Sometime in the first year of our marriage, Michael and I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. We only made it through about 30 minutes then fast-forwarded to the end, watched the “Star Child” appear, turned it off and said, “Worst. Movie. Ever.”
Jump ahead seven or so years to a few weeks ago, and I suggested we watch it again. My sense was that we had “matured” as movie watchers over the years and I was ready to give 2001 another shot. So I picked it up from the library and we re-watched it, this time making it all the way through. And while I can’t say that it’s my new favorite movie, I was able to at least enjoy it and appreciate why it’s such a classic.
But appreciating isn’t the same as understanding, and as you might know, the interpretation for many elements in the story is left intentionally vague. This is just my personality, but that sort of thing drives me crazy! I don’t like it when artists say, “I want my audience to create their own interpretation.” No! I want to know what the REAL meaning is! This is why I don’t like or understand most poetry and why I Wikipedia a lot of the books and movies and I consume the second I finish them. If I missed it, I want to know exactly what happened and why.
But in this case, since there’s really no true interpretation to discover, I had to come up with something to make sense of what I had just seen. I don’t like coming away from something completely bewildered, which, I suppose, is both a good thing and a bad thing.
After thinking it through, I ended up with a Christianized interpretation of two main elements from the movie: the black monolith and HAL’s failure. In absolutely no way do I think these are accurate or true interpretations. It’s just the best I could personally come up with that at least somewhat flows with what is presented in the film.
While what follows is just a fun thinking exercise, my point is ultimately to say that at least for me, the arts are wonderful and thought-provoking graces from God. I am one limited human living in a specific cultural context who will only experience a narrow slice of life in my time and place. But through art and storytelling, we are each presented with various ideas and perspectives that broaden our horizons. Art (or at least good art) makes us think, wonder, and question both the spiritual and the mundane.
The Black Monolith
So here we go. To me, the big black domino represents the transcendent wisdom and power of God, or for the non-believer, some higher power and knowledge beyond human intelligence. In any case, it is clear throughout the movie that it is entirely “other” – not made by humans and beyond comprehension, which are also very God-like attributes. The monolith appears four times in the movie. Each time it shows up, it touches mankind in a different way, illustrating four effects and facets of God’s relationship to man.
The first time we see it is in the “Ape Age.” When it appears, it seems to cause the next stage of evolution. The ape-man is enlightened and begins using bones as a tool, but that power is wielded to dominate and kill. In the same way, God has breathed life into mankind, giving us reason and intellect, but in our sinfulness and selfishness, we’ve mostly used our superior mental abilities to destroy life in ever more innovative and creative ways.
The second time the monolith appears is on the moon, millions of years into the future. It was discovered and is being explored and studied, but it remains a great mystery. Similarly, God/higher wisdom/transcendent truth has been sought over the ages. The questions of why we are here and what is our purpose have been “dug up” over and over again, and we are all striving to know and understand this higher power. The monolith then emits a sound which is a signal pointing to Jupiter, resulting in the Discovery One mission. In a way, God has also left us a signal, clues and evidence to seek Him out and find Him in general revelation and in His word, the Bible.
After HAL’s murderous failure, the true mission is revealed, and Bowman sees the monolith in its third appearance upon reaching Jupiter. After seeing it he is pulled into some strange, mind-melting dimension. In the same way, after seeking and finding Him, we realize that God is wholly other and beyond our full comprehension. He is vast, beautiful, and certainly mind-melting.
Yet when we see the monolith in its fourth and final appearance, it is in a personal space and in a personal way. Bowman has passed through various stages of his life and is an old man. He reaches for the monolith and is reborn. Similarly, while God is unfathomable and transcendent, He is personal and near. He can be reached for and found, and in Him is found life and rebirth. In Him and through Christ we are new creations, washed clean and given new eyes and a fresh start.
HAL’s failure dovetails with this monolith narrative. Somewhat like the Tower of Babel, HAL represents the culmination of man’s ingenuity and striving to create its own god, its own all-powerful monolith. He is mankind’s finest and best achievement, and promises to be an unfailing and perfect help to humanity. But he does fail, miserably. Bowman disconnects the man-made HAL, reducing him and all his glory to nothing, and goes on to seek out the only thing that is truly powerful, truly transcendent – the monolith.
So that’s my over-thought, over-spiritualized take. Have you seen 2001? What was your interpretation? I’m 100% open to having my thoughts critiqued or mocked, so let me know what you think!