2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY: Evolution Through Technology

|Michael Lockhart|

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a unique and rather abstract film that offers a variety of interpretations. In an interview from 1968, Kubrick suggested that he wanted to keep the meaning of the film open to the audience.

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.[1]

Kubrick’s statement refers to the ambiguous ending of the film but I find that it applies to the motifs and cinematic choices throughout the film as well. In this regard, the emphasis on technology in the film has multiple meanings and I argue here that Kubrick ponders the use of technology to establish the theme of evolution.

The film is broken up into specific chapters. The first chapter, titled “The Dawn of Man,” features prolonged shots of the landscape setting of Earth. The shots fixate on the desolate and expansive emptiness of the environment which emphasizes the technologically underdeveloped setting at the beginning of the film. When the film shifts locals late in the first chapter, the landscape moves to outer space and the environment is occupied by advanced space-travel technology. This dramatic shift appears to be a direct contrast of the opening shots of the first chapter, as the outer space background suggests a technologically advanced setting as if in opposition to the primitive scene at the start of the film. The emphasis on technology and the outer space setting signals the shift in the stage in evolution through its juxtaposition with the opening scene. By fixating on the environments and technology in the different settings through prolonged landscape shots, the first chapter illustrates the theme of evolution that continues throughout the film.

The depiction of technology is a focal point throughout the different sections of the film.  The first depiction of technology is the apes use of animal bones as tools in the first chapter. The technology is depicted as a miraculous discovery amongst the apes, and the mastery of the tool allows them to hunt and fight in order to survive in their environment. As the chapter transitions to the outer space setting, a slow-motion shot of the bone flipping in the air cuts to a similar shot of a spacecraft mimicking the motion of the bone. Pairing the two scenes with a quick transition represents the evolution theme in the film. The connection of the spacecraft and the bone suggests that the human evolution in the film has reached a stage in which space travel and the subsequent technology is equivalent to the use of an animal bone as a tool. The bone is simplistic in terms of technology, but serves as a vital instrument for the ape’s survival; the spacecraft is to humans what the bone is to the apes. The bone may seem primitive in terms of its technology, but it serves a necessary purpose for ape’s survival, and thus the evolution of apes into human beings. The evolution theme in the film is illustrated through this depiction of technology and its banality in these two examples.

As the film progresses, the role of technology develops as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey is renowned for its cinematography and visual effects and the depiction of technology is emphasized by the film thoughtful its cinematic choices and techniques. In fact, it often feels like the emphasis on visual effects overshadows the development of the main human characters in the film. This is prevalent in the second chapter, “Mission to Jupiter,” in which the audience is introduced to characters Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Since they are introduced so late in the film, there is little development of these characters, like HAL. Instead, the technology around the characters is developed and emphasized through the visual effects. By drawing the audience’s attention to the technology displayed in this part of the film, it also emphasizes the stages of human evolution depicted in the film.

An example of the emphasis of technology is the role of the supercomputer HAL. It is reasonable to suggest that HAL is a more developed character than the two main human characters of the second chapter. Dave and Frank treat HAL as if it is basically another crew member. The computer is included in interviews with the media and the crewmembers converse with it as if they were talking to another human. The viewer also knows more about the origin and background of HAL than they do about Frank or Dave. In addition, the film evokes a more complex emotional response for HAL’s disconnection than it does for Frank’s death. Frank’s death happens suddenly and quickly, which produces little emotional connection for the audience. However, when Dave disconnects HAL, the event is drawn out and the audience is able to experience HAL’s expression of fear and desperation. The contrast of the two scenes illustrates HAL as a more developed and complex character than Frank or Dave, further establishing the importance of technology in the film.

HAL represents another stage of evolution in the film that is represented through the different depictions of technology. The use of the bone by the apes in the beginning of the film represents the early phase of human use of technology and the beginning of its evolution. As the film progresses to a later stage of human evolution, the technology has progressed all the way to HAL, a human-like supercomputer. The film begins with a representation of technology through early tool use––the bone––as an innate, controllable process of human development. As the human’s use of  technology progresses throughout the film, it evolves into the sentient, self-possessed and uncontrollable supercomputer HAL. This progression of technology represents the film’s theme of evolution.

The unique structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its stellar visual effects allows the audience to focus and absorb different elements of the film. Multiple viewings allows the spectator to comprehend, “to speculate” as Kubrick suggests, and to notice new components each time they watch the film. During my most recent viewing, it was the monotone and hypnotizing character of HAL that drew my attention to the emphasis of technology and its evolution throughout the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey screens on 70mm at the Heights Theater on Monday, July 22 (SOLD OUT) and Tuesday, July 23 at 7:30 pm. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit our website.

[1] Norden, Eric. Interview: Stanley Kubrick. Playboy (September 1968). Reprinted in: Phillips, Gene D. (Editor). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1-57806-297-7 pp. 47–48.

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