In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there is no more discussed symbolic element than The Monolith.
It serves a literal and symbolic function within the film, and within the literal function, the slab can be interpreted countless ways. From a conjunction of the literal, symbolic and interpretive, the Monolith represents the film 2001 itself.
Some thoughts stimulated by the Monolith.
1. An important shot in the first part of “The Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001 occurs while Moonwatcher (the name traditionally given to the ape leader) is squatting among bones of animals.
On the screen appears a shot of the monolith with the sun rising over it. After this shot, Moonwatcher picks up a large bone and starts hitting—first tentatively, then with force—the bones around him, until he's standing and we get a shot of a tapir falling to the ground.
This primitive tool, the bone as club, becomes the means by which the humanoid apes will progress and prevail. The tool makes the ape-man. Tools allow them to dominate over the landscape, other species, and, crucially, other apes.
2. Initially, I had thought that Moonwatcher (Daniel Richter) had turned, observed the monolith, and was inspired to use the bone as a tool/weapon. Upon subsequent viewing, I saw the scene differently. It wasn’t the presence of the Monolith but Moonwatcher's “thought” or memory of the Monolith that had become the source of inspiration.
In other words: perhaps the Monolith is not meant to be physically present in the moment it is shown on screen; perhaps we are watching Moonwatcher reflect, recall, or experience the Monolith.
This small difference bears out when one knows that the Monolith itself was initially to be a teaching machine (and serves this function in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 novel). Subsequently, directlor Stanley Kubrick stripped the Monolith’s function to the minimum: a slab of geometrically perfect stone.
3. The shot of the Monolith-as-thought is like Adam and Eve taking a bite of the apple, only this Eden is a desert. Instead of forbidding humans to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the “aliens” who placed the slab amidst the apes encourage their curiosity.
And instead of shame over beating the animal to death, the ape discovers a source of food with fatty proteins to make him strong. He’s feeling strength from this and the power. Moonwatcher and his brood may even find a way out of the wasteland and enter the Garden.
4. Before getting out of the desert, murder must be committed; ape-on-ape crime. Territorial dispute over a waterhole. Moonwatcher and friends come with clubs; a primitive mafia. The first murder. Violence inflicted upon its own species is the first sign of our humanity; or, at least, a humanity defined by its tools.
The apes. The desert. They lead to human-ness. Is this the Darwinian version of Genesis?
5. Moonwatch’s ecstacy after having killed his brother ape and secured the waterhole. The ape has overcome himself. He throws the bone skyward.
Suddenly, it is transformed into a shot of a satellite above the earth—a satellite containing nuclear weapons. From primitive tool to advanced tool, humans apparently haven’t overcome their propensity for self-inflicted, tribalist violence.
As Nietzsche wrote: “Sometimes man is more of an ape than the ape.”
6. All our technological ingenuity and we’re still fighting over waterholes. I remember a recent news report or magazine article proclaiming that sooner or later nations will be fighting over sources of fresh water.
7. What has our progress wrought? By 2001, our tools dominate us. Mankind’s innovative qualities have denatured the human species. We are too clever for our own good.
In 2001, humans had to defy gravity to reach the moon and uncover the “deliberately buried” Monolith. The pace of the film is dictated by the characters’ struggle to move in zero-gravity conditions.
On his flight to the moon, scientist Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) stands before the restroom on the spaceship pondering the long list of instructions on how take a crap in zero gravity. The look on his face suggests that he might hold it in until reaches the Clavius moon base.
The story of 2001 can be reduced to this: humans attempt to pursue the origin of its intelligence. Chasing the Monolith while being helped along the way by the Monolith (on the moon). The stages of the chase represent, perhaps, our progress; the chase could also be our pursuing our own intellectual tail.
8. When astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) removes the computer’s—HAL’s—major cognitive functions, the computer parts that he neutralizes are hundreds of small discs resembling mini-Monoliths. HAL was unconsciously constructed in the image of his maker, if by “maker” we mean the very thing that stimulated humans to consciousness and intelligence.
9. In 1948, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story called “The Sentinel,” which deals with a discovery on the moon of an object placed there by extraterrestrials. A simple story; no psychotic computer murderer, no Louis XVI room with a lighted floor. no Star Child. Just an object of polished mineral.
The story is the inspiration for the film, fleshed out by Kubrick and Clarke. The story itself takes on Monolith-qualities for the film’s creators. As a counterpoint to the bone and its menacingly threatening capabilities, we get an object of art; a work of art that has inspired many to search for its ultimate meaning.
Sometimes it seems like this searching is like chasing an intellectual tail. What the Monolith-of-a-film inspires is not easy to say. For me it has been a 44-year quest.
10. We’re only dealing with the Monolith here, a fraction of the film, and there's no telling where the speculation will end. That’s one of the great joys of this film, and why it is the most studied film in my Zodiac.
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.