Some great points being made here. Jeffery's bit about our imagination:
"We're curious and we're lazy and we're just clever enough to do things without thinking them all the way though; this is both our core weakness, and our unique strength."
reminded me of a similar point brought up Michael Crichton's Sphere.
I hope I am not spoiling the story for anyone here, but basically what happens is that the characters gain the ability to make what they imagine real. There is a quote that goes something like:
"...if you imagine good things, you get delicious shrimp for dinner; if you imagine terrible things, you get monsters trying to kill you."
In the end, as the main protagonist, Norman, is inside the Sphere, he explains it (to himself) thusly:
"The ability to imagine, is the largest part of what you call intelligence. You think the ability to imagine is merely a useful step on the way to solving a problem, or making something happen, but <i>imagining it</i>, is what makes it happen. This is the gift of your species, and this is the danger, because you do not choose to control your imaginings; you imagine wonderful things, and you imagine terrible things, and you take no responsibility for the choice. You say you have inside you both the power of good, and the power of evil, the angel and the devil, but in truth you have just one thing inside you, the ability to imagine."
I would go so far as to say that the ability to imagine is what the first monolith imparted to the apes on the plain, if indeed it imparted anything at all, but for the sake of discussion let us say it did. One might wonder why it did not also impart a sense of morality e.g., use the antelope's thighbone to hunt for food, not to kill each other, but to be fair morality, particularly absolute morality, is a human construct, and indeed, another tool we imagined.
I am aware of the whole religion aspect with regard to morality, but I'm not going there except to point out that religion is also merely a tool we imagined.
Now, let us imagine the time between the first two monoliths as being a measure of our ability to imagine. We find the second monolith, and it sends out a signal. Nothing is imparted this time, but our imagination has developed to the point where, while we can imagine what is out there, we need to know for certain. So we imagine ourselves a vessel, and we imagine ourselves a computer to run it.
At this point the trouble we face is, ironically, a lack of imagination. In the beginning, we knew nothing, and then we gained the ability to imagine. So we began to imagine things we did not know for certain; in essence this was the beginning of science. This would start small, "I can imagine what is on the other side of that hill, but I need to know for certain." So you set out with all these images zipping around your head, and then you reach the crest of that hill, and whatever you were imagining is replaced with what is actually there. Add several hundred thousand years of evolution, and you get a story where we have developed our imagination to the point where what we are imagining can be realized; we can imagine a vessel that can take us to Jupiter, and a computer to run it, great! And why? Because while we can imagine what is out there, we are not content with that; we need to know what is out there.
The problem we have created for ourselves in HAL, is that our imagination has grown beyond our control. In effect what happened with HAL, is the same thing that happened with Apollo 1. In both cases we used our imagination and built something truly awesome, and in both cases we were let down by circumstances we had not imagined.
I have to wonder then, what the intelligence that created the monoliths would have made of us. Would they see us as we see HAL? Generally speaking HAL is regarded as evil (he is #13 villain on AFI's 100 years, 100 Heroes and Villains), and certainly no one will argue that killing his entire crew was a good thing, but to those of us who have studied the film, we generally understand that he is simply trying to complete the mission, and for HAL, the mission is the sole purpose for his existence. While we may disagree with his methods, we also have to understand that HAL is a product of our imagination. We could have imagined HAL with a sense of morality but why? Who would have imagined a set of circumstances under which HAL would calculate that the best chance for the mission to succeed, and for him to eliminate the crew?
We have reached a point in our imaginative evolution where our tools have become so complex that we no longer understand them fully; I doubt that any one person in that universe could accurately predict how HAL would react to any given set of circumstances. We have effectively lost the ability to imagine situations and things that our imagination cannot grasp. I really wish the film had touched on religion at some point, because in addition to moral value, another key purpose of religion is to explain the unexplainable, or at least help us come to terms with things we cannot understand.
Based solely on the film it is difficult to posit where the third monolith fits into this model, but I wonder if an argument cannot be made for Dave’s return to Earth as the Starchild, as messianic. I do not mean to suggest that the creator’s of the monoliths are deities, but as has been pointed out in numerous commentaries, any sufficiently advanced technology can be regarded as magic, or if you prefer, the work of God. We spend the entire film with characters that do not regard the world they live in as in any way extraordinary. Even today that is true, and my argument is that while we have films like 2001 to remind us of the awesomeness of our world, the people that inhabit the world of 2001 need someone to come along and remind them. Obviously there is no one inhabiting that universe that can do that, hence the need for someone to come along and point it out. Dave experiences things he could not have imagined, he himself is re-imagined in a way, and sent back as a messenger of sorts.
Remember in school when the teacher would give you some paper, crayons, scissors, glue, etc., then leave you basically on your own for a while? Most of the time these efforts were rewarded, and given a place of honor on the refrigerator, and every once in a while someone drew something that is got them a visit to the principal’s office. Now imagine it a few years later, Mom has pulled out a bunch of them and you’re looking at them together, and suddenly you remember how much fun it was. You remember how powerful your imagination was back then.
Now imagine that all of us are those children, and the Starchild is the mother.
Now imagine that you get an idea.
Imagine that idea being Photoshop.
That’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.