Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is quite possibly the most spiritually significant film ever made. Roger Ebert said that Kubrick uses images in a way like “those before him used words, music, or prayer.” He recognizes that it is not a movie about a future in space or about an evolutionary process as depicted through the opening “dawn of man” segment. Instead it is a movie about mankind’s place in the world. It is about the universal realities of violence and hope that transcend time and space.
The HAL 9000, a computer system, is the most developed character in the movie. The humans are there only for us to see their place in the world. We don’t really get to know what makes them individuals; we see them only in relation to the much bigger world around them and the technology through which they are able to do what they do.
The HAL 9000 is always thought of as a villain, and he certainly is. He’s one of the greatest movie villains. But ironically, he not only represents the universal reality of violence but also of hope. Fire is discovered in the “dawn of man” sequence which is used for both good and evil. This is the message about technology that Kubrick hammers home throughout the movie. As far as we can tell, the HAL 9000 was created for good purposes, and he was invented to have the appearance of real emotion so that those manning the spacecraft will feel comfortable with him as a fellow traveler rather than as merely a piece of machinery. He was made so well, though, that even those manning the spacecraft say that they don’t know for sure if he has real feelings and a will of his own, or if he is only behaving as he was made to behave.
Certainly we in the audience don’t know better than these brilliant scientists. So we don’t know if his villainy is evil within the operating itself, something that HAL himself has chosen, something that his inventor included in him with secret maleficent intents, or an unintentional defect within machinery otherwise supposed to be good. It could be any of them and really doesn’t matter which. What matters is that the people involved are in great danger and that their danger reflects a reality about technology that is true within all cultures and in all time periods. It is only as good as it is invented to be, and it is only as good as it is used to be. Conversely, it can also be as evil as it is invented to be and as evil as it is used to be.
Technology can be a source of violence. Technology can be a source of progress. 2001: A Space Odyssey brings us face-to-face with a conflict over this tension between violence and hope, two forces equally at play within every aspect of human progress. The ending of the film is the height of its transcendence. While it never intended to solve the tension we see throughout, it does show a higher force at work than human progress, technology, and the perversions of good intentions seen through violence. This force is at work through love in the world and through hope for a future that is bigger than any human capabilities or failure. While Kubrick intentionally left this force wide open to interpretation, there is certainly nothing against the director’s intention to say that this is a reflection of God’s very presence in the world, revealing himself through anything that is good in the world and as having power over all that is evil and dark, willing and able even to eventually defeat all that is contrary to his own goodness.
Also by Stanley Kubrick:
The Killing (1956)
Paths of Glory (1957)