issue 12 :: July 2007

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ESSAY: 2001

The Hidden Meaning of “2001: A Space Odyssey”
by Josh Ronsen
I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s monumental film when I was six. I have seen it numerous times and like many, I wondered what it was about. Kubrick declined to provide an answer in interviews. After reading numerous simplistic theories about the film that did a poor job of explaining anything, I had to develop my own theory. I was surprised to find a theme that ran throughout the entire film, forming a conceptual framework that provided meaning for just about every scene and plot development. I will take you through the movie step by step.
The Monolith is an intergalactic food activist/critic, if not god of food. It is aghast when it finds the Earth apes eating twigs and bushes, being eaten by leopards and having turf wars over drinking water. The Monolith changes this: the apes are no longer meat, but begin to eat meat. Thus starts a revolution of eating.
Four million years later, mankind has made a mess of everything involving food. We see a Pan-Am space ship approach the rotating space station. “Pan-Am” implies the existence of airline food, which is generally unsavory. Heywood Floyd makes a video call to his daughter. For her birthday, she wants a “bush baby” [doll], a reference to the bushes the early apes ate; as if unconsciously warning her father about the abuses of food. Floyd is then accosted by the Russians and he refuses a drink with them. How rude! Food is supposed to bring us together, but turf wars at drinking spots still remain. Floyd goes off to have dinner with the station security director. On the shuttle to the moon, the crew sips food from straws, which can’t be appetizing; Floyd sleeps through his meal to avoid it. But hunger wins out and the meal drives Floyd to the space toilet; he has to read instructions on how to deal with his gastronomic catastrophe. Later, on the trip across the moon’s surface, a cooler is opened and they eat ham sandwiches. Ham! A forbidden food! (Recall Kubrick was not an Englishman, but a Bronx Jew.) After the ham sandwiches, the monolith sends a piercing radio signal to Jupiter, directing the humans to further cooking lessons.
During the trip to Jupiter, more culinary abuses take place. First: the three scientists are placed in cryogenic hibernation. They live, but do not eat, which has to be an abomination to the food-obsessed Monolith. Second: the unreal colors of the TV dinners eaten by Frank Poole and Dave Bowman suggest particularly unsavory food. The chess game between HAL and Bowman points to the validity of this food theory. Kubrick picked this particular game out of a book of notable chess matches. The game presented in the movie is called “Roesch-Schlange, Hamburg, 1913.” Hamburg is where we get the name for the incredible sandwich the hamburger, a true triumph in the history of eating. HAL is (unconsciously?) telling Dave to give up his life of TV dinners and tube food and get back to decent eating (note the similarity to Floyd’s daughter’s unconscious message). The third sin onboard the Discovery occurs soon afterward: Poole receives a video call from his parents on Earth to wish him a happy birthday, seated behind a cake topped with candles. When the call is over, HAL wishes Poole a happy birthday. HAL does not wish him a happy birthday and tells him his cake will be ready later. There is no cake onboard the Discovery! How foolish! A three year mission with no cake! Two scenes later, HAL starts acting strange: the Monolith has given up on humanity and now takes on HAL as a patron (although HAL does not eat as people do: maybe the Monolith doesn't realize this?). HAL's elaborate ruse to get Poole and Bowman off of the ship in order to kill them and the hibernating scientists does not completely succeed and he is deactivated by Bowman. As his higher mental functions are disconnected, HAL sings the Daisy song, not only in reference to the plants the early apes ate, but also to explain that he is as the early apes were. Having only recently met the Monolith (off camera), HAL has not had a chance to evolve to his more advanced meat-eating phase, and we are never given a chance to see how this evolution in HAL would unfold. And just like the early apes, the newly evolved HAL uses lethal violence to protect his turf.
When Bowman reaches Jupiter, the Monolith is not happy to see him, and sends him on a psycho-tropic rollercoaster ride. What is the primary physiological response to phycho-tropic drugs? Nausea. The Monolith wants Bowman to barf in his helmet. He does not, due to his cast-iron stomach, a product of a lifetime of TV dinners and tube food. Bowman reaches the elegant Louis XVI-decorated room (I am asked why this period of decoration: the Monolith finds this era to have the most refined cooking) and has to wait 30 years to eat. And what a meal it is! Bowman, engrossed in culinary perfection and haunted by memories of his earlier, hungry self, knocks over his glass. Having eaten tasty food for the first time, Bowman lives out the rest of his life in gastronomic heaven in bed. The Monolith appears, Bowman points (a final pull-my-finger joke?) and is reborn as the Space Embryo to lead Earth on a Culinary Rebirth.
This theory explains numerous aspects of the film ignored by other 2001 theories: the ham sandwich on the moon, why that exact chess game was played, why HAL sings that song, why Floyd’s daughter wants a “bush” baby doll, the birthday cake. All of these are small details to be sure, but resonate with the many food scenes throughout the film. Think about how many food scenes are in the typical science fiction film, ignoring “Soylent Green” and movies where humans are food for aliens. Also consider how long the three main eating scenes are; the apes eating twigs, the stewardess preparing and delivering food to Floyd and the shuttle crew, and Bowman and Poole preparing and eating their TV dinners. These are not quick shots of eating, but extended sequences in which the primary message of food consumtion is obscurred by novel environments (the African desert, the weightlessness of the shuttle to the Moon, the rotating crew cabin of the Discovery). But this theory is the only 2001 theory (save Rob Ager's astute theory) to address a fundamental question that other theories cannot even provide the framework for an answer: why are the dimensions of the Monolith 1 to 4 to 9? Sit down: the answer will shock you.
1:4:9 are the proportions of ingredients in a recipe. What recipe?
These are the proportions of butter to half-and-half to sugar used in chocolate fudge, a bar of which the Monolith resembles.
 
Thus munched Zarathustra.
 

An initial version of this theory was published in Austinnitus #133. I thank Roddy Collins for pointing out Murray S. Campbell's article on HAL's chess strategy.

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