I’ll preface this piece by saying that I’m not by any means in the cult of Kubrick, and I don’t think he (or anyone else) faked the moon landing. This is the Internet, so if you’re here for that kind of thing, you will find it elsewhere.
I will also state plainly that the application of the tarot narrative as a means for dissecting a work of art is certainly not unique to 2001: A Space Odyssey. People have used the tarot to analyze everything from Star Wars to the 1960’s TV Show The Prisoner. A Vimeo user named ViolatoR created an 8 minute video compilation that looks at tarot imagery in a number of different films. The tarot’s major arcana hold symbols that are deeply rooted in most, perhaps all, stories.
The contemporary interpolation of a story and meaning onto the tarot is itself a layering of narrative onto a straightforward, secular, ancient card game. But the story is compelling enough to have become a global phenomenon that many people feel reflects their own story, their own fate. This is the realm of Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. These are the stories that emerge again and again in cultures across the planet. 2001: A Space Odyssey is merely one of them.
All of that said, as I sat down recently to again watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, I couldn’t help but notice some striking parallels between its structure, story, and symbolism and the major arcana of the tarot. As far as I can tell, no one else has written about this particular connection. I have no idea whether it’s intentional on the part of the creators of the film (it may be no more intentional than the synchronicities of Dark Side of the Rainbow). I would love to hear thoughts from people who might know more in that regard. I will say that both Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke intentionally left the film open for interpretation (you can see many interpretations listed here). My purpose in writing this is to put forth a discussion of how these two artifacts intersect in beautiful and surprising ways.
I will focus mainly on detailing the action of the film, rather than explaining the meaning of each tarot card (for that, Biddy Tarot can provide a pretty good introduction, and Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is a book that can provide another perspective). The interpretation of the meaning of each tarot card is an art in itself that could easily double the length of this writing. The visual symbolism is very clear in many places below and the metaphors are strong for those who want to make the intuitive leap to connect them to the tarot meaning.
Multiple edits of the film have been released, but what I describe below is with respect to a 149 minute version. As a brief introduction to the film’s plot (for Heaven’s sake, go see it if you haven’t already), 2001 essentially has three sections, delineated by its three protagonists: a hominin, Haywood R. Floyd, and Dave Bowman. Through the course of the film, the progression of the human species is charted from the dawn of civilization through to space travel and out to the edges of reality.
Alright, enough preface, on to the tarot.
Note: all of the screenshots below are taken from the section of the film that the text describes.
0. The Fool
It’s easy to forget when reflecting on 2001’s striking visuals that the first 3 minutes of the film (before we’ve seen any credits or a logo for the production company) take place in complete blackness (in the first theatrical release, this lasted 8 minutes). We sit in empty space, void of meaning, experiencing only the sound of György Ligeti’s Atmospheres. Out of the nothingness, the moon emerges to the tones of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. It aligns with first the earth and then the sun, which makes a perfect white circle above the title of the film. Zero, an opening in the darkness, the dawn.
1. The Magician
An intertitle tells us that we will begin at “The Dawn of Man”. A community of hominins (the earliest humans) have been living in relative fear. We see one of their number killed by a cheetah. We see them kicked out of their home by a neighboring community. Very quickly after this, we see the community hiding in the shadow of a cave, listening in terror to the roar of the cheetah. Seemingly when needed most, the monolith—that black exclamation point that is all and none of God, alien, curiosity, and the inquisitive spirit—appears and the hominins cautiously touch it. Immediately following this scene, we witness the discovery of tool use, the wizardry that is the beginning of human technology. A hominin picks up a bone and smashes it on a pile of other bones, discovering the power of this extension to the arm. The first practical purpose found for this tool is for hunting—bludgeoning a tapir’s skull. Most intriguing is the moment right after the discovery of the bone as a tool, where the homonin eats alone. All hunting we’ve seen previously has been communal, but before he shares the bounty of his kill, he takes a brief moment to feast alone, a self-serving moment basking in the aftermath of individual will. The tool is then very quickly used for the more devious purpose of warring with the neighboring community to reclaim territory. One of the victors of this skirmish tosses the bone into the air, where a quick cut transforms it into a spaceship. This serves to position space travel as the logical conclusion of the first use of tools—simply the fruit that is borne from the seed of technology.
2. The High Priestess
The Blue Danube transports us to a realm of refinement. Tools have been honed into masterpieces. Our old friends the moon, sun and earth, are in a beautifully balanced dance with the spaceships we have created that allow us to travel beyond the boundaries of gravity that tethered our ancestors to the earth. A pen glides through space, then is gently returned to a passenger’s pocket by a stewardess. This stewardess guides our passage to the world beyond. Matters of great importance are attended to. But the dance and grace of it all is just as important as the content of the social and scientific negotiations that take place.
3. The Empress
Once aboard the space station, Haywood R. Floyd calls his daughter back home on earth. He can’t go to her birthday party. He must buy her love with gifts. Disconnected from his home, she is simultaneously the motivation for his journey outward (as a provider for his family) and a tether that keeps him linked to the love and light that he is leaving behind as he ventures into the unknown.
4. The Emperor
Floyd encounters a formal, aristocratic group of Russians discussing their recent trip in space. There are no spacesuits here. Dress suits and polished shoes are the garb of choice. The Russian man gives us the first inclination that Clavius (a settlement on the moon, named after the Roman soldier in the Bible who was tasked with disproving Jesus’ divinity) is involved in some strange situation. Floyd must keep up social niceties here. From our perspective at this point, it is unclear whether Floyd knows what he is hiding or not. But it is clear that this will be the motivating force that draws him outward, deeper into space, farther from home, farther from his daughter and family life.
5. The Hierophant
We watch a stewardess slowly reverse the laws of gravity as she walks up the wall in a circle toward the ceiling. The world of society is now turned upside down as we enter the red cockpit, the behind-the-scenes world of space travel. All sounds of dialogue are muted. We are inside the Blue Danube again. The journey—the odyssey itself—takes center stage. The captain comes out to speak to Dr. Floyd, pointing to his food which is floating away. We see the mechanisms that allow for space travel, such as the zero-gravity toilet, the food that one drinks from a straw. The spaceship flies over to reveal that not only is there a landing pad on the moon, there is an enormous city-sized settlement. The view from the rocks on the moon recalls the view of the ape looking down into the valley. We’ve grown outward, but we’re still very much dealing with the same issues of the unknown.
6. The Lovers
The spherical craft is taken like a seed into the womb of the space station (as in all Kubrick films, the color red is used to powerful effect). We learn that there is not, in fact, an “epidemic” at the base. This is a cover story for the real situation. We’re 44 minutes in and we as viewers are still strung along as to what actual circumstance we find ourselves in. In a certain sense, the story has still not begun. This contributes to our sense of infancy and ignorance as we drift further outward, beyond the moon’s space station, which will mark the last large stronghold of civilization. We’re out of the business attire and into the space suit, a cruder covering that contains no option for elegance but is, instead, required for survival. And down we go to find the heart of the mission. The monolith sits in a kind of cave on the moon’s surface. Six intrepid travelers walk down to unite with destiny. Floyd makes contact, gently caressing the obelisk. As a photograph is about to be taken, a piercing beep permeates the suits of the six explorers, as if the obelisk were stopping the possibility that its mystery might be captured by a photograph.
7. The Chariot
We see an intertitle reading “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later,” followed by a crawling shot of the length of the ship which is to be our chariot forward through most of the rest of the film. We are now seeking deeper meaning and are fully beyond polished shoes and photo-ops. Frank Poole runs in circles, going nowhere and simultaneously traversing the full expanse of this world. We get our first glimpse at the red, watchful eye of HAL—a computer with artificial intelligence. The news report catches us up on the mission, and within the broadcast HAL describes himself as “foolproof and incapable of error.” All crew members but Frank and Dave Bowman are in cryogenic sleep. Frank struggles and then loses in chess against HAL. HAL asks Dave whether he’s having second thoughts and discusses “something being dug up on the moon.”
We see Dave’s first excursion out into the blackness of space, the most uprooted we have seen a character so far. No planet, no moon, no ship, no pod—just a spacesuit between life and death. This first outing, of course, also foreshadows the trap that HAL will later lay for Frank and Dave (“open the pod doors” mirroring the “open the pod bay doors” that we’ll hear later). Dave is, indeed, only out in space based on the guidance of HAL who said that there is a malfunction (which turns out not to be true). As Dave works in his spacesuit, the only sound is of his breath and the whistling of air in his suit. The successful retrieval of the (red) box is a triumph of all the physical strength, intellect, and technology that humanity has built up to this moment. But it turns out to be a failure in the larger chess game against HAL—there is nothing wrong with the unit in question and mission control informs Frank and Dave that HAL is “in error predicting the fault.”
9. The Hermit
Dave and Frank retreat to a pod and turn the power off—the only way they can escape HAL’s hearing. They have the most candid consultation in the film thus far. They discuss, in practical terms, what their options are if HAL is malfunctioning. They discuss the possibility of disconnecting HAL. We see at the end of the scene that HAL, ever watchful, has been reading their lips. And we take an intermission in darkness.
10. Wheel of Fortune
During Frank’s attempt at repairing the space shuttle, he ends up reeling through space. The world is more topsy turvy than ever, and Dave—now alone with a homicidal computer—is left spinning in the confines of his destiny.
When Dave returns to approach the shuttle after recapturing Frank’s body from the depths of space, HAL has made his system of justice clear. Along with Frank, HAL has killed all of the other members of the crew who were sleeping in cryogenic stasis. Dave gives his famous line of “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” and gets no response for a very long time. “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it,” is the only reply. HAL ceases all communication, effectively leaving Dave for dead.
12. The Hanged Man.
Forced into prioritizing his own survival, Dave lets go of Frank’s lifeless body with the pod’s arms. He offers him up as a sacrifice, watching him drift back into the blackness of space from which he fought to rescue him. Dave is forced to enter the ship through the airlock without a helmet, facing death head-on. All uncertainty about his situation has disappeared, and he knows what his course of action must be.
Despite HAL’s pleadings, Dave takes thorough and deliberate action to kill HAL. Opening HAL’s data centers, he enters a world of red—deep in the lifeblood of HAL’s circuitry. HAL’s logical arguments devolve into repetitions of a plea for Dave to stop. “My mind is going.” HAL reverts back to a state of infancy, repeating his most basic introductions and finally losing his ability for speech. He sings “Daisy” in an ever-slowing basso profundo and dies.
Immediately upon HAL’s death, Dave learns (from a recording of Haywood Floyd, no less) of the black monolith. It is described as evidence of intelligent life beyond our own planet. The purpose of the monolith is unknown. After such an arduous struggle in which Dave faced his mortality in a very real way, he now learns the real reason for his mission and that his challenges are far from over.
15. The Devil
An intertitle tells us that we are preparing to travel to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite”. We see the moons of Jupiter in a kind of mystical alignment. And floating through space, we see the monolith. Dave arrives and goes out in the pod to inspect the monolith. Dave is finally faced with the thing that has been the central focus of his mission, the dark force drawing him outward, even after all of his crew mates have died. And now. Fasten your seat belts ladies and gentlemen, we’re going for a ride.
16. The Tower
Goodbye world. What we took for the Devil (the monolith) has proved to be a gateway to the infinite depths of reality. We’re presented with a psychedelic display of phosphorescent color the likes of which we haven’t seen in the preceding film, nor, perhaps, in any film created before 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gone are the concepts of Heaven and Hell, pleasure and pain. Gone is the notion of planets, bodies, objects, space.
17. The Star
We see an explosion of blue light that matches the pattern from the previous shot of Dave’s eye. We’re coming face-to-face with the nature of perception itself. The colors that drift past our eyes make us continually aware of the mechanism of perception. The imagery has connotations that are computational, cosmological, and biologically reproductive all at once. Indeed a white, sperm-like shape that almost resembles the pod Dave was traveling in is seen entering a nebulous red mass.
18. The Moon
We drift through the canyons of an unknown world, past towering rock structures. Saturation and color are distorted to an amazing degree. As an ocean flows by it looks like waves of liquid grass. Even though we’ve become more grounded with familiar ecology, it is all somehow more disorienting as we find ourselves feeling alienated by our notions of color.
19. The Sun
Dave’s eye blinks through distorted colors until suddenly, he blinks us back into a standard color palette and we find ourselves in a room with Victorian interior design. Dave is still within the pod, but then he is instantly transported outside the pod, aged to about 60 years old. He explores the elegant world he’s found himself in, where classic blue molding meets a floor of white synthetic light. Renaissance paintings in the alcoves of the walls depict a formal kind of courtship, which calls to mind the different moments that humans in the film have gently caressed the monolith. From within the bathroom, Dave turns again to see himself aged again, now to about 75 or so.
Beyond the justice of mortals such as humans and HAL comes the truth of time. Dave’s older self turns to look in the direction of his younger self. He explores the bathroom to find his younger self is gone. He accidentally knocks a glass off the table and it breaks on the floor. He stares at it and one is put in the mind of Stephen Hawking’s description of entropy—the glass can never be made whole again, that is what determines the direction of time. Finally, lying on the bed near death at an age that must approach 100, he sees the monolith and reaches out.
21. The World
When the camera turns back from the monolith, Dave’s familiar body is gone and a glowing baby is seen. Having understood the falsity of the paradigm of space, our paradigm of time is shattered and shown to be cyclical. We fall through the monolith and into the final shot of the film: a view of planet earth paralleled with the glowing baby in its own amniotic orb.