Trying to fathom the mystery of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

[11 April 2008]

By John Mark Eberhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

“Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.”

This is the last line of dialogue in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” though the film is far from over at that point. Astronaut David Bowman has yet to meet the Final Monolith, breach the Star-Gate, land in the Cosmic Hotel Room, be transformed into ... Something Big.

Forty years since its theatrical release this week in 1968, that line goes toward explaining why “2001” has yet to be surpassed. It stands as the finest science-fiction film ever made and the purest visual film in the history of cinema.

“A total mystery.”

We do not return to works of art that reveal themselves too fully. Nor to those whose excessive obscurity irks us. “2001” is not a total mystery, but enough mystery remains that we are drawn back to it, as if its Monoliths are ontological electromagnets forever daring us to pose the query, “What is the nature of existence?”

On my desk as I write this are two movies I need to mail back to Netflix: “28 Weeks Later,” the zombie sequel, and “Knocked Up,” the hottie/loser pregnancy comedy starring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen. I enjoyed both. I also need never see them again.

The art we remember is the art that torments us a little.

If the lottery had existed in Leonardo da Vinci’s day and he’d painted a winning ticket into the lady’s hand, we would not be charmed and vexed by the Mona Lisa’s smile.

If Miles Davis had written all the pieces on “Kind of Blue” in a major key instead of using the more enigmatic “modal” approach, our ears would have grown accustomed, perhaps even fatigued, and the album might not be a jazz colossus half a century after its debut.

For “2001,” the late director Stanley Kubrick chose to tell his story with very little dialogue. That was his modality, his cryptic smile.

Yet the plot is simple enough: Hairy proto-humans encounter a (presumably) extraterrestrial monolith that puts new ideas into their heads. Tools (bone clubs) are born, resulting in the ability to hunt and consume meat but also the propensity for violence.

Jump-cut millions of years to a spaceship, and another, and another, and finally to the interior of one such ship carrying a bureaucrat to the moon to preside over the investigation of ... a Monolith. He and several of his colleagues approach this new slab. It emits a piercing radio signal, an alarm to tell its makers: Humans have become capable of space flight.

Cut to the interplanetary ship Discovery, bound for Jupiter. HAL 9000, the ship’s computer, goes psycho and slays four of the five crew. The survivor, David Bowman, approaches the last, largest Monolith and is absorbed into a trans-space corridor that leads him to that Cosmic Hotel Room.

Where he is ... Reborn.

This “Star-Child” section is the one that perplexed viewers 40 years ago and still causes grumbling now. That’s understandable, given the possible interpretations:

Christian: In the New Testament, Jesus Christ declares that a soul must be born again. That is, spiritual salvation depends upon a transformation, with Christ as catalyst, instrument of change, pathway to God, Savior.

Psychological: David Bowman, his mind flooded by experiences he can scarcely understand, must accept his own mortality. In doing so, he gives up his will. His life, now under the control of the extraterrestrials, passes in a flash; he emerges a sage child, cleansed, healed. Cosmic therapy!

Nietzschean: David Bowman, as soul survivor (pun intended) of the sterile, clinical, disastrous mission to Jupiter, has proven himself worthy. As the ancient Monolith transformed the proto-humans, so this modern man is transformed into Nietzsche’s (not DC Comics’) Superman. He is the next advance in human development, an almost supernaturally powerful being.

Kubrick and his screenwriting partner, the late Arthur C. Clarke, both hinted this last interpretation was close to their own, and Clarke’s novel version took that tack. But both men, Kubrick especially, were careful to allow for many readings. The three possibilities I’ve listed aren’t even scratches on the Monoliths’ ebon faces.

Many fans have seen many things in this film, but whatever conclusions they’ve drawn, they tend to find this commonality: A mortal man goes on a journey that leaves him forever changed.

This is the essence not only of human art but also of human life: We change.

To impose anything more upon this film is, in the end, a futile exercise of the will. As Bowman does in the movie, we must give up our will, and only in giving up do we begin to understand.

In Buddhism we find the idea of “sunyata” or “shunyata.” This concept varies according to different Buddhist traditions, but in general it is the release of ego, of desire. Only through the emptying out of will, self, identity, can the soul be free from the bonds of human cravings.

Of this sublime emptiness, the Dalai Lama wrote, “At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are.”

So what lies beyond this letting go of the burdens of perception? I don’t have a clue. But here is one possible answer, and one that I find strangely comforting:

“A total mystery.”

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