Signs, Symbols and Metaphors in 2001: a Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrik prided himself on inserting subliminal messages, symbols, metaphors and any manner of sub-visual meanings into his films. And his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is a very good example to illustrate the point, if not the best. In this piece I will attempt to identify and explain a few of these phenomena, focussing on symbols, signs and metaphors present in the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that is filled to the brim with symbols. These symbols usually follow a theme that is reinforced over and over, and one of these recurring elements are glowing eyes, first seen on the leopard, which is a symbol of elitism in 2001.

Another example is the spherical space craft that carries Heywood Floyd from the orbiting space station to the Clavius moon station. As it is docking, it resembles a head with glowing eyes, as a symbol of Heywood Floyd’s elite status. The glowing eyes are more pronounced in the monitor on the left side of the scene. In addition, during the opening shot of the next scene, the photographer in the meeting room has reflective cuff links that resemble the glowing eyes of the leopard. His plaid suit, both jacket and pants, are suggestive of the repetitive design of the leopard’s fur.

The glowing eye of HAL is pervasive on-board Discovery One as an obvious symbol of domination and control. And finally, the 3 solo space pods on board Discovery One are metaphors for eye balls, given the white colouring, the centre view port corresponding to the pupil, and surrounding radiating design resembling the iris. During the two outside missions in which Dave removes the AE-35 unit and Frank attempts to put back, their space pods reflect a small source of light in their view ports as they rotate. With the second pod, it is HAL controlling the pod in order to kill Frank. These reflections of light in the eye-like pods are the same glowing eye symbols as with the predatory leopard.

In a film so filled with symbols and metaphors it is rather hard to find a sign that points to something specific in the way that a sign would. But in doing research and realising the strong possibility for the monoliths to represent the film screen I came across a bit of information that closely resembles the function of a sign, albeit in hidden way. One of the main characters Heywood Floyd also related to the Elitist symbolism above, and the strong possibility of false-flag symbols around the cinema screen = monolith parallels, is an anagram for defy holy wood. This probably means a couple things.

Kubrick is calling on us to defy the Hollywood-type false-flag deceptions that are orchestrated by certain government groups and are played upon the movie screen of the national psyche. What Heywood and his inner circle did using the staged alien artefact “discovery” is an example of this. This is a common tactic used by groups within governments, see Wikipedia’s entry on “false flag”. To defy Hollywood seems to have been a recurring theme with Kubrick. There has also been political commentaries interwoven symbolically into 2001 at many places.

Finally the design of the Discovery ship seems to hint of many things, the bone thrown by the ape, an eyeball on a stem or a ball and chain. Its spherical front end appears smaller from outside than it does inside.

The Discovery’s design seems to fulfil several metaphors at once, but there’s a very blatant one, where its spherical front section has grey stripes or bands that are faintly similar to those of Jupiter, and if the Discovery sphere is intended to visually mirror Jupiter then the open pod bay doors could be a parallel of Jupiter’s great red spot.

Bowman’s survival of the vacuum of space, could also be explained by this metaphor of the discovery as a planet. He survives because there symbolically is an atmosphere to be breathed. That helps to link the Discovery also playing the role of the earth, and most likely the moon as well, thanks to it’s grey colour.

In conclusion
This film has far to many interpretations for the world to ever come to an absolute conclusion as to what it meant, and thus the best way to approach it is most likely to decide what it means for ones self. Many people will be frustrated by the sheer amount of symbols and other subtext included in a film like this, but without prime examples of what film is capable of, examples like 2001, we risk being stuck in a loop of mediocre normality. Perhaps this film still has a few secrets locked up in its secret symbols, and if after almost 60 since its release we still find new meanings, what will the next 60 hold for its interpretation?

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One thought on “Signs, Symbols and Metaphors in 2001: a Space Odyssey

  1. SheSays says:

    Good catch on the eye symbolism, Pafuriza. It continues with the round shape of the “space stewardesses” white hats, the spherical camera the astronauts use to take pictures of the moon monolith, the eye-like patches on the astronaut uniforms, the front end of Bowman’s ship with it’s opening “eyelid” doors for the “eye” pods you mentioned, & also Heywood’s moon-landing craft (with it’s German cross markings.) Most of the starcraft & bases in 2001 give design hints of who made them, whether its Pan Am (the Earth-to-Spacestation ship), China (a satellite), Germany (another satellite), or Britain (the moon base’s opening doors).

    The monolith shape also reappears over & over again in the design throughout all the starcraft and space stations as buttons, lights, LED displays, scaffolding, wall paneling, food trays, the arm controls on the astronaut uniforms, superimposed over the eyes of actors & camera lenses, the list goes on & on. I agree with you & Rob Ager that the monolith shape is a movie screen symbol. It seemed most obvious during the “moon conference” scene where all the walls are like brightly lit movie screens complete with theater curtains. Also when the camera pulls back from the opening of the space station to highlight its rectangular shape exactly in alignment with the movie screen itself.

    I may be the first to notice how the ceiling is illuminated in the space station, the walls are illuminated at the moon conference, & the floor at the end of the film is illuminated & looks just like the ceiling of the space station at the beginning of the film. Would love to hear your thoughts on what that might signify.

    The “false flag” the government elite is promoting is a fake moon disease, not the monolith found on the moon itself. The “outbreak” is the cover for what Heywood’s gang is hiding from the public: the previously buried (by whom?) but now uncovered moon monolith.

    Another shape motif which reappears throughout the film is a “fat” monolith shape where the sides are bowed out. Most of the space craft doors are this shape, as is the wall paneling in the “moon set” where the dug out monolith is being filmed by observation cameras (film cameras with monolith-shaped lenses). I believe this is at least partially a symbol for the human visual range, especially since the glass in all the astronaut helmets are purposely made in this very shape. The primary colored (red, yellow & blue) Jupiter mission space suits in the eye pod bay room also reinforce this visual symbolism.

    Well, guess I babbled enough about this film well over a year late since you posted this. Hope you find my observations interesting!

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