stanley kubrick
films and symbolism

by chris sheridan


2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps the most symbolic film of all times for the greatest archetypal symbols of all times - from the Dawn of Man to the mysteries of life, death and rebirth - and beyond.

2001 title frame

Homer's Odyssey serves as a sort of loose framework for 2001; both are epic journeys to return back home. Odysseus returns to Ithaca to re-claim his position as leader of his community. David Bowman returns to the roots of life itself to bring forth a new humanity for the world. Both lost their ships and entire crews. And, both ultimately had to slay a one-eyed monster; Odysseus with Cyclops and Bowman with HAL. But 2001 is even more epic than the ancient tale in that it journeys through all of time as well as infinite space.

The Great Stages of Life:
Eating, Killing, Reproducing, Dying and Evolution

In 2001:, Kubrick and Clarke take on the largest issues of life, those that have both perplexed and inspired the greatest sages, philosophers, scientists and theologians throughout time - that being, Life itself, with questions like, "Who are we, how did we get here, where are we going, what's it all about?, etc. The most primitive animal survival instincts to the grandest achievements of civilized humankind, these great themes are explored and exposed in 2001: Eating, Killing, Reproducing, Dying and Evolution:


Quite a bit of time and conversation are spent on eating in 2001: from the beginning to the end and all throughout. While easily overlooked or dismissed, just looking at the eating scenes alone tells the story of the movie - the story of human development - and how our eating procedure changes right along with us.

eat grubs
The proto-humans start out as collector-gatherers, competing with other creatures for scarce resources.

They are also prey for stronger members of the animal kingdom - they are food.

eat meat
After the appearance of the Monolith, the proto-humans are now meat eaters, literally killing the competition (Tapirs).

eat station
When Dr. Floyd arrives at the space station, he stops to make a phone call before eating at the restaurant.

eat pictures
On the way to the moon, a stewardess eats processed food from a straw with pictures suggesting their flavor.

eat moon
Floyd states that the taste of their fake sandwiches is "getting better all the time," en route to the Monolith.

eat discovery
On Discovery, food has become nothing more than warmed over multi colored paste.

eat bowman
Finally, Bowman sits down to an elegant meal, alone, but with seemingly real food and cutlery.



At first, killing is about eating and survival, then competition and conquest, and ultimately from paranoia and self-preservation.

kill bones
The proto-human remembers the Monolith and gets the idea to use tools - first, a weapon to kill something to eat.

kill rival
Competing for the scarce resource of life - water - the now well-fed tool user finds a new use - to conquer.

kill pod
HAL commands the pod to cut Poole's oxygen line while his is on EVA, beginning his paranoia-driven killing spree.

kill sleepers
HAL goes on to terminate the life functions of the three other astronauts in hibernation.

zero g toilet
After unsuccessfully trying to kill Bowman, HAL is himself killed through disconnection.




Although the physical act of reproduction is never really shown or even implied, we do see proto-human children as well as Dr. Floyd's daughter and Poole's parents. Clearly the Star-Child is a foetus on the verge of being born, and maybe not so clearly, there are several visual representations of many reproduction processes and elements.

repro 1
In perfect rotational sync with the space station, the Orion shuttle prepares to enter her mid-section.

insert 2
The airlock is opened on the space station, prepared to receive the insertion of Orion.

The lunar transport, alone in space, like an egg traveling along its monthly journey from the fallopian tube.

discovery sperm
Discovery en route to its destination, sperm-like, ever-seeking its destiny.

lunar uterus
The lunar shuttle is received into Clavius, as if a fertilized egg nestling into the uterine wall.

Immediately following Bowman's death appears the Star-Child, a fully developed foetus awaiting birth.



dead poole
Bowman's humanity was shown in his determination to retrieve Poole's lifeless body.
dead bowman
Bowman finally dies of old age, mirroring the end of this stage of human evolution so that the new can be born.



This is not to open the odd debate as to whether our origins stem from creation or evolution - clearly, 2001: shows that there is a higher hand in our development and evolution of not only physical form, but a transformation of consciousness and humanity as well. Our evolution from wild animal to civilized human is shown through the way we eat. Hunter-gatherers became meat-eating hunters; a fantastic jump cut leads to space age man where synthetic, packaged meals are sucked through straws at first, then sandwiches are eaten (solid food) and at the end, Bowman's dinner is elegant - full cutlery, fine china and crystal glass - the most evolved form of eating for civilized man.

Human Evolution, in the large sense, is fully shown in four segments, and each involves an encounter with the Monolith:

1.) At The Dawn of Man, we see the last "day" in the life of proto-humans as being hunter gatherers competing for food and water - as well as being food. After the Monolith event, they are transformed into hunter-killers who are stronger can walk upright.
2.) The bone-to spaceship "4 million year jump cut" takes us to our current state of achievement, but still retaining much of the caveman attitude. Now, with absolute proof that we are not alone in the universe, we are forced to forever change the way we look at ourselves and our world.
3.) The experience on Discovery with the H.A.L. computer takes our technical evolution to the point where our machines have control over our own fate - and in some ways, have become more "human" - complete with pride and paranoia, while the humans have become emotionless task-masters.
4.) Through the Stargate and arriving at the "zoo", Bowman reaches the pinnacle of human development, treated in the film through the Louis XI (I think) motif - which was the last reign before the industrial revolution. Here, at the other end of the line, space-age man is reborn as the Star Child, returning back home to the Home Planet, bringing the wisdom, gifts and lessons from the epic journey for all to share, sparking a new humanity, another chapter in our creative evolution.


The Monolith

This enigmatic figure appears several times and brings with it the means for quantum jump in human evolution. Much speculation has been dedicated to just what this thing is, if it is a "thing" in the ordinary sense, but it is at least implied that its arrival heralds the presence of a creative hand in human development. The biggest changes happen very quickly and are not just random mutations over time.



The Monolith reveals the mystery of tools and weapons to the proto-humans, forever changing their destiny. After being buried on the moon for 4 million years, the Monolith has remained secret until earthlings have developed enough to make it to the moon and explore its surface. HAL knows a secret that has been kept from Bowman and Poole, leading to his paranoia and killing.


The "Empty Seat" Mystery

For some unexplained reason, and for reasons which one can only speculate, there are several scenes that clearly show an abundance of empty seats. On the Discovery, these empty seats make sense, as the three other crewmembers are in hibernation and are intended to wake up upon arrival and will need them to use. But in other scenes, there is a definite absence of people to fill the existing seats. This is not an oversight; Kubrick did this on purpose - building "extra" empty seats is expensive and unnecessary in filmmaking - but what is the purpose? One theory is that there was a recent space accident which may have scared off would-be travelers, but this doesn't hold up to the fact that there is an overabundance of crew members and support staff who all seem happily relaxed and eager to make space travel comfortable and pleasant.

Orion seats
On the Orion en route to the Space Station, Dr. Floyd is the only passenger.

elevator seats
On the Space Station, the elevator operator takes her only fare, Dr. Floyd, to customs.

Dr. Floyd checks into customs aboard the Space Station, and takes kiosk #17.

space station
The Space Station seems to have many more seats than are necessary.

On the shuttle going to the moon, Floyd and a flight attendant seem to be the only passengers.

In the "zoo" at the end, Bowman's living quarters also have many more seats than are necessary.

Perhaps the most mysterious case of empty seats is in the briefing on Clavius. The three seats nearest Floyd are not only empty, but each has a brief summary and empty water glass. Are we to believe the top-secret planners didn't know how many people with security clearance might be attending? Given that they are about to receive a briefing regarding the most profound discovery in human history, would there really be three no-shows?
Remember, they are all on the moon in this scene...where else would they go?


Kubrick-wide Themes - Birthdays, Bathrooms and Telephones

In most of Kubrick's films, he makes consistent reference to the following themes: Birthdays, Bathrooms and Telephones (and other communication devices) - and 2001 is rich in all three. These are very human things - as far as we know, we are the only creatures who celebrate the anniversaries of our births; of course, bathrooms are what we civilized humans (alone) use for a universal biological process; and telephones can be both a means for enhancing and extending communication - and a barrier to human communication. Kubrick is often (wrongly in the opinion of the author) accused of being cold and unfeeling with de-humanized characters. He may or may not be pessimistic about the current state and future fate of human nature, but he does get to the naked truth about what it means to be human, with our lofty ideals and endless faults, and is perhaps making a commentary about the way things are going - and will continue to go - unless we decide to change.

2001 phone call

In this scene, Dr. Heywood Floyd makes a picture-phone call to his daughter (played by Kubrick's actual daughter, Vivian) and all three themes are mentioned - her babysitter is in the bathroom, and she asks for a telephone for her birthday.

Other Birthdays

There are several other Birthdays in 2001: in addition to "Squirt's" birthday, mentioned above:

dawn of man
The birth of civilization, when the proto-humans first gain technology, and along with it, the power to hunt and kill.
franks bday
On the Discovery, Frank Poole gets a recorded birthday message from his parents, complete with cake.
hal bday
When Bowman disconnects him, HAL recalls January 12th, 1992 as the day he "became operational" (his birthday).
star child
After Bowman's death, the Star Child, an improvement in Man's evolutionary development, is ready to be re-born.


There are at least two other bathrooms in 2001:

zero g toilet
On the shuttle trip to the moon, Dr. Floyd carefully reads the instructions to the Zero Gravity Toilet.
blue bathroom
When Bowman arrives at his new home, or "zoo cage," he inspects the bathroom.

Telephones and Communication

In addition to the picture-phone call from the space station, other instances of electronic communication have a significant bearing on the storyline. Also on the Discovery, it is revealed that there is a 7 minute time delay between the ship and earth, adding another dimension (delay) to their communication.

TMA radio signal
On the lunar surface, the TMA object (monolith) emits a strong radio signal pointing to Jupiter.

AE 35
On the Discovery en route to Jupiter, Bowman replaces a component of the AE-35 unit, used to contact earth.

read lips
Bowman and Poole try to keep their conversation private from HAL in the soundproof pod, but HAL reads their lips.
open pod doors
Bowman returns with Poole's lifeless body to the ship but HAL denies him entry.




kubrick plate

©2008 Commentary by Chris Sheridan