Directed by Stanley Kubrick and adapted from several short stories by Arthur C. Clarke, the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ from 1968 has many instances of symbolism throughout; in fact, the entire movie is a symbol of where people believed that the human race would be by the year 2001. The entire movie as a whole paints a symbolic picture of the circle of time that we are a part of, have always been a part of, and of what we will always be a part.
Dawn of Mankind
Though the entire movie is complex with many instances of symbolic imagery, the opening scenes detailing early man are perhaps the pieces that are most alive. The entire dawn of mankind theme, the imagery of the open landscape and especially the invention of the tool portion, screams to be recognized for the symbolism contained within. One can see that symbolically it is the beginning of our species’ story.
The imagery of the open landscape and the amount of time to which it is referenced throughout the movie show not only literally that time and space are large and mostly open, but that our own brains, which are a world unto themselves, are also large, open, and widely unknown. The emptiness of the landscape (like a clean slate) even symbolizes the emptiness of the human mind in its infancy; not meant as unintelligence but ignorance…Ignorance of our true place in the circle of time because of our ability to only be at one point on the circle at any given time.
In the next scene, man invents the tool. The music used here seems to be saying, “wow…Wow…Wow…WOW WOW! I just had a great idea!” (This music repeats itself at other opportune moments in the film serving to reinforce the circle of time theory.) Man learning how to use a bone as a tool was a great leap forward in our evolutionary development; however, man’s excitement turns to rage it seems, as though he is letting out frustration. When he realizes his strike can break bones, he uses this new-found strategy for food-finding purposes, but it turns him and his companions into savages. Beating something to death is quite different than shooting it and killing it instantaneously. For that reason, the invention of the tool was our greatest hour and our demise both at once. This bone-tool morphs quickly into a satellite before our eyes as the scene changes to depict future man. This is excellent symbolism of how the invention of the tool began and to where it evolved.
Being a Christian, but also scientific at heart, sometimes my views are somewhat blasphemous; but another theory I have always held is the possibility that what we think of as God (or Gods, plural, depending upon one’s views) could quite possibly have been future man coming back to try to change the nature of things. In the scene where we are introduced to the Monolith, the spacemen explore its nature in the same way as early man. This scene begins to explore the possibility of someone always watching us, but almost as if we are watching ourselves, to which future scenes will allude. The robotic brain of the spaceship in these scenes, HAL, could be looked upon as a monolith that we built ourselves…always watching, always interpreting, and yet out to save its own livelihood should the occasion arise…much the same as humans themselves.
Circle of Time
I have always had a theory that all of everything in the universe is a great big circle. No matter where we came from or where our civilization is heading, it is a mathematical certainty that we must always return to the point of origin. Everything that has happened will happen again and everything that hasn’t happened will happen, meaning it has already happened and therefore will happen again. This is illustrated very uniquely in the scene entitled “Future Selves.”
The man in the spaceship looks out of his portal into a magnificent room with walls made of ivory. The stark whiteness symbolizes how pure and right we should think of this voyeurism. He watches his future self as a middle aged man coming upon the Monolith for the first time, as though we are ourselves the Monolith. What imagery this invokes in one’s mind! What a delicacy to mull over if one takes the time to think what this means to one’s own self!
We watch as the middle aged man comes upon a mirror, which goes far to illustrate the theory that all along it has been us watching ourselves! The middle aged man (as the Monolith) watches his elderly self sitting down for a meal, who in turn watches his dying self watching the Monolith. The elderly man’s death brings about a new beginning with the birth of “Star Child.” This closes perfectly the theory of everything being a circle.
The symbolic imagery used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is quite surreal. We exist in the now, in space and time, whereas our pasts and our futures exist only in time which is what makes the theory of the Circle of Time complete… Which begs the question: Did we create the circle or did the circle create us?
Kubrick, Stanley. 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968. Film.
Meyers, Michael. Bedford Introduction to Literature. 2008. Print.