2001: A Space Odyssey—Confronting Technology

Since its release in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has confounded its viewers. As some critics have noted, 2001 is a Rorschach film blot; when you stare at it closely, you end up studying your own assumptions about the world. The film illustrates the role of computer technology in the transformation (or potential obsolescence) of humankind. Starting with the depiction of how an alien monolith is responsible for the evolution of humans from their prehistoric ancestors, 2001 narrates in stark detail (and even starker acting) the voyage of the Discovery spacecraft
to Jupiter’s moons, where another monolith awaits. On the way, the ship’s crew confronts its own computer, HAL 9000, which apparently has other plans. When Mission Commander Dave Bowman leaves the ship to recover the body of his colleague who is killed by HAL, a central crisis to the film ensues:

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

Bowman’s ingenuity allows him to overcome HAL. But he cannot overcome the voiceless and inscrutable monolith, an alien technology infinitely more advanced than humankind’s feeble machinery or intellect. When Bowman attempts to land on the device, he falls into a sort of intergalactic “Grand Central Station” where he winds up on his own deathbed, only to be reborn as a “star child.” 2001 matters because of its depiction of computer technology as simultaneously an engine of human growth and an obstacle to human expression. Its conclusion, confusing to most viewers, is designed to suggest that humanity has ultimately triumphed over its machines, but only by becoming something more than human. As shown here, even this bleak narrative appears to be optimistic compared to some later films.