2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - Part Three: Beyond the Infinite

If you haven't read part two of our 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY dissection, click here to get caught up, then let's finish this puppy, shall we? Great, let's resume:

Another touch of realism which elevates this film is the lack of sound in outer space, an important scientific fact and one which has been ignored by 98% of sci-fi movies before or since (not counting silent movies). When there are whooshes and explosions I don't piss and moan about it, but so many filmmakers seem to think the audience needs sound with everything they witness on the screen. True, it keeps the Foley artists in business, but for some reason we do not need it for 2001, nor GRAVITY (2013) or INTERSTELLAR (2014) for that matter. Kubrick uses silence to enhance the isolation of the crew, but also to mess a bit with his audience. There is a drawn-out scene where David Bowman gets into a shuttle pod to rescue Frank Poole, set adrift and hurtling farther away from the Discovery. Outside the pod, the scene is complete silence as the small ship chases the man’s twisting and kicking spacesuit. Whenever the scene cuts inside the pod, we are assaulted by the unending proximity alarm as it beeps and flashes in Bowman’s stunned face. It’s a claustrophobic scene, and deliberately (I think) annoying. At the same time, it is frightening because after establishing that they are utterly alone so far out in space with no chance of rescue, the sight of a body and shuttle moving away from the larger ship’s protection instills a sense of panic, like swimming too far from shore without knowing if one will make it back.

The distance between, well, everything in space is illustrated well here by the stars never moving, they are too far away to do anything but simply be there, taunting the viewer's sense of motion relative to everything else in the universe. Mankind is isolated in this empty corner of the galaxy, though Kubrick gives us hope that there might be something – even if it is so alien we may never understand it.

On a side note, because we've gotten pretty deep and need to come up for air, I have always found it interesting how a couple of my favorite shows as a child, U.F.O. (1970) and its unofficial sequel SPACE: 1999 (1975) emulated 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in style or tone. SPACE: 1999 did so in its first season only, before show runners Gerry and Sylvia Anderson decided to change its slow cerebral pace to a more STAR TREK-like (1966) action show. When the original STAR WARS was released in 1977 with laser blasts and screaming x-wings, Hollywood films gleefully chose space opera over science fiction. This trend does seem to be swinging back recently, as we've had a good balance of both lately.

Near the end of the third act and into the finale, things begin to get weird. Since we’ve given every section a title why not this one, before we jump into what makes this film so infamous in people’s minds:


As events progress away from earth and what we as humans consider “normal,” technology and whatever the alien intelligence might be waiting out there begins to show themselves as a force to be acknowledged and, perhaps, reckoned with. The fore-section of the Discovery is spherical, with upper windows like eyes. As the Discovery enters Jupiter space, a door opens at the bottom like a mouth, disgorging the last human into the unknown beyond. HAL had been the brain of the ship, but is now subdued. David Bowman is alone, moving away from his home and into whatever waits outside his dead world. Like the scenes with the cavemen and the astronauts on the moon, we are in again contact with the intelligence behind the obelisk (which here is massive in size, floating not in orbit of Jupiter so much as orbiting it under its own power). The scene is filled with the eerie chorus of half-screams and ecstatic moaning of angels. The ship, seen from a distance spitting out the shuttle, is a visitor to this holy region as David Bowman enters their celestial cathedral.  

For the rest of the movie – as trippy and riveting as it is – most viewers will have no clue what's going on. Part of this is because of choices Kubrick makes in how to shoot a pivotal scene. In the book Bowman lands his shuttle on top of the massive obelisk, then passes through into a wormhole of sorts (called a "Star Gate" in the script, though never in the actual film). He moves through into another dimension, or another galaxy. In the film, the obelisk floats amid the aligned Jupiter and moons as the camera pans away, then a wormhole opens up in empty space. I suppose that works just as well. From here, we are brought through a ten-minute hallucinatory trip of color and light, an LCD-induced coaster ride through madness, seen through Bowman’s staring eye. This is the final step beyond the normal universe he's been living in for so long and into something… else.

When the moment ends, we're left with Bowman's blinking eye. The trippy colors slowly change back to normal, and he is still in his shuttle pod, which is suddenly at rest in a large white room. He's in shock, and unable to move. After such a wild, otherworldly trip, where it seemed as if nothing would ever be the same, this new setting is oddly comforting. We find ourselves in familiar rooms filled with tables and chairs and food on fancy china. Even a large bed. All the while, strange voices and noises echo in the distance, reminding us there is "someone" just outside this illusion of normality. All this time, since entering the "Star Gate" David Bowman does not speak. He remains silent in this place, eventually content enough with his plight as he ages in sudden leaps in time - whether he is jumping ahead in time himself or these visual transitions are illustrating the passage of normal time for him is never explained. Bowman lives out his life alone in this strange home, waiting for his death, and the return of the obelisk and one the strangest endings of any film I've seen. He is transformed into, well….

After my initial viewing, having slogged through two plus hours including commercials (yes, it was that long ago), I was beyond frustrated. I read Clarke’s description in the novel of this last scene. The word Starchild is never used in the movie, only the novel (and then just once). Bowman evolves into a new phase of human existence, a fetus-like creature who returns to an Earth falling under its own violence. His plan is to ostensibly bring peace to mankind. It is never said how things will turn out, but left instead for us to wonder – is mankind being given a second chance, or has judgment finally come? This is a standard message for many science fiction films, and a reflection of the fear of the times but not one Kubrick was willing to spell out for his audience.

One more interesting observation before I finally wrap this up. It's partly a thought I'd had as a teenager watching the "Beyond" scene for the first time (as well as a comment Mom made while we were watching), and partly occurring to me as I write this long-overdue treatise. One bit of symbolism permeating this film is sexual reproduction. From the shape of the Discovery, which is not overtly but still quite phallic, moving forward into the unknown of deep space. When it encounters a giant obelisk orbiting Jupiter (and consider the rectangular shape loosely, in a stark geometric way, like a vagina), something small emerges from a hole in the front of the ship (Bowman's shuttle) and (if you read the book) enters the obelisk. Even without this detail in the film, the "Star Gate" Bowman travels through is a tunnel, with splashes of color all around, including one scene with what looks like the pod traveling with a long tail stretching out behind it. As incidental as some of the lava-lamp visuals might be, the implication of sperm is hard to miss. Before you accuse me of doing the monkey-at-a-typewriter thing (look it up), remember the end result of all of this is a fetus floating in space, returning to Earth. Could be complete poppycock, as our great-grandfathers would say, but it's another interesting theory.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke continued the story in his sequels but even then, the identity of the powers behind this are never explained until the fourth and final installment, 3001: Final Odyssey. 2010: Odyssey Two tells the story of a joint US and Soviet mission to recover the abandoned Discovery and learn what happened to the crew. It was made into the decent, if a bit dated, 2010: THE YEAR WE MADE CONTACT (1984) starring Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren. 2061: Odyssey Three was a thin story of exploring the moon Europa but, in truth, most of the plot covers the exploration of Haley’s Comet –I suspect Sir Arthur had written a book about exploring the comet and decided to slap an Odyssey name onto it for sales. I haven’t yet read 3001: Final Odyssey, save the opening few pages, but someday I will, if only to see how the author wrapped this epic up before his death.  Hopefully he doesn’t explain too much who the monolith creators are; like Ridley Scott’s answer to the origin of his xenomorphs (see my discussion on that subject here). Some answers are usually best left to our imagination, which can do a damn better job of instilling wonder in us.

Perhaps, this is what makes 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY work so well in the wonder department. Since so little is spelled out for us, we are forced to use our minds and imagination to explain what we are seeing, much like the characters themselves. In the end, any blemishes aside (of which there are very few in this reviewer's mind), when it comes to instilling awe in their audience, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick succeed in building a plausible and, at times, hopeful future for mankind’s eventual excursion into space. Even today, fifty years after its release, this cinematic marvel is a visual treat. Someday, if we're lucky, we’ll see it all come to fruition. If this doesn’t happen in our lifetimes, at least we’ve been given a brief glimpse. That might have to be enough.