2001: A Space Odyssey & the Evolution of Language


Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey  is, in some sense, a silent film. That is to say that the film’s silences, its dearth of conversation, and the aural void of deep space are as significant to its impact as the presence of sound. Kubrick’s depiction of the utter silence of the void of space is unsettling, although, of course, entirely accurate. In virtually every other film that depicts some aspect of space travel, exterior shots of spacecraft are accompanied by white noise on the soundtrack meant to represent the ultrasonic roar of light-speed engines. This artificial addition of sound to the vacuum is worth noting in that it seems to be included as a measure of comfort—a comfort conspicuously absent in 2001.

What is perhaps even more unsettling in the film is the profound lack of dialogue, or at least meaningful dialogue. Kubrick himself has commenced that this poverty of language was deliberate, that he meant the film to be “essentially a non-verbal experience.” But Robert Kolker observes in A Cinema of Loneliness  that, “Many have commented on the minimal dialogue in the film, but they have failed to point out just how much language, via print, computer graphics, mathematical formulas, and configurations, does in fact appear.” This subtle yet persuasive presence of language, although confined largely to the middle section of the film, suggests that one of the film’s myriad themes is the progression of language itself.

Through the three lyric sections of the film—or ‘movements,’ given the rich complement of classical music—we see an austere yet ideologically complex progression of the state of humankind, from pre-linguistic proto-human to language-engrossed homo sapiens to meta-linguistic ‘star child.’ The presence or absence, use or abuse of language is one of the main catalysts, as well as one of the main metaphors, for this profound transformation of humanity.

In the first movement, “The Dawn of Man,” the proto-humans depicted do not possess language as we know it. Granted, they may communicate with one another through a base system of grunts and gestures, but they do not speak, per se. Without the ordering sociological structure of language, their existence is chaotic. Rival factions snarl at each other over the rights to a muddy water hole; there are no means of discourse here to facilitate a compromise. This rough state of existence is mirrored by the dry, rocky badlands of their environment.

Abruptly, the chaotic landscape is interrupted by the vertical, black mass of the monolith. To this point, there has been nothing but ambient noise on the soundtrack, but with the appearance of the monolith, the soundtrack is filled with the avant garde choral swell of Ligeti’s "Requiem," suggesting that the monolith emits some obscure form of communication. We may not consider this signal as language, but the intelligence of the monolith does apparently convey a message of progress to the proto-humans.

In the next sequence, we see the mythical moment of the development of technology, specifically weaponry, as a proto-human discovers that an animal’s femur makes an effective club. The significance of this scene is punctuated by the dramatic, highly formal strains of “Also sprach Zarathustra,” which add another dimension to the moment of discovery. This weapon is employed immediately to subdue and murder the proto-human’s fellow creatures (members of the rival group, but otherwise equal in the viewer’s eyes). With this juxtaposition of events, a direct link is implied visually between the transmission of a message from an imposing, perfectly geometric presence and the development and use of a tool of power. Thus, the intercession of a deliberate communication is equated with humanity’s often violent manipulation of its environment.

When our proto-human protagonist touches the mirror-like surface of the monolith and somehow perceives its will (perhaps in the way that Kubrick suggested the film itself should affect us—nonverbally), he is taken to a new, potentially higher existential level.

With the famous matching cut of the bone-club flung skyward and the bone-like satellite drifting through space millions of years later, we are apparently taken to a higher level as well. But as we will see, the use of language has not come as far as the transformed femur.

Following the bone/satellite matching cut, we may read the section surrounding the Clavius mission in one of two ways: either as a continuation of the “Dawn of Man” movement, which it most strictly is, or as the next level of humans’ progress toward some higher existence through a higher use of technology and language. For the sake of this argument, I will consider this section a sub-set of the first movement of the film in terms of structure, but as a new section in terms of the symbolic uses of language.

Here, language takes on a function all too familiar to us today: language used as a weapon, as a divisive tool of power. Immediately, language is the key to entry, participation, and dominance in this world: Dr. Floyd must go through “voice print identification” in order to even enter the space station. It is significant here that the utterance of certain information, as well as the specific timbre of one’s voice, is used as a pass—rather than a more tactile technological or biological key such as a magnetized card or retinal scan.

Once inside the antiseptic brightness of the station, Floyd pauses at a lounge area of bright red easy chairs to chat with a familiar party of Russians. The red of the furniture, glaring against the luminous white of the station concourse, may be a facile joke at the expense of the ‘Reds’ seated there, but it also sets up a symbolic arena of ‘heated’ discussion. Moreover, the use of red lighting is a semiotic code for power and authority in the film (in this case, Floyd’s advantage of proprietary information): Red is most often the color of the control rooms of the various spacecraft depicted, as well as the color of HAL’s omnipresent eye.

Floyd and the Russians are cordial as they exchange pleasantries with one another, but when it comes to the question of what is transpiring down at the Clavius base, Floyd becomes evasive and reticent. He cannot, of course, discuss any details regarding the Western camp’s discovery of the monolith. Thus, we are initially led to believe that this is a ‘brave new world’ to the extent that a the Cold War is utterly abandoned, but we find that the war of rhetoric is still being waged; information is still withheld or manipulated for polemic ends. Furthermore, there’s the whole conspiracy contrived to further cover up the Clavius discovery—a conspiracy which we later find is even directed at Floyd’s own Jupiter mission team. This selfish manipulation of language is what leads us to question just how far we have come from the proto-humans’ savage struggle for the water hole. In this sense, the Clavius section is a direct extension and echo of the film’s depiction of the “Dawn of Man.” 

This section also offers an excellent example of Kubrick’s often-cited banality of dialogue which ultimately helps punctuate the immaturity of humanity’s use of the powerful tool of language. As the team of scientists travels in the moonbus toward the site of the monolith excavation (what Floyd himself has described as the single greatest discovery in science), their conversation is as much about the latest improvements in space sandwiches as it is about the monolith. This vaguely comic episode serves to illustrate more than Kubrick’s usual themes of isolation and emotional decay—it emphasizes the profound contrast between the petty exchanges of information which clutter everyday life and the awesome silence and obscurity of the monolith.

The scene clearly parallels that of the proto-humans’ discovery of the monolith on Earth: Isolated in their space suits, the scientists do not speak, circling the monolith much like the proto-humans did, with the eerie choral music on the soundtrack as accompaniment. Again, one of them reaches out gingerly to touch the glassy surface. This time, however, the monolith’s signal is more distinct; an ear-piercing whine interrupts their group snapshot (another instance of banality) and they are driven to their knees. Although this signal is not visually paired with another image as before, the scene is symbolic in the sense that the monolith’s ‘message’ abruptly interrupts the men’s mundane activity of taking a touristy photograph as if to say “Wake up! You have much farther to go in your process of enlightenment.” The signal is, of course, more than just a wake-up call for the scientists; it’s a cosmic signpost which points to the next leg of the odyssey—toward Jupiter.

In the “Jupiter Mission” movement, language is again presented as a tool for the manipulation of power. But as Discovery drifts farther and farther away from Earth, humanity drifts further and further away from its mastery of this powerful tool. Nearly every shot includes a barrage of information displayed through the Discovery’s interfaces. The different forms of non-verbal communication cited by Kolker—print, graphics, and formulas—are joined by a host of cryptic acronyms flashed on the various screens, acronyms which seem to comprise a language of their own. In the midst of this byzantine array of information is the red, unblinking eye of HAL, the artificial intelligence that operates the ship. His (its?) name is another acronym, for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. It’s worth noting as well that HAL’s eye is circumscribed by a black rectangle like a miniature monolith, establishing a comprehensive iconography of authority in the film.

HAL’s position amid the information-glutted screens, his unaffected voice, and the fact that he has not one terminal and eye but several depicts him as a being of pure information, language, and thought. He is without a body as we know it and lacks the emotions which define humanity. The limitations of this disembodied mind are introduced as soon as we meet HAL. When the BBC interviewer (well matched in his relative lack of emotion) greets him and inquires about the track record of the 9000 computers, HAL replies that “no HAL 9000 has ever made a mistake or distorted information” and we cut immediately to the distorted fish-eye shot of HAL’s point of view. This juxtaposition strongly suggests that HAL will distort information, foreshadowing his cold and calculating murder spree later in the film.

The BBC interview sequence in general is replete with language-based metaphors. As the Discovery drifts away from Earth on its course toward Jupiter, the communications between the crew and the interviewer take longer and longer to go back and forth. this temporal lag contributes not only to the ongoing depiction of humanity’s isolation in the universe, but also to the sense of banality in the answers from crewmen Poole and Bowman; the time lag may be edited out, but it leaves the men sounding wooden and apathetic. Note also how, despite the plethora of screens surrounding them, Poole and Bowman choose to watch the interview on their own private tablets while they eat. This key scene, which gives us much of the information about the ship, its crew, and their mission, is reduced to a TV dinner.

The symbolic dynamics of language continue as HAL’s intellect begins to fracture under the weight of his clandestine mission. The first sign of his paranoia is his prediction that the AE 35 unit, a key component of Discovery’s communications array, will fail. This false alarm leads to the ‘accidental’ death of Poole and, although it is unclear whether HAL’s manipulation of the AE 35 was deliberate from the start, the very fact that he stages the sabotage of the antenna—the ship’s transmitter and receiver of language—is instrumental. Once the men begin to suspect that HAL is malfunctioning, they attempt to discuss the volatile situation in the privacy of one of the pods, thereby excluding HAL from their conversation; but HAL, adept at subtle forms of communication, reads their lips and undermines their conspiracy.

To this point, the breakdown in communication between HAL and the men, specifically the erosion of an agreed-upon system of rational behavior, has been fairly subtle. Following the death of Poole, however, HAL seems to relinquish his hegemony of logical, rational discourse: When he refuses to open the pod bay doors for Bowman and Discovery and the pod face off like some mismatched insectile foes, HAL states, “Dave…this conversation can serve no purpose any longer…goodbye.” Thus, HAL seems to negate the efficacy of language in situations of conflict, resorting to the more physical tactic of barring Bowman’s way.

Finally (in this movement), Dave mounts the ultimate attack on HAL’s authority by carrying out his plan to shut down HAL’s ‘higher functions.’ This scene is highly symbolic in that Bowman literally climbs inside HAL’s ‘brain’ to disable his cognitive and linguistic algorithms. He does not ‘kill’ HAL, but gives him a sort of computer lobotomy. Since he has no body to use in depicting this death scene, HAL’s brain death is conveyed through the slow disintegration of his voice, with the sentimental touch of his rendition of "Daisy" at Bowman’s prompting. Thus, humans are threatened by and compelled to destroy their own anthropomorphic creation when it develops that most human of drives: To kill.

Ironically, upon deactivating HAL’s intellect, Bowman goes on to be transformed himself into an apparent being of the mind—the so-called star child—in the final movement of the film. “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” is the most enigmatic of the movements and the most resistant to any reading via the devices of language. There is virtually no communication present, whether written or verbal, in this final leg of the odyssey. Kubrick’s vision of “beyond the infinite” is an impression of the unknowable which defies any linguistic representation. As Bowman travels through the fantastic light show of the monolith’s dimension or ‘star gate,’ we soon realize Kubrick’s goal of an “essentially non-verbal experience.” Bowman has no words to comment on what he sees: We only get a few split-second reaction shots of his face inside the helmet. Kubrick employs this technique again in The Shining when Danny has his horrible telepathic visions. In both cases, the characters are having an overwhelming experience that transcends language.

Once Bowman reaches the ‘human terrarium,’ there are vague murmurings suggesting either a conflation of his lifelong aural experiences or the discussions of some alien observers beyond the space of the frame. We can never know what these obscure voices represent or relay but, in any case, they don’t constitute intelligible language as we know it. They only suggest an absence of rational communication, a lack of explanation. With Bowman’s non-linear aging and eventual rebirth at the star child, one thing does become apparent: This synthesis of monolith and man in a new state of being is beyond the primitive chatter of any known language, whether print, speech, or a computer’s binary code.

In the last shot of the film we see the star child approach Earth in utter silence, protected from the vacuum by its luminous womb. Again, we hear the fanfare of "Zarathustra," suggesting that this is another moment of discovery akin to the advent of technology portrayed in the first movement. The discovery here, however, is simply that our mortal beginnings and endings are awash in silence—the silence of the void of space, the silence where language fails us.


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