Science Fiction Studies

#104 = Volume 35, Part 1 = March 2008

Aaron Parrett

Veins of Symbolism and Strata of Meaning

Kolker, Robert, Ed. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. viii + 189 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Editor Robert Kolker announces the purpose of this new collection of essays on Kubrick’s most enduring and important film in his introduction: “to reignite the passion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to rethink and reexamine its complexities, and, hopefully, to make the film accessible—though never completely comprehensible—to a new generation of viewers” (8). The essays he chose for this collection do seem to adhere to the general thesis that the film’s ambiguity is its greatest selling point, at least academically speaking. Each writer here pursues a particular angle of interpretation, almost all of which are compelling and should help make the film more “accessible” and “comprehensible.” As far as “reigniting” my passion, I must admit that, in spite of having watched 2001 at least twenty times in my life, Kolker and crew inspired me to get out the DVD and watch it again.                

From the date of the film’s initial release in 1968, critics as well as casual viewers have tended to walk away from the experience of 2001 scratching their heads, unable to decide what the message was supposed to be. Pauline Kael, for example, found the film exasperatingly opaque and deplored a cultural state of affairs that had reduced cinema to a sort of LSD trip. But twenty-five years of continued perspective suggest that the value of the film as a major cultural artifact and sublime work of art emerges precisely from its refusal to be held to any specific overarching meaning or point. Is the film an indictment of the human sanctification of technology or an homage to it? In his 1969 chronicle of Apollo 11, Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer asked whether “the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity” (20)—a dilemma that Kubrick’s film also invokes without offering a definitive solution to the problem. Kolker’s collection admirably succeeds in convincing the reader that these perhaps irresolvable features of 2001 can be taken as starting points for profitable discussions in a number of fields—history, psychology, and artificial intelligence, to name but a few.

Kolker convinces his readers in his introduction that this film, unlike many “classic” sf films, has hardly suffered the fate of becoming dated. His comments and the following essays demonstrate that 2001 offers us today a trove of insights as rich and worthy of philosophical and speculative plunder as it did in 1968, in spite of the fact that the title itself has become an anachronism: the year 2001 has come and gone and we still do not have a permanent base on the moon, computers with intelligence remotely approaching the HAL 9000 series, or clear evidence of other intelligent life in our own or any other solar system. The essays in this collection persuasively demonstrate that the film continues to offer up veins of symbolism and strata of meaning for the conscientious viewer. If anything, the mere fact that 2001 shows us how technologically deficient we have remained by comparison to the ambitious dreams of the 1960s should inspire some interesting conversations between the Two Cultures.                

These essays also reminded me that 2001 demands a certain amount of work from the viewer. The next time one of my cranky logocentric colleagues bemoans the eclipse of literate culture by film and television, I shall recommend these essays (and a re-screening of the movie) as a counter-irritant. As Kolker writes, “the film propounds profound ideas about the human experience, the nature of art, and the history of the medium itself; its message is not defined entirely by the high seriousness of its engagement with genre” (24). In other words, the film remains relevant and important thirty years out because, like Homer’s Odyssey (to which it tips its titular hat), the film captures something of the mystery contained in what it means to be human and what it means to be traveling with the forces of fate into the future. In short, these essays convince us that this film does just what Horace said a good piece of literature should do: it both instructs and entertains.                

It is interesting that the two most insightful and compelling essays in this collection come from authors outside the domain of film studies—a fact that should remind all of us in the humanities how critical it is to cultivate interdisciplinarity. The most persistent complaints from the sciences (and from students) about the humanities are that they often fail to connect their studies to the real world and that they remain too abstract to be of practical value. Both historian James Gilbert’s and computer scientist Michael Mateas’s essays in this collection, however, use their analyses of 2001 to illustrate the practical relevance of the philosophical issues raised in the film, and they apply their readings to contemporary culture. Gilbert shows how 2001 undermines Darwinism and perpetuates what Richard Dawkins would call “God-thinking,” and Mateas applies the imagery from the film to the ongoing debate in computer science between classical AI and interactionist AI. Editor Robert Kolker was wise to invite essays from outside film studies, and this collection is all the richer for it.

Gilbert’s essay, “Auteur with a Capital A,” evaluates Kubrick’s conception of the film as an imago dei, and what that means in terms of the human compulsion to concoct “stories of origin and fate” (39). Gilbert quotes Kubrick as saying that “the film’s plot symbolized the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God” (30). Gilbert notes that “scientific definition of God” is an oxymoron and suggests that 2001 actually conveys an anti-evolutionary perspective, or at least expresses (in chorus with “creation science”) the “radical doubt” that “evolution could not, on its own, prompted by blind and chance forces, create anything so splendid” as the life we see on earth (31). Although evolution may in fact be a standard operating procedure in the universe, the mysterious monolith represents a cosmic intervention of divine proportions. While it is disturbing to think that 2001 might be unwittingly bolstering the benighted agenda of “creation science,” Gilbert may be among the first critics to identify precisely why creationism has such broad appeal, even among educated people who should know better: “there is no drama in evolution, however persuasive a theory it might be. Without outside intervention, there is no tale to tell; in other words, there is only the Nothingness that has always remained a possibility in Man’s encounter with the Universe” (31).                

Michael Mateas’s essay, “Reading HAL: Representation and Artificial Intelligence,” argues that the film offers an excellent introduction to the philosophical issues at stake in the debate between Classical AI and interactionist AI, a debate that rages with more urgency in 2007 than it did in 1968. Mateas argues that 2001 is no “Frankensteinian cautionary tale,” but instead should be read “as a representation of the goals, methodologies, and dreams of the field of Artificial Intelligence” (105). Mateas makes reference to David Stork’s HAL’s Legacy (1997) as he demonstrates that even today, HAL “appears as a plausible extrapolation from current lines of work, serving as a visualization for the AI community of future AI systems” (106). The BBC interview with Bowman in the film alludes to the Turing Test, for example, and indicates that Bowman approaches AI from a behaviorist perspective: though HAL “acts like he has genuine emotions,” Bowman says, “as to whether or not he has real feelings is something that I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.” The point is that Bowman’s inability to tell the difference means that “acting” emotionally and “having real feelings” amount to the same thing—precisely Turing’s view (109). After leading the reader carefully through a whole host of current philosophical issues in AI that 2001 continues to speak to, Mateas leaves us with an intriguing suggestion: “The first AI system that creates the level of empathy, engagement, and interest that HAL creates will not be experienced by a few astronauts on board a space mission to Jupiter, but by millions of us, on the computers and game consoles in our own homes” (123). Given the recent record-breaking sales figures for the computer game HALO 3 (2007), I would venture that Mateas will be proven correct.                

Let me draw attention to a few of the additional highlights among these nine essays. I found Stephen Mamber’s essay on the various “spaces” of 2001—i.e., “institutional-office space,” “ritual-game-war space,” and “dream space” (56), to name a few—provocative and perceptive, though his obsession with hyphenated constructions weakened the force of the insights: phrasings such as “too-muchness” (59) to describe space, and the hopelessly unwieldy “somebody’s-point-of-view-but-whose” used as an adjective to describe “quality” (61) seemed simply inarticulate. Is there not a more precise way of describing a “near-quaint over-the-shoulder” (66) camera angle, or of explaining that “HAL is really IBM a letter-back-each” (55)? In spite of these occasional syntactical burps, his analyses of the various types of “space” 2001 investigates are thorough and fascinating. Mamber’s ultimate conclusion tantalizes, and the reader wishes he had developed the possibilities in greater depth: “it is ubiquitous space in 2001 that takes us ever farther from Earth, but, like a Möbius strip, it seems to turn back on itself and return us to where we began” (67). This would be an interesting way to evaluate the famous “free-return” trajectory, for example, that NASA actually employed in the Apollo missions, which on paper at least has some intriguing similarities to the Möbius strip, even if the dimensional lesson doesn’t quite apply. Astronaut Bill Anders had captured something like this sentiment in remarking after human beings first traveled around the moon in 1968 on Apollo 8 that “we came all this way to explore the moon, and what we discovered was the earth” (Chaikin 119).                

Susan White’s essay, “Kubrick’s Obscene Shadows,” offers an interesting read of the ubiquitous “double-bind structures” by way of Slavoj Žižek’s articulation of what he calls “the obscene shadow of the law” (qtd. 129). White offers a succinct illustration of the problem as presented in 2001:

Moon-watcher throws the bone in a violent gesture of liberation from hunger and oppression, but the bone becomes instantaneously enmeshed in the technological superstructure that comes to dominate man. Dave rebels against and dismantles the emblem of that technology, HAL, only to find himself caught in an experiment in evolution that may be guided by more advanced life forms. (129)

These are excellent examples of the doctrine Žižek is forever reciting: in the same way that Stalin’s assertion that “the people always support the party” devolves into a tautology, neither Moon-watcher nor Bowman can escape the inveitable force fields that make them who they are.                

Marcia Landy’s “The Cinematographic Brain in 2001: A Space Odyssey” offers some interesting speculations about different representations of brains in 2001, culminating in her discussion of Kubrick’s cinematographic brain according to Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between the “Movement-image” and the “Time-image.” While the essay is perhaps a bit jargon-laden, Landy’s analysis of what she calls “the cerebral journey” of the film is original and interesting (100). Moreover, her conclusion, that “indeterminacy is the guiding principle to the cinematic brain,” corresponds well with the general theme of this collection, namely, that what makes 2001 perennially relevant is its ambiguity (101).                

This volume would be an excellent resource for a graduate film class since it provides in a relatively concise space nine interpretations of the film—all of which offer a specialized perspective but which partake of the book’s general commitment to the idea that the non-linear, non-subjective aspects of the narrative are exactly what makes the film such a rich work of art. The editors have included an impressive set of stills from various Kubrick films, but it seems a shame that they are not duplicated in color—no doubt because doing so would have been cost-prohibitive. This collection of essays suggests that 2001 may in fact have been the specific catalyst that prompted the so-called Hollywood Renaissance, but in more general terms we can agree that it challenged our stolid notions about narrative, critical perspective, and the distinction between “high” and “low” art.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. MGM, 1968.
Chaikin, Andrew. A Man on the Moon. New York, Viking: 1994.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Going Steady: Film Writings 1968-1969. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. 
Mailer, Norman. Of a Fire on the Moon. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.
Stork, David. HAL’s Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Turing, Alan. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59 (1950): 433-60.

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