Kubrick as Marx: An Analysis of Ideology and Violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey
by Shaun Terry
Note: in referring to the ape-people and HAL, I may use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them,” and “their.”
To my knowledge, Stanley Kubrick never called himself a Marxist, a fact perhaps complicated by then-contemporary notions of Communism and Marxism. While Kubrick’s films avoid blunt Eisensteinian montage, he clearly seems to make statements through his work. Having developed what we might think of as post-Eisensteinian projects (not unlike Orson Welles’s careful, value-laden films), perhaps Kubrick is aware of Bazinian concerns. There seems to be a clear reading of 2001: A Space Odyssey by which Kubrick’s messages on violence, technology, and human progress carry, along with obvious Nietzschean undertones, Marxian ones, too.
The monoliths can be associated with violence and dramatic change, but they also seem to have a Marxian sublational quality. As humanity pushes along—creating conflicts, repeatedly finding itself stuck, yearning for answers—the seemingly more detached and perhaps evil monoliths might represent important developments on Marx’s inevitable arc of human progress. We might conclude that conflicts between classes of people result in paradigm shifts that are simultaneously useful and devastating. We can start by analyzing the film’s “The Dawn of Man” scene.
Immediately following the geocentric, perfectly-aligned image of the sun appearing over Earth’s horizon, accompanied by the major resolution of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (an unsubtle reference to Nietzsche), “The Dawn of Man” starts with a mostly-dark landscape: a carmine semi-desert steppe, the buzzing of insects and animals. The title of the scene appears in a serif font, reminiscent of characters we might imagine were used to write Ancient Roman classics. The movie title in the previous scene was in a futuristic sans serif font; perhaps the change in font means to signal something temporal, helping to illuminate the importance of the motor of human history. The monoliths seem to at least be markers of human shifts. We can notice that the redness that pervades the scene’s atmosphere suggests one of the film’s central themes: red is a color associated with HAL, who (if we are meant to think of HAL as a who) seems to possess more emotional sensitivity than HAL’s human companions. Perhaps Kubrick means to say that, as a persisting product of brutal Enlightenment preference for logos over pathos, humanity has lost something—a point that historicist Marx would likely agree with.
We leave the montage of broad, blood-toned vistas to attend to ape-people having to divide water and plants (food) with tapirs. Among a bevy of skeletons—anthropic and non-anthropic alike—the ape-people become aggressive toward the tapirs, pushing and slapping them to ensure greater access to necessary food and water. Humanity will persist via dominance.
Here, Kubrick makes an interesting choice in constructing the scene: whereas landscape shots appear realistic, shots with the ape-people are lit by multiple sources and clearly take place on quasi-realistic sets with two-dimensional depictions as backgrounds. In an ironic twist on Bazin’s thinking in “The Evolution of the Cinema,” Kubrick’s use of telephoto lenses in these shots seems to emphasize unrealisticnesses of the visible. Kubrick seems to be playing with the “faith in the image” versus “faith in reality” distinction that Bazin draws. On one hand, Kubrick provides a plausible narrative to explain the genesis of human violence; on the other, Kubrick seems to show self-awareness to say that we oversimplify the origins of aspects of humanity. This works in much the same way that Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” means to dissuade us from quickly accepting all that seems to be, which might inform a Marxian historicist reading that might say that, contrary to the prevailing narrative, power asserts itself in the formation of ideology.
The scene takes place in a good deal of darkness even in the most well lit shots, helping to set the tone for the proverbial darkness that humanity is soon to present. The minor inter-species violence over scarce resources is immediately followed by one of the ape-people being attacked and ostensibly killed by a big cat. We are in a brutal, chaotic place, to be sure, but this violence foreshadows the inter-protohuman conflict that Kubrick uses to flesh out his theory of violent human nature. Initially, the ape-peoples’ conflict is carried out by intimidation and threat, since they are limited in their ability to cause damage to one another. But, this changes when the monolith signals a violent progression in the human story.
The monolith seems to force its acknowledgement by waking one of the ape-people. The ape-person responds to the monolith with hysteria—that is, the ape-person does not simply observe the monolith; instead, they react violently, as though in fear (if initially the ape-person’s and their counterparts’ fear is unclear, it is further clarified in the ape-people’s repeated hesitancy to touch the monolith). This helps to clarify Kubrick’s theory on human violence. At least sometimes, when humans encounter new things, rather than soberly inspecting, they fearfully respond, quickly becoming violent. This is exacerbated by the fact that differences in capacity to inflict damage might effect differences in people’s material outcomes, possibly contributing to cycles of violence.
When the camera pulls out to more fully show the ape-people encircling the monolith, the area around the monolith forms a well-lit area in the dark, as though illuminated by a spotlight. Some of the ape-people begin to physically engage with the monolith, and the creepy, discordant music from earlier in the film returns. The ape-people contract around the monolith, all touching it before the camera cuts to look into the sky—the monolith protruding from the bottom of the shot. The sun lines up with the moon as it rises over the center of the horizon formed by the monolith, perhaps suggesting the centrality of the monolith. What we might take from the discordant musical accompaniment to the power represented by the monolith is that dramatic human change comes in the form of seemingly chaotic violence. This violence might be exacerbated by the at-first unfulfilled need for shifting social relations, as Marx might put it, to adapt to advancements in technology; in some sense, we initially spend our time stumbling in the dark. Like Plato’s cave, those latencies might have lingering negative effects.
This introduces a paradox: when the monolith appears, it often helps to form a symmetrical cosmic pattern, but the music is grating and sounds almost intentionally nonsensical and discomforting. On one hand, we have patterned cosmic design; on the other, we have terrifying chaos. The paradox is quickly resolved, though. After the camera cuts away from the monolith, the camera comes to focus on an ape-person playing in dirt and bones. The camera returns, albeit only for an instant, to the monolith-sun-moon alignment. Immediately following this, the ape-person stares at the bones, tilting their head back-and-forth as though they experience an elucidation of potential reality. Also Sprach Zarathustra returns, and the ape-person discovers the bone’s usefulness as a destructive tool. The music reaches a thunderous, ordered resolution as the ape-person swings the bone with both hands over their head to crush the skeletal skull in front of them and obliterate the skeleton. The development of the full force of the technology allows for advancement of power, signaling humanity’s entrance into the next increasingly violent epoch.
We cut to the group of ape-people eating meat seemingly for the first time. The monolith has marked the development of the ape-people’s handy death-tool. Then, we witness the next conflict between the two tribes of ape-people, but our primary subjects come armed. One of the other tribe persists at the watering hole, but the bone quickly subdues them. After having scared off the other tribe, one of our subjective tribe throws a bloodied bone in the air: victory through domination. These are the relatively enlightened übermenschen, or capital class, if you prefer.
The bone turns into a space station and, after Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube’s lithe, sophisticated accompaniment to images that would surely inspire George Lucas’s Star Wars and other science-fiction films to follow, we are introduced to Dr. Frank Poole, played by William Sylvester. The interior of the space station looks like a cross between a 1960s university math department and the art-deco imaginings of a 1960s interior designer. Dr. Poole appears as the proposed math professor in a brown tweed suit. Bazin might propose that science-fiction requires a restyling of aesthetics such that the futuristicness of the mise en scène not overwhelm the spectator. More temporal assignation appears in the form of global capitalistic branding. In the expansive space station appear logos for Pan-American Airlines, Hilton, Howard Johnson, Bell Telephone, and Aeroflot. While this notion of (extra-) globalization seems simultaneously prescient and indicative of a mid-20th century trend, Kubrick would have been unable to have predicted the full consequence of late capitalism—HAL later informs us that he was made in Illinois. Today, this might seem so preposterous as to be confusing: not only are computers rarely assembled in the United States, the parts for electronic devices generally come from all over the world. However, to the degree that there may be shortcomings in terms of the film’s predictions of the future, its accuracies are impressive, like in the case of what we might think of as a lo-res Skype call between Dr. Poole and his daughter.
Dr. Poole bumps into some Russian scientists (he starts with the old sexist ritual of telling his female acquaintance—the mononymous Elena, played by Margaret Tyzack—that she looks good, to which she responds obligatorily in kind). This begins a Kubrickian there’s-something-not-quite-right-there-you-should-reconsider-your-role unheeded warning scene (think of Halloran’s warning in The Shining or the repeated warnings in Eyes Wide Shut, as examples), indicating human hubris. After the requisite greetings and smalltalk, Dr. Andrei Smyslov, played by Leonard Rossiter, takes on the inquisition of the evasive Dr. Poole. The two men (the only men among the circle) smile politely at each other while the women remain passive, de-humanized, disempowered objects in the background, blending in with the cold, austere, antiseptic interior design of boxy white panels and magenta (not a human red) blobbish chairs. As the scene unfolds, Dr. Poole’s charming ignorance reveals itself to be a deceptive technique as he repeatedly claims that he is “not at liberty to discuss” the brewing situation (or even the intentionally leaked fabrication-as-coverup). Humans now intentionally create Plato’s cave when it might serve their ambitions.
Perhaps it is telling that Russian Dr. Smyslov’s earnestness and concern are mirrored by American Dr. Poole’s stodgy, polite fakeness. In the height of the Cold War, Kubrick imagines a future by which Russians and Americans freely interact, but in which Russians are warm, reasonable people and Americans are dishonest and destructive. This leads to an interesting conclusion. Kubrick’s depictions of globalization clearly demonstrate his sense of a potentiality of American capitalism, and the rest of the film plays out in a way that supports the notion that late capitalism is a particularly virulent strain of human development, both naïve and devastating in its bumbling adventures toward “progress.” If we take this notion a bit further, it is capitalism that leads to the devolution of humans into brutal robots, while the state communists of Russia do not lose their humanity in the same way and/or to the same degree that Western capitalists do.
When Marx, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, thinks of the problems of capitalism, he often thinks of them as having to do with that which makes us essentially human. He sometimes describes “species-being” in a way that suggests a patently capitalist tension between self-service and altruism. Marx suggests that we might be able to take on a new form of “sensuous activity” by which we can live fuller, more harmonious lives. In 2001, Kubrick seems concerned with something similar: a loss of so much potential humanity. The monoliths might mark moments by which people have hastily taken up the promise of technological advancements without attending to the problems that these advancements might present. The latency of policy responses to advancements might lead to ideological shifts that favor the most powerful at the expense of the weakest, except that these paradigm shifts might also take something from all of us. Surely, one would suppose that Marx would agree, but Nietzsche would maybe be less receptive.
Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Edited by Corrigan, Timothy; White, Patricia; and Mazaj, Meta. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2011. 314-325.
Nietzsche, Friederich. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.
Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Early Writings. Colletti, Lucio; Nairn, Tom. Vintage Books, 1974. 279-400.
Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Edited by Corrigan, Timothy; White, Patricia; and Mazaj, Meta. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 7-9.