The Dawn of Man, or The Future Isn't What It Used to Be

Some thoughts on seeing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) yet again.

--As anyone who has seen the film knows, 2001 is full of moments of tremendous power and beauty. Some of these are directly tied to music (all of which is pre-existant, a trademark of Kubrick's mature work), others, like the sudden cut from a bone floating in the air to a part of a space station in space, are not. One of my favorites is very close to the end. Astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) has just been transformed into a fetus on a bed, with the black monolith standing near the foot of the bed. Kubrick shoots the monolith from the bed--it's a classic Kubrick visual composition, with the 'lith in the center of the shot, and the other objects in the room symetrically on either side. The camera begins to move slowly towards the monolith as we hear the fanfare from Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra begin. The camera accelerates and at the first orchestral entrance following the trumpet's rising figure, the camera seems to enter the monolith and suddenly we are looking at earth from space. It's a stunning gesture in a film full of them.

--Stanley Kubrick is often thought of as a cold, cerebral, and misanthropic artist. He may well have been all of these things, but the man had a sense of humor as well. 2001 has several instances of Kubrick's disdain for bureaucratic functions, two of which involve momentous occasions being delayed for the taking of photographs. Then there's the close study of the instructions for a zero-gravity toilet. And I've always found the synchronization of the opening credits with the fanfare at least a little humorous.

--2001 was released forty years ago. At that time, no one had been to the moon, let alone walked on it. That happened the next year. Until 20 July 1969 no person had visited another celestial body. After that day it was, for a long time, unthinkable that once again no living person will have walked on a celestial body. Yet, we are approaching that day--all of the 9 surviving (of 12) astronauts who walked on the surface of the Moon are over 70. What does this mean for our race? (I don't know, and I'm not convinced it necessarily means anything.) What is our future?


  1. I first saw the film in ’68, shortly after getting my degree in Electrical Engineering at the venerable Milan’s “Politecnico”.

    And couldn’t avoid recalling a vivid picture that an old professor used to give of the role of Science. Science - he told us students - is relentlessly shifting an opaque screen, letting us discover new things everyday... but it will never be able to let us see beyond that screen.

    Now, what else may the black monolith stand for? The primates find it one morning before themselves on Earth... then men find it again on the Moon... and than again towards Jupiter. And always the monolith stands before them impenetrable, indeed like a screen that you shift far and far, but countinues to obstruct your view.

    And when does finally the black monolith become transparent? When “life” (the fetus) comes to centerstage.

    Indeed, a moving allegory of science and mankind.

  2. daland--

    Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

    I quite agree.