2001: A Space Odyssey

I watch this movie over and over

Posted 10 Feb 2017    Edited 10 Feb 2017

Spoiler alert: for the love of all things holy, do NOT read this post if you haven't heard anything about 2001: A Space Odyssey before. Go watch the movie. Unless you've heard of it, and really don't think you'll like it. Then read this, I guess.

What's most effective - telling you that this is my most favorite film? Telling you that I think it's objectively the best film ever made? Or saying that I watch this movie in its entirety about twice a month?

Good Things to Review Before Discussing the Movie

Where to begin? I guess here:

Image credit: Sanibel Sea School

These are plankton. Actually, these are too complex. We should really start here:

Image credit: Appalachian Geology

Minerals. Or maybe some kind of polymer. The point is, we're gonna start this one-way conversation with something basic af.

Because this is where life on earth probably started. Pre-bird. Pre-fish. Pre-amoeba. Pre-cell. A half billion years after the initial formation of the earth, the oceans were abuzz with mineral particles and interactions among them. Somewhere in these interactions, microscopic materials came together in a way that crossed the threshold of randomness. Somehow, a self-regulating, self-replicating, non-random structure emerged from randomness. Somehow, the intermolecular behavior of some something became almost what we would call life. For now, I'll just call it a "thingy."

At this point [meaning present-day], we don't have great scientific explanations for exactly how this happened. It's important to understand, though, that it happened. And once we had thingies that could self-regulate, and self-replicate... Holy shit. Watch out.

Random events/conditions interrupted the self-replicating behavior of some of these basic, not-quite-cell thingies. In the vast majority of cases, these random changes resulted in the "death" of the thingy. But, maybe every once in a million or so times, a change would emerge in the thingy's behavior or structure that actually made it self-regulate or self replicate better.

Now, you've got a thingy that self-regulates and/or self-replicates better than the thingy that it came from. You've got something that is, in every way, better than what you started with.

Since it's better at copying itself, this thingy is going to make a lot more of itself than its unaltered neighbors. Its "offspring" thingies are going to inherit the superior self-replicating behavior, and they, in turn, are going to self-replicate at an accelerated rate in relation to the older generations of thingies.

Now, we can keep going like this describing generation after generation of mineral/crystalline/polymer structures that produce, from random material, organized copies of themselves. Because that's how life started. Maybe a hundred or a thousand or a million generations went by without a significant change, but every time a random change occurred in one or a few of the thingies that led to greater survival or greater reproducibility, the feature continued and perpetuated in later generations.

In this way, "good" features in thingies took hold and were inherited by children.

Thingies continued to evolve in this way until some of them had accumulated enough complexity and features to fit our classical definition of life. They became cells. They developed more advanced genetic structures [DNA] and began diversifying. Different environments occupied by the cells required different attributes for optimum survival. In this way, cells that lived in environments that changed little could evolve relatively little and still survive well.

Cells in environments that underwent great changes [in chemistry, temperature, population of other organisms, etc.] had to evolve along with the changes. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that changes in environment killed cell population majorities, and only the few cells that had lucky mutations survived. These survivors continued to reproduce and define the future of the populations in the environment.

Changes like this continued until organisms were no longer just single-celled. Multicellular organisms developed and turned into fish and stuff and then life made it out of the water and turned into lizards and birds and little fuzzy critters. Eventually [meaning after billions of years of such developments], some populations of the critters developed good enough brains to solve problems and use tools and have advanced language systems and, now, here we are.

Through small changes occurring over billions of years, humans emerged from the "the dust of the earth." Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species [1859] was the first time these ideas of evolution and mutation were set forth.

And that's evolution in a super-condensed nutshell. Most of you probably knew about all that already, but it's important to understand in order to really appreciate the next thing.

The Next Thing

We're still not really equipped to fully love 2001. To really get into the film, we gotta discuss a man named Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche deserves a post all to himself, and he will probably get one at some point on this blog, but for now we gotta learn about his contribution to the movie.

Nietzsche was born in 1844 in a town called Röcken in what was then Prussia [old Germany]. He went to German schools and studied languages and music and stuff. He got into philosophy at a pretty young age, and, when he was older, he developed a lot of his own philosophical views. This is why we know about Nietzsche today. He was a philosopher in the ultimate sense. He's one of the philosophers of the nineteenth century.

Friedrich Nietzsche: rad man, killer mustache

His work was characterized by a strong rejection of traditional values. He basically said, "Christianity is the dumbest thing anyone has ever thought of and it keeps people oppressed and poor and basically kills critical thinking and growth."

Nietzsche's the one who famously said, "God is dead."

Since, at that time, most of western values and ideals were wrapped up in the existence of God, many consider Nietzsche's declaration a declaration of nihilism - a rejection of all values and reality. I'm no philosopher, but as i've read Nietzsche's works, I don't get a nihilist vibe. Nietzsche's hope was that humanity would reject its current crappy morals and values to make place for better ones, but he understood that the initial rejection of traditional elements could lead to a period of nihilism which humans would have to overcome.

The most pertinent of Nietzsche's ideas to this discussion is the concept of der übermensch. In German, übermensch means superman or overman. In his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra [1883], Nietzsche illustrated the übermensch as a tightrope walker.

Image credit: Al-Bab Blog

In the book, the titular Zarathustra comes upon a tightrope walker in a marketplace and the people there mistake him for the ringmaster of the show. He takes advantage of the opportunity to preach to the people about Nietzsche's übermensch. He says:

I teach you der übermensch! Mankind is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome mankind?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. Do you want to be the ebb of that great tide, and revert back to the beast rather than overcome mankind? What is the ape to a man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just so shall a man be to der übermensch: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm. Once you were apes, yet even now man is more of an ape than any of the apes.


Man is a rope stretched between the animal and der übermensch -- a rope over an abyss: a dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting.

Nietzsche explains that the purpose and duty of mankind presently is to drive its evolution forward and to bring about its next stage of evolution: der übermensch. He took Darwin's ideas on evolution from about twenty-five years prior and extended the principles to mankind's future. He continues:

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.

I love him who lives in order to know, and seeks to know in order that der übermensch may hereafter live. Thus he seeks his own down-going.

I love him who labors and invents, that he may build the house for der übermensch, and prepare for him earth, animal, and plant: for thus he seeks his own down-going.

So, yeah. That's Nietzsche and that's der übermensch. Further reading here.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The film opens on a vision of our evolutionary ancestors: the apes. We see a community of them in their struggle to survive. We see them get their watering hole stolen by a competing group of apes and we also see one guy get eaten by a leopard.

One day, the apes wake up and one of 'em starts screeching like a maniac. He wakes everyone else up and they all freak out. In the rocks outside their cave, a big solid formation has appeared. It's like a not-quite-stone, not-quite-metal rectangular solid sticking straight up out of the ground. In 2001 lore, this object is known as a monolith.

The apes hesitantly approach the monolith and one of them, the "first" ape, musters the courage to touch it. The other apes join in and slide their hands across its perfectly smooth surface. A few days later, the first ape is staring at the skeleton of a tapir. He stares at the bones in front of him for a while and eventually picks one up: a femur or something. He uses it to kinda tap on the other bones in the pile. Once he gets the hang of handling the femur he starts smacking down harder on the bones, snapping some of them in half. He brings the femur down hard on the skull, crushing it.

The camera snaps to a tapir, just struck on the head and falling to the ground dead. We see the entire community of enlightened apes using bones as tools to hunt the tapirs. Later, we then see them back at their stolen watering hole confronting the other ape tribe. They use their bones to kill one of the apes and scare the rest of the tribe off. In a gesture of victory, the first ape tosses his bone in the air. The camera tracks its motion up and just after it starts to fall back down, the film cuts to the image of a spacecraft in orbit around the earth.

Yeah, that's how we transition in this movie. If you don't like it too bad.

Stuff Happening in Space

A space shuttle docks to a space station - that takes like 5 minutes, but it's set to Johan Strauss's Blue Danube so it's pretty nice to watch. Then we watch this American guy Heywood Floyd in the space station. He meets a Russian lady he knows and she's like, "Hi Heywood, these are my Russian friends. Have a drink with us," and they talk to him, and one of the Russian friends is like, "So, we heard Americans aren't letting anyone on the moon station. That's illegal. Why are you doing that?" and Heywood's like, "Uh, no reason..." and the Russian guy keeps pressing him. He's like, "Well, we heard from our intelligence sources that there's been some kind of epidemic that's broken out on the moon station. Is that correct?" and Heywood's like, "I can't talk about it."

Then Heywood goes to a meeting with a bunch of Americans and he tells them, "Well, everyone's buying the whole epidemic story. We just have to keep lying about it. I'm just here to write a report on how things are going on the moon and if there's anything you think I should have in my report, just tell me." One of the American guys at the meeting asks, "How long do we have to keep up the cover story?" and Heywood just laughs and is like, "Well, I guess just as long as the council deems necessary ha ha ha."

Then he goes to the moon and we see what all the fuss is about. They've discovered and dug up a rectangular, shiny thing just like we saw before with the apes. They're out in the excavation site taking pictures of it and stuff. All the sudden, it lets out this loud screeching noise that makes their ears hurt and one guy falls to the ground. Actually, they're in space, so it's probably not a noise - it's probably like a radio wave or something that causes interference in their headsets.

Further in Space

New smashcut to eighteen months later and now we're looking at a weird-shaped shuttle:

On board, there are two guys awake [Frank Poole and David Bowman] and three guys who are in a medically-induced state of hibernation. The awake astronauts spend their days exercising and eating and conducting experiments and talking to their computer whose model designation [and name, I guess] is HAL 9000.

They're all on their way to Jupiter. The computer HAL is at least as smart as a person. He interacts with Frank and Dave and monitors the ship and regulates the health of the hibernating astronauts. At a certain point, HAL tells Frank and Dave that a part on the outside of the ship that is essential for communication to mission control is about to fail and needs to be replaced. They go out and get it [a feat that requires one of them to take a pod {basically a mini spaceship} out to the back of the main shuttle, then spacewalk outside the pod with no harness]. Dave goes out to get it, while Frank monitors from inside the ship.

They bring the part inside the ship and there's nothing wrong with it. Dave's like, "What the hell, HAL?" and HAL's like, "Yes. It's puzzling."

Dave goes, "Well, what happened? Why did you miscategorize the failure of the satellite thing?" and HAL's like, "Well, it obviously can only be attributed to human error."

Dave and Frank go somewhere in the ship where HAL can't hear them, and they're like, "Okay, HAL's messed up. We'll go reinstall this thing then we'll see how he does, but we should probably disconnect his logic core and just run the ship manually."

HAL can't hear them, but the camera snaps to HAL's point of view, and he can still totally see Dave and Frank's lips moving and he knows what they're talking about.

So now it's Frank's turn to go outside. Once Frank's outside the pod to put the part back, the pod turns with no one in it and heads straight for him. Dave's in the main ship and sees Frank flying out into open space. We see Frank and his air hose is cut and he's dying. Dave's like, "HAL, what happened?" and HAL's like, "Uh, idk."

Dave gets in a different pod and goes out after Frank. By the time he gets to him, Frank's dead. Back in the ship, HAL kills all the astronauts in hibernation by cutting off their life support. Back outside the ship, Dave grabs Frank's body with the robot claws of the pod and brings him back to the ship. Dave's like, "Open the pod bay door, HAL." HAL's like, "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave."

They go back and forth and Dave tries to get in and HAL keeps shutting him down. Eventually, HAL says, "This conversation can't serve any purpose anymore," and he stops responding to Dave. Dave's like, "Okay, I'll come in through the emergency air lock." HAL goes, "Well, without your helmet, you're going to find that rather difficult, Dave."

Dave doesn't care. He opens the emergency lock door manually using the robot arms of the pod [he lets Frank's body fly off into the abyss]. He holds his breath and closes his eyes tight and blows the door off the pod, flying into the open emergency door exposed to open space. Once he's in the emergency bay he closes the door and floods the air lock with air.

As Dave makes his way into the ship [putting on a helmet just to be sure HAL can't open the ship up and try to kill him again] HAL is saying stuff like, "Dave, what's wrong?" and "Dave, let's just talk about this," and "Dave, please stop."

Dave goes into the computer center of the ship and disconnects the non-autonomous parts of HAL's brain. As he's doing it, we hear HAL dying. HAL's like, "Dave, stop. I can feel it." He pleads with Dave to let him live. Although HAL expresses each sentence in his even-leveled voice, the words he uses are those of a horrified person being tortured and killed.

After Dave has disconnected a few more logic core things, HAL loses all his memory except his first day after being programmed and degenerates into performing tricks that the programmers installed on him to show off his communication capability. He sings the song "Daisy Bell" and dies.

Once HAL's dead, a pre-recorded message from Heywood Floyd appears on a TV screen and he says, "Hi Discovery One crew. We're close to Jupiter, so all the crew in hibernation should be waking up right about now and I can tell you what the mission is all about. We kept the true purpose of the mission a secret from all of you except your HAL 9000 computer for security reasons. We found this thing on the moon and it was buried there like four million years ago and we dug it up and it sent a radio signal to Jupiter, so that's why you're there. To investigate all that."

Dave is Alone

We see a few of those shiny monolith things orbiting around Jupiter near the ship. Dave leaves the ship in a pod to get closer to one of them. As he's driving around in the pod, he gets sucked into a light tunnel thing.

As he flies through the color tunnel, the camera snaps to show shots of his face and he appears to be in severe pain. After travelling through the light tunnel, we see a weird sequence of brightly-lit fluid images [a lot of which look like semen spreading through water or something] and then we see weirdly-colored images of canyons and rivers and oceans from a helicopter's perspective.

We also keep cutting to a close-up on Dave's eye, image being saturated with a different color each time. At the end of the traveling sequence, there's a final close-up of the eyes, and the color saturation cycles through different colors with each blink of the eye. After six or seven blinks, the color normalizes, and we see the normal-looking eye of David Bowman.

Then, all the sudden, the pod is inside a well-furnished room decorated very nicely [like a fancy room in a palace or something] but the floor is made out of lighted tiles. Dave's standing outside the pod in his spacesuit and he has aged quite a few years. He's got wrinkles and some grey hair. He goes into the bathroom and looks around [it's really nice] then he hears a noise out in the other room and he looks out there and sees himself, sitting at a table eating, now dressed in a block robe and even older. All white hair. Then we're just looking at the white-hair Dave and the younger one is gone. The white-hair Dave accidentally knocks a glass off the table and breaks it. Then, as he's looking at the broken glass, he notices that there's someone lying in the bed. It's him. Even older now. No hair. The camera snaps to no-hair Dave. Way old. Lying in a bed not moving. Looks like he's about to die.

A shiny monolith appears at the foot of the bed. Dying Dave reaches out feebly like he's trying to touch it. Camera snaps to the monolith. Dramatic music starts playing. Camera snaps back to the bed. Dying Dave is gone. In his place, there's this weird glowing baby who looks kinda like an alien with huge eyes, but also looks a lot like Dave and has a spherical transparent boundary around him.

Then, all the sudden we're looking at the earth from far enough away that we can see the curvature of it, but we can't see the whole earth. The camera pans over, and weird baby Dave is floating there in space looking at the earth.

End of movie.


That's pretty much all that happens in the movie. And the movie is two-and-a-half hours long, so a lot of the movie is just watching pods and shuttles float through space for long stretches of time. It's amazing how long you kinda just watch nothing, plot-wise.

But it's amazing when you consider the scope of the message. Stanley Kubrick, the film's writer/producer/director, takes Nietzsche's writings on der übermensch and illustrates them with space stuff. And it's beautiful and amazing.

The symbolism of birth and death is so cool. Death is first powerfully illustrated with the ape and the tapirs and again later when Dave casts Frank's body into open space and also when the crew dies and maybe most hauntingly when HAL dies. I think the message is, "Okay, we're done with humans now. We're ready for the next thing."

The birth symbolism is also strong. The Discovery One shuttle is the shape of a sperm cell. Once it reaches Jupiter, it's like an image of a sperm cell in front of a much larger egg cell [Jupiter being the egg]. Then we see a birth-canal type journey [the light tunnel] and images that look like semen [that part is weird, but contributes to the symbolism]. Then, obviously, with the "death" of Dave in the fancy room, we witness his rebirth as this new, weird baby thing.

I think the film is showing us how beautiful Nietzsche's concept of der übermensch is, while also showing the violence associated with getting there. The old has to die to make way for the new, and life dies hard.

Cool Shoutouts to Nietzsche

1. The relationship between technology and progress. Nietzsche talked about humans as a bridge between apes and übermensch and that we used "tools" [morality/religion/governments] to make advances past just being animals to being people, but we'd need to abandon those tools to really evolve and progress. Likewise, in 2001 humanity begins with the use of the tool [the femur], and reaches its next evolutionary stage when it abandons tools [when Dave kills HAL].

2. The song that plays when Dave turns into the baby. It is played in two other parts of the film: the very beginning and when the first ape discovers the tool. This "song" is actually a tone poem composed by Richard Strauss in 1896 and is called Also Sprach Zarathustra: German for Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche's novel about der übermensch. Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche's writings and expressed those themes of progress and evolution in the tone poem.

3. Witnessing HAL lose his mind. In 1889, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown. The popular story is that Nietzsche was living in Italy and saw someone punishing a horse by flogging it. Nietzsche, troubled by the suffering of the animal, ran to it and threw his arms around its neck to protect it. He then collapsed and was basically mentally invalid from that point until his death about a year-and-a-half later.

4. Nietzsche's description of the tightrope walker. As quoted before, Nietzsche said, "Man is a rope stretched between the animal and der übermensch - a rope over an abyss." The journey through the literal abyss of space is shown very well in the footage of Discovery One carving through space on its way to Jupiter.

Please Just Watch It

There are a lot of levels to this movie and I think everyone should see it. A lot of them will hate it. That's fine. It's got a lot of parts that they will think are boring. Just so those people know, though, those parts they think are boring are not boring. They're intentional and they're beautiful and they just don't get it.