Humanity has grown so old: On 2001: A Space Odyssey


Last night we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is part of the 70mm Film Festival at the Music Box. I’ve seen the film several times before, but never on the big screen. One thing that struck me was how much more patient I was with the pacing when seeing it in the theater as opposed to seeing it at home — it works so much better if it has the advantage of absolutely dominating your senses. This was especially the case for the final section, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” which is also the most puzzling part of the film.

Some details were also more legible than on our almost comically small television — for instance, the brand names that appear seemingly everywhere. The space station is a Hilton, all the computers are IBM, even the food processor is Whirlpool. This is a “believable” detail from our perspective, but in context, I think it’s meant to be jarring in its very familiarity — we’ve reached out to touch the stars, space travel is now routine, but everything is the same. Calling home and leaving a message with your cute toddler is the same. Meetings are the same. Small talk and gossip are the same. They even pause to take a group photo in front of the monolith!

Things are “the same” on a deeper level, though. We are meant to take the breakthrough of bone weapons in “The Dawn of Man” as a profound paradigm shift — the first time someone stopped to think something through. Yet they ultimately use the breakthrough to get better at doing monkey stuff. They eat better, and in the remainder of the film, there’s a real fascination with continuing “improvements” in the ready availability of food. They’re better at policing their territory, and we find that in the bold new future, nationalism still rules the day — different nations have separate moon bases (what a wasteful, duplicated effort!) and the US is trying to keep the monolith discovery to itself, just as one group of primates used its insights for their own private advantage.

Indeed, that seems to be a persistent temptation. HAL certainly wants to use his exclusive knowledge of the monolith for his own advantage, and we might theorize that what made him go off the rails was precisely having a secret from his human masters. In a redoubling, then, the monolith produces a breakthrough within human technology itself — and as in “The Dawn of Man,” the first thing that breakthrough produces is death.

Dave is able to outthink the computer when it comes down to it, of course, and with preternatural calm. This is a far cry from the wild screams and gesticulations of our ancient forebears — and in a way, Dave is even less emotional than HAL. And then we look back and realize that everyone is cold and calculating. No one is in awe of the monolith really (again, they take a picture in front of it like it’s a tourist attraction, and on the way they are more concerned about their “realistic” sandwiches), and the “epidemic” cover story is almost ghoulish in its insensitivity to the colonists’ family and friends. The biggest thing in history is happening before their eyes, and it’s all business as usual — yet more fodder for international power politics. They’ve achieved JFK’s inspiring dream to a hyperbolic degree, but it’s as though they don’t know why they’re doing any of it.

In short, humanity has grown old and stuck in its ways. That’s what I took away from Dave’s vision, where he ages so rapidly — all in surroundings reminiscent of the decadent era prior to the French Revolution. And what the movie gestures toward in the end is a radical rebirth that will make everything we’re doing look as pointless and shortsighted as our ancestors’ contentment with digging around for bugs. It wants to recapture the dynamism that created humanity in the first place — a dynamism that will never come from a steady accrual of incremental technological changes.

8 thoughts on “Humanity has grown so old: On 2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. Nice read. ‘The dawn of man’ is what dawns on man: Force at a distance. Exerting force at a distance as a way of life. Whether arche-techne (bone) or techne (spacestation), what man puts to use poses a latent (or not so latent) threat. In a pinch, the human creature chooses the will to power over the will to meaning. It’s what moves history. The starchild gazes upon a world under the threat of its gaze, of the eternal recurrence written darkly.

  2. HAL having a secret and going bonkers because of it was confirmed in 2010 (a very 80’s but maybe better movie).

    Then 3001 brings everything to a rather mundane resolution. I prefer your finale.

  3. I thought, from your first paragraph, that this reading was going to go in a different direction: towards an emphasis on ‘seeing’ as the key to the movie. The monolith has the dimensions of a widescreen cinema image, after all (not a boxy TV image), and there is a wealth of stuff in here to do with accessing the world via screens and cameras (like taking that group-shot of astronauts in front of the lunar monolith), to do with eyes, from HAL’s creepy all-seeing red eye to Dave’s human eye blinking away the visual residue of the ‘to infinity’ lightshow at the end. There’s also a sense in which the breakthrough in the ape’s evolutionary advance is occasioned by him metaphorically ‘seeing’ for the first time what might be done with a bone. Which all reverts back upon the movie as a highly finished visual artefact. And I think this becomes clearer when the movie is seen on the big screen, where it can, as you say, dominate your visua perception to a greater degree than is possible at home.

  4. It has been decades since I have seen this movie and it is nice getting a perspective from a younger generation. Eating is a continuum throughout this movie from the apes killing food to meals on TWA space transport to the old man eating on Saturn. Eating is always a necessary but selfish act for animals. This may help explain the selfish behavior of nations which are constructed and run by humans. But why did HAL behave selfishly unless his programming, designed to make him interact as another human passenger, was too inclusive?

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