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.
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.