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Herders of Humankind: The Alien Role in 2001: A Space Odyssey

May 3, 2000 | Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a commercial hit when it premiered in 1968. But with a script that relied more on music and sound effects than on dialogue, a cast of purposefully static characters, and a setting that spans four million years, it was no wonder that this film divided audiences between enthrallment and utter confusion. Audiences were stunned by the film’s eerily realistic imagery, but they were also stunned by the fact this alien movie has no aliens in it! However, Kubrick and his co-screenwriter, Arthur Clarke, were committed to making a film that posed questions that lack adequate human answers. Clarke and Kubrick use the science of evolution, space travel, Earth’s moon, and computers to both clarify and obfuscate the existence of a higher alien life form. Though these aliens take an approach that is much more subtle and mysterious than that of the Overlords in Arthur Clarke's Childhood’s End (1953), both groups have the same objective: to herd humankind past its evolutionary obstacles into the next stage of advancement.

The film is constructed into a prelude and several episodes bisected by an entr’acte. In the title sequence, the Earth, Moon, and Sun move into vertical alignment. "The Dawn of Man," the film’s first episode, follows a peaceful tribe of prehistoric vegetarian man-apes living in an African savannah. The man-apes are frightened by a tall black monolith near their den, but they soon overcome their fear. Later, the monolith seems to subconsciously direct the man-apes to use skeleton bones as tools to kill their competitors and predators. The man-apes become a carnivorous, violent race.

The film jumps forward four million years to 2001. Dr. Heywood Floyd travels to a high-security American Lunar Base. Floyd is one of few aware of the reason for the base’s restriction. A tall black monolith has been discovered near the base, and there is evidence that this monolith is four million years old–far older than modern man. When Floyd and his team try to explore the monolith directly, the slab emits an ear-piercing screech.

In the next episode, "Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later," five astronauts (three are in hibernation) are aboard the Discovery, en route to Jupiter. Dave Bowman and Frank Poole function as astronauts on board, but the HAL 9000 computer primarily operates the Discovery. During the course of the trip, HAL alerts Bowman and Poole that the ship’s communications unit is about to fail. When the astronauts check the unit, they are surprised to find that nothing is wrong with the unit. Bowman and Poole begin to suspect about HAL’s efficiency and motives. HAL soon turns assassin, killing Poole and the three hibernating men. In retaliation, Bowman disconnects HAL’s higher brain functions. Before HAL is completely shut down, he plays a recording for Bowman. The recording is of Floyd discussing the real reason for the mission–to explore why the monolith’s radio signal was directed straight at Jupiter.

The final section of the film, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," begins with the vertical alignment of Jupiter, its moons, another black monolith, and the Discovery. Bowman leaves the Discovery in a smaller space pod to explore the monolith–but the pod is sucked into a vortex that hurtles it through a series of wildly-colored grids, spaces, and landscapes. Finally, the pod surrealistically lands in an eerily lit room decorated in the French style of the 1700’s. Bowman climbs out of the pod to explore the room, but he disappears as we see a much older Bowman come into the room to eat dinner. This older Bowman is soon replaced by a near-death, bedridden Bowman. This Bowman reaches towards a black monolith at the foot of his bed. Finally, this withered Bowman becomes an embryo, a "star-child" that seems to be in a world of its own, seen floating toward Earth.

The most realistic science of the film is the science of and by humans. The man-apes of "The Dawn of Man" are probably of the species Australopithecus afarensis, the earliest known bipeds (Britannica). As a primate, Australopithecus afarensis had hands with dexterous fingers and opposable thumbs. With these hands, it was possible to wield bones as clubs. With its large canine and incisor teeth, Australopithecus afarensis was able to eat both vegetables and meat (Britannica). Consequently, the cinematic man-apes’ sudden switch from complete vegetarianism to carnivorousness is plausible. This film’s anthropological plausibility was reinforced when Arthur Clarke and Fred Ordway, the film’s scientific advisor, garnered the support of famed anthropologists Louis and Richard Leaky (Ordway).

When the film jumps forward to 2001, homo sapiens have evolved to their present state, and the film’s scientific focus shifts from the primate to the primate’s tools. Humans have developed their tools to the point that they are able to use these tools to explore space. To show this, the simple rotating bone becomes the rotating Space Station V. With the help of Fred Ordway and Harry Lange, a NASA designer, Kubrick depicts the Space Station as a body that is large enough to simulate the acceleration of gravity on the Earth’s surface. At perhaps 2000 feet in diameter, the Station only needs two revolutions per minute to produce this sense of Earth’s gravity (Dubeck 30). In another scene in the Aries IB shuttle, Kubrick accurately shows the fact that shuttles are not large enough or quickly spinning enough to simulate gravity. Objects float in the air and the stewardess seems to walk upside down since there is no gravitational force to dictate which direction is down (Dubeck 36). Orion III and Aries IB incorporate a variety of sophisticated electronic equipment, much of it developed with the assistance of IBM, Honeywell, RCA, General Electric, and other firms (Ordway).

The conditions of the moon were considered very carefully when designing the Clauvius and Tycho scenes.

Since the Earth is 13 times larger in area, has almost four times the diameter, and is a much better reflector, when fully illuminated, our planet gives some 60 times as much light as the Moon does to us. This had to be considered when director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth lit the lunar landscape, and when designing equipment for exploration purposes. Naturally, account also had to be taken of temperature, vacuum, low gravity, and other nonterrestrial conditions (Ordway).

Since the monolith is located in Tycho, a crater about 150 miles north of the American base in the Clauvius crater, it makes sense that Dr. Floyd must use a rocket bus as transport to the monolith (Moon U). Since Tycho is the one of the most prominent objects on a full moon (as seen from Earth), it is a plausible site for the burial of an alien monolith (Moon U).

The design of the Discovery, the spaceship headed towards Jupiter, is constructed with the same meticulousness used throughout the film. The 700-foot ship is divided into an oblong section for the engines and a spherical section that rotates to provide its human inhabitants with Earth-like conditions. The engines operate on a Cavradyne system making travel to Jupiter more plausible. In this system, the temperature of the engine is not restricted by the capabilities of its solid container. Since the engine’s central cavity is surrounded by a thick graphite wall that reflects most neutrons back to the cavity, the outer shell of the engine will not burn up (Ordway).

The most human of the humans’ tools is the HAL 9000, the highly advanced computer which is, for the most part, scientifically plausible. Clarke’s and Kubrick’s inspiration for HAL comes mainly from developments at IBM and the University of Illinois, Urbana (Midbon 8). In the film, HAL runs all of the Discovery’s major operations while Bowman and Poole seem to be on board as second-string troubleshooters. This extreme reliance on technology is common even today in many complex vehicles like jets, planes, and ships. HAL’s higher-order functions, like the ability to converse and have opinions, are several steps beyond the capability of today’s computers. Because of human error and fear of technology that is too advanced, it might be many years before computers have HAL’s level of speech and judgment. HAL does have one feature that is so advanced to the point that is currently implausible: lip-reading (Dirk). In order to lip-read, HAL would not only require an extreme mastery of English, he would also require an extremely visual mastery of lip movement patterns. Both the English language and lip movements are imprecise concepts, and computers have a long way to go before they are able to work precisely with such imprecision!

Despite all of the great scientific care used in 2001, it is difficult for any scientist to make accurate conclusions about completely foreign concepts. As a result, the elements of the film that deal with aliens are probably the least influenced by scientific advisors. Free to keep their alien-related visions in purest form, Kubrick and Clarke devise an alien science that lies a beyond the edge of human science. For instance, the prehistoric monolith seems to have the power of telepathy to the man-apes. While Chris Kingsley in The Black Cloud explains that this kind of AC neural communication is remotely plausible (Hoyle 143), the study of telepathy is on the outcast edge of current hard science. As for the monolith on the moon, its function seems more scientifically possible, but some questions remain. Even though it is currently out of human capability, it is possible for a highly magnetic slab to be buried on the Moon. But after four million years of burial, where does the monolith get the power to transmit a piercing radio signal? A battery would be impractical (at least according to human conceptions), and the monolith had not been exposed to the sun long enough for solar power to be significantly useful (Clarke 73). This consideration is never resolved, but at the same time, it adds an element of mysterious power to the alien presence.

According to Arthur Clarke, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (Clarke/Asimov handout). Kubrick emphasizes this idea in the final episode of the film. In earlier episodes, the alien monolith has a composition and a function that is not clearly understood. Nevertheless, the monolith is a concrete presence with some obviously measurable aspects. But when Bowman enters the Jovian system for "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," it is impossible to tell exactly where (and if) an alien influence takes hold of Bowman. Current human science cannot extensively answer the many questions posed by this episode. Does Bowman truly enter a new world or dimension? Or is he just hallucinating? When Bowman lands in the French-styled room, has he gone forward in time? Has he somehow gone back in time? Or is his whole experience just the result of an alien experiment? Is Bowman the experimental subject? In his novelization of the film, Clarke takes an expository approach to many of Bowman’s strange experiences. But Kubrick seems to understand that verbal communication, while one of the most basic and unique of human constructs, is a device that would damage the aliens’ enigmatic existence. Though Clarke and Ordway argued for a higher level of expository narration throughout the film (Ordway), Kubrick generally avoids the spoken word in favor of more abstract visual and aural communication styles (Falsetto 118).

Unlike the Overlords’ short but constant presence in Childhood’s End, the alien presence in 2001 is a rarer but broader presence that spans at least four million years. However, it is likely that the 2001 aliens share an extensive goal with the Overlords. Looking at the instances where the aliens (through the revelation of a monolith) make their presence known, it seems that they "give a helping hand whenever man seems to be at an [evolutionary] dead end, by making a basic change in his consciousness" (Kagan 159). The man-apes, trapped in their instincts, are doomed to life as prey rather than predator. The modern humans are trapped in a limiting kind of technological rationalism. At both of these critical moments, aliens enigmatically intervene, herding humans back to the path of evolutionary advancement.

Some critics argue that because of the aliens’ role, 2001 is anti-scientific (Kagan 161). They say that in the film, scientific achievement is really due to a mysterious outside force instead of human effort. This is partially true–the monolith is used as an instrument of subtle coercion. However, the implied alien presence and the non-violent use of the monolith is not anti-scientific; instead, it expands the scientific vision of the film beyond the confines of human perception. The aliens influence humans in their use of tools and all subsequent science, showing that the aliens do have an understanding of science that probably far outdistances human expertise. The real reason that some are prone to criticize the film seems to be the immorality of another race controlling the course humanity. But as H.G. Wells points out in The War of the Worlds, "... Before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless ad utter destruction our own species has wrought..." (Wells 3).

To be fair, there is some evidence highlighting the possibility that the aliens are benevolent. The aliens are never violent to humans; the only one who shows any violence is HAL, a direct human creation. The aliens have the power to telepathically influence the man-apes, but they never use verbal or physical force or threat (at least in Kubrick’s terse vision) to issue commands. The aliens’ abstruseness might imply that they are "vast and cool and unsympathetic" (Wells 1) or even "authoritarian" (Kagan 162), but at the same time, the aliens’ work might be completely benign. At any rate, it is humans who have the tendency to make harsh judgements of things they do not understand.

Even though the aliens play a mysterious role, they clearly act as herders–or at least nudgers–of humanity. Just by placing the monolith on Earth and the Moon, aliens change the human environment. Using the telepathic and radio functionality of the monolith, the aliens move humans (in both their prehistoric and modern forms) to a new course of action. Finally, when Bowman reaches "Beyond the Infinite," circumstances soon spin out of his control–presumably into the control of the aliens. It is to their credit that Clarke and Kubrick refuse to overtly judge whether these affects are positive or negative. In this refusal, Clarke and Kubrick have crafted a work that stands up against changing popular trends. Society’s conception of alien motives may change, but as long as there are cosmic mysteries for humanity to solve, 2001 will remain as profound and unfathomable as the universe itself. (5/3/00)



Works Cited


"Australopithecus" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[Accessed 30 April 2000].


Clarke, Arthur. The Lost Worlds of 2001. New York: Signet Classics, 1972.


Dirks, Tim. "2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)." < http://www.filmsite.org/twot.html>

This site, part of FilmSite's 100 Greatest Movies, features an in-depth description (with extended script excerts) of 2001.


Dubeck, Leroy, Suzanne Moshier, and Judith Boss. Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science

Through Science Fiction Films. Woodbury, New York: American Institute of Physics Press, 1994.


Falsetto, Mario. Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis. Westport,

Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.


Hoyle, Fred. The Black Cloud. Cutchogue, New York: Buccaneer Books, 1957.


Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and

Winston, 1972.


Midbon, Mark. "Creation Machines: Stanley Kubrick's View of Computers in 2001."

Computers and Society, a journal of the ACM. vol. 20, December 1990, pp. 7-12.


Ordway, Frederick I. "Retrospective." <http://www.alta.demon.co.uk/amk/doc/0075.html>

Fred Ordway, a former NASA scientist, was the scientific advisor and technical consultant for the film.


Theison, Dave. "Moon U." Distributed on April 19, 2000.


Theison, Dave. "Clarke/Asimov handout." Distributed on March 15, 2000.

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