Is the ending of 2001 really pessimistic? Optimistic? Either? Other?

[Following are arguments for the above four views. C. Clark disagrees 
with G. Alexander's view that the ending is optimistic, is seconded and 
thirded, and replies follow]

My query concerns your interpretation of Bowman's metamorphosis in 
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. As I understand it, you have argued in a number 
of postings that the film ends on an optimistic note: Bowman's evolution 
into Starchild is a positive event, humanity transcending the cycle of 
violence which the film traces throughout 4-million plus years of human 
evolution. . . .

My own belief is that 2001 ends on a `downer' . . .

Viewed in the context of Kubrick's subsequent films, I find it hard to 
read Bowman's metamorphosis in an optimistic light; nor do I believe 
such a reading to be supported by the film itself. . . .

An important clue, I believe, is furnished by the starkness of the 
film's production design during the `futuristic' scenes. The emphasis on 
geometric shapes recalls the geometric precision of the monolith: this 
soulless society is indeed made in the monolith's image. The suite of 
rooms in which Bowman undergoes his metamorphosis at the film's end 
reinforces this notion. The eighteenth century furnishings recall the 
`Age of Reason', an emphasis on precision and logic echoed by the 
geometric black-and-white design of the floor. In this room - as much a 
product of the monolith-maker(s) as the monolith itself, for all its 
`terrestrial' trappings - we see no evidence that the monolith-maker(s) 
value anything other than the cold, logical precision of the 
technologised and dehumanised society presented in the film's second and 
third sections. . . .

In uplifting Bowman to Starchild, the monolith-maker(s) might place 
greater control of the universe at his disposal (as they did with the 
australopithecines), but to no less violent an end. . . .

                       [In another post, C.C. wrote:]

I would also argue that there is evidence in both A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and 
BARRY LYNDON which contradicts an optimistic reading of 2001. A 
CLOCKWORK ORANGE ends on a note of `transcendence' which I believe can 
only be read as bitterly ironic: Alex's claim `I was cured' clearly does 
not refer to any escape from his fundamentally violent nature, as his 
final fantasy vision makes only too clear. This same tone of bitter 
irony runs through BARRY LYNDON, most powerfully in Michael Hordern's 
sardonic narration (listen to his tone of voice during the early passage 
beginning `First love: what a change it brings in a young man's 
heart..'). The final title card - I do not remember the exact wording, 
but it is to the effect that `These things happened during the reign of 
King George, and all these people are now equal in death' - reinforces 
the sense that Redmond Barry's (violent) striving for position in 
society is, in the largest possible scheme of things, utterly futile: 
even if he had not fallen from a high position, he would still have died 
and been forgotten. There is no hint of transcendence anywhere: no 
indication that, even when raised to a higher position, Barry was able 
to escape the ritualised violence which has shaped his life.

Of course, this doesn't preclude the possibility that Kubrick changed 
his mind between 2001 and the subsequent films, as Geoffrey Alexander 
points out: but if so, 2001 is the only one of Kubrick's films of those 
I have seen (these are, in chronological order of release, SPARTACUS, 
and everything from LOLITA onwards) which does suggest that anything can 
liberate us from our human and violent condition. . . .

The eighteenth century room in which Bowman undergoes his metamorphosis 
is important here. Despite Clarke's diary entry (17/10/1964), I find it 
hard to accept that this is an environment intended to put Bowman at his 
ease. The date of the entry suggests that this was Kubrick's original 
idea, one of many strange ones which he had according to Clarke, but 
which he later reworked to different ends. The room we experience in the 
movie is in fact discomforting in the extreme: the juxtaposition between 
the glowing floor and the muted eighteenth-century furnishings is 
disquieting, as are the noises we hear on the soundtrack -- reminiscent 
of at best a zoo or at worst a prison. The impression it creates in me 
is not that the monolith-makers have brought Bowman here to redeem us 
from our human state, but rather that Bowman is just another lab-rat, 
part of an ongoing experiment.

In this light it seems plausible that Kubrick intends us to read the 
Starchild as indeed possessing a transhuman intelligence, but not one 
which is necessarily less capable of violence, less `soulless', than 
either Dave Bowman or HAL 9000. It also occurs to me as I type this that 
its penumbra or amnion or whatever is spherical in shape . . . 


My present interpretation of Bowman's transformation (and man, I've 
fluctuated), sees it as, ultimately, a regressive one.

How do I come to this conclusion? With a lot of difficulty and mental 
and emotional anguish. Let me start with the assertion that, reflecting 
upon Kubrick's entire body of work, one truly has little reason to 
believe that Kubrick would conclude any of his films on a note of HOPE. 
Never have I encountered a vision as unrelenting, forceful and, at the 
same time, as elegant as Kubrick's. CONSISTENCY OF VISION is not a 
precept that this director can be accused of violating. As far as the 
brutality of mankind is concerned, Kubrick's eyesight is 20/20.

Next, 2001 is quite clear in its presentation of mankind's failure to 
utilize any of the knowledge he has been given through the monolith for 
anything other than destructive purposes. I'm not going to spend time 
and space documenting this. See the movie.

Now, what would lead us to think that Bowman/mankind's final 
transformation is any sort of true metamorphasis at all? I mean, what 
evidence is there that man really changes for the better here? One would 
think that precursors to such a transformation would exist earlier in 
the film. What hints are there that man is really capable of 
transforming? Someone suggested that Bowman's dismantling of HAL 
signifies mankind's "worthiness" of empowerment. I accept this as a 
valid argument, but why should we think that the 'keeper(s) of the 
monolith' are any more capable of recognizing man's "worthiness" now 
then before? After all, they sure seemed to have screwed up in giving us 
the monolith in the past. Of course, it is possible that all our past 
mistakes have been in preparation for this final transformation. This 
would be, in my opinion, a valid argument as well. BUT I am not 
convinced. So far, nothing in the movie has swayed me at all from what I 
have seen as total Kubrick consistency . . . which leads me to the final 
shot itself, the source of my ambivalence. 

The final image of the 'Star Child' can, I think, be viewed as either 
progressive (a positive transformation) or regressive. The Star Child 
is, obviously, a fetus. Is this a renewal then, or has man simply 
reverted to an earlier stage in development (which would be consistent 
with the themes of the the film, thus far)? I've got to say that the 
final image of the Star Child always evokes a tremendous emotional 
response from myself. I cry, every time. I mention this, not because I 
want everybody to see how sensitive I am ("Guy's who cry at the 
movies"), but because it's important in interpreting how I'm viewing 
this final sequence. For me, the key to interpreting the image of the 
Star Child lies in the expression on his face. Is it one of wonderment, 
at the possibilities that lie ahead for humanity (progressive)? Or is it 
an expression of bleakness, of sadness, of a new knowledge (this 
knowledge being the familiar gift of the monolith) that mankind will 
forever misuse this gift for destructive purposes (regressive)? When I 
cry at the end of 2001, I'm surely not crying for all the wonderful 
possibilites for humankind that Kubrick has suggested. My response is to 
a grim, desolate, hopeless vision. Interpreting emotion can obviously be 
a sinisterly unreliable way of gauging one's (even one's own) response 
to an event. Maybe I'm just responding to the sheer intensity of the 
film. I'm really not sure. But this is what I see in the Star Child's 
face, and this is how I feel. 



This is a sharp observation, but one which I think is contradicted by 
the ultimate resolution of the conflict between HAL and his human 
crewmates. I suggest that Bowman, in defeating HAL (in what I'm sure 
everyone will agree is "the" sequence in the movie that evokes the 
greatest emotion), is "proving" himself (a bad word, but I can't think 
of better) "worthy" (ugh) of the attention of the force behind the 
monolith. HAL is the embodiment of the cold, dehumanizing trend of the 
technologically-dominated society of 2001, in which the unalloyed 
curiosity and wonder of the ape-men before "The Dawn of Man" is replaced 
by banality and businesslike detachment. HAL is surrogate curiosity, 
artificial wonder -- where a human might be awed by the nature of his 
task, HAL is merely concerned about "jeopardizing the mission." By 
destroying HAL, Bowman sheds himself of the technological baggage which 
he (and everyone else) has used to shield themselves from the wonder, 
and terror, of the unknown.

So I can't see the conclusion of 2001 as a victory of "technolo- 
gization and dehumanization"; quite the contrary.


There are couple of problems with [the pessimism interpretation]. The 
cliche of Kubrick the cynic, or Kubrick the misanthrope, gleefully 
pushing the button at the end of Strangelove or rooting on Alex in ACO, 
is about as irritating, and numbing, as the cliche of Kubrick the cold 
intellectual. I would suggest that, if he were really that cynical or 
misanthropic, he'd have a tough time finding the energy to get up in the 
morning, let alone devote huge chunks of his life to creating films.

That's not to deny that the films can be bleak, but what tends to be 
called Kubrick's pessimism is nothing but a rhetorical strategy. If 
you're commenting on a positivist culture that exhibits a blind devotion 
to progress while simultaneously wallowing in superstition and half-
digested mysticism, you want to create the strongest possible contrast. 
(If the background is an overexposed white, no shade of off-white is 
going to stand out against it.) Kubrick is actually following in the 
tradition of Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, etc., by deliberating using dark 
imagery (scotography) to comment on false light. (This is developed in 
detail in Levin's The Power of Blackness and David Reynolds' Beneath the 
American Renaissance.)

Kubrick never finishes with a happy ending because his films aren't 
melodramas. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the endings are 
pessimistic. The ending of The Shining shows Wendy, who was a major 
league space cadet at the beginning, taking control, warding off Jack 
and saving Danny. ACO ends with Alex's victory -- an unsettling victory, 
but the best victory possible when you consider the alternatives. FMJ 
essentially ends with the image of the sniper, a young woman devoted to 
her cause, fighting an apathetic conscripted foreign army. (The Mickey 
Mouse sequence that follows is essentially a coda.) So I find all of 
these endings consistent with what Kubrick did with the Starchild in 
2001 -- all of them show some kind of transformation, or a leap to a new 


Perhaps the dominant emotion is either. Imagine that it's opening night, 
and you are about to go on stage before an audience of millions. If 
you're prepared, you're exhilarated -- if not, you're in a real-time 
"Actor's Nightmare"; welcome to the Jungle . . .



The only thing I would ask everyone to consider, in relation to the 
[first C.C. and E.T.] postings, is that the ending of 2001 may be 
neither optimistic nor pessimistic but just "other." . . . I feel the 
movie ends when it does because everything beyond that point is 
unimaginable. The culture shock that Floyd and the others are so worried 
about isn't so much different from the kind of disorientation caused by 
the appearance of a new paradigm. Most people just do not have the right 
mindset to even begin to understand what is being proposed, so they 
react to it with ridicule and, sometimes, violence. The old worldview is 
their whole world; they have too much invested in it to even see the 
relevance of any other view. (To the Newtonian world, Einstein's 
theories seemed like pure fancy.) The ending of 2001 is about 
unimaginable possibilities, and that is neither a good nor a bad thing 
because, in human terms, it is all but irrelevant.


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