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Film

Stanley Kubrick explains the meaning of the monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey'

@Russellisation

Holding an existential magnifying glass up to each and every project he sets out to make, the filmography of Stanley Kubrick is truly enigmatic, suffusing such moral questions of mortality into the likes of horror film The Shining and war drama, Full Metal Jacket, to name just two. There is perhaps no film that is pondered over more and discussed to such great extents than Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Adapted from the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick’s film is a visionary journey through the timeline of humanity that discusses the concepts of regeneration, religion and technological advancements. A feat of great cinematic marvel, Kubrick’s vision is truly unparalleled, creating the benchmark to which every modern filmmaker aims to reach, from Christopher Nolan to Denis Villeneuve

Although Kubrick’s film flirts with the first contact of humanity and an alien lifeform, the audience never actually sees an ‘alien’ in the traditional sense, with the experience of seeing such a being communicated through the towering monolith. Itself an icon of science fiction filmmaking, the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a towering black column, rudimental in its design and groundbreaking in its symbolic connotations. 

Famously tight-lipped about the particular meaning of his film’s specific details, Stanley Kubrick revealed the thinking behind the monolith in an interview with film writer, Joseph Gelmis in 1969. Asked about the lack of a typical alien presence in the film, Kubrick replied: “From the very outset of work on the film we all discussed means of photographically depicting an extraterrestrial creature in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself”. 

Rare clip of Stanley Kubrick explaining the ending of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

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In the same sentiment as fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, Kubrick wished to obscure the sight of the alien being with the knowledge that anything he conjured could not match the power of the imagination, noting, “It soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable”. As a result, Kubrick created the black monolith, the antithesis to wild creativity that is paradoxically an innovative masterstroke. 

As Stanley Kubrick explained: “All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality,” making reference to the monolith’s intimidating size and terrifying unknown impetus. Continuing, the filmmaker added: “That’s why we settled on the black monolith — which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype, and also a pretty fair example of ‘minimal art’”. 

Revealing that the monolith is inspired by the theory of Jungian archetypes devised by Carl Jung, this concept is defined by images and themes that derive from the collective unconscious. Jung believed that certain symbols from different cultures are often very similar as they have been developed from archetypes shared by a collective human unconscious. 

Whilst Stanley Kubrick’s definition is predictably vague, it does give us some further understanding of the thinking behind the object’s design as well as why it is given such focus in the director’s undisputed science fiction masterpiece.

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