As Stanley Kubrick himself asserts, "2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes of film, there are only a little less than forty minutes of dialog" (Nordern 47). Nothing is more evocative of the silence of which Kubrick speaks than the black monolith at the center of events in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the ultimate promoter of change, the catalyst for evolution, the mysterious object of vast significance whose origin and message is unknown. All the characters of 2001 can do is react to the monolith's wavelength and let it take them wherever it leads. Likewise, the viewer of the film can do little more. While critics such as Eric Nordern have pondered the meaning of Kubrick's Odyssey, answers remain elusive and the film resists dissection. For in the words of Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message," and to pull a message from 2001 is like separating the message from the monolith: it cannot be done. The monolith is the message in the context of the film. From this perspective, 2001 may be seen as a film which embodies the idea that "it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message" (McLuhan 7). Therefore, this paper will show how 2001 itself, like the black monolith which triggers the evolutionary process, represents the notion that the medium rather than the message is responsible for social effect and should receive the primary focus of attention.
The Medium is the Message
Kubrick's film, like the monolith, is first and foremost a visual experience. Indeed, the filmmaker states that he "tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content" (Nordern 47). As Kubrick explains, 2001 is intended to reach the viewer the way music reaches the listener. The film itself is like the black monolith, calling out to the viewer to touch it, see it, and most importantly experience it. It does not ask for interpretation. It asks for, in a way, acceptance. "You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film," Kubrick asserts, noting that such speculation would be a sign that the medium had been embraced (Nordern 47). The film is not meant to provide a "road map" to an intellectual destination. It is meant, rather, to provoke, to encourage, to drive, inspire, and compel -- just as the monolith does in the film. Kubrick's hope, as he tells Eric Nordern, is not the viewer comes away with an acceptable interpretation of the film, i.e., with a "message," per se, but only that the viewer is inspired to contemplate "man's destiny, his role in the cosmos and his relationship to higher forms of life" (Nordern 48).
Thus, when Gerald Mast states that 2001 is really "two films, one mystical, one cynical, which Kubrick holds in balance" (544), he is not too far off the mark. Kubrick's film enjoys resisting definition. The medium is deliberately designed to puzzle, to hypnotize, to assist meditation. If the "medium is the message," then the message is this: think.
It is a message that is somewhat lost on the astronauts of 2001. They resist the medium and attempt, instead, to restrict it. With their "noble" machines, they set about finding the "source" of the signal being sent to the monolith on the moon. The problem is that the source is the monolith -- the meaning is the message. The higher intelligence is there waiting to be discovered, but man, in his refusal to contemplate, must travel through space for untold light years before realizing that the journey has returned him to the mystery he sought to evade: the monolith. It is this monolith, this medium, that demands interaction. The problem with focusing on the message sent out by the black monolith, first to the apes and then, centuries later, to the humans, who stand at the brink of another evolutionary change, is that the message itself cannot be understood but by interaction with the medium. The astronauts aboard HAL attempt to understand the message by finding its transmitter.
Interaction with the Mysterious
What they find, or rather, what one of them finds, is the great mystery itself. As Mast explains, "On the one hand, Kubrick's astronauts travel toward the meaning of life itself" (544), which is essentially what the viewer does by experiencing the film. "On the other hand," states Mast, "the film's social commentary is quite clear, a satirical study of a race that can improve its machines but not its instincts" (545). This is essentially the problem of the viewer who can label, define, articulate, and profess -- but who cannot intuit the higher intelligence that allows him to do these things; he cannot engage with the mystery of life that asks merely for contemplation. In this sense, 2001 may be viewed as a contemplative work for contemplatives that satirizes those who refuse to contemplate and rewards those who do take the trouble to contemplate. Just as the lone astronaut who arrives at Jupiter is finally engaged one-on-one with the black monolith and eased into a transformation that takes him beyond that limits of space and time, seemingly into the realm of the spiritual, the viewer who allows the medium (the film) to affect his consciousness and his sub-consciousness, who submits to the power of the medium, is in a better position to understand the message of the film than the reviewer who types out a few paragraphs and then shelves his entire experience with the film away in a box, never to be interacted with again.
Just as the monolith is what transfixes and what gives the film its mystical quality, so too is the film itself what gives the viewer the sensation of having interacted with something mystical. The medium allows this sensation to be felt because it operates with hypnotic visuals, musical interludes and a compelling narrative. It is carefully designed and constructed to prompt the viewer to have a sense of otherworldiness, of something higher, of something beyond comprehension. The monolith forces society, whether animal or human, to adapt -- so too does the film. The monolith, like the medium described by McLuhan, effects a kind of control over the populace. Its social affect is like that of a light bulb: it transforms the way the apes congregate; it redirects the mission of the astronauts, sending them from the moon into deep space.
In other words, the viewer of the film is meant to interact with the film independently of film criticism, of philosophical prejudice ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Hamlet, 1.5.166-7), of pre-conceived notions of "message." The medium itself is an art: its purpose is to reflect the mystery of life. As Kubrick states: "How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth' -- or 'because she's hiding a secret from her lover'?" (Nordern 48). The medium elicits a visceral reaction in the viewer and provides an experience that may be reflected upon later. The message cannot be separated from the film. Reading a synopsis of the film, or a novel adaptation of the film, cannot deliver the same experience. A newspaper account of everything that happens in 2001 gives the reader a different message than the one conveyed in the film simply because it is a different medium. As McLuhan observes, there are hot and cold mediums that give the reader or viewer different sensory experiences and therefore interact with him in different ways and give him different messages. A message that comes through the ears is different than one that comes through the eyes. A message that comes through the hands is different than one that comes through the nose. The simple fact that "some of the things that appear in Clarke's published version of the film's prose treatment…did not find their way onto the screen when the motion picture was released in April 1968" (Phillips 323). The reason is that prose is one medium and film is another. The message delivered through prose was sufficient and/or efficient for that particular medium, but in the medium of film it very likely did not translate and therefore had to be dropped. The message of the film is different from the message of the script/book, even though they are both telling the same story. As McLuhan states: "Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue" (55).
As Monolith is Medium, So Too is Film
What makes 2001 so particularly interesting, however, is the fact that it so perfectly represents McLuhan's notion that the "message is…