“Kubrick: and beyond the cinema frame”

An in-depth analysis of


Text copyright © by Rob Ager 2008

(last updates added 2015)



2001 is a definite contender for the strangest film phenomena of all time. At times it is a painfully slow film that frustrates its audience with a seemingly non-existent narrative. It is also artistically and technically stunning, even by today’s computer assisted standards. It’s scientifically well researched and goes to great efforts to offer a truly convincing portrayal of space travel – one of the few film’s ever to accurately portray the empty atmosphere of space as being utterly silent and it was the first to feature a spinning artificial gravity station, which was originally conceived by a former Nazi named Wernher Von Braun.

Despite a seemingly cold and emotionless narrative that even NASA has described as “baffling” ...

"Writer Arthur C. Clarke and moviemaker Stanley Kubrick would borrow the torus design for their exhilarating (and baffling) 1968 movie epic 2001: A Space Odyssey." - SP-4308 SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION (NASA archives)

... it is consistently held in such high regard as to appear on almost every serious film buff’s top 100 movies list. Its cryptic symbolism has been analyzed and discussed endlessly, even in the world of the internet decades after release. An even more strange aspect of 2001 is its budget. How did a movie that is so cryptically impenetrable, so non-commercial and so slowly paced acquire what was, at the time of its production, one the highest film production budgets of all time? It is only logical to assume that 2001 acquired its budget as part of an overall mass media push to culturally promote the cold war space race, and in particular to add a sense of God-like mysticism to the moon landings that would come less than a year after 2001’s release. Stanley Kubrick openly stated that 2001’s true meanings had been visually encoded to bypass the conscious rationalizations of the audience and sink straight into the unconscious. And as we shall discover in this review he wasn’t kidding.

I don’t like to talk about 2001 too much because it’s essentially a non-verbal experience. It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect. I think clearly there’s a problem with people who are not paying attention with their eyes. They’re listening. And they don’t get much from listening to this film. Those who won’t believe their eyes won’t be able to appreciate this film.  - Kubrick talking to Jerome Agel, page 277 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

There are very few films in history that have received such varied reviews and interpretations. Depending on which review you read 2001 is either an adaptation of the classic Greek play The Odyssey, an adaptation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a pretentious and self-indulgent art house film, a bold statement about mankind’s evolution to the stars, a promotion of Masonic philosophies or a propaganda film to increase public support for the cold war space race … and the list I have just offered is by no means exhaustive. While there is evidence to support some of these interpretations, none of them offer anything near a full understanding because no matter which analysis you apply there always seems to be other symbols and concepts that remain elusive. This is especially true of the film's surface narrative. The following quote is pretty much a confession from Kubrick that there is a great deal more going on in 2001 than the film's dialogue tells us (highlight added).

Interviewer The final scenes of the film seemed more metaphorical than realistic. Will you discuss them -- or would that be part of the "road map" you're trying to avoid?

Kubrick No, I don't mind discussing it, on the lowest level, that is, straightforward explanation of the plot. You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man's first baby steps into the universe -- a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there's a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.
When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he's placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man's evolutionary destiny.
That is what happens on the film's simplest level. Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.

What are those areas of meaning?
They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.

Kubrick interviewed by Joseph Gelmis 1969

Here are some more quotes along similar lines.

If you accept the idea that one views a film in a state of ‘daydream,’ then this symbolic dreamlike content becomes a powerful factor in influencing your feelings about the film. Since your dreams can take you into areas which can never be a part of your conscious mind, I think a work of art can ‘operate’ on you in much the same way as a dream does. – Kubrick talking about A Clockwork Orange to Andrew Bailey, p340 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

2001, on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting. – Kubrick interviewed by Joseph Gelmis 1969

Kubrick’s bizarre statements of a visually encoded meaning seem to suggest that the film’s formal narrative is only a part of the story. It seems that 2001 was deliberately designed to incorporate a multitude of concepts so that it is near impossible to interpret consciously. It’s like a cinematic rubick’s cube … or should I say Kubrick’s cube?

I must also add a few words here about the creative process of writing 2001's script. The widely held belief is that Arthur C Clarke wrote the book and Kubrick then adapted the book into a film. However, the following quotes indicate a different story.

Kubrick was revising the novel (2001) with Clarke and simultaneously preparing his shooting script … At the end of August Clarke decided that the novel should end with Bowman standing beside an alien ship. Kubrick was not satisfied with this conclusion and the search went on. - p283 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

Clarke attempted to convince Kubrick that the novel’s manuscript was ready for publication. Kubrick was still unwilling to declare the novel finalized … Clarke firmly stated that he was the writer and should have the clout to pronounce the novel complete. Clarke was frustrated that he had lost $15,000 in commissions while working on the lengthy revisions of the novel. - p298 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent LobruttoClarke was in debt and tried to get a publishing contract signed with Delacorte Press, but Kubrick refused to sign, even after Delacorte had spent $10,000 on the project. Kubrick would immediately praise the new version, then within a few days point out flaws, errors and imperfections until the new prose crumbled into worthless fragments. - p299 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent LobruttoKubrick / Clarke had a 60/40 deal on the book  - p310 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent LobruttoIt's a totally different kind of experience, of course, and there are a number of differences between the book and the movie. The novel, for example, attempts to explain things much more explicitly than the film does, which is inevitable in a verbal medium. The novel came about after we did a 130-page prose treatment of the film at the very outset. This initial treatment was subsequently changed in the screenplay, and the screenplay in turn was altered during the making of the film. But Arthur took all the existing material, plus an impression of some of the rushes, and wrote the novel. As a result, there's a difference between the novel and the film. – Kubrick interviewed by Joseph Gelmis 1969

I think that the divergences between the two works (2001 film and novel) are interesting. Actually, it was an unprecedented situation for someone to do an essentially original literary work based on glimpses and segments of a film he (Arthur C Clarke) had not yet seen in its entirety. – Kubrick interviewed by Joseph Gelmis 1969

Arthur C. Clarke, back in Ceylon, continued to wrangle with Kubrick about the novel, the final text of which the director still refused to approve. Each time Clarke felt sure the script and book were set, Kubrick would cable him for some more dialogue or a new scene, none of which, Clarke claimed, ever found their way into the film. … Kubrick almost certainly did delay the book in order to protect the film. The film took on its own life as it was being made, and Clarke became increasingly irrelevant. Kubrick could probably have shot 2001 from a treatment, since most of what Clarke wrote, in particular some windy voice-overs which explained the level of intelligence reached by the ape men, the geological state of the world at the dawn of man, the problems of life on the Discovery and much more, was discarded during the last days of editing, along with the explanation of HALs breakdown. - p227 / 228 Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter

Kubrick wanted to make a sci-fi film before he even hooked up with Clarke. He based his original ideas for 2001 upon a handful of short stories written by clarke, in particular The Sentinel. Kubrick then hired Clarke to work on the film's story with him, but the book was written as the film was being made. Clarke was allowed to view rushes of what had been filmed and based many of the book's details upon what he believed Kubrick's footage was conveying. Kubrick had creative control over the book and so was at liberty to instruct Clarke on how the book should be written. Quite simply, Kubrick was the primary creative force and Clarke was a writer for hire.The story was always the same with Kubrick's collaborations with writers. He would "adapt" an already written novel for the screen in conjunction with the original writer, or in some cases he would simply buy the rights to the story then exclude the original writer, while he brought in a third writer to help him revise the story until it was virtually unreconisable from the original text. This was especially true of The Shining (read the second chapter of my analysis for details of how Kubrick massacred King's story so that he could infuse it with a variety of additional, visually encoded themes that were personal to Kubrick).

(movies) haven’t scratched the surface of how to tell stories in their own terms. – Kubrick speaking to Richard Schickel, quoted from p407 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

So in the case of 2001, the book isn't a reliable source for determining the film's visually encoded themes. It was this realization that lead me to explore the film on a variety of new levels. In writing the original version of this review I spent months laboriously researching other interpretations of 2001 in an attempt to find some clues about what Kubrick was really communicating. And after continuous cross-referencing of the films symbols and themes, during which I almost gave up, I eventually stumbled across a key element of the films structure and symbolism that I had never encountered before and which I am still convinced cuts straight to the heart of the films meaning. So we shall start with an updated recap of my original review.

For a more detailed account of the production history of 2001: A Space Odyssey see my 50 min video Kubrick's Cover Story and my 60 min video 2001: Behind The Propaganda. Both can be ordered from my digital download store.