This essay is part of Lewton Bus KubrickWeek – check out the link to keep up with all of our content to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I don’t believe in much. I’m never asked, and I rarely volunteer, any declarations of faith, or faithlessness1. It’s not a difficult discussion for me. I am not a deist. Gods make for fine tall tales and cautionary fables. And wildly violent cosmic soap opera. And yet, for all of our confidence and occasional (unearned) arrogance, there is a sort of psychic wound that all atheists carry with them, a tender, underused spot of soul where the comforts of religion never took hold. I doubt many atheists would admit this, and that’s their right; the absence of faith is as personal and intimate as the possession of faith. There are no rules of conduct, except that what we do or don’t believe is ours and ours alone.
That wound, for me it boils down to a simple Mulderian quandary: I don’t believe, but I want to, because I don’t want the thought of death, of conclusions, of losing materiality to hurt so much. And it does. It hurts.
Science Fiction Without the Science
I’m a depressive with a severe pain condition. I’ve spent many long “dark-nights-of-the-soul”2 over the past few years considering what’s next, worrying myself awake over thoughts of losing loved ones, parents, friends, my wife, even the dog whose age has begun to advance. The answer isn’t to eat tylenol and go back to sleep. (Psychiatry goes to some strange places.)
My rough guess, and I haven’t quite gotten round to completing the survey, is that about 7 billion people suffer these fears on a regular basis. We all want to find reasons not to be afraid. Religion hands believers reassurances that whatever awaits us when we die is beautiful (or awful, depending on how well you pass this test of life). Whatever worried us in life is behind us as soon as we die. Gambling debts, shame about secret sex kinks, that squirrel you shot with a BB gun when you were 7, all of it behind us now and here, at last, are all of our grandparents and others that we’ve lost along the way. We just don’t want to be scared anymore. I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want to look forward to death.
2001 offers a profound story about the beauty of death. This is my favorite film, I see in it the same despair for reassurance, reaching for fictions that extend our spiritual journey well beyond our terrestrial days. Many religions are arrogant enough to claim to have answered existential questions. Science fiction frequently chases after them as well. 2001, like Solaris, like Fringe, like Star Trek 5, like Rick & Morty, like Prometheus and Alien Covenant, posits the notion that entire universes and realities are created, guided through time, and ultimately destroyed by some sort of incomprehensible intelligence, or at least incomprehensible to the created. In Solaris, the living are reunited with the dead and live virtual lives in a sort of spiritual prison. In Fringe, Leonard Nimoy’s William Bell creates a whole new dimension and populates it with a planet overrun with primordial creatures. He is a scientist who seizes the opportunity to play at divinity, essentially to create a playground where he and his loved ones can retire and live a new life, free of the anxieties of life as we know it. Rick, in Rick & Morty, routinely creates and destroys entire planets and universes, surfing the multiverse with a sociopath’s abandon. Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels first tell us that an ancient humanoid race called Engineers seeded all life on earth, and then that the lone android David has crafted new organisms with the intent of bringing cruel new realities to life, that the time of humans has passed.
God is a Muse
2001: A Space Odyssey gives us a black hole in the shape of a great slab of stone. A portal to another reality. Millennia ago, when bipedal mammals had yet to discover tools or methods of communication other than mimicking Tom Hardy, one of these monoliths appears in a clearing, above a cave where a tribe of pre-human primates huddle and hunt.
Although it is featureless and unmoving, it seems as though it is observant. A passive watcher, its only apparent communication a piercing high pitched screech, a sort of summoning to the primates’ latent DNA. A wake up call.
After fruitless scrimmages with a neighboring tribe and a deadly cougar attack has left the tribe frightened and hungry, the monolith and its scream awakens something in the animal that is popularly known among 2001 fans as Moonwatcher. He discovers the vicious potential in a bone if he wields it as an extension of himself.
Suddenly he is an inventor. A creator. He has grabbed hold of an object, a femur bone from a dead boar or hyena, and transformed it into a weapon, or a coffee grinder; we leave him before we see what he opts to do with it.
The monolith is Moonwatcher’s muse. It sparks an artistry in him.
The Next Great Leap
It’s difficult to discuss this film without saying something about cinema’s most famous segue; its point is obvious enough without another obsessed nerd pontificating on it. It’s shorthand for our technological evolution, and a nifty compression of the passage of thousands of years.
I want to ask more interesting questions.
Our alien deity, our monolithic muse, it leaves us to our weapons and our spaceships for many centuries, waiting for us to discover another (or the same, who knows) monolith buried on the moon. Is this a test? Is discovery of the monolith on the moon signify that we are ready for what’s next? Is it time for our next phase? The alien intelligence certainly seems to think so. If the first time we were visited we discovered tools and weapons, what does our holy slab inspire in us this time?
A team visits the monolith, under cover of Ligeti’s hellish Lux Aeterna, in a dig site on the moon and are immediately assailed by another of the monolith’s screams. As with Moonwatcher, the voice of the monolith drags from us capability for invention that we previously lacked.
The monolith, the black god, the passive singer of hymns of creation, awakens our own godliness; in the next sequence of the film, aboard the Discovery as it tracks the monolith through the solar system, we learn that humanity has engineered new life. We have born AI that is every bit as self-aware and motivated by self-interest as any human.
Discovery of the moon site was a test. We passed. Now we move to our next stage: giving birth to new life. Giving birth to the HAL 9000 Ed. note: Originally named BRUNO. BRUNO!!!!. Our artistry has transcended. Our muse has made new gods of us. HAL, it turns out, has a secret mission to follow the monolith to Jupiter or beyond. This mission takes precedence over the survival of the crew, all of which are expendable.3 HAL murders all the crew but one, the dogged Dave Bowman (Kier Dullea). In doing so, HAL becomes fully sentient, albeit a maladjusted psychopath. HAL’s mission is to follow the alien god at all costs, even if he must sacrifice his own creators.
God is an Artist
This plays almost algebraically. We discover the power of tools. We evolve our tools and weapons into space-faring technology. We create new life, achieving a sort of godhood. That new life in turn attempts to seize godhood from us.
Ultimately Bowman prevails and follows the Monolith into the so-called Star Gate, a long and terrifying journey through unbelievably beautiful, fully overwhelming multicolored inventions. The Star Gate sequence has alienated (heh) audiences from day one. Its length and intensity are absolutely critical to helping us understand the alien intelligence that Bowman has given himself over to. This alien, whatever it may be, is both muse and artist. It inspires great things in the creators that hear its music. It also creates sights and sounds so astonishingly beautiful that Bowman, and we the audience, are awestruck. Kubrick, in this sequence, essentially guides us through the Alien’s canvas, a cross-dimensional vortex onto which is painted a whole universe of color and shape and sound. So thoroughly overwhelming in this sequence that I have always read the Ligeti score here as a literal extension of the Alien’s voice. The Star Gate is a formidable cinematic achievement, and perhaps the greatest vindication that Kubrick’s outsized ego could claim; he clearly intended for his films to exist as experiential artifacts, so much more than mere stories on celluloid. 2001 is not strictly a film. Kubrick structures himself as a creator of gods, and his film is itself one of his monoliths. A muse and maker.
Having completed his journey, Dave Bowman faces his hardest challenge: he must complete his natural life in a small baroque apartment with a white-lit floor (in a set that still appears in various forms in films and television, it was so visually stunning and original – Ridley Scott recently called back to it in the opening scene of Alien: Covenant). Finally, crossing over to death, Dave Bowman is guided into a new evolutionary stage. He has begun again as a space-faring child. The alien, which was there to guide the dawn of humanity, is also there at our end. The finale of 2001 is stunningly optimistic; the notion that we are reborn into a new life that crosses the distance between planets, can journey through the stars of its own accord – this, to me, is beautiful and far surpasses afterlives that religious traditions frequently promise.
God is Awe
When I toss and turn, unable to sleep because the inescapability of death is difficult to take (this is particularly acute when half awake), I project myself into space. I imagine swimming between worlds, dipping into Saturnine storms, skating Jovian moons, launching off Pluto in search of habitable exoplanets. I search for awe. I am reassured by the immensity of what we don’t know, and the notion that death might bring us closer to the mysteries of the infinite number of grains of sand across all the universes.
I may lack faith. I don’t want to. I want to see more, I want to understand more. As we each slowly row to our lonely deaths, we all find ways to prepare ourselves. I imagine monoliths. I imagine the guiding hand (well, slab) of alien gods.
- Internet “rationalists” and asshole hijinks from the old atheist guard make it difficult to be an out and proud atheist at the moment – those creeps flirt perilously with Men’s Rights and extreme libertarian garbage
- Credit where it’s due: St. John of the Cross coined the term, and it’s quite en vogue at the moment
- It’s impossible to ignore the similarities to Ridley Scott’s haunted house masterpiece Alien; Scott has frequently cited 2001 as one of his primary motivations – 2001 itself is a muse, a great impenetrable music. Kubrick surely hoped that his film would succeed as an embodiment of venerated artistry, a literal realization of the godly mission to inspire creation.