The Odyssey of Hal

A Review of 2001: A Space Odyssey

When I learned that the first movie we would be approaching through the Ignatian method was 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was simultaneously excited and wary. My first exposure to the film in 1968 blended seamlessly with my naive countercultural utopianism. The scene that stuck with me most viscerally was the psychedelic roller-coaster ride through the planetscape beyond Jupiter. I can honestly say that the idea of being a loved sinner never crossed my mind.

To put some order to my chaotic memories of the movie I decided that before viewing it anew I would read the companion novel written by Arthur C. Clark. This book, written at exactly the same time as the screenplay, is often criticized for giving too much interpretation and not leaving the story as open to the viewer’s subjective response. In my opinion, however, the novel clarifies and deepens the movie by anchoring the plot firmly in the theme of guidance, perhaps even a providence, which accompanied humankind’s evolutionary journey. Both movie and the novel convey that we are not alone and that forces far beyond ourselves effect our development.

The writers of Finding God in the Dark use 2001: A Space Odyssey to mythically situate us. It suggests a transcendent answer to our purpose and place in the larger picture of evolving creation. Space Odyssey reveals the tension between our vulnerable mortality and our drive to ensure our survival. The acquisition of tools and concepts that ensure our success and safety as a species ultimately jeopardize our existence. The film’s solution to our human plight involves intervention and ultimately transformation of our nature.

As I watched the movie, I did not feel an intimacy of accompaniment but only a cold and ambiguous sensation of being moved toward some sort of change driven by extra-terrestrial or paranormal forces. The beings that planted monoliths in the film could be equally guardian angels or malevolent masters of the cosmos set on micro-management. Stanley Kubrick himself joked in an interview that the monoliths could be seen as the burglar alarm of the universe.

The experience of standing before these monoliths seems not unlike the blend of awe and fear that might have flooded the Israelites before the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai (Hebrews 10:31 ff). Rudolph Otto described this universal experience before the holy as mysterium tremendum where our mortality is overwhelmed by feelings of fascination and fear. The monoliths reminded me of the dark side of God that Martin Luther feared before his conversion. The fear of the unknown, especially when the power seems so imbalanced; such power often surpasses all anticipation of a potential positive relationship. Moon-watcher and his tribe, Hayward and his lunar administrative colleagues, and David Bowman all alike experienced the spiritual and psychological devastation brought on by the alien encounter.

I had an analogous experience to the one depicted in 2001 while imaginatively meditating on an apocalyptic scene from Revelation 4. I felt humanly overwhelmed, crushed, by the images, sounds, and flashes before the throne of God. Even though I knew myself to be experiencing an exercise of prayer it was genuinely frightening. Not unlike St. John on Patmos (Revelation 1:17), I experienced relief only when I was encountered, was touched by, something more human and reassuring.

Kubrick anticipated the need for the familiar in his film. Preceding his death and metamorphosis into the new creation of the Star Child, David experienced a transition state in an odd incubator, a hotel room. You can recognize a poignant sense of relief as Dave goes through the ordinary routines of eating and reading however out of place and shocking the abrupt switch from rushing planets to the quiet room is. It might have been an act of kindness and accommodation that motivated the extra-terrestrial orchestrators of his evolution to provide a way station.

Step by step Dave ages toward his death then reaches out like his primitive ancestors to the transformative black monolith. In the movie the Nietzschean inspired score Also Sprach Zarathustra intensifies and we are alone with the image of a gigantic larger than earth Star-Child. Kubrik gives us no clue as to its thoughts, motives or mission but in Arthur C. Clark’s novel the child becomes a saviour who ensures the continuance of the human race by preventing a nuclear explosion.

Kubrick and Clark get the human plight right but their narrative solution may not be satisfying for those looking to be fully situated as loved sinners. Their solution appears too passive, too alien, and too cognitive. There is a subtle fatalism in the evolutionary leaps forward as if change is either hard wired into our genetics or orchestrated by aliens. Caught in the magnetism of the monoliths humans find themselves changed with little effort or decisions of their own. Loved sinners, as our Ignatian guides to the novel call us, need to be honored as active partners. Like HAL we find that the 2001 narrative shrouds us in secrecy and enigma with potential but perhaps without direction and floating through life. Like the times, the mid-sixties, that spawned the film, 2001’s promise of excitement tends to eclipse the purpose of the story itself.

The Christ-Child symbol tells a different tale - one of authentic participation in the new creation. To start with - the direction of the transformation is reversed. In Space Odyssey the movement is developmental, it progresses from material to spiritual, from soma (body) to cyber (mind) to Spirit (new being). The Christ story is incarnational from the transcendent the invisible realm breaks into the material, suffers, dies and resurrects into New Being.

It is not so much a forced choice between the two stories as it is the need to discern how we can use them as situational guides. 2001 mythology is a natural story describing experience with little or no interpretation, whereas the Christ narrative has the quality of revelation or apocalyptic meaning; the veil is lifted and we are asked to step in by faith. These diverse tales with their varying intentions are to be approached with anticipation and humility. Together they speak of our vulnerability, culpability, as well as our destiny.

The extra-terrestrials behind the evolutionary leaps in the movie/novel were once as we were: undeveloped beings enthralled by materiality. They made the leaps from animal to human and from material to spirit existence. Theirs is a mythology of consciousness that leads to power and liberation.

The Christ story anchors our destiny in hope. It is a mythology of descent rather than ascent. A myth of embodiment from the spirit realm rather than a myth of spiritualized bodies. In this myth, a body, a very particular one in Jesus of Nazareth, partakes of the divine nature through incarnation. Fundamentally it is a myth where the evolutionary dynamic is love, not gnosis or power.

As a race we will be changed from the vulnerable yet bloodthirsty creatures we were and are into the image of God.

Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:2,3).

The obstinate traits of rage, revenge, paranoia, insecurity and secrecy which plague humanity, and our future brother HAL, will not be overcome by knowledge and rationality but only through love and forgiveness. We participate in a new nature when we discover that we are loved sinners, forgiven not merely transformed.

In the novel and the movie the pointer to this higher level, which includes love, is alluded to by the empathy, the forerunner of forgiveness, that David Bowman displayed when he dismantled HAL and recognized in the computer the echo of human vulnerability and fear of death. David himself soon experienced the same panic and fear when he died, to live again as a Star-Child. In the myth of 2001 and in the Christian story the perennial truth is that unless a grain falls into the ground and die it cannot bring forth fruit.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

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