Some FAQ about Kubrick’s perplexing masterpiece

by Michael Jacobson

2001:  A Space Odyssey may just be the perfect film for inviting the audience to let their reaction to it become a centrifugal part of their experience with it.  I can think of no other movie in memory that allowed so much personal interpretation—and so many different ones, for that matter.  And true to their purpose, neither director/producer/screenwriter Stanley Kubrick nor screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke ever confirmed or denied any of these interpretations. 

With the passing of Kubrick, I’ve noticed much attention has been paid to this film, the crowning achievement in his brilliant career.  And many of the same questions still come up about the film that were first being asked some 30 plus years ago when the movie debuted.  (Remarkable, when you think about it!)  Now, I must confess, I don’t claim to have any hidden answers as to what this or that means in the film.  But this is my favorite movie, and I have watched it literally hundreds of times (including again on the morning that I began compiling this).  Having said that, please bear in mind that some of what follows are just the thoughts and opinions I have gathered on this film over the years as I have watched it, and watched it, and watched it again.  Hopefully, I will say nothing too off base.  So here we go…

1.       What is the point of the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence?

Well, it’s very hard to see a point in it if you’re watching the film for the first time.  It even requires some thought after a few viewings.  Why does Kubrick start his science fiction epic by showing us an ape like predecessor to man, only to jump millions of years ahead to a space age that’s still in our future?  The simple reason is, the timeline of the film is meant to encompass the entirety of human evolution.  At the beginning, we glimpse what man was at his most primitive.  At the end of the movie, we see, though don’t fully understand, what man will eventually become.  And of course, it’s only right that we don’t understand.  After all, could the ape like creatures at the beginning possibly understand you and I sitting at our desks sharing thoughts via computer?

2.       Who, or what, is behind the black monoliths, and what is their purpose?

That’s completely open to interpretation.  Obviously a higher intelligence with an interest in our species.  Some say an advanced alien race, some say God.  Kubrick himself has suggested that in a way, it was God, but not the way we traditionally picture a supreme being. 

The world that Kubrick shows us at the beginning suggests that man has no future.  He is weak, unable to protect himself from other creatures, barely able to find food and water in the barren lands.  When the monolith appears, it seems to make some kind of “suggestion” to the ape men, and lo and behold, they learn how to use a tool—specifically, a bone for hunting.  Now they have meat to eat, now they can defend themselves, and by the end of the sequence, those ape men who have adopted the tool are even walking upright, whereas the others are still stooped and crouching.  Man now has a chance to make it in this world.

But the intelligence, whatever it is, had the foresight to know that eventually man would be coming off his blue orb and out into the space where they travel.  Our nearest celestial neighbor being the moon, this intelligence buried another of these black monoliths on the lunar surface.  When we see it being discovered by the astronauts, it emits a piercing signal, which we later learned is a radio transmission aimed at the planet Jupiter.  It is, in a sense, serving as a cosmic burglar alarm.  It’s letting the intelligence know that man is finally coming.

3.       What does the black monolith mean?

In and of itself, it doesn’t mean anything, it is something.  The black monolith is simply a means of communication. 

Why a simple geometric shape?  The main reason I think is to show how advanced it is.  The more technology advances, the more streamlined it tends to become.  Think of the way the first telephones looked, compared to the cellular phones of today.  They easily fit into a purse or pocket, and don’t even need wires.  Or the first computer, which took up an entire room, and did no more than today’s pocket or wristwatch calculator. 

That being said, there is one interesting bit of symbolism involved.  In both cases where man meets monolith, the first part of it they touch is the corner.  Why the corner?  It suggests that it was made by an intelligent hand.  Nowhere in the natural world does a perfect 90 degree angle occur.  This is what sets the object apart as something that was built by an intelligent race.

4.       Why the jump from the ape man throwing the bone to the space travel world of the future?

Good question.  Could Kubrick be commenting that no matter how advanced we grow as a race, or how intelligent we think we are, that we’re still just apes playing with our toys?

5.       Is the name HAL really derived by going one letter backwards from IBM?

An amazing coincidence, but apparently not, according to the adamant insistence of both Kubrick and Clarke.

6.       Why does HAL make an error and then become homicidal?

The question is not really answered in this movie alone.  I learned later by reading Clarke’s sequel novel 2010 what the problem was.  The HAL 9000 computer was specifically designed to be perfect; to never make a mistake or distort information.  It turns out by programming HAL with the truth about the Jupiter mission that no one else on board fully knew, and forbidding him to reveal it, it disrupted his programming.  Seems that Kubrick had a clear vision of the computer virus of the future.

7.       Where does Dave Bowman travel to, and how, and what does he become?

Your guess is as good as mine.  Something obviously propels him to an alternate world.  Whether it’s just a faraway world or in another dimension altogether is not answered, but it is clear from the benign though strange setting that awaits Bowman that somebody or something has been expecting him.  What happens next, not everyone can agree on.  It seems that Bowman progresses from one stage of his life to the next quickly, briefly glancing each stage before becoming it.  He grows old, infirm, and then reaches the next stage, what movie fans have dubbed “the star child”.  Does he grow old rapidly, or is this merely a technique Kubrick uses to show the passing of the rest of his life? 

Some interesting theories developed from this.  If Bowman did in fact reach light speed travel, according to Einstein’s theory, his personal time line would have been affected.  Then again, this may be a new world where time doesn’t flow the way we perceive it.  Or it actually could just be a cinematic device to show the passing of Bowman’s life.  We may never know.

Interesting that when we last see the star child, it seems to be watching over us.    Whatever he is now, or whatever his new purpose might be, he has clearly reached the next level of evolving, and we have no way of comprehending what that might be exactly.

The final questions are all related to the technical specifications and effects shots in the movie.  Most of them still have audiences gaping in wonder today.

8.       Are those apes or men at the beginning?

 As convincing as they look and act, they’re all human.  The costuming and make up was incredible, though, and Kubrick and his team devised a way to make the protruding faces work with a triggering mechanism that opened and closed the jaws when the actors moved their mouths.  As well as it worked, I’ve read that Kubrick actually accomplished this relatively inexpensively!

9.       What makes the space travel shots look so real?

Patience, patience, and more patience.  Kubrick designed and photographed these special effects himself (they won him his only Academy Award).  Prior to this movie, no sci-fi picture ever dared get so close to their spacecraft for fear of giving away they were only models!  Kubrick’s were models as well, but they were painstakingly detailed.  The shot of the rotating space station where the camera goes in between the two rings is as convincing as any computer generated effect today.

Kubrick’s ships, like those in other sci-fi films that followed like Star Wars, presented his spaceship models against a space background by use of a simple matting technique.  The reason his looked so much like they were really flying through space was the removal of the matte lines.  When you see other such films of that time period, even through the 80’s. you can see the lines that appear around the outline of the ships as they fly.  Matting causes this extra effect, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.  Not good enough for Kubrick, the consummate perfectionist, he had artists paint out the matte lines.  One frame at a time.  It’s no wonder this film took five years to make!

The results, however, were extraordinary.  No space travel movie prior to the age of computer animation looked as real as this.

10.    How did Kubrick create the floating pen shot—the pen the stewardess plucked in mid air and put back in the pocket of Heywood Floyd?

Simpler than you think...the pen was taped with double-sided tape to a large clear piece of plastic that was rotated by hands off camera to create the floating effect.  The stewardess just plucked it off the plastic.

11.    How was the effect of Frank Poole’s run around the circumference of Discovery created?

Kubrick designed a set for the main room of Discovery that resembled a gigantic Ferris wheel.  This wheel could completely rotate, with a cameraman in a harness at the top of the wheel turning with it.  Thus, actor Gary Lockwood simply ran pretty much in place at the bottom of the set, like a hamster in its wheel.

12.    Why did Kubrick end up going with the classical music soundtrack rather than the score he commissioned from composer Alex North?

A maverick director has the right to change his mind, doesn’t he?  ;-)  Actually, Kubrick had a great affinity for classical music, as evidenced by his use of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange and many of the great composers for the adapted Barry Lyndon score.  He was listening to classical pieces as a temporary score during the editing process, and found that the older music simply worked better in creating his overall effect.  It’s been said, in fact, that 2001 has the most famous temporary score in film history!  Curious fans can find the Alex North score on CD for their listening pleasure, and to imagine how different the movie might have been.

Speaking of alternate music, if you want to see something really cool, try this:  load Pink Floyd’s Meddle CD, and pause it.  Send it to the last track on the disc, “Echoes”.  Then with the sound on your TV down, go to the final segment of 2001.  As soon as the title “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” appears on screen, un-pause the CD.  Turn down the lights and enjoy.  It’s uncanny how well the music matches up with this segment.  They even end at precisely the same second!

13.    What is the song HAL sings as he is being disconnected?

HAL calls the song “Daisy”, but it was more commonly known as “A Bicycle Built For Two”.  It’s hard to decipher because HAL is slowing down rapidly, but the words are as follows:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!

14.    Did I miss Dave Bowman’s famous last line?

Although this has caused confusion over the years, the fact is, we do not hear Bowman speak the now legendary line, “My God, it’s full of stars!” in 2001.  The sequel novel and movie 2010 is where we actually learn about the enigmatic message that was Bowman’s last recorded transmission.  I’m pretty sure this was the later brainchild of Arthur C. Clarke, and not Stanley Kubrick.

15.    Why did the Oscar for Best Picture that year go to Oliver! rather than 2001?

I’m stumped.