When I recently rewatched the film, what caught my attention was the opening. It's considered classic for good reason, but this time, I found it frustrating and insulting. Both the film and the book open with a long segment featuring a group of prehistoric apes, presumably our distant ancestors. The book is helpful in that we are able to get inside the minds of these creatures. One is called Moon-Watcher, and in the book we are able to see his thought processes, such as they are.
The apes’ constant struggle is for food and basic survival. They have no higher purpose. They have families, but there’s no understanding of family relationships or even affection for family members. You’re born, you live for a few years, you die. There’s no emotion attached to any of it. It’s the only existence they know.
But it is just that, existence. They have no self-awareness, no concept of time. The present moment is all they have; all that matters is filling their belly today and steering clear of any predators so that they can do so again tomorrow. And yet even the concept of “tomorrow” is beyond their grasp.
As the story unfolds, we see these creatures learn to make and use tools in order to conquer this world, and eventually, the worlds beyond. But what struck me this time is that they did not do so alone. There was a catalyst.
The catalyst is a huge black metal-like slab, planted into the earth by a faraway, advanced Intelligence. The story never fully explains how it all works or even who these advanced creatures are. But the idea is that this thing emits vibrations and sounds, and when the apes are in its presence, their minds begin to change. They become self-aware. They make mental leaps that they’d never been able to make before, such as figuring out that other animals can be killed and used for food, and that they can even save some for later.
It’s an experiment of sorts, providing a fast-forward evolution that moves these creatures from their bare existence to creatures who will eventually build rocket ships to take them to other worlds, both known and unknown.
How interesting that, even in a world where Darwinian evolution is widely considered gospel truth and the slightest deviation from it called heresy, we know it makes no rational sense for creatures to simply “figure things out” on their own, in order to make that giant leap for mankind.
There’s nothing in this world that looks like it took intelligence that did not actually have intelligence behind it. "2001" cannot escape this reality, since the plot of the story revolves around the fact that long ago, unidentified intelligent beings are the ones who created these black slabs as the tools used to begin the evolution of apes to humans.
I had originally read the book and watched the film as a young person who did not understand the biblical worldview. Now, as I watched the movie for the first time in years, I was taken aback by these chattering, screeching, dirty, often violent animals who are supposed to be our ancestors. This is all meant to be uplifting and inspiring. After all, look how far we’ve come! We are no longer those mindless, savage creatures. We are now so intellectually and technologically advanced that there seems to be no limit to what we can accomplish. (Though the case could be made that we are no less violent and self-centered, only more sophisticated in so being.)
While Christians may disagree on the finer points of the creationism/evolution debate, the bottom line remains that either we came into existence by the blind forces of time and chance, or we were created by and in the image of an all-knowing, all-powerful and loving personal God. We are either here to fulfill our physical and emotional needs and then go back to dust, or we are more, and we have a destiny and capacity far greater than simply existing for a short time and dying to make room for the next batch of evolved apes.
We long for transcendence. We crave communion with something or someone greater than ourselves. Despite its roots in Darwinian evolution, "2001" cannot but help showing us just that, and perhaps it’s this that makes the story such a perennial favorite with audiences and critics.
The story ends with the astronaut David Bowman traveling through the monolith, which is really a Star Gate: a portal created by the now long-gone Intelligence, a larger version of the one they used on Earth millions of years ago that initiated the process of man’s evolution from ape to man. Now it’s used to make Bowman something more: a Star-Child. He is at last free of matter and time and able to transcend Earth itself, to a journey whose end has not been written.
But mankind’s real end is far more glorious. God has made transcendence possible—not just transcendence of matter, but transcendence of our own sinful natures—through Christ’s atonement and our receiving of that gift. Through Him we can gain forgiveness and enter into that communion with that Someone greater that we so desperately long for, and that movies and books can only point toward.
Unlike David Bowman’s future at the conclusion of 2001, mankind’s end has been written.
But the choice is ours.
Maureen Cruz lives in Chicago and enjoys science fiction of all kinds.