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The Power and the Glory of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released one year before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and nine years before George Lucas’s Star Wars, Kubrick’s groundbreaking film catapulted the American imagination into the wonder, harshness, and glory of space. Lucas himself once called 2001 “the ultimate science fiction movie,” and many film critics and scholars consider the movie—which will be re-released on 70mm film in select theaters on May 18—to be one of the greatest ever made.

The film is great in part because of its technical achievement. Kubrick wanted 2001 to be as realistic a depiction of future space travel as possible, and he went to great lengths to use practical effects (as opposed to animation), detailed set designs, and realistic sound editing to achieve its lifelikeness. The film is also famous for its iconic musical anthem, a well-known “tone poem” written by Richard Strauss and named after Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra.

More than this, though, 2001 has endured because of its ideas. Far more than most Hollywood movies made before or since, 2001 is a deeply philosophical movie that provokes wonder and contemplation. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Alone among science fiction movies, 2001 is not concerned with thrilling us, but inspiring our awe.”

The sights and sounds of 2001 are not ultimately intended to make us cheer or applaud, but to make us think. This isn’t really a movie about space or even adventure. It’s about glory.

Quest for Glory Through Technology

Kubrick’s odyssey begins with a Darwinian narrative. The first scenes of 2001, subtitled “The Dawn of Man,” depict mankind as early ape-like hominids scratching out existence millions of years ago in the shapeless African desert. One morning the apes wake to discover a huge, perfectly smooth black monolith in their midst. As the audience learns later, this monolith is a relic of an unexplained higher intelligence. The presence of the monolith triggers an evolutionary event in the minds of the apes. In a famous sequence featuring the Strauss anthem, some of the apes discover how to wield bones as tools, empowering them to kill more prey, master their environment, and (we surmise) go on to evolve into homo sapiens.

As the plot leaps ahead millions of years, Kubrick masterfully cuts from an image of a falling bone, tossed up by an intelligent ape, to a softly gliding space satellite, launched by modern humans. The shot is an unforgettable visual and embodies a key theme of the film: the glory of technology. In the film’s worldview, man’s glory is bound up with his technology.

Interestingly, this bit of sci-fi supplies an element of transcendence missing in traditional Darwinism. Whereas naturalism ascribes human progress to time, chance, and environment, the story of 2001 ascribes it to a technological intervention beyond human comprehension. The alien monolith is god, and we are created in its image.

Technology is powerful, not because it comes from an alien life force but because it comes from humans made in the image of an immortal, all-powerful, all-sustaining God.

High technology always stirs human thirst for glory. Contemporary digital innovations, for example, have not only empowered existence but redefined it. The quest for glory through technology matters for Christians not because technology isn’t glorious, but because it is. Technology is powerful, not because it comes from an alien life force but because it comes from humans made in the image of an immortal, all-powerful, all-sustaining God. To confuse the gift and the giver is to substitute for a gracious Father a volatile weapon that we can easily turn against others and against ourselves.

Technology’s Fallenness

This is precisely what happens in 2001. The technology that launched humanity from the primordial dirt into the stars turns against two astronauts aboard the spaceship Discovery. Instead of a bone, the astronauts have a HAL 9000 computer that runs the entire ship with near omnipotent control. HAL, we are told, is a perfect technology, an artificial intelligence that is never wrong, never dysfunctional, and never disobedient. As HAL himself says in the film, “We are foolproof and incapable of error.”

But HAL eventually turns against his human operators, even killing most of the Discovery crew before being deactivated. The film never explains this behavior, but we are reminded of the apes who, wielding bones as tools, used them to kill other apes. Technology brings with it power, and it is the logic of a fallen world that humans with power will use that power against others. The fate of the astronauts in the techno-utopia of their spacecraft is an ironic commentary on the limits of science and the nakedness of “progress.” The world predicted by 2001 is one with little ethical contemplation or awareness of transcendence, where there is only good technology and mutinous technology, with humanity’s survival dependent on mastery of both.

The world predicted by 2001 is one with little ethical contemplation or awareness of transcendence, where there is only good technology and mutinous technology, with humanity’s survival dependent on mastery of both.

This is the morally empty world of scientism. A craving for technological progress untethered to God is a craving for a world as cold and cruel as outer space. The wondrous environments and tools of 2001 are breathtaking to behold, but by themselves they can’t supply beauty or meaning. All the technology in the universe cannot meet the deepest human needs. There is only ultimate meaning beyond the creation, and it’s there we must go.

Glory and Mystery

Arguably the most famous sequence in 2001 is its final one, a visually dazzling voyage through the “stargate,” opened when the sole surviving astronaut onboard Discovery finds a monolith floating in space. The meaning of the stargate has been debated by movie critics, philosophers, and fans for decades. Is it a portal to another universe? A fountain of youth? A time machine? The film’s conclusion leaves the possibilities open.

Regardless of its meaning, this sequence illustrates the important themes of the film: glory and mystery.

For Christians, speaking of the “glory” of the natural world sometimes makes us nervous. We are not pantheists, and to know the skies and oceans and trees is not to know God himself. But as Gerard Manley Hopkins famously wrote, the world is indeed “charged with the grandeur of God.” C. S. Lewis said that though nature didn’t teach him God was glorious, it did give the word “glory” meaning for him.

There is glory in our galaxies, glory we cannot charge at night and then put in our pocket the next morning. The glory of Jupiter invites us not to contemplate our own importance but to be swallowed up by something much bigger and less tame than ourselves. In 2001, this happens literally to astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea). In our world, it happens spiritually—not through an alien relic but through knowing our Creator and Redeemer.

Mystery is not always comfortable, but it does remind us that we are not God, and that the God who knows all mysteries has chosen to work all of them for the good of those who love him.

Our knowledge is finite, though. And so, on this side of eternity, we are like Job, faced with mysteries too deep for us. How big is our universe? What all is out there? Mystery is not always comfortable, but it does remind us that we are not God, and that the God who knows all mysteries has chosen to work all of them for the good of those who love him.

The great gift 2001 has given audiences for the past 50 years is the gift of wonder, the opportunity to behold the beauty of the stars and contemplate the vastness of our world. For Christians, this classic cinematic adventure gives us one more gift: an occasion not only to look at the stars, but to come to the One who knows them by name.

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