Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Technological Golden Calf: 2001: A Space Odyssey

"Its origin and purpose still a total mystery."

Do you recognize this line?

If I say, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," you would say Casablanca. If I say, "Nobody's perfect," you would say Some Like It Hot. But if I were to utter this quote, it's unlikely that you or anyone else would say 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But in fact those are the final words of the film, rendered forgotten by the wordless 20+ minute visit to Jupiter and the Infinite, the most unique and visual ending ever made. The quote appears at the end of the preceding “Daisy” sequence. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) has broken back into the spaceship Discovery One to disconnect the renegade artificially intelligent HAL 9000 computer. HAL has already killed the crew silently and efficiently, cutting off their life support system. As soon as Bowman disables HAL’s last chip, a message from Mission Control pops onto a screen, informing the crew about the nature of their secret mission. The “it” is the monolith, an alien monochromatic black block, the origin of which the crew has been trained to find. The audience has come to understand the monolith represents a supernatural presence – God, the Cosmos, the universe, or what have you.

It is impossible to analyze the meaning of this scene, or the entire meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, without coming to an understanding about HAL. Many of the theories have focused on the human characteristics of the flawless computer that makes its first mistake. This essay certainly recognizes and discusses the importance of this element. However, to find the meaning of the film, I think it is even more important to look at HAL’s god-like features. I’m less interested in what makes him human than I am in what prevents him from being divine.

There are two things to note about HAL. First, he is theoretically a perfect being. The HAL series has never made an error. He can calculate pi to the zillionth decimal in a zillionth of a second. And he has ultimate control over every function of the space craft.

The second thing is that HAL is the ultimate reflection of the society that builds him. Inversely, the elements of HAL's "perfection" give us a sense of the cultural values from which he emerged. The evidence suggests a dispassionate, emotionally dead, authoritarian society, like those found in other Kubrick projects such as A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. In Lyndon, the top rung is occupied by passionless aristocrats. In 2001, the big cheeses appear to be emotionally-depleted scientists. Detached scientific rationality rules over emotion, passion and humanity.

The largest hint of this comes during the Moon base visit of Dr. Haywood Floyd. He has come to address a meeting of scientists on a secret project to study an unearthed monolith. His manner is detached, rational. In a polite voice, he makes genially veiled threats, kindly instructing the assembled to stick to an undesirable cover story and take an oath of secrecy. Through this example and others, Kubrick subtly paints a techno-authoritarian social structure. Later, HAL’s monotone and calm demeanor will mimick that of Dr. Floyd.

If this society were to manufacture its idea of a perfect being, it would look a lot like HAL. Infinite knowledge and intelligence. Perfect rationality. (Over)confident demeanor. Complete command. Within the confines of the spacecraft, he is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent (or close to it).The irony of the film is that the society has created a perfect being in order to (unwittingly) pursue a real deity.

Pursue he does. To Jupiter, where the monolith has sent a signal. Yet as the ship closes in on Jupiter, a funny thing happens. HAL fails. He chokes. He unaccountably makes an error. The cloak of infallibility disintegrates, as do HAL’s god-like pretensions. How does this happen? I can count three ways.

First, HAL is not perfect. As the product of humans, he is flawed. In fact, the film explicitly suggests HAL has the classic Greek flaw – pride, hubris. Like any Greek hero ascending to God-like status, he gets too big for his britches, and it dooms him and those around him.

Second, HAL has developed emotions. Given his design by a hierarchy of unemotional scientists, this appears to be unanticipated. When a BBC interviewer states that he senses pride, the astronauts stumble through an answer. In developing HAL, emotional development was likely low on the list, overlooked in favor of rational consistency. An emotional base is so unthinkable that it seems unnoticed even by HAL. As he starts his killing spree, HAL thinks he is doing the rational thing. In fact, he is driven by fear (“I’m afraid, Dave,” he laments as his disconnection nears.). This highlights HAL’s artificially created humanity, and often this is the jumping-off point for 2001 analysis.

The most important reason that HAL is not a god is simple – because he isn’t one. He might be a perfect being. Or at least he might be designed to be one. Omniscient? Check. Omnipotent? Check. Omnipresent? Check. According to the human checklist, he should qualify as a deity. Yet we realize that even if we extended HAL’s power from one end of the universe to the other, he still would not be one. The human checklist that describes a god is one thing. The actuality of God is something else entirely. What HAL is, instead, is a technological golden calf, a false idol designed by an emotionless, overly rational techno-authoritarian society, an ersatz deity that reflects its image of itself.

The point of the film, I believe, is the gap between this false idol and the real thing. Ultimately, we see how our concepts of God are malleable to – dependent upon and adjustable to –our cultural beliefs and our flawed human understanding. The film also emphasizes how far short our concepts fall when compared to the vast universal mystery that is God. Its origin and purpose still a total mystery, indeed.

All of this filters into my interpretation of the film’s famous psychedelic ending. First, let me start with the mundane. I believe Dave dies. When is slightly unclear. Most likely after the disconnection of HAL. It is unclear how he will survive. However the way the film is shot, he might also die in the airlock, with the disconnection sequence being a dying fantasy. Either way, the famous light show is the trip to the afterlife. We become a passenger on Bowman’s trip back into the supernatural ether. Yet there’s something else to it. I believe this is a visit to one little corner of the divine consciousness.

Once there, we watch a sequence where Dave Bowman ages quickly, ending on his deathbed. The aging sequence is the way that God – a timeless, eternal being – might see the brevity of a human life, or alternately the short tenure of human existence, among the vastness of his total creation. Personally, I think it is the latter. This is how the entirety of human existence would appear to an infinite being. (This is hinted at by our long viewing of Bowman eating a meal. As an infinite being that doesn’t need to eat, the curious practice of eating might fascinate God, and might be the only human development He considers worthy of prolonged attention.)

Until the last section, 2001 is an artistic representation of human history from a human perspective, from our rise to dominance among the apes to the nadir of our dominance amid the rise of the machines. This story might be how a human being views it, but I would suggest that the last section speculates on how God might view the same stretch of human history. In fact, I would suggest something more. If God were an abstract filmmaker, the final section of 2001 might be the movie He would make from the same material. In the human movie, the monolith is an artistic representation of God. In “God’s movie, ”the situation reverses; Dave Bowman stands as God’s artistic representation of mankind. In essence, Dave Bowman becomes the monolith.

(This premise – this is how God would re-make my movie – is quite funny. Despite its reputation, 2001 contains a great deal of cold, dry Kubrickian humor. In his nasal monotone, HAL’s taunts – “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dave” – sound like satire of stock movie villains. Dr. Floyd’s banality of evil routine – essentially “Thank you for your cooperation, and have I mentioned the secrecy oaths?” – probably had Kubrick rolling on the floor. Especially when in the next scene a bootlicking bureaucrat tells him what wonders his speech did for morale. Over a ham sandwich on a spaceship.)

While mystery nowadays is what Sherlock Holmes does for a living, its roots are religious. It shares the same root as words like mystical and mysticism. In religious terms, a mystery is a supernatural truth that is beyond the ability of reason to grasp. And while 2001 has an interest in things earthly and spacely, its ultimate goal is to illustrate the distance between us and the heavenly mysteries – those things about God and his universe that we can never understand.


K. Bowen said...

As a footnote, I want to mention that I took a class fifteen years ago at the University of Michigan on Kubrick, taught by a professor named Peter Bauland, if I recall correctly. I'm sure a few of these details were discussed in the class. For instance, I'm pretty sure the God's-eye view idea was one of the possibilities we discussed. The problem is that I don't remember specifically what else. But I think it's proper to credit.

Craig Kennedy said...

It's interesting because I don't think religion is ever mentioned in the film, though the last religion Technology is everywhere and as you say HAL is the pinnacle representation of that.
It's not just our attempt to understand or be closer to God but to actually BE God, yet it's a failure because we're imperfect beings.
"The second thing is that HAL is the ultimate reflection of the society that builds him." just like every version of God in every religion.
That's also an interesting take on the ending being sort of God's version of the story which I hadn't considered. I'll have to puzzle it some more.
After watching it again last night, my take is still a little more banal. I don't think Bowman dies, well his current form dies, but he becomes a super being. He's the next link in the chain of human development and in order to get there he has to destroy the pinnacle of our achievement - the final product of the knowledge we received when the monolith first appeared 4 million years ago.
But back to the religion thing, it's interesting that I'd never really focused on that angle because 2001 addresses the classic questions of all relgions: where did we come from and where are we going?
This is a random, disordered comment, but it's early and I only had a few hours sleep. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Great write-up and interesting theory, K. Bowen.

I think both yours and Craig's perceptions of Kubrick's intentions are legitimate readings of the film, and both find a great deal of support from much evidence.

The line you quote is one I honestly have thought about, but that is probably because I've seen 2001 so many times that a line like that sticks out for me whereas for most who take a look at 2001 every six, seven or eight years or whatever, it probably doesn't, like you suggest.

2001 is certainly "all about," in its most direct way, human development, like Craig says--and I think that is the engine of the picture--but it's also about deities of one kind or another, like you say. And I concur with the point about Moon base visit of Dr. Floyd being perhaps the biggest hint with regards to the mystery behind HAL.

Kubrick was clearly deeply interested in authoritarian dynamics, techno-, and otherwise, and it's fairly obvious he believed the military was a frightening aspect of humanity as it's in many different ways as authoritarian a structure as it gets.

2001 plays with a similar scenario, in the chain of command, but introduces the perfect piece of technology at its center. The whole film has an operculum of mystery and wonderment, and it's also something of a struggle, I think, for Kubrick as an agnostic, being intrigued by but not completely optimistic about the nature of God.

Russell said...

I've never taken 2001 to be a film about religion per se but rather an examination of how humanity deals with what it cannot fathom.As another commenter says technology is God in this film and, just like our previous Gods, it ultimately fails us.Kubrick strikes me as a non-believer searching for some kind of spirituality throughout the film and the best he can achieve is the "mystery" of the final line.

K. Bowen said...

Hey guys,
thank you for the thougtful comments.

We seem a bit hung up on the question of whether God is at the center of the film. In thinking about this over the past day, I think the difference is ultimately less than we think. Coming up with a more atheistic take wouldn't be much of a change. "HAL is the human concept of God. The concept is inadequate when confronted with the mystery of the universe." Once you drop the man-with-a-white-beard, etc., the difference between the religious "God" in the sense that I'm using it here and the atheistic "universe" isn't that much. But I do think that religion accounts more convincingly for the monolith showing up out of nowhere to visit the apes.

My essay doesn't do a lot with the the evolutionary question. That's probably the biggest weakness. Honestly, I just haven't thought about it that much.

Craig Kennedy said...

I was kind of stabbing at (and missing) the idea that though God isn't referenced per se, the concept is all over the film. It's addressing the fundemental questions on the nature of existence and a person can place a man in a white beard behind it or not.

K. Bowen said...

Gotcha Craig. Maybe I'm just a little self-conscious on that point.

Jeff said...

Great article.

K. Bowen said...

Hey, Jeff. Welcome over. I appreciate the compliment.