The Utah Monolith: Showing the Hope and Power of “2001”

Image courtesy of the Utah Department of Public Safety, copyright 2020.

“I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe. — Stanley Kubrick

As the world knows, a silver monolith was found in the remote deserts of Utah, discovered accidentally via helicopter by the Utah Department of Public Safety during a routine count of bighorn sheep. Tall and sleek, the monolith seems to be an obvious reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1968 philosophical and cinematic masterpiece. Though the monolith in 2001 is matte black and has different proportions (1:4:9), the Utah desert setting is roughly similar and the reference to 2001 seems clear.

Naturally, imaginations are stoked, not unlike when the apes first saw the monolith and shrieked as they formed a circle around the mysterious object (see the image below). After all, 2001 clearly suggests 21st century humans are the latest stage of advanced simians on Planet Earth—evolved to be brainy and curious, and inspired by art, science, deep mystery, and the vastness of the cosmos. That’s why 2001 holds such power, as the film expresses the deepest of human hopes, to become the enlightened species we always imagined in our future.

Scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Copyright MGM.

Two decades past the year “2001,” we remain trapped on the Planet of the Apes and its pseudoscientific culture enthrall to endless warfare, Ancient Aliens, conspiracy theories, and anti-science worldviews. Just check out the reddit threads about the Utah monolith. Regardless of the origins, purpose, or fate of the Utah monolith, it is worth taking a few moments to explore the 2001 monolith and what it means—the hidden and subconscious reason the Utah monolith triggered such fascination.

Meanings of the “2001” Monolith

Simply put, the black monolith in 2001 is the coolest, most haunting, and most philosophically provocative icon in film history. There are four monoliths in the film: the desert monolith which inspired the apes, the moon monolith discovered by humans, the Jupiter monolith, which was a prelude to Dave Bowman’s journey through the Star-Gate, and Bowman’s hotel monolith, through which we were propelled to the Star-Child gazing at Earth in the final scene. Each monolith has a meaning that fuels our cinematic journey and collectively gives power to 2001.

2001 and the monolith show us as to be an evolutionary species capable of great things. Inspired by the monolith, the apes invent technology that evolves from bones to space stations. Kubrick shows we that evolved from apes to artists to astronauts, from simians to scientists and space voyagers. Inspired and seduced by the monolith, the humans in 2001 created a technological civilization capable of exploring the stars and seeking to understand its origins and destiny via art, science, and philosophy.

In the wake of the Apollo moon landings and the Hubble Space Telescope, we 21st century humans have ventured into a vast and wondrous universe, with two trillion galaxies stretched across 100 billion light years. This is an incredible incredible intellectual achievement for our species of which we should be proud.

In the year “2001” in the film, humans have established bases on the moon for scientific studies. They discover a monolith buried in a lunar crater. There is only one meaning: we are not alone in the universe and there are more advanced civilizations out there. The existence of the desert and moon monoliths offer a hopeful message, in that the extraterrestrials were benevolent and sought to inspire the simians and humans—the most advanced species on Earth at the time.

The moon monolith is beaming a radio signal to Jupiter, thus prompting the Jupiter mission to discover what might be there. The Jupiter monolith is floating in space and serves as the visual prompt for astronaut Dave Bowman’s journey through the Star-Gate. A symbol for the majestic mysteriousness of the universe, the Star-Gate portrays an overwhelming experience of the cosmic sublime—the simultaneous feelings of awe, wonder, and terror before the vast grandeur of the universe.

Though our 21st century science and technology are accelerating into the universe as if on autopilot, 2001suggests our discoveries will disrupt our traditional narratives and that our journey into space is the next step in our continuing existential quest. In the search for meaning lies our destiny, a species seeking its purpose amid the awe-inspiring galaxies and vast voids in the universe.

After journeying through the Star-Gate, Bowman arrives in a strange hotel-like room. As he eats dinner, he ages rapidly. In the last scene with Bowman, we see him lying in bed, extremely aged, and pointing toward a black monolith at the end of the bed. After seeing an infant in a glowing orb on the bed, we are propelled through the monolith, where we see the Star-Child gazing at Planet Earth floating in the cosmic void. The full meanings of 2001 and the monoliths become clear, from the apes to the astronauts to the Star-Child.

2001: A Space Odyssey was inspired by the challenge posed by Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the book that inspired Richard Strauss to write the symphony Also Sprach Zarathustra [1896], which was later used by Kubrick in 2001). Nietzsche speculated that since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, there might be an equally greater species that would evolve from humans — what he termed the “Ubermensch” or “Superman.” Nietzsche wrote how “man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.” So what comes next? What will emerge in the next stage of human evolution?

That’s the question Kubrick poses at the end of 2001, with the Star-Child appearing against the blackness of the cosmos, Planet Earth literally rising in his gaze. As symbolized by the Jupiter and hotel monoliths, we face a philosophical void, for there is no intrinsic or self-evident meaning for human existence in a vast and immense universe. All we know is we are one way the universe is aware of itself in a remote part of the Milky Way.

As a space-faring species, what will humans make of themselves in an awe-inspiring universe with unlimited possibility? That’s where the monolith has profound metaphorical meaning. Tall, sleek, and black, the monolith is an icon of awe, wonder, and the cosmic void, yet it’s also a towering blank slate for us to write a new philosophy for the future of the human species. That’s why 2001: A Space Odyssey offers nothing less than the opening for an entire philosophical revolution and secular transformation. As shown in the quote that opens this essay, Kubrick understood this challenge completely.

The Monolith: What Can We Hope For?

With our knowledge of the cosmos, we have the opportunity to become Star-Children and philosophical Ubermensches, to be the artists, scientists, philosophers, and voyagers (not warriors and conquerers) of the cosmos — seeking not merely to survive but peacefully pursue our existential quest in a beautiful and awe-inspiring universe that Kubrick embraced in 2001. That’s why SpaceX and the United States “Space Force” do not represent an enlightened future, but offer merely more of the same old conquest and warrior narratives. That’s a fact and representative of our philosophical challenge. We need to venture into space as a single species—as a united, enlightened, and peaceful planetary civilization. If we truly embrace the philosophy of 2001, then the Star-Child should guide us into space, not Tesla’s Starman or endless Star Wars films.

All of the above is why 2001 is the greatest science-fiction film and a towering work of art and philosophy, offering us a radical vision of hope and possible secular meaning in a majestic and awe-inspiring universe.

The Subconscious Meaning of the Utah Monolith

More than fifty years after 2001: A Space Odyssey and soon to be twenty years after the year “2001,” we know it’s time to begin developing a new space and secular philosophy for the human species—a philosophy and cosmic narrative that connects us on Earth to the wondrous universe from which we evolved. Endless celebrities and consumption, Facebook and Facetime, Ancient Aliens and Star Wars, strip-mining the moon and terraforming Mars into a suburb of Earth—these do not represent an enlightened philosophy or cosmic narrative, yet that’s what secular society offers in its 24/7 media spectacle, as we wreak havoc on our planet and plan for war in space. The universe as a meaningful and unifying realm is almost completely absent from our planetary narratives, except for the powerful philosophical ideas in the Dark Skies movement.

2001 offers our species a chance for a new beginning in the amazing universe we have discovered. We are one way the universe is aware of itself and we know what needs to be done. The question remains: when are we going to grow up? When are are going to live up to the monolith in 2001? It’s right before our eyes. That’s the subconscious meaning in the fascination and excitement over the Utah monolith.

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.