Some thoughts on 2001

I have only seen the movie once. It felt deep and important when I saw it. At seventeen and well-versed in classic Star Trek, Star Wars, and comics, I was ready to step into a deeper science fiction. This felt, as Kubrick designed, like “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie.” It reminded me first of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which obviously came much later to the theaters but much earlier to me. Both had a notorious pace among genre fans. It took years for me to appreciate that movie, but free of the franchise entanglements and expectations, 2001 moved me from its first note.

This movie had to sit with me for a while. After all, I was a seventeen year old version of myself. Pretension was my favorite pastime. I put off re-watching it. For one thing, I wanted to let the first viewing sink in. Another reason to put off the re-watch was to ensure it would be viewed with appropriate wakefulness, solitude, and peace. These were all hard to come by then and they’re still hard to come by now. Needless to say, I didn’t re-watch the movie. After two years or so of waiting for the convergence of wakefulness, solitude, and peace I realized that the movie had grown in me. I had experienced something rare when I watched it the first time, and the continued enjoyment of it was coming from reflecting on that single viewing. This was extremely counter-intuitive. Re-watching shows and movies burns them into memory, transports the viewer to warm places of the past. I didn’t do a lot of re-watching then. Really, besides the big three (Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones), I haven’t re-watched many movies. But I always assumed that continued exposure to a piece, whether it’s a movie or a book or any piece of art, deepened the relationship between piece and audience. That is not always true.

In C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom asks the hrossa if wars are ever fought on their planet. They don’t comprehend, so he lists typical causes for conflict, hoping to simply discover their word for ‘war.’ It’s not a translation problem. It’s the concept that’s foreign to them. Ransom asks if the other intelligent species is ever in need of food, wouldn’t they fight for your food? The hrossa answer that they would just give them what they needed. Well, that’s an oddly practical solution that has somehow evaded mankind since its beginning. So Ransom continues along another track: what is pleasurable to you? The hrossa answer that mating is, but they only mate once in a lifetime. So Ransom suggests that a pleasurable event may inspire repetition. But the hrossa insist it is only enjoyed once and the reflection of that event and the outcome of that event are just as pleasing and important as the actual event.

So mating is not complete with the sex act, pleasurable as that is for the hrossa. It is complete when the offspring are brought up, the poems are written about it, and a lifetime is lived to reflect on it.

Maybe all art doesn’t fit into this category. For me, 2001 is a piece that does.

My single viewing was perfect. I was the exact right age, possessing the necessary temperament and personal and philosophical history to enjoy this movie to the fullest possible extent. I’d seen and read enough sci-fi to keep my mind only just bouncing along and to be genuinely inspired and awed at classic sci-fi concepts that I was introduced to through this movie.

It was perfect. I had found the expression for so much of what I loved about Star Trek and real space travel and religion and anthropology. The movie played on the very topics I was just beginning to obsess myself about. And it ended and I knew I needed some time to digest what I had just seen experienced. Months of digesting became years. I didn’t obsess over the movie anymore, but I was still dumbstruck by it whenever I considered it. Finally, enough time had passed since I had watched it to make me feel ready to watch it again. I nearly did but stopped. What if it doesn’t work this time? What if I’ve ‘grown out of it?’ I hated the thought of obliterating what was a perfect interaction with art. Perfect interactions with art are rare and difficult to define. I know it when I see it.

I decided not to watch the movie ever again. Neither would I watch the sequel I had so lusted after.

For some reason, I picked up the four novels at a library sale. They sat on my shelf for years, awkward outcasts among the books I had favored to read. This strange family had arrived all at once and were apparently only invited to test my resolve.

The rareness of a perfect interaction with art elevated my concern, first of all. But I was also afraid of stumbling into explanations for events in the first movie. I figured those images and concepts were best left as either spiritual incidents or the product of an alien science far beyond our comprehension. I did not want to know how it worked.


So much for maintaining the purity of my original interaction…

I am most pleased to report that my lapse in self-control has deepened my original viewing of the film and reignited the inspiration I received from its cinematic counterpart. Rather than explaining the science of those final magical scenes, the book adds thematic textures, if that’s a thing. The novel connects the opening sequence of the proto-humans and the closing sequence of Dave’s ascendance in a way the movie doesn’t make quite so clear. This is the story of mankind’s bookends. How did he become what he is? And, how will be become what he is to be?

This presentation of man’s history is based heavily in evolutionary thought. I find the scientific side of this much less interesting than the anthropological and philosophical sides. The phase of human life that preceded the current one is defined by instincts. The proto-humans are creatures of pure sensation. There is no invention or ingenuity to improve their poor lives. They eat the same bits of food that they’ve always eaten and regard time and others with little interest or comprehension. At the suggestion of the monolith, man takes his next step forward. (Even in an atheistic account of man’s beginnings, there must be an initial mover! In this case, the monolith apparently inhabits or acts through Moon-watcher and friends.)

Man is pushed into his next stage, apparently reluctantly, because he spends many long centuries making little progress. How is this stage of humanity distinct from the others? Violence and conflict. Maybe that’s what drove us to intellectual and technological advancements. The story opens with the first seconds of man’s ascendance into the phase we are a part of, and flashes forward to the last hours of it. This movie/book is not concerned with us. If we want to know what happened in between, we can look at history. Or ourselves. The time between Moon-Watcher and the Star-Child is now. Man enters this phase – our phase –  of evolution by fighting with other men. He leaves it by fighting against his own creation, against his machines.

Man vs Man to become homo sapien. Man vs Machine to become homo superior.

These bookends, as I call them, are not factually true. At least, not that we know of. I have doubts about the succession of the Star-Child. I also have doubts about the evolution of the Moon-Watcher. These bookends are nice metaphors for what is true. Mankind as we know it is bookended by two phases. The Bible tells of where mankind used to be, where he is going to be, and how he is going to get there.

We have a beginning. Our species started somewhere. I believe it was with two people. Maybe that seems ridiculous to you, but against the backdrop of a review of a book that has mankind starting because of a black slab of metal that reads minds, the story of Adam and Eve seems downright mundane. I don’t know much about these two. They had desires, intellect, and art. Beyond that, not much is known. Maybe all of these attributes expressed themselves as instinctual. Were the first humans beings of pure sensation, as Moon-Watcher was? I think they probably enjoyed their senses in a holier and freer way than we can. But they had a Sabbath, which indicates a time of rest and reflection.

These first people were different from us. They may have resembled us more closely than Moon-Watcher does. They may not have been as limited as the proto-people of 2001. But they were different. As violence initiated the next phase of evolution for the humans of 2001, lying and disobedience initiated the next phase of existence for mankind according to the Bible.

The rest of the Bible cruises through history at a breakneck pace. It seems the only time the narrative slows down is when the possibility of mankind ascending to his next phase might be possible. When a new king sits down, when a new prophet speaks up, when a son is born. These are all times where it seemed possible for the next phase to commence. But it wasn’t through Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, or Isaiah that the next phase began. Turns out those times where it seemed a ‘step up’ was possible, or likely, were only backward-reflections of the real shift that was coming. As Dave had a glimpse of what humanity’s next phase was going to be, so did some of the prophets receive visions of what was to come. Jacob had a vivid dream of a ladder from heaven (My god, it’s full of stairs!)

Jesus Christ will not only restore what was lost when we shifted from sinless life to sinful life. He will change us into something better. Adam wasn’t glorified. We will be. The next phase of human evolution will not come because of a million random mutations over a million million years. The next phase of human evolution will not come by the discovery of some weird alien on one of Jupiter’s (or Saturn’s) moons. It has come by the work of the Creator and it will be finished when we awake in His likeness.

Who knows what we’ll look like or what we’ll be doing. We have ideas, but I think they’re mostly attempts to express big things in small languages. Like, trying to tell a two-dimensional comic book character what it’s like to live in three dimensions.

Maybe our glorified states will give us insights into the frenzied writings of John. We’ll look around and think, “Yeah, I mean I don’t know how I would have tried describing this to humans in that phase. Gold streets is actually kind of close.” After all, “the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

Dave is a sort of emissary, announcing the next form of human life. (I admit to not having finished reading the sequel at the time of writing. As far as I have gotten, that assessment of Dave’s situation still seems correct.) He’s the first of his species that’s changed. Maybe his manipulation of HAL and strange communications with old loved ones resembles Moon-Watcher flailing his arms and screaming, trying to alert his fellows of the change he has undergone. Maybe it resembles Christ eating dinner with his friends after being brutally killed. Or, talking about history and ancient texts as if they were suddenly illuminated for all to see.


2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on 2001

  1. This is a fabulous post, Mickey. I will have to re-read it again to get it all, but I love how you bridge the gap between the novel and the biblical narrative. Very thoughtful and imaginative (in the best sense of that word) – well done!

    I’m curious: Do you read the ending of 2001, the book, as I do – that the Star-Child’s advent means the end of life on earth? And I don’t just mean as we know it – I mean life: doesn’t Clarke write of alarms going off and missiles being fired, etc? Or am I misremembering that? (It’s been a few years.) In which case, Moon-Watcher and Star-Child’s violence are also part of that bookending.

    Also curious (not in any argumentative way, just curious): Adam and Eve had art? How so? Do you mean naming the animals, the man’s poetic praise of the woman – the art of language? Simply a point I’ve not heard before, but I like the idea!

    Thanks for these very good thoughts. I am glad your appreciation survived re-reading and re-watching! I think the best art has to be able to bear up under multiple experiences – otherwise, there’s not much “there” there, right?

    • Thank you for the praise! I reworked this article a few times, trying to make it readable. In the end, I still felt like I may have crammed too much in there. But, hey, that’s in keeping with the spirit of Kubrick and Clarke!

      The ending of the novel…sheesh. It’s different from the movie, for one thing. In the preface to 2010, Clarke announces that he sided with the movie in any differences. For instance, the novel has Discovery going to Saturn. The movie has it staying near Jupiter. So 2010, the novel, maintains that Discovery never visited Saturn and the action had taken place near Jupiter. All that to say, the ending of the first novel appears to be undone by Clarke’s favoring of the movie version.

      So. While the novel ends with earth preparing to attack, I didn’t read that as the end of all life on earth, but rather the newly obsolete species’ feeble attempts to hold on to existence. I saw Star-Child as a harbinger of doom for homo sapiens, but also an announcement of the next phase. I admit to possibly projecting my own theories onto the text – which in this case, seems to have been invited.

      Regarding art in Eden: Yes, I’m referring to Adam’s “Bone of bones” poem/song. Whether visual arts had been cultivated is, of course, a mystery. Though God’s placement of “every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9) suggests an appreciation of visual beauty that may have grown to include human replications or interpretations of such beauty. It’s fun to speculate…

      Again, thanks for reading! I should admit that your boys over at the Sci-Fi Christian got me thinking about why I claim to love this film so much.

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