"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.