Ever since its 1968 release, countless essays, commentaries, and theories were posed offering different interpretations of the overall meaning of the picture. Some have interpreted it to show the relationships between man and machine, some to show the relationships between man and the universe, some to show the relationships between man and the movies. But what was my take on this film? None of these. What I think this film has been meant to symbolize is actually a little more under the surface, but communicates more than what appears at first:
The meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is the record of the birth of a human, from intercourse, to fertilization, to pregnancy, to birth.
What led me to this conclusion? Well, let’s take a look (warning: there will be major spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie yet, but it is currently available on Netflix).
The Dawn of Man
We look upon many alien views of a desolate desert landscape, presenting the emptiness of society. The only things living in this wasteland appear to be some apes and some tapirs. Bones, leopards, and zebra carcasses scatter the earth, and the only edible signs of plants leave the apes and tapirs in little harmony together. This is one place nobody could reasonably survive in.
Two divided parties of apes roar in conflict over a small puddle of water, which seems to suggest a war over the last of the natural resources. Or another way of looking at it could be the battle of the sexes. Men have historically wanted to keep what they think rightfully belongs to them.
Immediately after witnessing the monolith, one of the ape men grabs a bone and learns how to use it as a weapon, which he uses to kill tapirs for meat. In traditional history, long rod-shaped weapons such as swords or clubs have been seen as metaphors for the penis, or a measure of one’s masculinity. In this scenario, the ape men use the natural resources around them to claim nature as their own. They then use these bones to combat the other side of the puddle, which looks remarkably similar to a rape scene.
It then follows with one of the most famous editing cuts in cinematic history…
And boom: spaceship. We are in the future.
This editing transition points from the phallic symbol spinning in the air to the symbolic sperm cell that is now inside of the complex limitless system that is a women’s body. We are now away from the harsh world and inside of the mother’s womb. Classical music plays as we see the other ships in space, tricking us into relaxing as we go about the dangerous journey up ahead.
Then, we meet our main character, Dave (NOT Matthew McConaughey). Dave symbolizes the humane characteristics of the man that had sexual intercourse with the woman hosting this space that is the fallopian tube. After an identification, Dave speaks through a computer monitor with his daughter (NOT Jessica Chastain) back home, who he has to miss the birthday of. By seeing this supposed family he has to get home to, we are brought back to the outside world where an innocent life surely had to be tampered for the father of the man whose sperm cell is now on this journey.
The workings of this futuristic spaceship are then explored: food is served through straws, a maid has to turn herself counter-clockwise and walk on the ceiling to enter the cockpit, and instructions are needed for using the toilet; all signs of choreographed, preplanned preparation for the ascent onto the moon. The valve within the moon that opens up for the ship to land is shaped much like how it would look for the sperm to enter the ovary and meet its egg (it helps when you consider that the moon is also cell-shaped).
Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, getting man to visit there would be the ultimate achievement of civilization. So here in Space Odyssey, for any man, that parallel is seeing their own selves grow into a new life through the body of another woman.
The ship that the odyssey is taken on is shaped like a sperm cell, reminding us that their journey to seeing new life is not over yet. One of the ship men, Frank, is seen jogging along the wall of the ship to be kept healthy and at his fittest for the end. Food is served to each of the crew through blended food of equal portions, similar to the pregnancy diet that the mother goes through. There are a total of five men on board, and three of them are in hibernation, a form of life support that is described as being “like sleep, except you don’t dream.” The pregnancy process must be taken slowly and under supervision.
Here is where HAL 9000 comes in. He is the robot computer that watches over the men on board, an advantage for them since computers of the future make no mistakes and are never dependent on humans. But does the HAL 9000 have any feelings? From what I have seen, HAL 9000 serves the odyssey as a symbol of the rules and boundaries that society is expecting humans to have right from birth, and later, proves the dangers of men trying to overrun the system.
Then we have the intermission. The odyssey continues. The pod returns to the space, but this time, the mission is to rescue Frank from drifting into the empty darkness. Now here is a good time to note the coloring of Dave’s and Frank’s space suits. Dave is dressed in red, which can represent angst, and Frank is dressed in yellow, which can represent joy. This act of Dave, while inside of the womb of the pod, attempting to rescue Frank from being permanently lost in space can metaphorically point to the growing child’s effort to maintain the innocence of joy.
HAL 9000 knew about Dave’s plan to disconnect him, so he develops a way to stop him from doing so: he locks Dave out of the pod bay, where we hear the famous line, “–Open the pod bay doors, HAL. –I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” This is where Dave has to unfortunately let Frank go into the silence of space before getting himself back into the ship, saying how humanity sees that need to release their innocence to keep the progressive authority under control. Dave lets himself into the emergency hatch, which is lit in a stark red tint, maintaining the uterus imagery. From there, Dave breaks into the Logic Memory Center in order to shut down HAL 9000, in a surprisingly touching death scene.
HAL 9000 expresses the most human emotions in the film during this one scene. He expresses true fear and true sympathy, saying how he “can feel it.” This is a pretty scary moment: it appears to be a sign of the still developing humanity of the unborn child shutting off all connectivity with the parents that society that brought it into being. The mother it is developing inside of, the father that fertilized it, and the world that pushed for the intercourse to happen in the first place.
Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
For the third time, we see the MONOLITH flying amongst Jupiter and its moons. The great destination has finally been reached, it is time to go into labor.
Then finally, Dave arrives, for no explained reason, in a stark hotel room built for a king. The pod disappears, and he ages rapidly, but in a way where he sees his older self and yet is still alone. Unstable sound effects of things clattering are heard, and renaissance paintings surround the room. He eats a finely prepared meal as an old man, and a great amount of attention is paid to a glass that he drops off the table. This whole event of him in this fine room is a vision of the life he will live: short, sudden, fragile, prone to errors, full of errors that no amount of high class living can improve. At last, Dave ends up in the bed in his last dying moments, and the MONOLITH appears one last time.
That in my opinion is what Stanley Kubrick wanted to communicate to us with his masterpiece, and this is what I hope you got out of the unforgettable experience that is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
All images were taken off Evan E. Richard’s blog: http://evanerichards.com/2010/851