Fifty years after its debut, 2001 is more relevant than ever. Released at the height of the space age in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of the cinematic and cultural blockbusters of the 1960s and early 1970s. Fifty years later, 2001 stands as the greatest and most thought-provoking science-fiction film of all time, perhaps rivaled by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). As most science-fiction fans know, 2001 also introduced the sleek black monolith, one of the most striking icons in film and art history.
Although it initially garnered mixed reviews, 2001 became a big box office hit and generated much discussion about its meaning. For example, what the hell was the black monolith anyway, and where did it come from? Where did astronaut Dave Bowman end up in his cosmic journey? The 35 mm and 70 mm versions of the film played in theaters well into the early 1970s, but because the thrill of the Apollo moon landings had worn off by that point, 2001 faded from popular consciousness, even as its prestige eventually skyrocketed. Now we’re in the year 2017 and the 50th anniversary of 2001 is soon to arrive. It’s time to consider the meaning and vision of hope in 2001, which is centered around the sleek black monolith.
The Year 2000
It is probably hard for contemporary readers to grasp that the year 2000 once stood for “the future,” a world of tomorrow filled with optimism for art, science, technology, planetary ecology, social equality, and universal progress. With the 2 replacing the 1, followed by three 0s, the future beyond 2000 just had to be better, wiser, cooler, and overall more awesome. This hope for a better future after 2000 is why Kubrick and coauthor Arthur C. Clarke set their space-age odyssey in 2001 — the first year of the new millennium.
2001 depicts a past and future in which humans have evolved from apes to astronauts through science and technology, along with an assist from the mysterious monolith. Importantly, 2001 taps into the awe and wonder of the cosmos along with the marvels of science and technology. At the same moment in human history, Kubrick and NASA directed space odysseys that expressed the highest trajectories of the space age, when humanity first ventured into the vast universe beyond planet Earth — yet neither Kubrick nor NASA provided the philosophical meaning for these discoveries and achievements. Kubrick wanted 2001 to show a human space narrative but not explain it or detail it.
Meaning 1: Desert Monolith
In a moment of the sublime, the “desert” monolith inspired pre-human simians to discover technology and look to the stars. The monolith first appears in the desert scene with the apes, as small tribes battle over scarce resources. During one scene, we see the close-up of an ape’s face as the ape glances right, then left, then skyward. We see a sunset of deep orange with a dark sky above. The next morning the monolith appears, standing perfectly upright in the desert as if it had been planted there with intent. There is no explanation for its origins. As the apes gather around, we hear Ligeti’s Requiem, the music rising in a crescendo. The monolith is then shown against the morning sky, with the sun eclipsed as it rises above the top edge. A crescent moon is positioned above the sun. This linear and symmetrical arrangement suggests the monolith is pointing toward the sun and moon and thus directing the apes to look toward the stars. This observation is confirmed in the famed jump cut from the bone to the spacecraft. The technological apes are motivated by the sublime.
When the apes first see the monolith, they are experiencing an all-too-human moment of the sublime — the simultaneous feeling of awe, wonder, and terror when gazing upon something majestic and mysterious that seems to overwhelm their reason and sensory perceptions. We can see the awe and terror of the apes as they approach the monolith, first staring at it and then quickly touching it and removing their hands in fear. Their reason overwhelmed, the apes remain curious. Eventually the sleek monolith seduces their reason and senses, leading them to caress it as an object of mystery and desire, even if they have no idea where it came from or what it means. Inspired by the monolith, the apes are soon using bones as technology and evolve to become the space farers we now are.
The scene where the ape transforms the bone into technology is accompanied by Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), as kettledrums and symphonic sounds rise to a triumphant crescendo. (Also Sprach Zarathustra is also heard in later appearances of the monolith.) Strauss’s composition was inspired by Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Surely Kubrick and Clarke knew the inspiration for the music, suggesting that the extraterrestrials in 2001 are the space-faring gods who inspired the apes to become humans, not the human-created anthropomorphic God who is dead to Nietzsche. In fact, this is the idea Kubrick intended, as he states in his 1968 Playboy interview:
“I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe.
Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high.
Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia — less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe — can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken?”
Kubrick is clearly offering a cosmic, secular, extraterrestrial notion of a “God.” This is not a God of our creation and narcissistic insecurities, but the idea that a sufficiently evolved and advanced extraterrestrial species — with the science and technologies to traverse the light years — would be like gods to us or any less-advanced species. Would these extraterrestrials be like Nietzschean supermen or more like Hollywood superheroes? Or more like scientists and philosophers contemplating microbes in a petri dish? Perhaps that explains the monolith left behind for the apes on the petri dish of planet Earth. Since the extraterrestrials would likely have no need to conquer our planet for its resources, why would they want to destroy us?
Kubrick thinks it’s possible (though not certain) they would be benevolent, as suggested by the desert monolith in the film. In the spirit of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, perhaps the monolith-bearing extraterrestrials have evolved beyond their early evolutionary stages, becoming peaceful and benevolent space farers on a quest for discovery, beauty, and cosmic meaning. Perhaps they have already developed and embraced a cosmic narrative that unites their species as they explore the universe.
Meaning 2: Moon Monolith
In the same interview, Kubrick points toward the second meaning of the monolith:
“But at a time  when man is preparing to set foot on the Moon, I think it’s necessary to open up our Earthbound minds to such speculation. No one knows what’s waiting for us in the universe. I think it was a prominent astronomer who wrote recently, ‘Sometimes I think we are alone, sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.’”
The “moon” monolith proves to the simians-turned-humans that they are not alone in the vast universe, no longer are they cosmically central, nor are they the top species in the cosmos. Discovered by scientists on the moon in the year 2001, the second monolith was buried four million years previous. Like the desert monolith, the moon monolith stands perfectly vertical. The difference is the moon monolith is beaming a radio frequency toward Jupiter. The scientists realize this is a monumental discovery, and it prompts the visit to the Clavius moon base by Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester). However, the humans on Earth have not yet been told of the discovery. As Floyd says to a gathering of scientists at Clavius:
Congratulations on your discovery, which may well prove to be amongst the most significant in the history of science. . . . Now I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning.
After making this statement, Floyd informs the scientists that “security oaths” will be required of them until it is decided when and how to inform the public. With this plotline, Kubrick and Clarke also provide artistic motivation for the world’s space conspiracy theorists. Among the most popular and absurd conspiracies are that NASA faked the moon landings, NASA or the military has found extraterrestrial life but refuse to tell us (Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind ), and mainstream scientists and archaeologists have conspired to deny evidence that proves “ancient astronauts” have visited Earth (Ancient Aliens [2010-]).
Meaning 3: Jupiter Monolith
The “Jupiter” monolith is a symbol of the cosmic sublime and the infiniteness and mysteriousness of the universe. The monolith provides the apes with an experience of the sublime, thus inspiring them to develop technologies that eventually send them into the stars when they become humans. Such vastness and mystery will seduce the ever-curious human species into leaving Earth and exploring space. On the Discovery One spacecraft, Bowman accidentally uncovers the existence of the moon monolith when he comes across a video announcement in the spacecraft’s computer system (as he is turning off the HAL 9000 computer). An unnamed spokesman states:
“Eighteen months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered. It was buried 40 feet below the lunar surface, near the crater Tycho. Except for a single, very powerful, radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four-million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert. Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.” [Italics mine.]
The idea of the monolith as a symbol for the sublime and cosmic mystery is confirmed in the next scene, when we see the Jupiter monolith (black with a cobalt blue tint) floating and slowly tumbling against the blackness of the starry skies surrounding Jupiter and its moons. Discovery One is shown stationary near Jupiter. Soon, Bowman exits Discovery One in the space pod, flies toward us in space, and then enters the Star-Gate sequence. Seduced by the monolith, Bowman ventures untold numbers of light years through the immensity of the universe and its array of cosmic and intergalactic forms.
Meaning 4: Hotel Monolith
The “hotel suite” monolith symbolizes the void in human meaning, yet in pursuit of that meaning or meaninglessness lies human destiny, a fate from which there is no exit. Of course, the other monoliths symbolize this indirectly. The monolith makes a final appearance in the hotel-like suite where Bowman has arrived upon conclusion of his journey through the Star-Gate. After rapidly aging to become a very old man lying in bed, Bowman’s last act is to point toward the monolith standing at the foot of his bed. Bowman dies or is transformed while thinking of the monolith.
Kubrick zooms into the blackness of the monolith, which envelopes the screen. As Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a final crescendo, we are instantly returned to our area of the universe. We see the moon, followed by Earth and then the Star-Child, who is either Bowman reborn, the infant heir to his space-faring legacy, or the first of a new cosmic Ubermensch that evolved from current space-faring humans. Perhaps Bowman’s rebirth as a Star-Child symbolizes the Nietzschean recurrence, though now the Star-Child represents the superhumans who explore the universe with a new cosmic narrative. The Star-Child gazes down at Earth and then straight at us, eyes wide open as the film ends. With the Star-Child, the trajectory seems complete, from ape to astronaut to astral species. Through Bowman the space spore, we have returned to “The Dawn of Man” — Star-Child, stargazer, space voyager, and seeker of beauty, meaning, and purpose.
2001 at 50: The Specter of the Monolith
Ultimately, the black monolith and 2001 pose the question of what we humans will become as we venture into a magnificent universe in which we are not central, not significant, and maybe not alone. The monolith signifies the complexity of mysteries and meanings, if any, in Kubrick’s “indifferent” universe — the marvelous cosmos that allows us to exist on a tiny planet yet seems eternally unconcerned with the fate of the many species that populate Earth. Like the towering star factories in the Hubble images, the monolith is a pillar of beautiful indifference yet also a beacon for wonder and curiosity in a gigantic universe.
The Hubble images give a moment of the sublime, the simultaneous sense of awesomeness and meaninglessness. When we scan the Hubble’s cosmic images and those from the world’s many telescopes, our aesthetic sense grasps their beauty while our reason affirms their scale and splendor, yet our minds are blown and we end up dizzy or intellectually paralyzed by what it means for our species, the tiny species with big brains and a yearning for significance. We gaze into the sublime wonders of the cosmos, yet sensing nihilism and meaninglessness we retreat from any new possibilities offered by the cosmic blank slate. Astride the abyss between now and what’s possible, we get vertigo and step back into the comfort of the traditional narratives that order life on Earth, even if those narratives are completely false. We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless.
With the phrase “specter of the monolith” (also the title of my book), I am naming a complex existential moment — the simultaneous experience of the sublime and nihilism. As a new space age ramps up in the 21st century, future astronauts and the human species itself will inevitably face the specter of the monolith and the challenge of nihilism and meaninglessness. We have yet to embrace the sublime as a potential counter to nihilism in developing a universal human narrative for a space-faring species and a peaceful planetary civilization.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the book that inspired Richard Strauss to write the symphony Also Sprach Zarathustra , which was later used by Kubrick in 2001), Friedrich Nietzsche speculated that since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, there might be an equally greater species that would evolve from humans — what he termed the “Ubermensch” or “Superman.” Nietzsche wrote how “man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.” So what comes next? What will emerge in the next stage of human evolution?
That’s the question Kubrick poses at the end of 2001, with the Star-Child appearing against the blackness of the cosmos, Earth literally rising in his gaze. As a space-faring species, what will humans make of themselves in an awe-inspiring universe with unlimited possibility? That’s where the monolith has profound metaphorical meaning. Tall, sleek, and black, the monolith is an icon of awe and the cosmic void, yet it’s also a towering blank slate for us to write a new philosophy for the future of the human species.
2001: What Can We Hope For?
The very opening of 2001 begins with three minutes of a completely black screen, accompanied by Ligeti’s Atmospheres. The monotonal sound textures suggest a monochromatic existential void, the beginning of the intellectual journey for the human species. The origins and purpose of the monoliths are never explained, though they trigger and inspire events. Bowman’s journey and the hotel suite are never explained. In the end, the black monolith that seduced the apes seems to have given birth to a Star-Child and space-faring species in search of its cosmic meaning and existential purpose.
2001 has several meanings that indicate what we can hope for now and in a future cosmic narrative:
1) We are an evolutionary species capable of great things. We evolved from apes to artists to astronauts, from simians to scientists and space voyagers. Inspired and seduced by the monolith, we created a technological civilization capable of exploring the stars and seeking to understand its origins and destiny via art, science, and philosophy. This is an incredible achievement for our species of which we should be proud.
2) We are not alone. The existence of the monolith with the apes is a hopeful message, in that the extraterrestrials were benevolent and sought to inspire the most advanced species on Earth at the time.
3) We need to be careful with our advancing digital technologies. Via the flawed artificial intelligence of the HAL 9000, 2001 provides a warning to humans about the seductive power of our technology. We might find ourselves serving the technology rather than the technology serving us. More radically, perhaps HAL symbolizes the next leap in evolution, the technological Ubermensch to succeed humans.
4) We face the challenge of cosmic nihilism. As symbolized by the final two monoliths, we face a philosophical void, for there is no intrinsic or self-evident meaning for human existence in a vast and wondrous universe.
5) There is no exit from the cosmic sublime. Though our science and technology are accelerating into the universe as if on autopilot, 2001 suggests our discoveries will disrupt our traditional narratives and that our journey into space is the next step in the continuing existential quest. In the search lies our destiny, a species seeking meaning and purpose amid the awe-inspiring galaxies and voids.
6) Our first space spores have been launched. As symbolized in 2001 (and by technologies such as Apollo and Voyager), we are launching our first spores into the cosmos. In effect, 2001 is one of those spores, though it is artistic and philosophical. With our knowledge of the cosmos, we have the opportunity to become Star-Children and philosophical Ubermensches, to be the artists, scientists, philosophers, voyagers, and tourists of the cosmos — seeking not merely to survive but peacefully pursue our existential quest in a beautiful and sublime universe.
All of this is why 2001 is the greatest space film and a towering work of art and philosophy, offering us a vision of hope and meaning in a majestic and awe-inspiring universe. Fifty years later, it’s time to begin developing a new space and humanist philosophy for the human species, a philosophy and cosmic narrative that situates us in the sublime universe from which we evolved.
The above is based on passages from my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017). For more information or to purchase the book in Amazon, click here.
To view my my 12-minute video homage to 2001 and the monolith in Vimeo, see below.