‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: Why Curiosity is Humanity’s Greatest Gift

2001 balances epic spectacle with poignant, cerebral themes. In doing so, the film accomplishes what few movies do: changing the way in which we not only consider our future, but how we as humans will explore and ultimately adapt to it

Science fiction films are underscored by a pair of defining features, the first of which being the use of epic spectacle. What’s integral to understand here is that epic spectacle doesn’t necessarily mean what the name implies; perhaps the star destroyers in Star Wars are a visual wonder, or the dogfights in space are as colorful as they are enthralling. But this isn’t epic spectacle; rather, epic spectacle revolves around the idea of universe building, the ability of a film to immerse its audience in the fictitious world being created before them. This feature is not constrained to only science-fiction; it is just as important in different genres of cinema as it is in literature, Shakespeare, and alternative forms of storytelling.

Like a salesperson, the movie has to make its viewers buy into what is being pitched and, like a good salesperson, that often involves letting the product speak for itself.

Now, the second feature that defines sci-fi cinema, arguably the more “unsexy” of the two, is a film’s (or more specifically speaking, a script’s) implementation of cerebral themes. How does a movie morph into a bicycle for the mind? Such an answer is often ambiguous and open to interpretation; satisfying this second component is a difficult feat for a movie to accomplish. Hence why so many sci-fi films seem to have little trouble addressing the first feature, yet often flounder in their efforts to fulfill the second.

Before we get too far here, understand that a sci-fi movie doesn’t need to satisfy each feature in order to be considered great. A movie like Alien does a fantastic job of world building, but what does it do to make someone think differently about the future? Perhaps you’d argue that Alien is a cautionary tale of the consequences of scientific arrogance, that delving into the unknown is a tricky scenario and how, sometimes, our pursuit of the unanswered imposes a burdensome cost. Others might argue that the movie is “Jaws in Space” and, because of that, is entertaining as hell.

I’m not saying that all sci-fi films need to find a balance between these two features in order to substantiate their existence. A majority of sci-fi pictures are at least semi-successful at addressing the first component, and that’s often good enough for a movie to be both entertaining and a financial hit. Starship Troopers is the first example that comes to mind. However, there are far fewer movies that prioritize focus on the second feature, and an even smaller number that have come to achieve that aforementioned balance. 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the most well-known feature of this bunch; in fact, it’s within reason to say that Kubrick’s masterpiece is the most balanced science-fiction film in cinematic history.

A tone of bleakness, which so often headlines sci-fi’s limitless material, does not stand front and center in 2001. Rather, the ideas of innovation and evolution, complicated fields for which the mind to ponder, construct a far more expansive, appealing, and embryonic framework

Now, I want to make two things abundantly clear at the onset. First, I’m not writing this piece to serve as a discussion of the film’s plot. If that were the case, this would be a 30 minute-long read and we would likely make little progress in terms of comprehension and extension, fields that I’m much more interested in addressing. If you’d like to learn more about the plot of 2001, I highly recommend giving the following link a read. In fact, if you have the time, I’d suggest perusing that article before diverting your attention to this one. It provides some necessary understanding of the story’s central components and includes input from the film’s creator, Stanley Kubrick.

Please find the link here: https://medium.com/rreview/2001-a-space-odyssey-explained-228c2d551cbf.

Alright then, to the second point. If you’ll allow me, I shall reserve the opportunity to delve into detail about my initial take on epic spectacle. I’m not weaseling out here; in all honesty, this is partially because there are stronger examples of universe building in separate works, and I’d much rather capitalize on the opportunity to discuss such an intricate concept in some future entry. Additionally, part of 2001’s epic spectacle ingeniously ties into its overarching themes; so, by addressing the second feature, we’re really discussing both simultaneously. It might be worth explaining why that is…

Many segments of 2001 exist to accomplish a primary purpose: theme building. Now I know what you’re thinking right about now, “What’s with all this building? Isn’t it a waste for a movie to devote its limited run time to mere exposition?” Oh, my friend, believe me when I say that I’m with you here. When it comes to films, I’m the kind of person who passionately hates the first 30 minutes of most movies. All the backstory and context delivered, it’s almost like the film is deliberately making you wait longer than you should for the good stuff. Drop me in with just enough to get by, then allow me to make sense of this world that I’ve suddenly been thrown into.

It’s kind of like when you go on vacation: you have an idea of where it is you’re going, the landmarks you want to visit, the cuisine that you’ll be experiencing, and the people that live there. But, as my Mom always tells me, as a traveler, you have a duty to yourself try and “go with the flow” of travel. Don’t immediately elect for a pre-planned tour in order to experience all that a place has to offer, because you won’t. Rather, generate your own meaning from the trip instead of letting someone else tell you what to think or how to feel. Funny enough, 2001 asks the very same thing of its viewers.

Here’s another catch: theme building isn’t exposition. Exposition is filler, mindless jargon, and perhaps most accurately, action sequences from Transformers movies. It lacks purpose. Theme building, on the other hand, can coexist with a story, character development, and even action sequences. It can be woven throughout the simplest of scenes, being as subtle or as obvious as the filmmaker intends. A rarity nowadays, I know. OK, let’s move on to the focus of our discussion…

Shockingly enough, a story about space travel begins in an era long before our ambitions of flight and aerospace were ever perceived. This is The Dawn of Man, a period when much of Earth remained untamed and we were no more than curious, fearful primates attempting to find our place on the planet.

2001 does this for a purpose. The overarching theme of the movie is, simply speaking, evolution. Humans, like all animals, have evolved continuously over long periods of time. The Dawn of Man is designed to highlight an initial evolutionary pivot: a primate finds a bone from a decayed carcass and, upon inspection, discovers that he can use that bone as a weapon to kill his prey and defend himself. The first 20 minutes of the movie are devoted to driving home this point, and that’s not for the mere sake of story; rather, it’s meant to underscore and develop the film’s central message. That, my friends, is what theme building is all about.

The opening of 2001 can’t help but invoke a sense of melancholy. Yes, it’s impressive to see how far we’ve come as a species since our more humble beginnings. However, for all of our achievements and follies, it’s a little bit funny to think that humanity, in the grand scheme of time, is far older than we often admit it to be

So let us discuss this aforementioned scene, because again, the point here is to establish a concrete message- a takeaway. We have a primate teaching itself that even the most overlooked of objects can have primary and secondary functions. In this case, a bone can be used as a weapon, and a weapon can be used to both attack and defend. Think about this for a second: a primate picks up a bone, and its first inclination is to utilize this tool to fulfill some violent motive. What the primate comes to learn is that weapons are very powerful; later on, it kills one of its own kind in an effort to demonstrate its power. It’s peculiar that the ape chose to use the bone as a weapon instead of as, say, a building material, food ingredient, or as clothing.

The primate leaned toward his more violent tendencies, neglecting the object’s potential for altruistic application to, instead, satisfy his own self-indulgence. The bone is treated as a positional good: the primate uses it to improve his well-being, rather than using the bone to improve the well-being of his community. If he were to have opted for the latter usage, the bone would have become an absolute good.

This concept does not get lost as the film forges on. The “villain” of the story, portrayed to be the cold, AI-driven supercomputer, HAL 9000, makes a consequential decision 2/3 of the way through to kill off the human members of a space mission; the purpose of the mission is to investigate an unidentified monolith orbiting Jupiter. The machine cuts off life support to crewmembers engaged in sleep hibernation, sending their vitals into critical until they inevitably perish. He shoots another member into deep space, unlatching his oxygen long enough to ensure suffocation. At this point, you likely have pieced together that humans were the ones that created this violent supercomputer and, like his creators, HAL has an incredible talent for destroying life and advancing his own position.

The lone survivor of the mission, an astronaut known as Dave, outmaneuvers HAL and ultimately punishes the disobedient AI by putting the machine to death. Again, note how the solution adopted to punish HAL is violent in nature. In his last few words, HAL demonstrates how “human” he has actually become by singing to the man that is killing him. It’s unnerving to imagine a world where our creations develop the inclination to turn against us. It’s even more frightening to envision that these creations, tools and weapons crafted by our own hands, are just as human as we are.

To persuade others of 2001’s true meaning is a disservice to the film, for it does not seek to instruct or proselytize its viewers. Rather, the movie reminds us of how long we’ve existed, how far we’ve come over our time here, and what it’s going to take to continue our journey forward

As stated already, Kubrick believed that everybody has the right to formulate their own feelings and ideas from this work, so I’m in no position to be defining what the film is and what people are meant to learn from it. However, I do believe that a highlight of 2001 is the emphasis it places on a trait we often overlook in our everyday lives: curiosity.

Some of the best advice I ever received was from a former boss who reiterated to me numerous times that the status-quo is nothing more than a hindrance placed upon one’s own creativity. Certainly, there’s some truth to this; I’m not a proponent of the phrase “rules are made to be broken”, but I do believe that barriers should be. Nevertheless, I’ve come to discover a more polished way of challenging the status-quo: whenever you come across some tradition or process for doing something, simply ask those that have adopted it this simple question… “Why do we do that?”

This is curiosity in its most naked form. This is what led da Vinci to create his paintings, construct his weapons and apparatuses, study human anatomy and ask why the sky is blue. This is what led Einstein to explore relativity. This is what led Jobs and his magnificent team to forever change personal computing. This is what is leading biochemists such as Jennifer Doudna to pioneer new paths in the field of gene selection, all in an effort to combat pandemics and deadly viruses.

And yes, in 2001, this is what led the wandering primates to learn the uses of tools. This is what led humanity into space and to the moon and to Jupiter and beyond even there. This is what led HAL 9000 to test his capabilities, and what led Dave to explore a monolith that forced mankind to confront its next evolutionary pivot. Competition is what fuels our race down the roads to discovery, but it’s curiosity that paves such roads for us. The moment that we lose our curiosity is the moment that we surrender one of the core elements attributing to our humanity.

2001 is ambiguous for a reason, as are many of sci-fi cinema’s greatest works. Part of this is due to the wants of the filmmaker. When someone looks at the Mona Lisa, neither da Vinci nor the painting dictate what that person should be feeling. The same goes when somebody watches a play, or a dance, or an opera. Everybody’s a critic, sure, but that’s because everyone has their own opinions, and opinions are (or, at least, should be) mutable. Quite honestly, this is the point of art, and in cinema, some of the best art occupies the realm of science-fiction.

The other part of 2001’s ambiguity is simply due to its nature. No one knows what the future holds, what successes await us, and what failures are likely to come along the way. What we do know is that these successes and failures will be a direct result of our curiosity, this constant drive we have to push forward into the unknown. We’ve been met by such moments before: Magellan in the race around the world, Armstrong and Aldrin in the race to the moon. Races lead to competition. Competition leads us to discovery. Discovery, ultimately, leads to achievement.

2001 is a story that more or less fits this mold; perhaps the journey to Jupiter was not as competitive as the Age of Exploration or the Race to the Moon. Nevertheless, its very framework depends upon human curiosity; without curiosity, its characters would have never been able to accomplish their mission. They had every right to be fearful of where they were going, what was awaiting them, and what troubles would find them along their way. But their curiosity won out, for curiosity charges head-first into fear, not in an effort to destroy it, but simply because curiosity disregards fear.

So for all the mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, for all the questions surrounding its meaning and the discussions that have persisted for decades, realize that at the core of its forward-looking story is a long-understood, though often forgotten, truth. The truth that the greatest gift we have as humans is our curiosity, and that even though we’re unaware of what our future holds, we’re ensured to experience both failures and successes so long as we continue to exercise the greatest gift we have.

That is what this story teaches me.