2001: A Space Odyssey is full of memorable visuals, many of them spherical: the graceful pirouette of planets and moons, HAL 9000's clinical red eye, and dozens of round waltzing spaceships.
Intruding into this increasingly concentric space: the enigmatic monolith. Rectangular, unreflective, impenetrable ... symbolically, it's a fertile choice. Visually, it's a simple and effective design that, in director Stanley Kubrick's visual context, relays a subconscious charge from that old adage about square pegs and round holes. By overtly establishing spheres as harmonic and graceful entities, Kubrick's oblong alien seems truly alien.
All of the above visuals are easily recalled whether you saw the movie just last night or when it premiered nearly 40 years ago. But if you've got a stopwatch and lots of patience, you may be surprised to learn that the face of astronaut Dave Bowman occupies the center of the frame more than any other image.
That's an interesting choice in a film whose few characters are purposely distant, emotionally contained, and moving through this cosmic storyline without much notable growth or arc. But Kubrick isn't telling a story about characters who change. 2001 is about an entire species that, under alien influence, undergoes apocalyptic shifts in psyche and biology.
Given that, it's not surprising that Kubrick chooses the clean-cut everyman face of actor Keir Dullea as a surrogate for the human race. He's bland and likeable, smart but uncomplicated, and you never once doubt his competence. He doesn't have the righteous screen presence of, say, Charlton Heston, who in the year of this film's release (1968) took his own mind-bending voyage through space and time in Planet of the Apes. Heston's heroic bombast would've been too much for 2001, but it's not at all hard to imagine Dullea as Heston's kinder, gentler offspring.
Although the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission was still 2 years away, the steadiness of Dave Bowman embodies what people remember most about that event: frightened, brave men choking down their fear to dutifully perform the next task that might get their bacon back home. We never relate to Dave Bowman in a three-dimensional way, but we empathize as he is forced to let fellow astronaut's Frank Poole's body drift back into the void from which he rescued it. As HAL's mind regresses to a childlike state, Dullea's steady voice breaks when he tells HAL he'd like to hear him sing a song.
In science fiction movies, alien encounters often arouse anger or fear in humans. That's a reasonable response when the visitors are here to rule, exterminate and/or eat us. Beginning in the 1950s, humans are increasingly shown perceiving aliens with the reverence and awe traditionally reserved for deities.
For example, Robert Wise's 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still concludes with world delegates solemnly assessing the plea for peaceful co-existence from the messianic alien Klaatu ... his tight-lipped threat of the alternative (global destruction) having raised eyebrows and not much else.
In the 1970s, we beheld the awestruck baby face of Richard Dreyfuss as he climbed aboard the starship and headed for the skies in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The following decade saw the giddy childlike wonder of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as she stroked the kaleidoscopic skin of a deep-sea alien in The Abyss. A mournful Jodie Foster in 1997's Contact, having traveled a journey very similar to Dave Bowman's, realizes the dead father before her is not a ghost, but an alien being who has borrowed a highly empathetic image from her mind.
The first monolith is greeted with hostility from our ancestors, and it quickly calms them with its eerie "voice." Millions of years later, in Dave Bowman's all-American countenance, fear and awe merge as he negotiates his surreal encounter with the Infinite. Here are some screencaps that show Kubrick continuing his circle motif with Bowman's face dead-center.
"Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL ... HAL, do you read me?"
HAL: "Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult."
HAL: "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal."
Bowman risks his life to travel from one circle (his pod) to another (Discovery's habitat) by passing violently through an oblong hatch. With HAL out of service, the ever-reliant Bowman continues his mission and takes a pod to inspect the large monolith orbiting Jupiter. He begins his now-famous journey through the Star Gate in disbelief and fear. Like the apes from the film's opening segment, he cannot process what he is seeing (nor can we, but it sure is pretty). As he rockets through strange dimensions, Kubrick interrupts the psychedelic gliding visuals with these unsettling flash-frames of a man going insane.
Bowman's screaming face strains to pull itself away from from the sights warping past. It's only apparent when studying these stills, but note how Kubrick doesn't allow actor Dullea to move the positioning of his helmet. Wouldn't the astronaut in all likelihood be twisting and screaming with his entire body? The helmet itself remains resolutely forward, as fixed as the frame itself. Bowman bounces around like a brain concussed inside a skull.
And then, the closest close-up of all, and the most spherical: Bowman's eye color-shifting as he reaches his almost-final destination:
The aliens have prepared an antiseptic Louis XVI-styled hotel room to cushion Bowman's psychic landing. We find him trembling inside the pod, unmoored and in complete shock.
After a moment, he sees himself outside the pod ...
... only to realize he's now outside, looking at the empty space where the pod once sat.
His face now lined with wrinkles, Bowman is suddenly calmer but still dazed. As he begins to process his surroundings, he shuffles to a mirror and regards himself blankly.
Previous scenes with the spacesuited Bowman have been accompanied by the oppressive sound of his breathing. Now we hear nothing, as if Bowman has already crossed into the afterlife.
The silence is broken as something makes a light scraping noise. The astronaut peers through a doorway to see ...
... the strange spectacle of an old man eating a meal. The elder man seems to sense the astronaut. He rises and walks to Bowman ... but the spacesuited figure is gone, and we recognize the old man is Bowman, even older now and clad in a black robe. Nonplussed, he carefully resumes his meal of bread and wine. When he accidentally breaks a wine stem, the silent perfection of this sterile world has been broken. He regards the pieces intently, but before he can process what's happening, his attention is drawn to a nearby bed.
There lies an old man, breathing shallowly. He lifts one trembling hand towards the monolith that now stands at the foot of the bed ...
... And in an abrupt and silent cut that never fails to make me catch my breath, David Bowman becomes the being known as the Star Child.
Following a quick zoom-in on the monolith, whose darkness transitions to Earth hanging against a star field, we see the being Bowman has become. Its apparent size is difficult to determine (it seems as large as Earth), but the shape is unmistakable.
From its round head and wide eyes to the luminous sac in which it floats, humanity's next phase of evolution brings it closer to the circles that govern the cosmos. And the story itself comes full-circle: it began with mankind's first evolutionary leap, as programmed by aliens. And here is the next.
And yet ... after this final image fades, the audience is left staring at a black screen whose shape closely approximates that of a monolith on its side.
Are we finished? Are there more circles to come? Kubrick, like any great artist, leaves us with more questions than answers.