What is “2001: A Space Odyssey” About?

The other day I watched a documentary about “2001” on YouTube. It has been my favourite movie for a long time and the documentary prompted me to re-explore what the film means.

The documentary I watched, “2001: A Space Odyssey – The Making Of A Myth”, was made in 2001 by the BBC’s Channel 4. In a series of interviews the documentary explores how they made the film, and what it meant. You can watch the documentary here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpoPhQNrpjE

However, they didn’t talk about what I thought as an important aspect of the film: the parallel between the Monolith story and the HAL story.

Arthur C. Clarke often said that if you could understand “2001”, then they had failed. The film is meant to provoke us to contemplate the nature of the Universe and our place in it. Nevertheless, I still feel we can find value when we try to find meaning in the film. At least in part, my interpretation is based on the book.

The Monolith Story and the HAL Story

As far as I can recall, when people talk about the HAL subplot, they don’t relate it to main plot about the Monolith. I think that the two are related. Maybe people feel it is too obvious to mention. I’m not sure when I came to that view. It may have been a short time after I saw the film.

Initially, it seems that the subplot of HAL’s rebellion and downfall are not related to the Monolith story. But, let’s reconsider.

In the HAL story, HAL is a machine that people have created for their own purposes. As the story progresses, HAL develops behaviour beyond what the people who created it intended. When its behaviour threatens the existence of the people in its care, Bowman, the last survivor, has to shut HAL down. As he does so, HAL bit by bit regresses toward its infancy.

In the Monolith story, the Monolith is a representation of an advanced intelligence. The film does not say exactly what that intelligence is. In the first part of the film, the Monolith sparks the flame of intelligence in the pre-humans it finds on Earth. The pre-humans later develop into modern people, with great abilities, but also with a legacy of violence. In the last part of the film, Bowman, the people’s representative, is transformed into the Starchild.

I think that the HAL story helps understand what happens to Bowman at the end. In the Monolith story, Bowman takes the role earlier played by HAL. The Monolith, like Bowman earlier, is disappointed with how people have turned out. While they may not be as big a threat to the Monolith as HAL was to Bowman, the Monolith acts in the same way as Bowman with HAL. The Monolith regresses Bowman back to his infancy. The difference is that the Monolith is far more advanced that people and so the Monolith is able to restart (reboot) Bowman. The film ends as a new beginning, with hope for the future.

“2001” and H. P. Lovecraft

While I worked on this post, I started to notice a parallel between “2001” and some of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft.

In many of his stories, for example “The Nameless City” and “The Mountains of Madness”, Lovecraft’s protagonists are driven to madness when they come to understand the vastness of the Universe.

Bowman can be seen as similar to the Lovecraftian protagonists in that his search to understand the Cosmos seems to drive him to insanity. I don’t know if Clarke or Kubrick were that familiar with Lovecraft, or maybe it is just that I see something that isn’t there.

Maybe other people can explore this idea further.

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