2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

2001 is the greatest film ever made. Period. 

When I first saw it at the unripe age of fourteen, I didn't have a clue what was going on. It also didn't matter. What mattered was that I became a raving werewolf during the experience, completely moonstruck at the thought of how many hidden, fathomless worlds pulsated beyond the stars. Last night I watched a 70mm print of it on IMAX and I kid you not—the werewolf in me came out again, howling in total awe at its massive, interstellar dimensions.

I want to talk about very specific moments in this film that have cursed and shape-shifted the chemistry of my brain over the years. 

THE PROMISE AND PERIL OF TOOLS

A four million year old artifact is found on earth by our forefathers. What does it mean? Why is it here? We don't know. All we know is that it's a wondrous and terrifying object that evidently carries strange, uncanny powers to advance and influence the evolutionary progression of whoever it comes in contact with. Is this a good thing? We're not sure yet. It seems to be telling us to tread carefully, so let's be careful. Primitive Man is bewitched first by the mysterious, sleek object. In another four million years, Modern Man will be hypnotized by another shiny artifact, a cold black mirror called "smart phone." A monolithic object they'll endlessly and horrifyingly stare into for hours with hopes to connect and progress. 

Primitive Man gently caresses the strange, glistening object, when gradually, almost transcendentally, their attention is drawn beyond themselves and toward another artifact in the environment. A tool! A weapon! A technological revelation! Modernity will retrospectively celebrate and damn this moment, cast it as utopian and dystopian. It is a moment that holds such promise and peril, like fire sent from the gods. Can we compassionately wield this fire? We’re not sure. It’s a blessing and a curse, something that cannot be rationally predicted or controlled, but only imagined, harnessed, and brought to representation through science fiction. 

The discovery and use of tools moment in 2001 intrigues the hell out of me because it sets up an ambiguous story about human civilization that mirrors our own progressive world. And here's the truth: We don't yet know if whether we'll embrace or regret having come into contact with the monoliths that guard entry into each evolutionary step we take into the universe. Sometimes we use our tools wisely to gather food and preserve our families. Other times we get small-minded and territorial and slaughter ourselves because we haven't yet mastered the lessons the monoliths seek to teach us. Tools are a double-edged sword in 2001. And by the time we get to the moon, we have reason to be scared about having discovered them. 

THE LUNAR SURFACE LANDING

Another four million year old artifact is now found buried on the moon. But wait! Was it intentionally buried? Did some extraterrestrial civilization not want us to find it? What if the artifact is the reason this civilization no longer exists? Did it wipe them out somehow? Did it get buried by nuclear fallout?The scientists of 2001 tell us the object was "deliberately buried," which is really intriguing if true. That seems to tell me that some advanced race, whose eyes had continually been opened by the monolith, eventually reached a crossroads in their evolutionary journey where it no longer was desirable to cooperate or use their tools for constructive ends. Like the territorial fights Primitive Man had instigated for millions of years, Advanced Man eventually succumbed to the same tribalistic power struggle, only this time in the presence of tools of mass destruction. Destruction is the only option we have when we haven't learned to compromise with others.

An intentionally buried monolith scares the hell out of me because of the cosmic warning it implies for our own progressive world. Think about it. The staggering challenge we humans face in the Twenty-First Century, in light of our own monolithic enlightenment, will be how to manage our proliferating technologies and weapons of mass destruction in the wake of diverse religious and political conscience. We are traveling through an apocalyptic bottleneck at light speed, and our survival through it will be entirely contingent upon how well we bridle our tools and work to collaborate with others. If we fail, we become just another ghostly, alien civilization buried under mounds and mounds of earth, crying up from the dust to warn the next generation of explorers to take seriously the dangers of the monolith.

As the great scientist Carl Sagan once expressed:

“If we survive, then this time will be remembered as the time when we could have destroyed ourselves and came to our senses and did not." 

Indeed, our survival would no less be a reflection of how we respond to these tensions here and now.

BECOMING STAR CHILDREN AGAIN? 
OR FOR THE FIRST TIME?

There are two interpretations I see with 2001's ending.

Becoming successful star children for the first time, or becoming failed star children who jumpstart the entire human project all over again. 

First the latter.

If we fail to make it through the apocalyptic bottleneck during our evolutionary progression, we become nothing more than what Kubrick called a "cosmic burglar alarm," a voice of warning from the dust that cries out to each generation embarking on the path to enlightenment. We get buried under moon rubble. We’re endlessly reborn as failed star children again and again, a poetic way of saying the entirety of humanity will reboot and try do to better in the sequels. 

Now the former.

Let's assume we do not destroy ourselves in the process, but actually make it through this apocalyptic odyssey in tact. Will we not have compassionately learned to harness our desires, moods and tools while in the service of others? Assume we will continue to develop increasingly advanced technologies to fight disease and illness, improve communications, clean and beautify environments, and integrate biogenetic engineering with information technologies to reverse age-related entropy. Can we assume that we will become star children for the first time, super advanced beings in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future?

The story of 2001 can be read as a story of becoming superintelligent children of the stars, beings who survive the apocalypse and undergo a radical metamorphosis into what is "infinite and beyond." These star children will likely acquire greater benevolence and compassionate power and control over themselves, the elements, and their environment. They will continue to learn about, govern, organize, and radically extend their life span in the midst of a universe becoming increasingly complex. They will continue to develop increasingly advanced technologies that may even reverse age-related entropy, which in religious terms may qualify as humanity's transfiguration and resurrection. If we become these so-called star children and live to experience these times (assuming we do not annihilate ourselves first) the question will be: how far do we want to go?

I like how transhumanist-philosopher Lincoln Cannon answered this question:

"We may reengineer our world such that present notions of poverty, warfare, and death would no longer be applicable. We may even engineer whole new worlds and attain presently unimaginable degrees of flourishing and creativity. In doing so, we would change. We would be different than we are now to at least the same degree as we are now different from our prehuman ancestors. We would be posthuman."

2001 no longer really feels like science fiction to me. Spaceships, AI, evolution, adventures to the moon, light speed travel — these things are already here. The only thing science-fictional about any of it is how we choose to imagine, and bring to representation, a future that allows us to flourish beyond our own petty differences. We can choose to learn from the mistakes of Primitive and Advanced Man in this film, or we can take that next leap in our evolutionary destiny and become radically advanced, superhuman beings. I want to live long enough to see whether we can achieve this, and for these reasons alone 2001 embodies my greatest hopes and fears of humanity.

It is the greatest film ever made.

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