The Process of Life in 2001: A Space Odysseyarticle by Greggory Moore

Ever since it was released in 1968, moviegoers have argued about how to interpret Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. This would be particularly appropriate if the film were about life's most perplexing puzzle: the mystery of life itself; and I believe that, upon a strict examination of the structure and movement of the film, this is precisely what Kubrick allegorically documents: the process of the creation of life—from seed to seedling.

The Dawn of Man
      Ape-like creatures breed and eat. They live in bands, and one band chases another from superior territory by virtue of its greater numbers. This is a static existence. Then, one day, the smaller band awakens to discover a monolith. They huddle at its base and reach for its surface. Meanwhile, Kubrick's camera directs our gaze upwards, along the side of monolith, towards the the moon
NOTE 1 -- which, of course, means nothing to these early humans. What the monolith does inspire in them, though, is progress, technology, kinesis. Shortly afterwards, the smaller band discovers weaponry -- in this first case, a simple club of bone. Motivated by the instinctual impetus of the monolith (made clear by Kubrick's almost too-deliberate cut from one hominid's consideration of a bone, just as he intuits its destructive usefulness, to his earlier view of the monolith), humans begin to truly battle one another for terrain. This is the first progress made by man,NOTE 2 and this is the fruit it bears; and throughout the film the monolith will always inspire progress; and through that progress a progressive march towards humans being excluded and excluding one another from territory—until, ultimately, there will be only one.

      Tens of thousands of years later, Dr. Haywood Floyd, an American, is on his way to Clavius, a U.S. lunar base. As he walks through the intermediary space station, he encounters a group of Russians, one with whom he is acquainted. He sits with them and, after some perfunctory small talk, he is asked about what is happening at Clavius: for 10 days no phone contact has been allowed and a Russian rocket bus was denied permission to land, a violation of international lunar law. There is rumor of a serious epidemic there and the Russians are anxious for any information, worried that the epidemic might spread. Floyd states that he is not at liberty to discuss the matter and takes his leave. Soon after, we learn the real reason for the base's incommunicado status: a monolith has been discovered. The rumor of the epidemic was merely disinformation. Thus, in this modern era, humans, motivated by the monolith, have devised new manners by which to exclude one another. While we understand that humans have hardly needed in every case a monolith to motivate them to exclude one another, Kubrick is simply documenting the exclusions pertinent and particular to the all-encompassing path which human history, in this film, paves. The universe portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey is deterministic, and thereby does everything to serve its ultimate end—which, as we shall see, is that man will be transformed when he, alone, reaches the final territory. It is not necessary for Kubrick to elucidate this universe's determinism in order to portray its existence.

Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later
      David Bowman, Frank Poole, three "hibernating" crew members, and a HAL 9000 computer (considered the crew's sixth member) are bound for Jupiter. Their mission—the truth of which they (except for HAL) have been excluded from knowing by those who sent them—is to investigate the area proximate to Jupiter, since a single powerful radio pulse from the moon monolith was directed at Jupiter. So now, as the telluric monolith inspired man to both the implementation of technology and eventually, through technology, to the moon—the intermediary step towards his final destination—has the lunar monolith compelled man to use his technology to take the next step. Just as the inspiration of the earthly monolith was sufficient to circuitously move mankind to the moon, so too is the inspiration of the lunar monolith (viz., the radio emission emitted by the lunar monolith and directed toward the vicinity of Jupiter) sufficient to move man (more directly this time, as man has become more intelligent) to Jupiter.

      Once near to Jupiter—and, more significantly, to a third monolith (as we find out later)—HAL (who, it need be kept in mind, has been repeatedly likened to humans) begins to exclude the other members of the crew: first by knocking Poole into space with a remote pod, and then by terminating the life functions of the hibernating crew members. He fails, however, in his efforts to dispose of Bowman—and is, in turn, dispatched by him. Thus, at the destination to which the monoliths have led man, only one man remains.

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
      HAL's behavior is part and parcel the ultimate destiny of man, simply a functioning cog in the deterministic machine that is the universe of the film; and its function is the same as all of the other functions in this universe: for one to reach the final destination. The reason is inscrutable, but the motivation is represented by the monoliths;
NOTE 3 and man blindly obeys their impetus, mindlessly carrying out the deterministic plan which they map. Within the structure of 2001, humans function like billions of sperm unconsciously impelled to a final destination, which in order to begin the life cycle anew of a single human, only one human/sperm will reach its destination. And once it reaches its final destination—the egg—it is transformed. So, as a matter of course, Bowman, too, having reached that final destination, is transformed; and it is at this point, at the moment of this still scientifically inscrutable transformation (i.e., at the end of the 20th century) from sperm and egg to the earliest stage of a human life, that Kubrick unleashes a dazzling display of visual pyrotechnics which, while brooking no demystification, clearly indicates something miraculous and beyond human ken.NOTE 4 This is his way of portraying the mystery of life without decoding it. From this point, Bowman, as the sperm is changed and resides in a new domain, is aged and finds himself in strange new surroundings. Within these surroundings, as a sort of embryo (with all of its needs—food, shelter, etc.—being taken care of in the womb), Bowman lives out his life cycle. Then, finally, a monolith appears again. This time, however,NOTE 5 there is no technology or need of it, or anyone to exclude. Instead, it simply indicates the final step that he must take (and, unlike before, there is not even the illusion of free will, for his life cycle is clearly at its end). It is then that human existence begets human existence: Bowman becomes a fetus. Kubrick portrays this quite literally—and so it is this point (working backwards from it) that both begets and confirms this interpretation of the film.NOTE 6 From here, the denouement is short: the fetus, almost fully developed, is brought to its new world. This world, significantly, is Earth.

      Near the end of Vladimir Nabokov's penultimate novel, Transparent Things,NOTE 7 there occurs a metafictionally self-reflexive passage:

It is generally assumed that if man were to establish the fact of survival after death, he would also solve, or be on the way to solving, the riddle of Being. Alas, the two problems do not necessarily overlap or blend. (p. 93)

Of course, the fact that there is a process by which life comes into being is axiomatic and need not be established. The quotation is apposite, however, in its exemplification of the possibility of illustrating a phenomenon's existence without elucidating its mysteries; and this is what Kubrick has done with the incipience of life. He, of course, knows no more of the force which impels life into being than any of us—and thus does he make no attempt to explain it. He does, however—as we all do—know that there is such a force and a process by which this force is made manifest. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick allegorically documents the existence of this force (with appropriate tribute to its inscrutable mystery) and exemplifies this process in a perfectly fitting manner: the creation of a single human existence analogized to the history of human existence as a whole. It is a symmetry, a circularity so perfect that one might think he has seen, if not the reason for, at least the logic of the cosmos.