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By Alexandru Cebotari February 1, 2021

Space Exploration and Gnostic Insight in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet and Solaris

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet all take on the challenge of depicting new, unexplored knowledge by placing their focus on outer space. With practically no mention of Earth, emphasis is placed on alien beings and their immense power. Nonetheless, a clear, human gnostic quest remains prominent in the works and is thoroughly explored. In the original Gnostic scriptures, as Marvin Meyer describes, “the call to knowledge is the dawning of awareness, from within and without, of ‘what is, what was, and what is to come’” (n.p.). If the aforementioned interplanetary exploration gives hope of learning knowledge “from without” and of what is to come, it definitely neglects what was and what is, particularly as it pertains to the humans themselves. However, it is the very fact that this neglect is brought to the forefront that allows for an interpretation of these works as featuring gnostic quests. I would even argue that in these works, the exploration of outer space and its mysteries is portrayed as premature, and as simply helping the characters avoid a profound abjection: the ultimate realization that they fail to truly know themselves. This fact is first made evident by the focus placed on the failure of the humans to understand the alien power and second, by a common revelation of their ignorance about the functioning of their own minds. Finally, and especially towards the endings, a very gnostic portrayal of the ultimate knowledge can be discerned. In all of these works, ultimately, to even hope to transcend, one must first know themselves.

The vast power held by the aliens present in all of the works is repeatedly portrayed as out of the reach for the characters. In Stanley Kubrick’s film, this is demonstrated by the relationship of humanity with the monolith, the movie’s alien entity, particularly through two scenes. When apes first discover the object, an ominous soundtrack starts playing, they are hesitant to touch it and approach it cautiously (2001, 00:12:23-00:14:32). Later, when humans are able to travel through space, the same behavior can be observed, and the same exact sound can be heard when they interact with it on Clavius (2001, 00:51:53-00:54:40). Here, a clear comparison of seemingly highly evolved humans to primal animals truly shows how unremarkable their “progress” has been in the face of the monolith’s power. The knowledge it holds seems simply too immense for humanity (in its current state, anyway) to understand it. In Forbidden Planet, the deaths of crewmembers on the planet Altair 4 and the humans’ incapacity to identify their causes (until the end of the movie) prove the same concept. In Solaris, the scientist’s inability to comprehend the ocean’s behavior is similarly emphasised throughout the story. Two entire chapters (“The Solarists” and “The Thinkers”) are dedicated to presenting the discipline of Solaristics, which consists of 200 years of research to try to understand the ocean and countless theories, all documented in books. Yet in the end, they all “became an increasingly tangled maze where every apparent exit led to a dead end” (Lem, 176). A direct link to Gnosticism can already be made here, as gnostic “mystics commonly have emphasized, in many books, that mystical knowledge cannot be attained simply by reading books” (Meyer, n.p.). In every case, the initial objective of discovering great power in outer space inevitably remains unaccomplished. However, another unexpected discovery emerges from the exploration.

In all three of the quests, humanity is brutally confronted with the unresolved mystery of the mind. The most explicit example of this can be found in Dr. Morbius, a scientist stranded on Altair 4 in Forbidden Planet. In his ambitious desire to access the practically infinite potential of the Krell technology present on the planet, he inadvertently brings about the death of his whole crew, and eventually his own. The oversight that results in this tragedy is his unfamiliarity with the Id, the primal desires that he does not manifest consciously. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, this omission is similarly accentuated by several deaths. HAL 900, a super-intelligent computer, is designed to replicate human behavior, and it does so all too well. After it is revealed it made a mistake, it overlooks the error, blames the crew and even kills most of them to avoid being disconnected. When inculcating human nature into HAL, humans forgot how complex, prideful, and stubborn people truly are, and this mistake cost them many lives. In Solaris, the first obvious hint of the ominous power the mind will always have on humans comes from the return of Rheya, the protagonist’s deceased wife, into his life. The ocean’s recreation of his lover reveals that Kelvin still feels very guilty about her death, a flaw he has suppressed and not dealt with yet. A more subtle indication of humans’ powerlessness in the face of their psyche comes later, when the scientists send X-rays of Kelvin’s brain patterns as a last-ditch effort to provoke a reaction from the ocean. Since “Terran neurophysiologists were incapable of decoding the recording” of the encephalogram, perhaps the great alien creature, which is as much a mystery as the brain patterns themselves, will have a chance (Lem, 163). It is simultaneously made clear in all of the works that alien knowledge is unattainable and that the minds of the characters are still a barrier to overcome.

Gnostics makes a correlation between these exact concepts, saying that “to know oneself truly is to attain this mystical knowledge, and to attain this mystical knowledge is to know oneself truly” (Meyer, n.p.). The endings of the works hint at a similar conclusion. In Forbidden Planet, the destruction of Altair 4 points to this. Even though it could give access to immense power, it becomes obvious humans could not use it because they still fail to truly understand their own mind. Commander Adams even adopts the pessimistic view that we will never accomplish this, claiming that the shortcomings of their mission will forever “remind us… that we are, after all, not God” (Forbidden Planet, 01:37:36). Solaris, even though it is a science fiction book, places a lot of focus on the ocean’s mimoids, creations stemming from people’s innermost thoughts. Eventually, Rheya’s clone becomes so important to Kelvin, he claims her “being here cancels out the twelve years of my life that went into studying Solaris" (Lem, 152). His unresolved issues are what push him to stop studying the ocean. 2001: A Space Odyssey stands out, as it is the only work to try to actually depict transcendence. David Bowman, the sole survivor on the ship seems to do so in the film’s closing scenes. To reach this point, however, he first needed to understand the danger of HAL 9000 (that represents, as explained above, the flawed human mind) and disconnect it. He then becomes a celestial baby, perhaps “resetting” his mind, freeing himself of its limitations in order to transcend. All of the analyzed works have such Gnostic conclusions, blocking access to boundless knowledge by reminding humans of their mind’s mysteries. Forbidden Planet mainly emphasizes it by first describing the Krell as the most evolved species known to humans, then presenting their Id as a force that can defeat them in one night. In Solaris, it is the fact that the ocean is never understood throughout the book and until the conclusion and the central role the human psyche plays in maintaining that mystery that proves the mind’s power. Finally, Stanley Kubrick’s film underlines it by hinting at the mind being the key to unlocking that unbounded knowledge.


Works Cited

2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, performances by Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and Douglas Rain, MGM, 1968.

Forbidden Planet. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, performance by Leslie Nielsen, MGM, 1956.

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, London, Faber & Faber, 2016.

Meyer, Marvin and Barnstone, Willis, “An Introduction to The Gnostic Scriptures”, The Gnostic Bible, Shambalah, 2003, pp.1-11, [url=http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/meyer-intro.html]http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/meyer-intro.html[/url], Accessed: 24/11/2020.

About the author

Alexandru Cebotari is a first year Health Science student. This text was written as a final essay for the “In Search of Secret Knowledge” English course he had the chance to be a part of. It synthesizes his favourite topics and works he studied this semester.

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