Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick's 2001: A Triple Allegory
The film seen as a triple allegory in a book by Leonard F. Wheat, 2000. Get the book by Wheat from Amazon.com.
Article added in September 2000
According to Leonard F. Wheat, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space
Odyssey tells three hidden stories: Homer's The
Odyssey; a spoofy tale based on science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's
idea of man-machine symbiosis; and Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake
Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra, 1883-1891, 4 volumes).
Critics attacked 2001 for "its ponderously slow, boring plot development; its lack of character
development; its confusing exposition; its substitution of special effects for
story; and its enigmatic, frustratingly symbolic, surrealistic conclusion." 2001's
champions "have countered by hailing its plot sophistication (no Buck Rogers
stuff here); its substitution of concepts for characters as dramatic
substance; its imaginative use of symbols; its stimulating ambiguities; and
its breathtaking visual images, superbly enhanced by classical music."
Wheat concludes that the admirers seem to be winning since
Kubrick's film has been rated among the best films of all times by
polls conducted by the British as well as the American Film Institute.
Wheat asserts that 2001's
ambiguities and mysteries can be explained. For him, the movie is a
triple allegory, three allegories (metaphorically or symbolically told hidden
stories) combined in one surface story. Wheat writes: "Kubrick's first
allegory is a retelling, in far more detail than has
been imagined, of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. . . . The second
allegory takes Clarke's theory of a future man-machine symbiosis, caricatures
it, and inflates it into a spoofy three-evolutionary-leaps scenario. Leap
number two - the leap from man to a species of humanoid machines - is
abortive: the bad guy, symbolizing the new species, gets spiked in the
forehead. The third allegory uses the surface story to symbolize the main
themes of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. This allegory, the main
one, again deals with evolution, so it shares considerable symbolism with the
with the second allegory. But now there are just two evolutionary leaps - ape
to man, man to overman. Between man and overman is a major subplot in which
God stands in man's way. Man finally kills God, clearing the way for the
evolution of a new supreme being - overman (a race) - and allowing Zarathustra
to deliver the message for which Nietzsche is famous: "God is
Wheat analyzes the three allegories in detail.
Although Kubrick does not symbolize all of Odysseus's adventures, he treats most of them: the Lotus-eaters, the
cyclops (Hal, with his red eye, is the one-eyed cyclops, and the key that Dave
Bowman jabs into Hal's brain modules is the stake Odysseus plunged into the
cyclops' eye), the Laestrygonian
rock attack, the pre-Odyssey material involving the Great Bow, the
three goddess beauty contest, Paris, Helen, Menelaus, the thousand ships, the
Trojan Horse and the downfall of Troy, etc. According to Wheat, 2001
ends with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope (the star-child symbolizing
Odysseus, the earth symbolizing Penelope).
Arthur Clarke is not only coauthor of 2001's
screenplay but author of both the short story on which the movie is loosely
based, The Sentinel, and the novel that is based on the movie.
According to Wheat, Kubrick caricatures the man-machine symbiosis by creating
the symbiotic creature Hal-Discovery. "Hal, symbolizing man, is a very
human-sounding and human-acting computer; Discovery, symbolizing machine, is
Dave Bowman's spaceship and happens to have a lot of cleverly disguised human
features. Together, Hal and Discovery constitute an essential living organism
that symbolizes a hypothetical new humanoid species, humanoid machines.
In other words although Hal-Discovery is a single entity - an individual - in
the surface story, he symbolizes an entire race of machines in the
man-machine symbiosis allegory."
The author also explains the surface story and the meaning of the four
monoliths. In 2001, each monolith has four meanings - one for the surface
story and one for each of the three allegories. For example, in the
Zarathustra allegory, the monoliths symbolize human characteristics -
intelligence in the case of the first monolith - that are symbolically
acquired by touching a monolith. These are just a few examples of Wheat's analysis. What before
appeared mysterious, unexplainable symbolism, gets rational explanations. Sé non è vero, è ben trovato.
About the author, Leonard F. Wheat
Born in 1931, Leonard F. Wheat received a B.A. from the University of
Minnesota at Duluth, his MPA from the Univervsity of Minnesota at Minneapolis,
and his PhD in political economy and government from Harvard University. His
early career included positions with the Minnesota Department of Taxation, the
Office of Special Projects of the US Department of the Navy, and the US Bureau
of the Budget. From 1966 until his retirement in 1997, he was an economist
with the Economic Development Administration of the US Department of Commerce.
Wheat is the author or (in one case) coauthor
of three economic studies and one book on philosophical theology. He has
written two book-length government studies as well as various shorter ones,
four refereed journal articles, and articles and publications relating to ...
hiking. His first book, Paul Tillich's Dialectical Humanism: Unmasking the
God Above God (1970), bears striking similarities to the present book.
Both identify cryptic symbolism in other works - coded messages, so to speak -
and decipher the symbols to reveal hidden content.
Wheat is an associate editor of the Journal of Regional Science and a
member of the American Economic Association, the Southern Economic
Association, the Regional Science Association International, the Society for
Cinema Studies, and numerous environmental groups. He lives in Fairfax County,
Virginia, with his wife, Dr. Wei-hsi-ung (Kitty) Wheat, Professor Emerita of
English at Bowie State University in Maryland.
Added on October 31, 2002: Check
the book by Dan Richter: Moonwatcher’s
Richter played the character Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey and
choreographed the film’s well-known “Dawn of Man” sequence. Get
the book (Carroll & Graf, September 2002, 156 p.) from Amazon.com,