How My Spiritual Journey Into 2001: A Space Odyssey Concluded Differently

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

I first remember watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the week after its world premiere opening at the Uptown Theater, Washington, DC, in early April, 1968.  I was a wide-eyed, almost 12-year old boy in awe of the amazing special effects and jaw-dropping opening musical chords of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, as well as the beautiful “Blue Danube Waltz” of Johann Strauss, which filled the silence of the space station sequences brilliantly. 

Kubrick was the first to use front projection with “retroreflective” matting in a major feature motion picture. Despite initially receiving mixed reactions from critics and audiences alike, 2001: A Space Odyssey garnered a cult following and slowly became a box office hit. Some years after its initial release, it eventually became the highest-grossing picture from 1968 in North America. Today it is near-universally recognized by critics, filmmakers and audiences as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. The 2002 Sight & Sound poll of critics ranked it among the top ten films of all time.

Starring Keir Dullea as Dr. Dave Bowman and Gary Lockwood as Dr. Frank Poole, it is certainly one of the most ground-breaking and landmark films of the modern era.  But today, I want to discuss its spiritual significance on that young viewer of 45 years ago! It was a movie that got me to thinking about the origins of life on Earth, and that was clearly its intent, as the theme of the Dawn of Man sequence at the film’s beginning was the germ of the screenplay, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke and partially inspired by Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. In a nutshell, it was the story of how alien intelligence came to Earth millions of years ago and left a “black monolith” which inspired the early pre-human apes to seek new ways of dealing with their lives. It was shown also having led to fighting as a means of settling conflicts between them. Later, a second monolith (or maybe the same one) was buried on the moon and waited another million years or so until lunar explorers found it in the early 21st century. Upon being unearthed, it sent a beam of light and blast of sound hurtling toward the planet Jupiter, where the five-man Discovery One spaceship was sent to investigate.  Their journey set the stage for the fateful battle between the super-intelligent HAL 9000 series computer and the Discovery crew, all of which led to Dave Bowman’s final encounter with the monolith(s) and his subsequent flight inside one of these structures to “Beyond the Infinite,” ultimately being reborn into a “star child” at the conclusion of the movie. Buy Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

But, how did my faith journey “evolve”? Well, after viewing 2001 I became much more interested in what’s commonly called Theistic Evolution. That is a theory that an anthropomorphic God created and/or originated life on Earth and then natural selection processes, or evolution, took it from there to get us where we are now (whether we are still evolving is a question to be left for another day!). Years later, I became a born-again Christian, and that’s when I took another look into the real significance of 2001. It has been said that Clarke, and Kubrick, did not believe in an anthropomorphic God, but selected self-replicating aliens of high intelligence for the personification of the monolith. Clarke actually had them being super-computers and Kubrick referred to them as Jungian archetypes. It is possible that the basis for this meaning given to them comes, at least in part, from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical tract Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or as an allegory of human conception, birth and death. It is predicated on Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that predated Buddhism and Christianity and was based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra). Clarke had studied this while living in Sri Lanka. This particular alignment symbolized the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Nietzsche is most famously known for having proclaimed in the late 19th century that “God is dead,” and both Nazism and Communism later were historically said to have claimed his teachings for political inspiration, at least in theory. 

Now, since I did not any longer believe in the above theories to be all-defining as to the potential symbolic meaning of the film, I simply substituted, in the form of Creation Science/Intelligent Design Theory, Christian principles for them! In other words, the monolith would represent to me a “Monothestic God.” The beam of light and soundblast from the moon to Jupiter could be seen as the Gospel message of Salvation being proclaimed to all mankind, and therefore the star child becomes the Biblical “A New Creation” by way of being saved in Christ. Because Kubrick, in his oft-used prescience, had left the ending open to interpretation by the viewer, this take on it suddenly seemed plausible to me given the spiritual nature of the subjects depicted.  In fact, I would daresay any reasoning person could subject the topic to their own viewpoint and, as long as they support it with appropriate factual context, come up with other varied meritorius gleanings. Steven Spielberg, who took over the sci-fi drama A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) after Kubrick passed away in 1999, stated–in commenting on another of his own projects, 2002’s Minority Report–that the point to seeing the future is to change its potential impact on people. In that vein, by postulating a different opinion on the masterpiece of cinematography and philosophical statement that 2001 is and always will remain, I could not agree more!

Wayne P. is a claims adjuster who just so happens to have a not-so-secret passion for classic films and blogging, as attested to by frequent previous comments posted on MovieFanFare. This is his first sojourn into submitting an article of his own for publication. Wayne–and MovieFanFare–would love to read your thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey and its possible meaning in the comments. 

  • GeorgeDAllen

    Wayne P, kudos! – I see you stepped up to the plate and took on the Kubrick! What I like
    in your provocative piece is the clear but often overlooked assertion that, because Kubrick was deliberate in leaving his film open to interpretation, you would be free to interpret it—even if your “reading” of the movie might be contrary to what we know were many of the basic assumptions made by the people who created the film. Some viewers might disagree with or plain dislike your reading of the material, or regard it more cleanly as a “misreading” and out of
    bounds for legitimate consideration, but if a movie like “2001” is as open for interpretation as it is, then it’s open for interpretation, full stop.

    If you haven’t seen this (or haven’t seen it in awhile), you might enjoy this little 1988 colloquy between Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan, “God, the Universe, and Everything Else.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKQQAv5svkk

    There’s a lot of worthwhile material here, but there’s a fabulous takeaway from Sagan very early on:

    “It seems to me that the school systems have an attitude of discouragement of asking fundamental questions. If a five- or six-year-old asks why the moon is round, or why grass is green, the usual adult answer, at least in my experience, is to discourage the child and say, What shape did you expect the moon to be, square? Or, What color did you
    expect the grass to be, blue?
    Instead of saying, Those are interesting questions, let’s try to find out the answer, or maybe nobody knows the answer, and when you grow up, you’ll be able to discover the answer. It would be very healthy for the human species if there were less discouragement and more scientists.”

    • Wayne P.

      Thanks so much for the kind words, as usual, George…and your encouragement made a difference with a distinction on this project for me as your support enboldened me to pursue it even when some doubts that it would “cross that line” we discussed had crept in. Am blessed and grateful even if no one responds as this was a “mission field”, in a learning sense, ripe for plowing to me from both a spiritual and scientific perspective…totally agree, in principle, on the quote above! ;)

      • GeorgeDAllen

        My guess is you will likely get some more feedback from folks when the story goes out in our email to readers — which it looks like it will do this weekend. As the saying goes, watch this space!

    • jumbybird

      I’ve seen it several times and still come up with new ideas about what it’s all about… No other movie has ever done that.

  • ganderson

    Maybe I need to see it again – I haven’t watched ‘2001’ since it was first on the big screen in 1969 or 70 (I was 18). It was certainly way ahead of its time and the special effects were unsurpassed and astounding. I never was much impressed, however, by the ending, other than thinking it (and the bally-hoo it raised) was much ado about nothing. What I can’t remember is when I read Clarke’s book, which I think was published shortly after the motion picture, not before. There the ending is not vague at all and is pretty simple: the first black monolith uses some process to change animals to men and the second monolith changes men to gods. I do remember being disappointed when the first thing the God-Bowman does (in the book) is to use his new powers to launch or set-off all the nuclear warheads on earth, so the new god has a clean slate for starting the world over again. Is that a reference to the Flood of Noah? Anyway, that all said, I have great respect for anyone’s discovery of or insight regarding spiritual truth – which can be found in many places. So good on you Wayne P, keep on exploring! ‘2001’ just didn’t do that for me. Question, therefore, movie fans: what film did bring you spiritual enlightenment — traditional religion or otherwise? (I’d have to do some thinking before I answer that question)

  • Butch Knouse

    The only reason it didn’t get labeled as confusing dreck is because it was directed by Stanley Kubrick. Even more overated than Lolita.

    • Charles M Lee

      You obviously could not keep up, poor thing. It is a movie for deep thinkers. Maybe one day you will join us.

      • tsimon

        “deep thinkers” you must be joking. I saw this movie when it first came out. I was 28 and thought it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen and still do. The special effects were good but I have always been more interested in story line than pretty pictures. As the ending dragged on I thought man am I missing out on some good sleep watching this sorry movie.
        Mad Magazine got it right in their March 1969 issue. In their parady the monolith was turned over in the last panel and printed on it was “How to make an incomprehensible science fiction movie and several million dollars.

        Count me as one of the non-deep thinkers.

        • Charles M Lee

          It is probably one of the only true Sci-Fi movies Hollywood has made. You probably wanted explosions and exotic aliens. Good guys and villains. This movie was designed to make you think. The story was there, you just didn’t possess the resources to see it. So go back and watch Star Wars and get your thrill a minute fix.

          • tsimon

            It amazes me that because I disagree with you I’m pigeon holed as one who prefers a “thrill a minute” film. You’re completely wrong of course. Though I must confess that late at night after my wife has gone to bed I put a Three Stooges dvd in my player. Perfect entertainment for those of us who don’t possess the “resources” of one such as you. That is an addiction I attained over 60 years ago at the Saturday matinee. I’m sure this confession will place me even lower on your “intellectual resource” ladder.

            You may be right about the film’s purpose to make one think. Half way through the movie I began to think “this movie is a real stinker” and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

          • Charles M Lee

            You know I thought about it earlier today. My responses to you and to Butch were rude. I apologize. We just disagree. To me this is one of the all time great motion pictures. To you it is one of the all time flops. It all boils down to taste. I used to love the Stooges, but out grew them. I am a Laurel and Hardy man.

  • andy mclenon

    What a great article! when
    me and one of my school chums first saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in
    1968, we were both 14 and I suppose we were expecting to see another fun
    space adventure like “Robinson Caruso On Mars”, so of course “2001” blew our teenage minds haha…and
    all these years later it’s still fascinating to view, I guess one of
    the reasons is because there is so much which is deliberately left to
    conjecture and so many conclusions left open to be drawn, so as we get
    older and periodically revisit, it can still mean everything it once did
    and so much more, which is something all great art does.

    Anyway, I very
    much appreciate your fresh perspective on this eternally enigmatic
    masterpiece Wayne, your piece has done what I would suppose is a measure
    of it’s success in that it has inspired me to once again drag it out
    and have another look!

  • Joseph23006

    Easter break 1968, and a group of us went to New York. Radio City was playing “The One and Only Genuine Famly Band(I think I got that right), boring; but the live show was good. The Met for opera and Lowe’s Capital for ‘2001’. To this day, I have a DVD, every time I watch it I am still in awe and fascinated by the imagery. What else can I say?

  • Steve Martin

    I have a friend who NEVER goes out to the movies. So, of course, I’ve dedicated my life to working on his DVD collection and get him something for Xmas, this was one of them.

  • Charles M Lee

    I saw 2001 when I was about 17. I went thinking it would be one thing – a sort of John Agar Sci-Fi thing like “Journey to the Seventh Planet” – but found it to be true science fiction. Hollywood had – and continues to – bastardized the Genre so that real science fiction is rarely seen in movies. Real science fiction – Asimov, Clark, and other greats – is not about explosions and monsters, it is about seeing into the future, or probing deep questions through fiction. This is what 2001 did. And even as a thrill seeking 17 year old I was very impressed by this movie.

    It is like Wayne P, has so elegantly stated. The meaning is left up to the viewer. To me the movie is about cycles. Everything is a cycle. Seasons on earth, solar systems, galaxies, and even the entire universe undergoes cyclical changes. Our sun will one day die, but it will not go away it will become something else, it will change. If not for change we would be stagnant. So in the movie humans are guided through the process of change with a nudge in their consciousness by the monolith. The monolith represents a conscious awakening. The awareness expanding. The first expansion leads to the development of tools, hence the bone. As time went on we became more and more dependent on tools and material gain and lost the true focus of life.

    The next expansions frees us from our dependance on tools, hence HAL and Dave’s conflict. Once free of HAL, Dave is able to go beyond the traditional limits and transcend time and space. He goes through the cycle of life. He seems to be in a type of confinement. This is symbolic of his realizing that the focus on only the body and its needs is like a prison. He sees how mundane the life based only in the material world can be. As he completes the cycle of life, his consciousness expands beyond the limits of material existence, hence the symbolic embryo. This new man is no longer trapped in the dependance on material gain, he has come full cycle. He is one with the universe. He is the new man, not of material, but of consciousness (Spirit). His consciousness is reborn, He is no longer concerned with material existence having seen the monotony of materialism. He is now floating above the mundane cares and concerns of everyday life on earth. He is truly free.

    • Wayne P.

      Thanks for that thoughtful reply, Charles. About the ‘bone’ scene… it’s commonly referred to in the movie industry as one of the greatest zip cuts in film history and probably the biggest transitional gap, in terms of years elapsed during the shot sequence, of all time! Here’s a link to more info about the context of its precedent setting impact:

      The match-cut[14] spanning millions of years**

      • Charles M Lee

        The bone was one great match cut – as I now know it is called. From bone to satellite. Notice that the interaction with HAL asks us, do we own our things, or do I things own us.

        I am so grateful you wrote this article. I am glad I am not alone in reading so much into this wonderful ground breaking film.

  • Chip Mackey

    Reading these comments reminds me of a playwright (sorry, I can’t remember the name!) who said, “My idea of a successful play is one that has half of the audience cheering and the other half calling for my head.” Based on these comments and the long history of divided opinions on this movie I’d say Kubrick and Clarke had a success! PS. I was in the cheering section.