2001: A Taste Odyssey
Grass to tapir to juice to multicourse dinner. 2001: A Space Odyssey could make you hungry. In a film about progression, the parallel scenes of smaller details, like eating, demand to be investigated. If the monolith is interpreted to represent the extraterrestrial spark that allows the human race to advance to an elevated stage of being, the ascension of humans can be seen in the food they eat from one stage of life to the next.
In The Dawn of Man, the Australopithecines eat grass side by side with the common animals: the tapirs. They are even hunted as the common animals are by the jaguar. This is the most obvious establishment of the use of the food chain to show the status of humans at this point in time. After the monolith arrives, the invention of tools allows the Australopithecines to hunt the common animals and defend themselves against antagonists, and the Joneses across the plains who are hogging the watering hole. There are graphic close ups of them eating the tapir meat making it clear that this consumption is essential to their plot line. Historically we know this to be true as well. As the ancestors of the human race we able to eat more protein heavy food, their brains and bodies developed more and enabled further development. This act of tapir-consumption is a sign of growth.
Jump cut a few million years. The food on the Panam space shuttle is a series of juice boxes holding puréed vegetables. The important element of this meal is that it is “in flight.” Normally these terrible meals are overlooked and discarded (except those Southwest honey roasted peanuts), but there are 10 minutes of the film dedicated to the stewardess delivering these meals and Kubrick wouldn’t just deliberately waste our time. The state of the human race in 2001 is that it is in transit. Their tools have allowed them to leave their planet and push forward, so the members of the human race progressing towards a higher state of being are those who are in transit, and taking their meals to go. This shows up again within the same act where Dr. Floyd and his team eat pre-wrapped sandwiches on their way to the monolith. As the human race pushes forward the ability to bring their food with them is a crucial step in reaching that next stage.
Dave and Frank aboard the Jupiter mission again need to eat pre-packaged food as they are still in the “transit” stage. But their situation provides an interesting contrast highlighting another important element of eating food in the context of progression. Their food consumption is done passively. While they eat, they individually stare at their own iPads, never taking a look at the TV dinner they are eating. Compared to the super intelligent HAL 9000, their consumption of food seems like a disadvantage. It appears to be just something that must be done to sustain themselves, when they would rather be working on or watching something else. I would argue the opposite is true. HAL is created perfect and needs no further upgrades. Whereas humans are in a constant struggle for improvement. The consumption of food (along with regular exercise at the gym, three days a week) allows for continual improvement, and their passivity is a sign of the ease at which humans are able to acquire food and grow now. Am I saying eating a TV dinner allowed Dave to defeat HAL? No, but yes. Humans are more moldable and adaptable than even a “perfect” robot, and in defeating another antagonist to their progression, Dave is able to move on to the next stage of being.
Dave quickly lives through the remainder of his human life in the Bedroom at the End of the Universe, and before his death and rebirth has a last meal. It is the most civilized and refined meal in the film with silverware and plates instead of straws and trays. The glass of wine and classical architecture symbolize the elevated status in this moment, since Dave has pushed farther than an human before him. Yet the bedroom also feels like a prison cell. This meal then appears to be a last supper. Like a prisoner before his death, Dave eats his last meal, dies, and then breaks free of a corporeal form. Lastly, the bedroom and food in the last meal are very terrestrial despite being beyond the Infinite. Before moving forward, Kubrick makes a point that it is a human impulse to look back as well. Humanity’s history here on earth is an important part to remember on the journey beyond the Infinite. Just as Dr. Floyd calls his daughter before seeing the monolith, Space Baby Dave takes one last look at his old home, Earth, before his rebirth into the higher state of being is complete.
So remember kids, eat your greens, your juice boxes, and your tapirs and you too could grow up to be a Space Baby.