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Bad trip, man

Keir Dullea as David Bowman (M.G.M./Newscom)


Bad trip, man

Space Odyssey is a good movie hobbled by pedestrian psychedelic pondering

This spring marks the 50th anniversary and the return to theaters of what is widely considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also marks the 50th anniversary of people asking, as Rock Hudson reportedly did at the premiere, “Will someone tell me what the [profanity] this is about?”

I don’t think the answer is as esoteric as some film buffs and director Stanley Kubrick himself seemed to believe, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Because there are really two movies contained within 2001. The indulgent, mystical elements of the first sandwich a middle narrative that tells a tense, universal tale of horror executed to perfection by a master storyteller. Not coincidentally, it is this part of the movie—the part that contains a recognizable protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution—that most people remember.  It’s also the part that has had the most obvious impact on the work of later filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan.

In it, astronaut Dave Bowman is on a mission to Jupiter when he finds himself at the mercy of a sentient computer known as HAL. Such is Kubrick’s skill and patience building up to the showdown between man and machine, even though we already suspect HAL has gone rogue, that the moment of revelation is utterly chilling and taps into a timeless dread. Do you doubt audiences of yesteryear could understand our modern fear of the created thing turning on its creator? Then recall that Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein long before the first computer. And like Shelley, Kubrick gives us a weird empathy for a twisted, uncanny creature that should never have existed.

But if the best part of the film is built on an age-old fear, the worst is built on an age-old lie, dressed up in sci-fi trappings. It revolves around three black boxlike objects that appear throughout the film. The first enters the scene during what Kubrick calls “The Dawn of Man” when an apelike creature is inspired to use a bone as a weapon. The second arrives 18 months before the main narrative when a team of Americans excavates one near their moon base.

The third comes during the film’s final act when astronaut Dave continues his mission to Jupiter and encounters one hovering in space. For these 30 minutes, so popular with ’60s acid trippers, very little of what is shown on screen makes sense. But Kubrick’s collaborator, the late sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, revealed in his novel that the three objects are alien tools for prodding evolution. The final one turns Dave into a vast celestial being with knowledge so far advanced beyond humanity as to render him a god.

Kubrick told Rolling Stone in 1972 that the movie “finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God … and the realistic hardware and the documentary feeling about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.” In other words, all that mystical imagery and Nietzsche symbolism boils down to little more than the most pedestrian kind of druggie pondering—What if, like, God were really, like, just a super-advanced alien, man.

In the end, Kubrick was working with a pretty played-out premise, seeing as it’s been around since the Garden of Eden. Satan sells a lie that mankind can be as knowledgeable as God. 2001 tells a hypothetical story of how that process might work. It’s ironic, though, that the work Kubrick and Clarke, both atheists, were best known for betrays an inherent understanding that the bodies we inhabit now are not ultimately the end for us—we contain the potential for a higher destiny. They call it “starchild.” We call it “glorification.”

So when 2001: A Space Odyssey returns to theaters starting May 18, you can go and enjoy the riveting cat-and-mouse game between HAL and Dave. But feel free to skip out on the psychedelic light show. It’s just a lot of color and fireworks signifying nothing. Or, at least, nothing new.


  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 04/26/2018 09:40 pm

    I watched this movie decades ago. It remains one if my favorite movies for its ominous storyline and enthralling special effects. It is one of the few movies that I found almost as good as the book--although the fact that I had to read the book in order to understand the ending detracts from it somewhat, in my view. It is certainly a movie that can provoke some constructive philosophical discussion.

  • not silent
    Posted: Sat, 04/28/2018 01:11 pm

    While this movie sells the lie that maybe God is "just a super-advanced alien," God has shown me that this lie can be turned around and used as an evangelism tool.  In debates, atheists have often demanded that I prove the existence of God but they were unwilling to accept any proof I could offer, which was very frustrating.  However, they usually believed in extra-terrestrials and a "multiverse," which meant that multiple universes existed in all possible iterations.  At one point the Holy Spririt led me to say I may have encountered an incredibly intelligent and benevolent extra-terrestrial being who existed in the multiverse, who could control particle physics (and thus "create" and exist outside of time), who could communicate with humans, and who could travel through wormholes and transport humans through them (and could therefore take humans to a perfect universe like "heaven" or a terrible one like "hell"). 

    Needless to say, the response to this was like weeping and gnashing of teeth-one person insisted this alien could NOT be the God of the Bible!  God has shown me that many of the lies put forth by the world are twisted versions of the truth and they can be used to share the gospel.  The fact that aliens were needed for humans to evolve to godhood in this particular story shows that almost everyone agrees that we need help from SOME kind of exterior source to achieve perfection and/or salvation!  For people who do not accept the Bible as a source, I have often found it useful to point to secular sources to illustrate truths of the gospel; and these truths can often be found where they are least expected-like when the Apostle Paul was speaking to the people of Athens (Acts 17) and he used the example of an altar to an "unknown god" to begin talking about God of the Bible! 

    Unfortunately, logic alone is not enough.  In my experience there was usually an emotional component, as many of the atheists I encountered had legitimately been hurt by the church and/or Christians and needed someone to listen without getting defensive and to offer sympathy before they would hear ANYTHING about God.  (When we have been hurt, hopefully we forgive our brothers; but atheists and non-believers don't understand this concept-they just see hypocrisy.)  There is also spiritual warfare. God is the only one who can change a person's heart and bring repentance.  That is why we need the Holy Spirit and prayer in addition to apologetics-and why each person must be led in the moment.

    As a side note: I also read the book before I saw the movie, and I think it helped a great deal because I liked the movie much more than my friends who had not read the book.


  • NBrooks
    Posted: Fri, 05/04/2018 11:29 am

    This is so good!  Thank you for this insight!  

  • Narissara
    Posted: Fri, 05/04/2018 09:55 am

    Interesting.  There are some movies I have to see at least twice before I understand the story.  I get too caught up with the details the first time around and miss the big picture (no pun intended).  I've seen this one three times and it still didn't make sense.  And the sequel didn't answer any questions.  Now I get it.  

    Sesame Street was in its infancy when this movie came out.  There used to be a short that parodied the astronauts finding the monolith on the moon.  It was supposed to be teaching the kiddos about some letter or number, but who knew they were being subtly introduced to this kind of cosmic mysticism at the same time?