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2001: A Space Odyssey

One of the most confusing movies of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sheer amount of theories, interpretations, and other discussion of the film is astounding. There have been multiple books written containing elaborate allegorical theories about the nature of the movie and its symbolism. Kubrick himself was famously cagey about what his movies meant and would never outright explain anything. The book on which the movie is based, by Arthur C. Clarke, is much clearer, but does not necessarily mean the same thing as the movie.

I’m not going to analyze the movie here. That would just add one more essay on top of the tens of thousands that have already been written. And most of those are far beyond my capabilities. Instead, I want to look into the stylistic aspects of the movie that make it so enigmatic. What is it about 2001 that makes it so tantalizing? We know that Kubrick and Clarke both intended for the movie to be open to interpretation, but I’m more interested in how that was accomplished.

To begin with, what makes something ripe for interpretation? What sucks your attention in? What makes the audience scratch their heads and ask, “But what does it mean?” The answer is simple: you have to show something that seems to be there for a reason, but make sure that the reason itself is not apparent. You can’t just use random images, because that’s annoying and boring. And you can’t use explanations, because that’s boring and not fascinating. What you have to do is come up with something that is obviously being done deliberately, but for which the motive is not clear. “Yeah, I know they wanted it like this. But why?”

2001 has many examples of this. In fact, although the middle part of the movie has a straightforward plot, much of it does not. The middle contains Hal, the malevolent AI who is prominently featured on a lot of Stanley Kubrick t shirts. The entire ending of the movie is composed of elements that exist solely to elicit interpretation, as does the beginning.

For example, take the monolith. At the beginning of the movie, a group of apes are shown gathered around a black monolith. The monolith is perfectly rectangular and recurs in the mysterious ending sequence. There have been entire books written about this one aspect of the film. Why? Because it satisfies the two points I raised above. It’s clearly deliberate, in that it’s a central focus of the beginning and then recurs at the end. It’s clearly important to the plot, whatever that may be. And yet, no explanation is given for it, nor is there any apparent reason why it should be there.

Another example is the strange light show at the end. The so-called “stargate” sequence is deliberate, and very striking. The special effects at the time were cutting edge. And yet, we have no idea what is going on or why. The obvious response to this is endless speculation, which is precisely what Kubrick and Clarke wanted.


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