Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 landmark science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has withstood the test of time with its spectacular visual presentation, beloved classical music, striking realism and thought-provoking (though deliberately vague) plot. Critics and film fans agree that few, if any, science fiction films that have been released before or after measure up to the sheer majesty and filmmaking brilliance of “2001”.
One of the best elements of the film, perhaps often overlooked by critics, is the way in which it celebrates humanity and its exploratory aspirations as a wonderfully natural, ever-evolving, manifestation of the universe, a universe which appears devoid of any divine intervention. In the film’s beginning, we observe early hominids discovering that trivial objects can be used as tools or weapons. This discovery is marked by the presence of a black monolith, which suddenly and mysteriously appears beside their cave.
The film then jumps ahead several million years and we observe technologically-advanced humans now shuttling freely through space, as they seek to learn more about an identical black monolith that has been found on the lunar surface. As the film progresses, we learn little of the origins of the monolith, except that it appears to be a product of extraterrestrial intelligence, and that it is sending a radio signal in the direction of the planet Jupiter. The next appearance of the monolith, now in orbit around Jupiter, segues into a truly befuddling and psychedelic visual and auditory experience that culminates with the rebirth of one of the major characters, dubbed “star-child,” in orbit around Earth at the film’s conclusion.
There has been much speculation regarding the significance of the monolith, whether it represents something tangible or if it is merely used as a McGuffin to provide some semblance of a narrative in an otherwise plotless movie. Attempting to overanalyze this and the film’s final sequence does a disservice to the film and to the viewing experience. Instead, the film as a whole can be seen as a portrayal of the quest for discovery and the human thirst for knowledge, rather than being about the actual discoveries themselves. We observe humans at different stages of history learning, exploring, questioning and deciphering. We see numerous applications of science and reasoning along the way. That the quest spans millions of years, and with an absence of a clear resolution in the film, implies that this pursuit is forever a part of who we are. It is the questioning that is, and an understanding that the quest for discovery is who we are and what we do.
We are uncompromisingly curious and intelligent beings. We seek answers, even if we know that they may not be what we want or what we can comprehend. We share disdain for faith and superstition, realizing that these modes of thinking only serve to derail our pursuit of knowledge and cause friction. The quest for knowledge and discovery has taken us on a path from primitive hunter-gatherer to space faring beings, exploring places we once only dreamed of as we surge on deeper into the universe from which we originated.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a wonderfully challenging film that I think every atheist should see.
Review by Benjamin Lang