of Australopithecus (a very Darwinian symbol, to be sure) to the spinning Space Age satellite — we learn that another Monolith has been discovered on the Moon, buried there for 3 million years or so. A signal is activated in yet another eerie scene where the astronauts crumble over to the sound of a deafening ring. A secret mission is set to trace the signal back to its origin point — Jupiter.
At the climax of the Space Age (in 1968, the Moon landing wouldn’t occur yet for another year), the film poises us not for the end of our evolutionary journey but stages the Moon as another chance for extraterrestrial intervention. The implication is that the Monolith was placed there for us all along. The technological marvel of twirling space stations accompanied by “The Blue Danube” waltz by Strauss, or the futurist prescience of the video phone (Skype in 1968 by any other name), are all interrupted by the piercing ring of the Monolith—reminding us that these marvels, too, matter very little in comparison to the seemingly extra dimensional presence of the star beings. As little, perhaps, as the crude bone weapons of our evolutionary grandparents. The Monolith draws us forward, still.
Flash ahead eighteen months and the Discovery One is headed for Jupiter, taking the human species on another momentous first occasion: the first piloted space flight to Jupiter and the outer planets. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole pilot the ship while three other scientists sleep in suspended animation. It’s this segment of the film that introduces us to one of the most iconic and harrowing representations of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) in cinema: HAL 9000. A singular glowing red eye in a black box, not unlike the Monolith. HAL’s equally iconic voice is provided actor Douglas Rain and gives us that oft-parodied line, “I can’t do that, Dave.” HQ has kept the true purpose of the Jupiter mission a secret to the scientists, but revealed it to HAL. Despite what HAL claims about being “foolproof and incapable of error,” this discrepancy causes HAL to indeed malfunction. He kills Dr. Poole and refuses to “open the pod bay doors” for Dave.
Dave forces his way back onto the ship and shuts down HAL’s artificial brain in another iconic but harrowing scene where HAL sings Harry Dacre’s Daisy, referencing the first song ever played by a computer back in 1961 by the IBM 7094. This scene pits human species against the very technology that has enabled its own evolution into the stars, highlighting our ambiguous symbiosis with the machine world in the Space Age.
The sacred architecture of the ship, too, is worth noting. As historian and mystic William Irwin Thompson points out, Discovery One is not unlike a spinal cord attached to a head, alluding — consciously or not by the artists and prop designers — to the stages of kundalini yoga and cosmic illumination. This is the real odyssey that our protagonist David Bowman is undertaking, and that the film is attempting to initiate in us. A cosmic myth for the space age, describing our story from ape to human to cosmic being.
Right. Now about that star child.
Jack Kirby’s psychedelic comic book adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey
“Oh my God! It’s full of stars!”
III. In Clarke’s novelization of 2001, these words are spoken by Dave Bowman as his final transmission to Earth. Kubrick’s vision is an early attempt to portray a visual, psychedelic leap into hyperspace. Bowman leaves Discovery One after finding a massive Monolith in orbit around Jupiter. Cosmic imagery abounds as Jupiter and its satellites align — alluding to the Pythagorean “music of the spheres” — and Bowman’s reality begins to breakdown. Light, sound, and color flash before our eyes, as we enter the hyperspace with him. Clarke’s novel gives us insight to the gnostic underpinnings here when he writes, “[The star beings] had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at least from the tyranny of matter.”
But myth is best when explanations fall away and we lean into trusting the visionary imagery of the closing scenes of the film, which are a kind of visionary state that could be interpreted in a thousand ways. We see geometric shapes and molten geographies. Stars that whirl and pool like galaxies and suggest gestation, birth and embryology—are we witnessing a cosmic mind? Perhaps the Cosmic Mind? Bowmen’s agonizing terror, that holy dread, has receded and an indefinite time passes. A second or a millennia have passed, it doesn’t matter. Bowman finds himself in a strange room. Time seems to stretch and pull, then collapse on itself as he looks across the room and sees himself. Time reveals itself in this dimension as something like the philosopher Jean Gebser described: the a-chronon. Time-freedom. Past, present and future seem to link with each other seamlessly in an a-perspectival communion. An old Bowman peers at himself across the room, only to see himself on his deathbed. Have decades or only moments passed? We, the viewer, are losing our own sense of time, and the death of Bowman becomes another rite of passage. A mystery of birth.
Just like the Australopithecus, Bowman reaches out for the Monolith which now looms over him—all of human evolution has lead us here, to this death. But the Monolith seems to suggest we must reach through death to become something more. Transcending our own mortality, it implies that human evolution is meant to take a leap into cosmic evolution and transcend time. Bowman, now the Star Child, a radiant celestial being shown mirroring the bright blue sphere of the Earth. Thus Spoke Zarathustra plays once again as the leap from homo sapiens to “homo luminous” is achieved, leaping from terrestrial to cosmic evolution. The final shot is not Earth, but the gazing face of the Star Child as it looks upon the world — and us.
Kubrick and Clarke’s visionary film is not intended to be explained away, as I’m admittedly doing here, but encountered, like all good myths should be. In their time they were not unlike great artists of a Renaissance period, attempting to speak to a technological sublime transcending the Cold War and at the peak of the mid-century Space Age. Deliberate or not (and I do think it was), 2001 is a visionary myth for a planetary consciousness, inching us toward an encounter with cosmic mind and hinting to us that terrestrial evolution is a form of planetary birth: a Teilhardian noogenesis. A series of leaps guided by some mysterious Other, perhaps cosmic mind itself or Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, where material “stuff” alchemically transmuted through evolution, reveals its divine reality, or still more Sri Aurobindo’s assertion that “Spirit is involved in Matter” and that “Nature is secret God.”
Whatever the case may be, we can be sure that evolution will continue to call us up and out from our ponds and into the great mystery of our own becoming. That’s a cosmic tale for a planetary culture.
A Word About the Books
Although they worked on the book together in 1968, the novel officially is credited to Clarke. Apropos of the leap from word to image in the age of McLuhan’s electronic media, the book can arguably be better appreciated as an extension of the film rather than the reverse. “The Sentinal” is a 1948 short story written by Clarke and containing some of the inspiration for 2001, though only in seed form.The three sequel novels, 2010, 2061, and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) are worth reading for the avid science fiction fan, but nowhere near symbolic and visionary status of Kubrick’s opus. But this shouldn’t omit some popular culture references, such as, “ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA: ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE,” a message from the strange creators of the Monolith, reminding the human species that their domain over the cosmos was checked by some vastly superior and mysterious intelligence.
Clarke is no stranger to mysticism, however, and if you want a dose of that, then Childhood’s End is a must-read story about occult evolution and the ascension into hyperspace. We’ll have to get to that book in a future article.
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