Science fiction cinema has long acted as a powerful cultural barometer of our times.
Few things reveal as sharply as science fiction the wishes, hopes, fears, inner stresses and tensions of an era, or define its limitations with such exactness. The power to imagine what may be is science fictions biggest lure, and the genre has seen a host of differing futures imagined on screen. When released in 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious 2001: A Space Odyssey set a new precedent for the genre.
A dazzling visual spectacular, the film is marked for both its exquisiteness in its realistic depiction of space travel and for its profound thought-provoking qualities. The precipice for 2001 initially arose in 1964 out of Kubrick’s desire to create the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie. By all accounts, Kubrick succeeded, and 2001 is now widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. What fears does 2001 articulate that make it resonate so? And what solution – if any – does it offer to an inevitably imperfect future?
Late in the post production process Kubrick’s plans for 2001 changed, and the film entered cinemas in 1968 leaving its audience trying to comprehend a multitude of large questions surrounding the nature of human progress. He would empty the film of more literal content such as a planned voiceover and instead concentrate on a purely visual experience, a film of incomprehensible depths best displayed in incomprehensible images.
Come the year of release the U.S. media had moved away from its creation of a ‘Communist Menace’ and was now fixed on projecting developments in rocket science and space travel, intended to enrich human life, as opposed to the previous obsession with technologies designed to destroy it. The intention was to counter the paranoia of invasion with events that promised to boost morale and reassert scientific superiority over the ‘alien Other’.
The shared optimism that was being felt for NASA’s missions and promising images ensured Kubrick a receptive audience, yet that is not to say the film intended to restore the utopian scientific dream. It is safe to say that 2001’s message surrounding humanity’s technological progress would prove much less encouraging.
‘Dawn of Man,’ is the opening segment of our odyssey. Here we witness our simian ancestors’ experience the impact of what will be the first appearance of the black angular, perfect, silent, and alien, monoliths which prompt progress throughout the film. The monoliths presence here provokes one of the apes to make the connection between a bone and its use as a tool to protect and kill; he can now begin the process of evolution into man as we know him. In one of the most famous match cuts in film history, as the bone is hurled into the skies in euphoria after the realisation of its murderous use, when it begins to falls back down it transforms into an orbiting spaceship elegantly floating in the vastness of space.
That the cut is made on the fall is significant, representative of human progress no longer on the rise, but instead entering decent, the tools they created to progress to this point having become too omnipresent. It is our first hint that the future in 2001 will indeed not be celebrating technological triumph but instead be providing us its philosophical denunciation of humanity’s overreliance on science and technology.
This following segment revolves around Dr. Heywood R. Floyd’s (William Sylvester) secretive trip to the moon to examine the discovery of a second other worldly monolith. Seeing Floyd’s interactions on a nearby space station is the best assessment we have as to the state of humanity on earth. It seems an insipid politeness reigns in 2001’s antiseptic future world.
Warfare seems to have been suspended in favour of mutual surveillance in a world that seems absent of aggressive behaviour and emotional response. In the preoccupation with achieving technological superiority over one another a great measure of human instinct and emotion has been sacrificed. Modernity seems to have initiated a numbing effect on emotional response; as the humans have become removed from earth, they have detached from each other. Humanity has lost its sense of wonder at some point along this journey, and is now in awe of nothing. Mechanical triumph has come at the cost of human qualities.
Floyd and his team arrive at the monolith on the moon just as it lets out a screeching signal up to the heavens. Then another jump cut takes us to the ‘Jupiter Mission: 18 months later.’ It is upon the Jupiter spaceship we meet HAL9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the brains of the ship and the height of computer technology. Ironically ‘he’ is probably the most ‘human’ character.
It is through his unfolding madness that the violence implied in the first segment comes back to coldly haunt us. On board the spaceship Discovery are the two astronauts Dave (Keir Dullea) and Frank (Gary Lockwood), as well as three of their colleagues who have been placed in hibernation to be revived on completion of their journey. Bowman and Poole do not know the full nature of their mission, and seem even more robotic and void of personality. HAL in his smooth reassuring tone claims to detect a fault in the communications unit – which Bowman and Poole discover to have been a lie. They confer in private that they must disconnect HAL, as there is no room for such an error…’I’ve got a bad feeling about him.’
HAL’s gleaming red sinister all seeing ‘eye’ has lip read their conversation. In discovering they plan to destroy him, he decides to therefore destroy them. He kills the hibernating astronauts by cutting off their life support, and kills Poole while he is outside examining the supposed fault. Bowman is then left to play out a representation of our fear of an evolutionary showdown with increasingly autonomous technologies.
HAL locks Bowman out of the ship, stating ‘this mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it… Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.’ The tool which began as bone has now acquired a dangerous Frankensteinian self-consciousness by which it feels it is more capable than its humans. Bowman makes a heroic return to the ship through an air lock, and proceeds to the red lit chamber that holds HAL’s inner workings, winning this showdown by performing an impromptu lobotomy on him. In then revealing his fear of death, HAL completes his pseudo-human makeup. As Bowman disconnects his circuits one by one HAL expresses the emotion that feels so absent in his living counterparts. He says ‘I’m afraid…I’m afraid, Dave…I can feel it…’
As HAL slurs his last dying tones, a pre-recorded message from Dr. Floyd appears on a small screen above Bowman. Floyd reveals the true nature of this mission…the facts only HAL was entrusted with, a pressure which led him to his breakdown. Bowman is on his way to examine the first evidence of extra terrestrial life, to follow the signal of a black monolith whose ‘origin and purpose are still a total mystery.’ This is tellingly 2001’s last line of dialogue. Something else is in store for man now his technology has failed him.
It is now that a film that has relied on inscrutable realism proceeds to shatter that realism in the final segment, ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.’ Bowman now a lone traveller on this final leg of the odyssey finds a giant third monolith orbiting Jupiter and its moons. He enters into a star gate and takes a trip through an infinite tunnel of space, shaking violently in his pod before being reduced to just a shot of his petrified eye. For over 15 minutes we, and he, are witness to a spectacular abstract rush of psychedelic light and colour patterns, gracefully unravelling celestial events…strangely coloured planetary surfaces.
His destination is an anonymous hotel suite which possesses the overwhelming sense of extra terrestrial orchestration. That ‘their’ presence remains unseen creates a deeply anxious atmosphere, but Bowman is painfully aware of his. He is alone, but for an older version of his self who replaces him, before an even older version replaces him, up until his death bed. In his dying breaths he reaches out to a final and fourth black monolith looming at his feet, and with his final reach he is transformed and replaced by a glowing foetus, the Star Child. The gift of humanity’s rebirth has been bestowed upon him by the alien creators of this destination. The final shot has the Star Child floating above the earth. He turns to look directly at us, and in his eyes you see the wonder lost in the eyes of the characters 2001, as he seems to be seeking out if our sense of wonder has been renewed too.
For 2001, the fear was that in our obsession with conquering the skies we would create technology superior to us, lose our sense of wonder, and reach an end whereby we had nowhere else to go other than ‘beyond the infinite.’ The solution here was that extra terrestrials would intervene and save us from ourselves by gifting humanity a rebirth.
In my interpretation 2001 holds a complex message. I understand the optimism in this aided rebirth for our existence implied as controlled by higher beings. But surely that humanity requires this helping hand, this intervention to save itself before it is ‘too late’ cannot be purely optimistic. That we cannot successfully progress and evolve of our own accord left me feeling rather dejected, as opposed to hopeful.
2001’s haunting qualities allow for speculation on an emotional and philosophical level; essentially they provoke emotions absent in those we saw on screen. I think Kubrick hoped for an awakening of some sort within his audience to reconsider the infinite possibilities that lie within our universe that we are so eager to conquer, yet ultimately are such a minor part of.
Technology continues to pervade our lives in a multitude of ways, in an age where we talk through screens instead of to each other. As humans we are defined by human qualities, we were not designed to be rational, cold, and indifferent to others. Yet we insist on damaging our natural qualities with the obsession of striving for a better and better world. It is a most complex contradiction that we can create and achieve so much, out of fear we aren’t enough, only to become fearful of those creations.
There must lie a better future for humanity, than one where we must continue battling to win out over our own technologies only to carry on living an increasingly emotionally cold and rational existence. The fact that 2001 got me to think in those infinite terms and entertain otherworldly possibilities as viable (before I even realised I was doing so) is a testament to its transformative power, and a credit to the beauty of the cinematic experience.
By Alicia Higham – who works at Phoenix and is a graduate in film and visual art from Leicester University.