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Examining 2001: A Space Odyssey’s continuing cultural impact through the Utah monolith

Isy Platt explores 2001: A Space Odyssey’s relevancy in today's world

Image(s): Wikipedia

(This article contains some spoilers as to the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Consider yourself warned)

2001: A Space Odyssey is vastly different to The Shining, which is vastly different to Barry Lyndon, which is vastly different to A Clockwork Orange... and so on. The key to Kubrick’s success arguably was his unpredictability; if he wanted to make a sci-fi epic, he made it. If he wanted to adapt a Makepeace Thackeray novel, he did it. If he wanted to write a black comedy that satirised the threat of nuclear war, he wrote it.

2001 followed Kubrick’s critically acclaimed Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and was based on the novel by Arthur C. Clark in which the discovery of an alien monolith on the moon, planted by an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation, prompts man’s efforts to discover its origins. Critical reviews were polarised at the time but it has come to occupy a consistently high ranking in film canons and greatest films lists, and has retrospectively been called Kubrick’s masterpiece.

It pioneered different forms of special effects, with a noticeable influence on film and television in the years and decades following its release. The Ferris wheel style rotating sets inspired the fight scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the slit-scan photography technique used to create the “Star Gate” sequence was replicated in episodes of Doctor Who, and George Lucas paid homage to Kubrick’s space film in the opening shot of his own, Star Wars, in 1977, since his conceptual designers had worked on 2001.

But to what extent does the film influence us culturally, not just within the film industry itself? And what is its popular legacy more than fifty years after its initial release? Perhaps we can begin to answer this question by looking to the Utah desert.

In November 2020 a 3m tall triangular prism was discovered by state biologists in San Juan County in a sandstone canyon. It’s unclear how it came to be there, as no one has claimed responsibility and no one accurately knows when it was installed, although Reddit users with the help of Google Images have dated it between July and October 2016. Since then, many imitation look-alikes have popped up all over the world, in locations ranging from the Isle of Wight to northern Romania. Immediately after its discovery, there was a flurry of interest in its origins. After its removal only a few days later, The New York Times wondered whether it would ‘lose its aura and power if we knew who had created it’.

For many, the structure immediately conjured to mind the monolith of Kubrick's space epic. But why? The Utah monolith and the one from 2001 don’t look alike. Their dimensions, shape and material differ vastly, although the original design of the film’s monolith was much closer to the one installed in Utah, originally being conceived as a plexiglass pyramid before its evolution into an imposing matte black cuboid. There is also no implication at all that this 21st-century monolith was planted by extraterrestrials, despite both appearing and disappearing in strange circumstances, and, as no artist has come forward, there is no way of knowing whether they were inspired in any way by Kubrick’s film.

So why, if the Utah monolith and Kubrick’s look so dissimilar, and are seemingly so unconnected, are the comparisons being made?

A little bit of a deviation. I used to be good at not crying during films. I’ve lost that ability, and now tear up at what I perceive to be the strangest of moments. One of these was during the sequence in the neoclassical-inspired bedroom, where Keir Dullea’s Dr David Bowman sees, and then becomes, different versions of himself as he grows old and eventually passes away, confronted once more by the imposing monolith at the foot of his bed. Perhaps though, shedding tears at this moment isn’t quite as odd as I first thought.

The process of aging and dying is something that all people are familiar with, and there is something about placing this sequence at the end of a sci-fi epic that brings it back to earth. Wherever the room is in the galaxy, in the universe even, no longer matters - the bedroom is simply a bedroom where we watch a man grow old and die. Nor does the astronauts’ mission, to discover the truth behind the monoliths and the civilisation that put them there. The resolution of the film reflects the journey of humankind, and the film becomes a parable of human nature, exposing our need for answers that sometimes can never be obtained.

Returning once more to the monoliths. Kubrick’s is the core of his film - but is it its enigma, or its MacGuffin? Perhaps it doesn’t truly symbolise, represent or mean anything. True, it appears to assist humankind’s evolution, but it could be argued that it inspires, rather than makes it happen. The 2020 monolith’s disappearance was almost as mysterious as its discovery - that is, until the Utah locals responsible came forward, at which point some of the mystery and magic was lost.

Roger Ebert argued that 2001 already contained all the answers to all the questions it posed. It’s the fact that the monolith can’t truly be explained which makes it so fascinating, and its ability to reveal aspects about ourselves makes it exactly the same as the structure in Utah. That’s why the comparisons are made; because the latter’s origins are near unsolvable we incessantly seek and search for answers, a human quality that Kubrick’s film brings to the surface. And maybe, if the facts behind it emerge, those who have invested time and effort to obtain those facts will be deeply disappointed. But I don’t think that’s the point. The aims of both monoliths are that their mystery will never be solved.


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