Many people over the years have reviewed, discussed, and deconstructed this film with much better insights than I, so I will focus on how 2001 still inspires me, and how that inspiration could reignite our flagging space program.
2001 is the one film that, over the years, only gets better with age. True, the special effects have been superseded by CGI, and its predictions about its titular year seem naïve and over-optimistic now. Look past the superficial details, though. This film is about ideas, stimulating the viewer’s mind in ways that few cinematic works ever achieve. The very concept of humankind rising from its primitive origins and launching itself into the starry void is the most epic story our civilization knows. No religious, mythic, or legendary tale compares to it. Nothing I ever write or imagine will match up to such a narrative. The thrill of discovery, the wonder that we are so insignificant on a cosmic scale yet capable of transforming ourselves in ways evolution never could. And 2001 captured that wonder better than any science fiction film before or since.
But in the year I write this (2013), where has that wonder gone? Yes, it’s easy to blame its loss on current affairs: terrorism, global conflicts, lagging economies, political bickering, climate change. Or you can blame the culture: too many introverted people focused on their television or computer screen, too many people wrapped up in social media networks or participating in a shallow materialist consumerism.
Baloney. These are pressing concerns, but there is far more at work here. It is the mindset that space is so far away, unreachable by the average person, that has hobbled its exploration in the public consciousness. I could lambaste our government for spending far more on the military and corporate subsidies than NASA (who only gets a penny from each tax dollar—the Pentagon, at least fifty pennies), but expecting our leaders to change things never gets us anywhere. So that means we have to change this situation ourselves. Where to start? Changing this mindset.
2001: A Space Odyssey shows that space, though infinite, mysterious, and even dangerous, is still within humanity’s grasp. Still waiting to reveal secrets about the universe and about ourselves. It is far more than a simple piece of entertainment. It shows that through proper application of our knowledge and tenacity, we can accomplish the unimaginable.
Decades ago we had such high hopes, lofty ideas. When I was in grade school, we were supposed to have colonies on the Moon and Mars by now. Those were the dreams of a people flush with the success of Apollo 11, reared on the stories of Robert Heinlein or the fantasy of Star Wars. Time and experience matures such dreams, but why did we have to stop trying? Children know the name of their favorite celebrity, but hardly batted an eye when Neil Armstrong died. Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on another celestial body. Another world. That doesn’t make him a saint or the greatest person who ever lived, but the collective accomplishment that got him to the Moon deserves more recognition. It’s as if our dreams died with him. Those footprints on the Moon will never be joined by future ones, it seems.
When Arthur C. Clarke died a few years ago, it sent a pang in my heart. I have much respect for the man who wrote the novel 2001, and who still, even up to his death, hoped to enter space. I remember reading that in his collection of essays, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!. He never gave up hope, never relinquished the dream despite his age or the pathetic status of our civilization. And like him, 2001 still reaches, still inspires.
In the film, David Bowman continues his mission, despite losing his comrade and shutting down HAL. He has no friends or family he can reach in time, no god to beseech for succor. There’s literally nothing but him and the vast emptiness of the cosmos. What hope can such a thing offer? It would have been so easy to sink into depression, to give up. To turn back.
Bowman went forward and underwent irreversible changes. That’s what me must do as a civilization. As a species. We’ve taken Neil’s ‘one step for man’. We can still make that ‘giant leap for mankind’.
We need more manned space missions. Replace the Space Shuttle program with an equivalent, or restart it. Send a crew to orbit the Moon for a month, do some experiments. Place powerful telescopes on the Moon with our own hands. Rethink those manned Mars mission plans. The International Space Station (ISS) can still fulfill its original goals: to create a stable orbital platform that acts as a springboard for future exploration. This is an absolute must. There’s a reason why you see such structures in science fiction movies, such as 2001, the Star Trek franchise, and others. The ISS is in effect an airport, a mid-point between the Earth and beyond. We need more than just astronauts and scientists up there—we need people from different economic classes, ethnicities, and nationalities. What could make space more relatable than seeing your average Joe up there on the ISS? Make it interactive for us on Earth as much as possible. Humanize the experience.
Kubrick humanizes 2001 more through the character of HAL-9000 than the humans in the story. This leads me to the current mode of space exploration: robotic rovers and orbiters. We’ve sent them to Mars, Jupiter, and other far-flung locales throughout our solar system. Right now this is the only and safest way to explore beyond our planet—but amp it up a little. Involve the public more. True, these are scientific missions, and should remain so (I’d hate to see a reality show about a probe—or any reality show for that matter). And for now, these missions should be controlled by scientists, not an AI. However, we could include our latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. How about a computer program that has a personality and communicates with school children once per week? Or an AI that records its own weekly blog, augmented by current social algorithms? This may sound like a gimmick, but it’s not. Again, make space exploration more interactive, despite these great distances. Stimulate enough public interest and I guarantee the pressure would make that penny on the dollar become a nickel. Remember the casual flight to the space station in 2001, or the station’s comfortable interior? These things can still be achieved and would make space more accessible. Not just visually, but in reality.
Yes, this all costs money. So does bombs and bullets. If we’re ever going to progress beyond those territorial apes we see at the beginning of 2001, we need to use our resources to educate and better ourselves instead of finding new and faster ways to kill each other.
Arthur C. Clarke said in a 1968 interview concerning space travel that ‘when Man wants something he usually gets it’. I agree. But we all have to want it. The dream of people like Clarke, Armstrong, and Carl Sagan did not die with them. Let’s not let it die within us.
2001: A Space Odyssey remains an unfulfilled promise we as a civilization made to ourselves: to never stop searching, never cease pushing the borders of the possible just a little more over the impossible. It isn’t an unfulfilled odyssey, though. It continues in the collective dream we all still share—a never-ending odyssey.