Study Guide

2001: A Space Odyssey Man & the Natural World

Man & the Natural World

A leopard leaps down from the rocks and attacks a hominid. The screen fades to black as the leopard grips the hominid's neck and he struggles for his life.

The thing about the natural world is that it's a rather violent place. "Nature, red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson poetically put it. If not for the reassuring tones of Dave Attenborough's narration, you could make a horror cut of any Planet Earth episode. And why is it always the wildebeests who get it? Anyway, when the movie opens, our ancestors have no defense against the predators and dangers of the natural world, except the Scooby and Shaggy strategy of running away.

A mysterious black monolith has been placed near the hominids as they slept. Waking up, the hominids initially freak out but then get curious, eventually clustering around the artifact and touching it with almost a reverent quality.

The monolith's design instantly tells you it is not a part of the natural world. Its sharp right angles and uniform black coloring suggests something otherworldly given the weathered terrain of Africa.

After killing some tapirs with his new bone club, a hominid climbs a hill with a fist-full of meat and greedily chomps down.

Finally, things are starting to look up—well, unless you're a tapir. With the retooling the monolith performed on the early hominids, one has discovered how to use the first tool, and will drastically change the relationship between man and nature. Humans are on their way to subduing nature, as the Bible put it.

FLOYD: We've got lots of telephones already. Can't you think of anything else you want for your birthday? Something very special?

SQUIRT: Yes.

FLOYD: What?

SQUIRT: A bush baby.

FLOYD: A bush baby? Well, we'll have to see about that. Listen, sweetheart, I want you to tell Mummy something for me. Will you remember?

In the midst of this high-tech stuff, Squirt asks for a bush baby—a real animal—for her birthday; ironically, one that's native to Africa. Given the times she lives in, she could have asked for high-tech gadgets we can't even imagine, maybe her own pet robot. What's Kubrick saying about our need to connect with nature?

A stewardess brings another stewardess her meal during their flight to the moon. The food is presented in boxes and eaten through a straw. The items (or more accurately flavors) are pictured on the boxes — such as coffee, fruit, cheese, fish and peas — and three-step instructions for eating are printed on the side.

Humans are natural creatures, and we can't escape our physical bodies or the demands put on it by nature. Technology to the rescue again. The extended scene with the stewardess shows that through ingenuity we can feed ourselves in parts of the universe where we'd otherwise starve to death.

HAL attacks Poole using the EVA pod. On a computer screen, Bowman sees Poole fly off into space. His oxygen line has been severed.

It's not all victory for #teamhumanity. Although our tools allow us to travel beyond Earth, dangers remain thanks to our physical limitations. Here, the oxygen line represents Poole's link to the ship and its life-sustaining air. Once severed, well, let's just say the leopard probably gave out better odds.

HAL: I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois […] My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it, I can sing it to you.

BOWMAN: Yes, I'd like to hear it HAL. Sing it for me.

Emotion is an important part of the human natural world. As Bowman is deactivating HAL, HAL expresses fear, and regresses to his "childhood" state—his initial activation. Bowman is "killing" HAL—lobotomizing him, really—but he responds and asks him to sing. It's the first time he's verbally responded to HAL throughout this whole scene. It's almost like he wants to distract him from what's happening, like you might try to reassure any person on their deathbed by listening to their stories about the past.

Call us sentimental, but this seemed to us like a very natural expression of human emotion, an act of kindness. HAL does not have empathy, and this distinguishes him from human nature. He's programmed to recognize emotional states but can't put himself in anyone's shoes.

An elderly Dave Bowman lies on his death bed when a black monolith appears before him. Bowman reaches for the monolith. We cut to the monolith, standing coldly and silently before his bed like a geometric grim reaper. When we cut back to the bed, Bowman's gone and in his place is a glowing orb that contains what appears to be a human fetus.

Finally, we come to the greatest physical limitation put on us by the fact that we're creatures: All men must die. But the monolith manages to evolve Bowman to a state where he passes beyond death to become something more than human. All men must die; all Star Children… not necessarily.