It’s Stanley Kubrick week here at the Film Queue, so we decided to tackle the big kahuna of cryptic endings! Everyone and their mother has seen this film, and if they haven’t, they still have the impression that the ending is hallucinatory nonsense. I am here, dear reader, to quell this rampant notion and to elucidate the heavy thematic intent behind Mr. Kubrick’s and Mr. Clarke’s science fiction masterpiece. What makes me such an authority in this regard? Well, you see, I’ve read the book!
Stop looking at me like that and hear me out. The novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey was written concurrently with the screenplay, as Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke decided to write the ultimate science fiction story. However, despite their simultaneous creation, they differ significantly in execution. In studying how the book and movie contrast, one learns of the inherent limits of the written word (I say this as an avid reader and bibliophile). The novel has to invest much more time explaining the strange occurrences and aspects of the narrative, whereas Kubrick and his film are content with just presenting an idea and allowing the viewer to discover meaning.
To put this more succinctly, 2001 (the film) shows, while 2001 (the novel) tells. And it is the film’s approach which has baffled viewers for decades.
A simple example:
In the film’s “Dawn of Man” act, we are introduced to feuding pre-homosapien clans through documentary-like footage. We are made to infer, through behaviour alone, the desires and fears of our speechless characters. In the novel, because we don’t have the benefit of observing the apes’ behaviour, Clarke must make us aware of each of their actions and feelings, leaving little doubt as to the intent and purpose behind every action.
And when the film presents its first mystery, that of the eerily looming Monolith, it does so in the same detached, observatory manner. It is only through inference and implication (and impeccable editing) that we are made to draw the conclusion that the Monolith is influencing evolution.
If you’ve seen the film and never got that that is what the Monolith was doing, allow me to explain.
When we are introduced to this band of apes, we see that their only means of conflict is through intimidation and wild gesticulations. Then, once the alien Monolith appears (at this point we are not completely sure it is alien in origin, but it is in fact alien to this world) and the apes make contact, we cut to the scene where they learn to use tools, and thus take the next evolutionary step towards homo sapiens.
Then we witness the greatest jump cut in film history.
All this evolutionary thematic information is presented through the basest of storytelling tools: juxtaposition. In the novel, we are practically told outright that the Monolith is examining the apes’ potential and influencing their brain cells in order to help them discover the use of tools. It is not a sign of bad writing (it’s fucking Arthur C. Clarke) just a resignation that must be made when writing.
Another example: I just spent 500 words trying to explain what the movie conveys in one cut.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Well, what does all this have to do with the ending?” Well, you see, the key to understanding the ending, and by extension the film, is understanding the purpose of the Monolith.
As we’ve established, the Monolith is alien in origin and its function seems to be to influence evolution. This is all information we are given in the film’s opening act. So by the final act, when the Monolith makes its final appearance, we have all the information we need to decipher the mystery.
Dave finds himself in a strange room, one that is at once familiar and totally foreign. This is the alien beings’ attempt at constructing a space in which Dave would feel comfortable. For you see, at this point, Dave is under observation. If you listen to the sound track as you watch this scene, you will hear noises that almost sound like alien conversation. The film never makes this obvious, but all the information that is stated outright in the novel is merely hinted at here. It is wonderfully constrained storytelling.
Finally, when the Monolith appears at the foot of an aged Dave’s bed, we are witness once more to an evolutionary jump (as we’ve been seeing throughout the film with every time jump). This time, the jump is not in time, nor is it conveyed through a jump cut, but rather we cut to the same bed Dave was in and see that he is now a fetus. Then we dissolve into space, where the now cosmic fetus floats above Earth.
You see, Dave has evolved. He has surpassed the need for his human form as he is now a multidimensional being, no longer constricted to time or space. But, because this overwhelming power is still so new to him, he takes the form of an infant, for it is a metaphysical rebirth. The arc of the narrative spans the very beginnings of mankind to our transcendence millions of years later.
And that is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is the ultimate science fiction story. It is the alpha and omega of humanity.