The vicarious combat feeds into the other major theme of the film, the way in which technology has somehow diluted our humanness. When the film first came out, many critics complained about the wooden dialogue. They might have missed the point. For example, when Dr Floyd contacts his daughter from the picture phone on the Space Station, the conversation seems painfully stilted. Later, an astronaut, Frank Poole, receives a taped birthday greeting from his parents. Poole watches his parents with the indifference of a sedated patient.
There appears to be an underlying motif connecting these and other conversations, many of which are piped across hundreds of thousands of miles: the wondrous technology enabling communication has drained it of emotional content. (Anyone who has received an email from halfway across the world can probably identify with this apprehension.)
Just as we have ceded the business of violence to machines, we now empower them to handle the equally messy business of feeling. The most memorable character in 2001 is HAL 9000, a computer running a spacecraft en route to Jupiter. HAL shares Discovery with a frozen team of scientists and two astronauts, Frank Poole and Dave Bowman. The interplay between the machine and men is reversed, with the men existing in order to minister to HAL rather than the other way around. And it is HAL who displays the supposedly human trait of curiosity when he questions an indifferent Bowman about the purpose behind their secret mission.
The screenplay reveals the reason behind HAL's 'breakdown' was the dissonance between the machine's categorical imperative to tell the truth and its instructions to lie about the mission's true objective. Insanity, or any unhinged emotion, is no longer in the human repertoire. When Poole is killed, his body silently drifts off in to the depths of space. HAL's deactivation is altogether, a more poignant affair. As Bowman methodically unplugs his circuitry, HAL pleads, sings snatches of songs and says piteously, 'I can feel it, I can feel it'. This is extremely bleak: man has succeeded in creating consciousness, only to extinguish it with a coldness that is worse than the exultant brutality of Bowman's primeval antecedent.
This unsettling message appears to be countered by the subsequent psychedelic sequence and the opaque 'hotel room' sequence, in which Bowman witnesses himself age until death, before being born as a 'star child'. This might portend a quantum leap in humankind's progress, but it is just as likely to suggest that we are going to embark on the whole cycle again.
So, how are we to characterise neatly a film that presents us with the bizarre triptych of screaming monkey men, characterless technocrats, and the image of an unborn child bathed in a halo? We cannot, but we must look at it again, just to see if we have missed some significant detail.