Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 Science-Fiction masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel (which was actually released after the movie; Clarke also co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick) instantly became a precedent setting film in this genre and a masterpiece of modern filmmaking. The two had been in discussions as early as 1964 about collaborating on a science-fiction piece.
Using a critical eye, a viewer cannot help but consciously or subconsciously catch the clever use of symbolism throughout the film.
The enduring power of the symbolism employed in “2001: A Space Odyssey” is still the subject of much discussion today. Many fans of the film admit to not completely understanding everything they are seeing and simply enjoy the aesthetic pleasures they receive from watching this film. Others go out of their way to decipher the symbolism and understand that it is a subtle way in which a filmmaker can represent a mood or a feeling. Some of the significant uses of symbolism used throughout the film are as follows:
In the early part of the film during the Dawn of Man sequence, the apes come to recognize the use of animal bones as weapons. This new tool is used to exert dominance over other tribes as well as to continue the evolution of their race. During the last sequence of shots from this section of the film, an ape tosses a bone/weapon into the air and it cleverly morphs into a spaceship/satellite that is circling the earth. This craft is symbolic of current/future man’s exploration into the unknown as well as an exertion of dominance by whatever country produced and launched the craft.
Perhaps the most prominent use of symbolism is Kubrick’s pronounced placement of certain colors to represent different feelings and ideas in particular scenes.
The first color the viewer experiences is black. The film opens with a completely black screen while an orchestra plays a score, similar to the overture of a play or opera, and the blackness holds for several minutes before the first image is shown. This is perhaps symbolic of the black void of nothingness that existed before the creation of life on earth or in the universe. The most important object in the film is the appearance of the Monolith — appearing in different time periods, places and in various shapes/sizes throughout the film. Though David Bowman was quoted in the sequel “2010”as stating that the Monolith was “filled with stars,” it remains a stark and overpowering pure ebony in “2001.”
More prominent and vibrant is the use of the color red. During the opening Dawn of Man sequence, the sky is seen initially in nothing but red hues. Later on, the interior of the cockpits in several of the crafts in this film are lit exclusively by red light. The space station has nothing but red seats in various shapes and sizes. The eye of the HAL 9000 is an eerie, constant and piercing red glow.
The most important use of red is in the space-suit worn by David Bowman — he is the only astronaut to use the red suit. During the film’s final sequence, the older, sentient and seemingly all-knowing Bowman is filmed throughout in his red suit after coming through the Monolith. It can be said that red is indicative of intelligence, understanding and the dawning of a new intelligence to inspire those that are seeking answers from an unknown universe. Ironically, the shut-off buttons Bowman uses to turn of the HAL 9000 are all in glowing red!
Another vital color scheme used widely in the set dressing and on certain props is white. The color white is often used in stark contrast with the other colors, particularly red. This is not just standard white, but impeccably pure and shining white that is indicative of man’s innocence in the face of the unknown. One significant moment where white is used is in the background of the teleconference between astronaut Frank Poole and his parents on earth. On earth, the parents are sitting in front of a wall that is split down the middle — one side is white, the other red. This clearly shows the difference in the where the two parties are in this teleconference call — Poole on the Discovery spaceship at the brink of finding the answers they seek and his parents still shrouded in the innocent light of home.
The antagonist of the film and a machine intelligence that represents pragmatic rationalism. Described as being the ‘brain and central nervous system’ of the Discovery, HAL soon becomes public enemy number one and falls prey to the very human emotion of paranoia, which results in his killing all in the crew except for Bowman. As the most critical part of the Jupiter Mission, the HAL 9000 views itself as infallible and blames any malfunction on human error. Classically symbolic of the age-old man vs. machine battle.
In spite of the fact that we learn in the sequel “2010” that the Monolith was reduced to simply being a peace-keeping tool to avert a world war between the U.S. and Soviets, in “2001” the Monolith is symbolic of much more. Being a hard, solid and dark object — it represents an unknown variable. Neither the primitive ape tribe nor the futuristic astronauts know what to make of it. It seems that whenever it appears, it sparks some form of intelligence in those that experience it.
The apes quickly learn how to adapt the bones into weapons shortly after exploring the smaller sized Monolith that suddenly inhabits their landscape. In the meantime, Bowman gets to realize the full power of the Monolith and is able to see his (and man’s) own future and place in the universe through his interaction. Man’s intelligence and power is limited, while the symbolic Monolith is infinite. This is evident with the title of the film’s final chapter — Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.
Kubrick’s landmark film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” is indeed a work of art that must be experienced rather than just viewed. Watching it with a critical eye and looking out for the meaning behind the images and symbols makes for a much more satisfying film experience. Critic Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote: “The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence and leaves it on-screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations.”