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What is this film saying?


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Initial post: Dec 10, 2008 1:10:47 PM PST
I may get a lot of heat for this but I am only seeking meaning and truth.

Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the most controversial movies ever made. People either love it or loathe it.

My issue is that I would like to know what it means, what is is saying. I can draw so many things from it, but I always get the feeling that there is one single idea that is being conveyed to the audience. But I cannot distill it. The movie is definitely profound, but is there one point it makes or message it tells that most people might not glean after viewing it a few times?

So much has been said about, so many have written things about it. It's been praised to the skies and also criticized mericlessly. It has been called genius, prententious, muddled, humbling, haunting, boring, esoteric, and beautiful. People have said that it makes humanity seem vile.

But I wish there was a way to condense its true meaning somehow. Each time I watch it I find it fascinating but the epiphany does not occur.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 11, 2008 10:14:45 PM PST
Jason Torrey says:
I think the singular meaning that you're seeking just doesn't exist. This film is made in a way that forces one to ponder it's meaning, I think that it was never intended to be fully explained. That's the simple beauty in a film like this, it says so much without saying much at all. I think the experience of viewing it is it's meaning, it's not so much that it's "about" anything, but that it's experienced. Does that make any sense? I hope so. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite film of all time and I am satisfied not knowing what Kubrick and Clark's meaning may have been, if there is any at all to speak of, I'm just glad it was made the way it was and not tampered with by idiot film executives with no concept of what art really is. Kubrick is a master film maker, and 2001 is the perfect example of how great and enigmatic he was. MY interpretation of 2001 is that the alien monoliths were placed on Earth and beyond by some unknown being and each time someone encounters one a huge leap in evolution occurs, the man ape encounters it and suddenly realizes that objects can be used as tools and weapons, a second one is encountered on the moon and signals another near Jupiter to be sought out, and when Dave Bowman encounters the one near Jupiter he appears to evolve from a man into a pure being, something like a force of conscious energy, and he's shown as a fetus to symbolize purity. The HAL stuff symbolizes that humans have advanced to the point of being able to make a computer think and make choices and even kill when it "feels" threatened, I think HAL is another evolution analogy. Those are my thoughts anyway, take 'em or leave 'em. Hope this helps.

Jason

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 12, 2008 9:28:32 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 13, 2008 11:03:35 PM PST
Hi, Jason.

I hadn't thought of it that way, and you may really be onto something. Maybe there isn't one singular little rich nugget of meaning there; maybe it's all about the experience of watching the film.

The monolith is definitely a catalyst. No doubt.

One of the best things about "2001: A Space Odyssey" is that you can glean so much from it. But at the same time you can also simply let it envelope you as an experience.

And I agree that it's fortunate that it hasn't been tampered with by Hollywood lackwits who simply use technology because they have it... and it's fortunate that its integrity remains intact.

Thanks for your viewpoint.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 13, 2008 9:47:12 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 13, 2008 11:36:48 PM PST
AH-1Z says:
To understand the movie, one must take Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's advice from back in 1968: Read the book AND see the movie, hopefully relatively close together. The book is not a novelization of the movie, and the film is not the move version of the book. They were produced in parallel with each other, and are the same story told in different ways. The book explains the movie and the movie explains the book.

Basically, 2001 is about First Contact, but not in the conventional sense. The original monolith was a device, left to give primitive but potentially intelligent species an idea, a "seed" if you will, to start it on the way to becoming dominant and developing both technologically and in a societal manner. After that "seed" is planted, the monolith is gone, letting the experiment grow or wither on its own.

That's why the jump to the structures in orbit. All of human history from the time of the first monolith to humanity in space is irrelevant to the story. That we got there is enough. Neither we nor those who placed the monolith care how. The second monolith exists solely as a fire alarm. It can only be found by a civilization spending a lot of time on the moon (which would detect the low intensity magnetic pattern), and said travelers will most likely be from the nearby planet where the seed was planted. The monolith was buried because on the moon, natural forces would never bring it up and it would never be exposed to the rays of the sun. It would have to be found and dug up. When the sun hits it for the first time, it sends a signal that it's been found and dug up. That's all it was intended to do, so it falls silent. Those who left it there have not been monitoring Earth since the two monoliths were placed, they've gone on to other things. If their "seed" (at least the one left on Earth) does not flower, they have no further interest in what happens here. The "alarm" goes off as a signal to them that this experiment has produced something capable of raising the second monolith, and their attention returns. This middle section of the movie was based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel", and was the starting point for the film.

The last part of the movie covers what happens when and if those who came from the original apes inspired by the first monolith and who dug up the second one follow the signal.. If they have developed far enough and have the curiosity and bravery to do so, they will find the gateway to those who left the first monolith and will finally be ready for What Happens Next.

I'm not going to bore anyone with more detail, just read the book and watch the movie. Like the saying goes (and was reportedly used in the original introduction which was deleted after the premiere), First Contact will not only be stranger than we imagine, it will be stranger than we Can imagine.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 13, 2008 11:01:58 PM PST
Hi, AH-1Z...

That is food for thought, definitely. I will consider all of it.
Thank you for your time and helpful information.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 17, 2008 11:04:20 AM PST
This film was made as part of a series of books and films based on, or done by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke and Kubrik collaborated on 2001 but to enjoy the whole meaning of the what film is trying to say I suggest you get the books and watch the second film:) Or just go to Wikipedia and they will give you a quick down and dirty of what it all means.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 17, 2008 11:34:43 AM PST
Thanks, Artemio... I really ought to read the books and then watch the films. Good idea.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 18, 2008 2:40:56 PM PST
James Quirk says:
Somebody named DD from NY wrote the following in the reviews section for 2001 about a month ago, and I think it makes a lot of sense. The following is what DD wrote: "After years of watching and admiring this film, it occurred to me that this is a tale of romance between man and the universe.

We're conceived as "early man" in the beginning, are touched with a revelation that puts us on the path towards (some kind) of maturity.

The pivotal event defining that maturity is when humans discover a beacon, the monolith, on the moon. Now begins the final step towards man's evolutionary destiny.

The process of Bowman changing from man to star child is depicted as a metaphorical act of sexual intercourse. (Ever wonder why the Discover 1 is shaped so long with a round head?) Once Discovery 1 has ejected its pod and penetrated the slit-shaped monolith, conception and procreation begins, and finally ends with a planet-sized fetus, the star child.

I wonder if Kubrick (not Clarke, because his script was absent of the visual metaphors that Kubrick used) had knowledge of the medieval quest for the creation of the Philosopher's Stone."

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 18, 2008 2:45:29 PM PST
Vito,

More food for thought there. I like it and will think about it. Much obliged.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 6, 2009 2:32:11 PM PST
AH-1Z says:
2001 was not written with the intent of there being a series. It is complete to itself, because Clarke intended that What Happens Next would be left to the imagination. The story he's telling ends with the birth of the Starchild.

When there was pressure for a sequel (and they offered a lot of money), especially with a planned follow-on movie, 2010 was written. Then the other books were written, but they couldn't capture the sense of wonder of 2001 and to a lesser extent 2010.

2001, though was originally meant to stand alone.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2009 2:38:13 AM PST
S. Singh says:
Vito,

I never even considered the visual pun until you mentioned it now. I wonder if that was intentional or accidental?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 30, 2009 8:05:15 AM PST
RonCharles says:
AH-1Z,

Thanks. That is the best, most cogent explanation that I have ever read as to what this film is about.

RonCharles

Posted on Feb 12, 2009 2:51:27 AM PST
2001 is about eating, think about it...early man goes from eating leaves and scraps to meat. Then the Russian scientists are waiting to have breakfast at Howard Johnsons. From there we see Hayward enjoying a meal on his journey to the moon. From there he is having sandwiches on the shuttle to the the Tyco crater. Then Frank and Dave are having dinner on Discovery 1 while watching the BBC feed. Up to then all the meals look pretty crappy, till the plunge into the place full of stars. As Dave begins his evolution to the Star Child, he has achieved the ultimate meal in a 5 star room in the space between our dimension and the next...he has achieved, the ultimate dinner. So there you go, the monolith is the quest to find a better way to eat

Posted on Feb 20, 2009 8:05:05 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 20, 2009 8:05:34 AM PST
I'm glad I found this discussion because you guys have all added new ways for me to look at one of my favorite films (and one of my fave sci-fi novels). I do have to concur with others here who have suggested reading the book either before or after having viewed the film. Its one of the few cases I can think of where both novel and film work together to compliment the other so effectively.

BTW, if you've never read Clarke's "Rendevous With Rama" I highly recommend it. Its another great and awe inspiring story of humans discovering an mysterious alien artifact. Great stuff!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2009 11:58:25 AM PDT
Kubrick is like Hitchcock when it comes to visuals and symbolization - nothing is accidental. Everything is carefully thought out put there for a specific reason.

Posted on Jun 8, 2009 1:09:27 PM PDT
I would suggest starting with the Wikipedia article, and then moving from there, in particular to Jerome Agel's book.

The best (that is, the most-intelligent) review of "2001" appeared in "The Christian Science Monitor". The paper gave the review a whole page, and the reviewer completely "got" the film, on every level, without (presumably) having to have it explained.

Posted on Jul 6, 2009 8:02:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 6, 2009 10:02:56 PM PDT
SnowBird says:
Dear Sardonicus,

I hope you are still checking in. I know the distress you are feeling, and I'm here to deliver the epiphany. It's gonna feel so good.

With 2001, Kubrick created a cinematic experience designed to directly interact with the viewer's subconscious, and deliver a marketable space adventure at the same time. That is why conscious attempts to extract literal meaning from the movie have failed for 40 years. It can never make sense, and will continue to be an unsatisfying experience, if you insist on trying to downgrade 2001 to the level of ET.

If you try to understand the movie by reading the book, you will fail. Clarke went to his grave without a clue of what Kubrick had achieved. Watch 2010 after 2001 for proof that Clarke never had the magic. On some level, I think Kubrick was mocking Clarke, holding him up as an example of someone lacking the capacity to see the Monolith as anything more than a sentinel.

Ok, here it comes. To understand Kubrick's intent, you must accept that he is sending you--the viewer--on a spacial odyssey. The movie is about you, period. Not Dave or HAL or Heywood. All the characters and spacecraft and settings are irrelevant--merely visually encoded devices to pry open your mind. He could just as easily used trees or guns or naked bodies to achieve his intent. And he did with other stories. In 2001, the Monolith is the key.

The Monolith makes its first and most important appearance in the movie during the opening title sequence. Everyone misses Kubrick's devilish trick here. Right from the start he is toying with us by subverting our antiquated perspective. Do you need to see something to believe it's there?

The movie begins with a black screen. This appears to be irrelevant to us. Actually, it is a close up view of the Monolith. Kubrick is inviting us to peer into the nothingness. If we open our minds, we may learn something. And you thought this movie was about monkeys evolving by looking at the Monolith. Hahaha. Kubrick is telling the viewers that they can evolve by looking at his movie.

He reveals the presence of the Monolith so subtly in this amazing scene, virtually no-one has noticed it for decades. It remains invisible, but you can surely sense it if you know where to look. He changes perspective to reveal that the Monolith has been blocking our view of the Earth eclipsing the Sun. You can see them roll over the Monolith's top edge, even though you can't see the Monolith. In these first moments, Kubrick is telling us not to believe our own eyes.

Now that you have found it, don't expect Kubrick to cater to any simplistic analysis of the narrative. The Monolith is nothing more substantial than Kubrick's brick. He uses it as the etherial metaphor for opening your mind to new ideas, as Clarke's clunky alien space device, and as the object of a timeless, ecstatic dream in the end. Go somewhere else if you demand consistency. Kubrick exploits Monolith ambiguity to tell 2 completely different stories in a single movie, and facilitate a myriad of individual subconscious reactions. If you try to stick with Dave's nonsensical space odyssey, you miss your chance for an authentic personal odyssey.

Open your mind and Kubrick will show you his message scene by scene: Our ham sandwich traditions and perspectives are still founded on a reality long gone. We are still eating pigs on the Moon. We are still fighting over holes in the ground on the Moon. We are still allowing our leaders to indulge their paranoia by jailing us on the Moon. All these things do not serve us well now. Are we willing to evolve beyond apes? Are you? We must look into the blackness (outer space, our subconscious, or a metaphorical black brick--it's your choice), to see ourselves and uplift our society. Our perspective must be redefined by a humanity freed from a 2-dimensional existence. In the spacial age, up is the new down. We must struggle with faltering steps to negotiate a new 3-dimensional existence. Free at last from gravity and machines and tyranny and old dead bones.

2001 is a much bigger story than anyone dared to believe. Kubrick tries to implant this sense of freedom and self-worth in your subconscious without you ever knowing it. While Clarke was trying to sell a stupid space fantasy, Kubrick was trying to be the Monolith, to elevate your humanity, and thus change the world.

Now doesn't that feel better?

Posted on Jul 6, 2009 8:53:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 7, 2009 5:37:01 AM PDT
I have to emphatically disagree with SnowBird. Although any aesthetic experience is open to individual interpretation, the fundamental meaning of the film has been understood since the day it opened.

Dig out the review in "The Christian Science Monitor". As I said in the comments that preceded yours, the reviewer thoroughly understood the film, on multiple levels, presumably without the benefit of Clark's novelization. Indeed, anyone familiar with science fiction would have no trouble understanding the film.

The "blackness" at the beginning of the film is the dark side of the Moon, not the monolith.

Posted on Jul 6, 2009 10:52:54 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 6, 2009 11:07:46 PM PDT
SnowBird says:
William: ... the fundamental meaning of the film has been understood since the day it opened.

Then it should be a simple matter for you share this understanding, yes? Honestly, what is the point of reflexively contradicting a real, 1st hand review by citing a long forgotten, unverifiable, 2nd hand opinion? If you really do have something to share, please bring that to the table instead of boldly issuing unsubstantiated negation. Sardonicus asked a specific question. I tried to give a specific response to his question. What exactly are you trying to do?

William: The "blackness" at the beginning of the film is the dark side of the Moon, not the monolith.

That is abjectly incorrect, and you could see this for yourself if you actually watch the scene. The Sun and limbs of the crescent Earth are symmetrically blocked by a horizontal edge. That edge progresses down the limbs to reveal the full Earth/Sun conjunction, just as though Kubrick placed us in front of the Monolith slowly looking up. Eventually we do see the surface of the Moon. It has no straight edges. Furthermore, it is colored with a dim blue tone to perfectly distinguish it from the metaphysical emptiness of the Monolith we are shown initially.

Again, please watch the movie before contradicting people who have.

Posted on Jul 7, 2009 5:15:41 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 7, 2009 5:36:29 AM PDT
I don't mind being criticized for missing something I should have seen, but I resent being attacked for not having seen a film I've watched at least a dozen times, twice in Cinerama theaters during its initial run -- especially coming from someone who misspells semi-sesquipedalian words.

I just watched the opening of the Blu-ray Disk on a 60" Pro Kuro display, standing less than three feet from the screen. If the monolith appears in anything like the form you say it does, I'm at a loss to see it. I understand the /logic/ of what you describe (the "mystical" alignment of the monolith with celestial bodies occurs several times during the film), but this isn't one of them. The presence of the monolith is supposed to come as a surprise, so Kubrick probably wouldn't reveal it in the titles.

As for the film's meaning... I read many reviews when the film came out, including the one in the "Monitor". As a fan of the film, you no doubt have a copy of Agel's book, which reprints many of them. It's no surprise that the ever-stupid Pauline Kael called "2001" an "unimaginative" film, but it's also remarkable how little most reviewers "brought to the table", so to speak.

Not so the "Monitor"'s reviewer, who was a given a full page! Even allowing for the photos, he got far more editorial space than common, and filled it with a thorough explanation of the film's multiple layers of meaning. He did this without having to have the film explained by Clarke, Kubrick, or anyone else.

As I said, the film's superficial "meaning" is obvious to anyone who's read science fiction. But Kubrick was a fundamentally "visual" director not much interested in explaining things in words. So, even though he had a clear idea of what /he/ intended the film to "mean", he didn't discourage personal interpretations. This book has many letters from people -- both famous and unknown -- expressing their own feelings. (There's even one from a Midwest couple demanding their money back.) Nowhere in his responses does he say "That's wrong, that's not what I meant." As a creative artist, he was pleased that people saw multiple meanings.

By its very nature, "2001" lends itself to very personal interpretations. But don't go around berating people for not agreeing with yours, or (worse) not seeing "2001" as "the most-profound movie ever made". It's enough to express your views/opinions, and let others find in them what they will.

There was a number of intelligent, thoughtful reviews of "2001", the "Monitor"'s being the best of these. I am not going to copy and paste it (assuming I could find it in a form that permitting such a thing). Get the Agel book and read it.

Hemo will now ask Dr. Science questions that will indicate whether he knows /anything/ about the film:

1. Who is Friedrich Nietzsche?
2. Why does the film's title label it an odyssey?

Stand and deliver, Mr. Expert. (I suspect you don't have any idea of the answers, but go ahead and look them up.)

Posted on Jul 7, 2009 10:59:13 PM PDT
SnowBird says:
Thank you, William. I can't imagine a more powerful verification of my point.

William: If the monolith appears in anything like the form you say it does, I'm at a loss to see it.

I believe you, since this is the only personal opinion of the movie you have expressed in the entire discussion. Kubrick asks us to infer the presence of the Monolith by the unnatural absence of sunlight rather than reflection of sunlight. It's the evolution of the visual process into a reasoning process. Even with explicit directions, you claim you can't do it. This odyssey is not for you.

William: Stand and deliver, Mr. Expert.

Ha, that's a wonderful caricature of Heywood Floyd. Kubrick invites us to use our new freedoms in the spacial age to evolve beyond our ancestral instincts for belligerence and territoriality. He is actually trying to subconsciously train us not to be like you. This odyssey is definitely not for you.

Posted on Jul 8, 2009 6:12:05 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 13, 2009 7:14:37 AM PDT
As the Emperor of Austria would have said... "Uh HUH."

I am offended by the intellectual fatuousness of saying that something is present /because/ we can't see it.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 13, 2009 6:37:10 AM PDT
Snowbird -- I've been fascinated with "2001" ever since I first saw it in 1968, and have read tons of reviews and analysis of it, and up until now, I was one of the people who used to tell others, "Just read the book." But your comments, especially about the beginning of the film are the most intriguiging I've ever read -- I don't know if you're right, but the next time I watch "2001" I will do so with your comments in mind. I had suspected for a long time, though, that the "eating" metaphor -- the apes eating meat, the astronauts eating ham sandwiches, Bowman and Poole eating some colored stuff, and Bowman at the end eating something (breakfast?) in his chambers -- could not have been accidental. And I have always thought that Kubrick and Clarke's depiction of an alien intelligence as the black monolith was one the most original ideas in all of film, because it conveys the sense of sheer ineffability about those aliens that we amoeba-like humans would have to experience in any encounter. No wonder so many persons don't "get it." It's easy to see why they don't "get it." They are APES.

Posted on Jul 13, 2009 7:14:14 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 13, 2009 7:20:27 AM PDT
The pervasiveness of food and eating in the film has been previously commented on, but I've never seen it as a major point, other than that Bowman (perhaps) eats a "last supper" before his transforation. A (wine?) glass is traditionally broken at Jewish weddings, and this has often been considered symbolic, but Kier Dullea says that the falling glass was his idea, as a justification for Bowman leaning and looking behind him.

In the original version of the film, the sequences were not titled. Because many people couldn't figure out what was going on (which says far more about them than it does the film), Kubrick added them. They ought to be removed.

No one here has commented n the Nietzschean ape/man/superman progression, which is suggested by the title music, and which a few critics (including the Monitor's) caught when "2001" came out. Also (ar, ar), the famous ascending C-G-C in the music had been called the "World Riddle" theme long before "2001" was made. (Google "world riddle theme" for more information.)

The monolith /is not/ the alien intelligence. It's a machine that provokes the apes' development. Kubrick considered having the device display "instructions" to the apes, but decided against it, probably because he didn't want to be too obvious. He also wanted to show aliens, but budget problems and an inability to decide what they looked like prevented him from doing so (fortunately). The noises one hears in the "bedroom" scene have been taken to be the chattering of the aliens.

Though "2001" /is/ meant to be symbolic -- and even mystical -- its plain meaning is obvious to anyone who's read science fiction. The advantage of a visual presentation is that it allows a richness of meaning and symbolism that is not possible on the printed page.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2009 2:03:20 PM PDT
Just to be clear, I didn't mean that I thought the obelisk WAS the alien intelligence, and I know that in the book(s) it is kind of a device, but given all of the ways that human-alien encounters have been depicted, to have one like this -- where the apelike beings (us) can do little more than gaze in awe and confusion at a perfectly formed black slab, knowing that it means there is someone out there and someone way more advanced than us -- was a brilliant move for both Clarke and Kubrick. I think this is one of the most compelling things about 2001, which is the ineffability of the aliens and of the encounter itself. If they really are millions of years more advanced than we are, then it is fitting that we encounter them with awe and that we receive silence in return. What could they possibly say to us that we could understand?
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