How “robots” fear, how hominids reached outer space and how sound speaks: the experience inside Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey



Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey is foremost an auditory experience that makes a curious attempt at retelling the prehistory of man and daring all the way to limning their wide open future.

Arguably, Kubrick’s most well-known film

The film opens with an almost-three minute eerie blackness that is paired with a chilling sound of a gong, perhaps to alleviate even a little the disturbing blankness posed by the completely black screen. Then, we got the title sequence, which is not very visually grand but still attains a certain level of grandiose with the aid of a seeming whole orchestra. Here, Kubrick already displays a pointed cleverness – relying beyond the images to achieve a specific effect for every frame or sequence.

Then we get the first of three parts of the film, “The Dawn of Man” where instead of human conversations, we had the growls and scowls of earlier hominids (I cannot be too technical about this, but I think the term “gorilla” could be inappropriate) as they find varying degrees of comfort and belonging on others, get a sense of their supremacy of other, extinct species, and ultimately, compete with one another wherein, as Darwin had already posited, the fittest survive.

This first part is notable to me for the way it used the establishing shots at the beginning to depict the cleanness of the setting where the bunch of hominids will eventually appear. There is no human civilization as we know it, no huts or man-made wells, no tall buildings or coffee shops. Precisely: the dawn of man – the same time when they discovered how to use implements and how to use these to beat and make the better out of others. Lastly, the most special scene for me in this part is that which serves as the transition from prehistoric earth peopled by hominids to the future earth where space travels have become common.

The winning party between the two groups of hominids who fought each other threw the piece of animal bone it used to flog the hominid from the other group, as if a triumphant reclaiming of both its discovery and its victory. Here, alas, while the bone is being shown slow motion on air, it was suddenly replaced by a similarly shaped satellite in space, travelling through a territory even most of our dreams have not reached.

The science fiction in 2001

It is at this point that the movie gives us a treat of outer space. With an elaborate set-up, the film seems to do well in resembling how scientists have envisaged the outer space. It is also quite fascinating how the film designed the spacecrafts used by the explorers. In a film made on 1968, the appearance of the spacecrafts both from the outside and the inside can be said to be a product of genuinely pompous imagination. Even though one could argue that it is in this period when America and Russia started to take space exploration to another level, the way it was made to appear in the film still fascinates, almost confounds me to a great extent. Although on my part, I do not want to believe that this was just an effect of naivety.

From the visual representation of the suspension of gravity to a talking robot in Hal who seems to not just resemble humans but actually feel emotions like humans do, the way this film enacted science fiction makes it more grounded to realistic possibilities while pushing the envelope of the possible at the same time.

Hal, the human error and the human affect

My favorite character in the film was Hal, the programmed robot who was endowed with human-like abilities and intelligence. Described in the film as the “latest result of human intelligence,” he was programmed to have superior cognitive capacities (Hal can “reproduce” or “mimic” (depending on your personal bias) most of the functions of human brain) that the task of supervising the overall Jupiter mission was entrusted to him.  Acting as the brain and central nervous system of the ship, the lives of the hibernated members of the crew mainly relied on him.

Evidently, Hal is an indispensable part of the mission yet later in the film, after he anticipated a failure, he had disagreements with Frank and Dave, the two conscious humans on board with him. When Dave and Frank reported this to their pals on Earth, they were informed that no failure was being expected and that this evaluation came from a “twin” of Hal, another computer from the 9000 series. It is at this point that both Frank and Dave began to question the sincerity and loyalty of Hal and ultimately compelled them to decide to cut Hal’s higher brain functions.

Before that, they asked Hal about the incompatibility of findings between the two computers from the 9000 series and Hal’s response could be read as chilling for both Frank and Dave – it was caused by human error, the sole culprit for all the failures and discord in the world.

Here, we are finally seeing what man’s complex creations have brought to him. Invented to help him conquer the world around him, these creations backfired on him and turned the conquest into tragic doom.

Another issue widely discussed in relation to Hal (this happened even within the movie itself) is his capability to feel emotions like humans do. While Hal’s manner of speaking shows a personalized tone, the film reveals that it was part of the program so to make communicating and working with him much easier. Notably though, in key scenes of the film, Hal seemed to manifest the ability to feel actual, human emotions. After playing some sort of a board game with Frank, Hal uttered “Thank you for a very enjoyable game.” Here, we might ask: did Hal really feel enjoyment with regards to the game or is this usage of the word “enjoyable” part of the ingenuity of the overall program that is this robot? More pungently, when Dave begun cutting some of his higher brain functions. Hal stated even more gripping utterances for a “robot.” There were the classic lines “Dave. Stop. Will you stop, Dave. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I’m afraid.”

Could it be that Hal typifies the Homo Cyberneticus which is presumed by many as the next type of man that will populate this world? If so, why did Dave and Frank felt so insecure about him they plotted to limit his abilities? Perhaps it was again that self-pride, that egoism that is propelled by their unsurprising bias for their own kind and the accompanying fear of being scraped off by an emerging new form of being which is their own creation at the first place.

Kubrick’s technical genius: some notes on sound

All throughout the movie, the aspect of music has been very significant to the aesthetic and semantic range of the film. In the The Dawn of Man, before the movie led us to outer space and all we have are “lower” forms of man, all we have are the growls and grunts of these creatures. Instantly and most conveniently for us, we can conclude that this only affirms our superiority over these hominids. This of course is predicated on the idea that to have language means to be civilized and be more cognitively capable.

When the outer space was introduced, we have some sound similar to those played during cotillion and other formal gatherings with dances. Oddly enough to begin with, there is no sound in space and this cotillion music can be read as Kubrick’s manner of putting in something familiar, something closer to what is human, as he tracks for us the way to outer space. Most notably, when Dave was doing the operation of cutting some of Hal’s higher functions, the accompanying sound can be likened to a wheezing of an ill or dying man as heard through a stethoscope. Paired with Hal’s arguably human-like imploration on Dave to stop because he is “afraid,” this sequence rendered the castration (at times comparable to the poking of the eyes of Oedipus) all the more nerve-wracking and debilitating (well, at least for me, I felt the weakening of Hal). For what is Hal essentially but an eye? He is just that red circle of light after all. In this classic sequence in the film, the sound was at its finest to heighten the effect of the scene to the audience.

Beware of this eye.

Finally, this film by Kubrick, perhaps the one he is most often remembered with, is likewise usually listed as one of the most disturbing, complicated or esoteric films ever made. While this sounds very valid a point, I would like to point that in viewing the film and eventually “reading” it, I paid closer attention to how Kubrick said what he wanted to say rather what he actually meant. Even the most acclaimed critics find the “meaning’ of the film ambiguous and succumb to this enigma. To me, this is precisely the beauty of the film – this enigma, this enigma that spurs further interpretation and marriage of syntheses that perhaps unconsciously make us more contemplative and aware of our own thoughts about our world.

For all of the things Kubrick may have wanted to mean in this film, these can only be compounded, eroded, stamped on by readings after it that ultimately turn the piece of work larger than what it was at the beginning.

2 thoughts on “How “robots” fear, how hominids reached outer space and how sound speaks: the experience inside Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey

  1. An extraordinary movie. I love how you draw attention to sound because one of my most enduring memories of first watching the movie at the BFI is curling up in the cinema chair as that ear-piercing shriek almost deafens the astronauts encountering the monolith. And, of course, it’s so visually rich too. I wonder if Kubrick would have opted for 3D if he were making it today…

  2. I’d like to think Kubrick would choose to do away with the “aid” of the 3D. I do not know much about the really nitty-gritty parts of filmmaking but I think Kubrick would not want 3D effects in his film. More than anything else, he would make something out of the lighting, the sound, the editing among other technical aspects of cinema in order to convey a point. :) Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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