Tuesday, June 16, 2015

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke
DP: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Score: Various
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter
Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Length: 2 hrs. 28 min.

It opens with ancient Earth and early humans. We see apes using tools. Then it jumps forward a few hundred thousand years or so.  We see humans in spacecraft; apes using tools. This parallel is highlighted by one of the most famous and iconic cuts in the film: the match cut from a bone, a primitive tool, hurtling through the air to a cylindrical satellite orbiting the Earth, a modern tool. The ancient apes and the modern apes are both contained within the film’s first act, titled “The Dawn of Man.”

Following this, a dance between the planet Earth and the objects surrounding it, set to Johann Strauss’s “By the Beautiful Blue Danube,” one of many pieces of recognizable classical music used in the film. The spacecraft are shot during this sequence to emphasize the dominion humans have gained over their slice of the cosmos, but they're also characterized by their deliberately slow movement, and spinning motion. The ancient apes who used bone clubs to feed themselves and defend their territory were a step ahead of their enemies, but now the power of human ingenuity has reached a state of stagnation.  

Technology has limits. I would point to the most important example of this being the way people communicate in this film: in space, people are limited in their options for communication with Earth.  A man on a space station speaks to his daughter to wish her a happy birthday, but there’s a limit on the time he’s allotted to speak with her. In the second act, titled “Jupiter Mission,” an astronaut aboard the spacecraft Discovery 2 traveling to Jupiter receives a birthday message from his parents, but not in real time; there is a delay in the transmission. 

"Jupiter Mission" plays out as a battle between humans and the apex of all technology, the HAL9000 computer which describes itself as "foolproof and incapable of error." HAL, an artificial intelligence that evidently has attained consciousness, turns out to be violent. Perhaps this is appropriate; like the early humans in the film's opening, he's a being close to the moment of his own creation, and in a situation that demands he fight for his own survival. Because of basic human needs, technology turns out to be violent.

The film also makes use of sexual imagery: the Discovery 2's journey to Jupiter resembles a sperm cell seeking out an egg, and their encounter results in the formation of a fetus. At the same time, there are numerous mythic allusions, like Bowman's own name and HAL's piercing eye. In combination with the use of recognizable classical music, this gives immense gravitas to the journey the film depicts. The Jupiter Mission comes across as something necessary and inherently attractive, and its end goal seems to be the attainment of something higher than humanity can access.

In the film, this journey manifests as the pursuit of the enigmatic Monolith, an object that appears at various moments throughout, without more than a cursory and inconclusive explanation. The Monolith is a perfectly formed rectangular object, something totally unseen nature. It’s pure black, a color that suggests obscurity and hidden depth. When it appears, it's shot so that its edges form lines guiding our eyes toward the top of the screen, directly into the sky. It's completely unfamiliar, completely fascinating, and it draws our gaze upward, toward things bigger than us.

We know the filmmakers' hands placed it there, but within the film, the Monolith is unknowable. In the first act it stimulates the human will to survive; in the second act it precipitates a foray into unexplored territory. It speaks to our basest fears and desires, prompting us to pursue the unknown and make it known. The Monolith is what inspires humans to create technology at the beginning of the film, and indeed, HAL is modeled after the Monolith.  

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the progress driven by the Monolith manifests in individuals. Both Dave Bowman and the first ape to take up tools receive its influence alone, and then return home with their new knowledge; both times, we hear "Thus Spake Zarathustra," composed by Richard Strauss to tonally represent the rise of the Nietzschean ubermensch. 

The film's final act, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," is all visual with no dialogue. It at first introduces us to totally unfamiliar images (so unfamiliar they were produced using a technology never before adapted for cinema), but gradually coalesces into more recognizable sights. The familiar images Kubrick shows us are actually much more bizarre and disturbing than the unfamiliar ones because of the context in which they've been placed. It culminates in a scene made up of various shots that seem to be from Dave Bowman's point-of-view, but cannot possibly be (under conventional knowledge); through cinematic manipulation, Kubrick forces us to reconsider our preconceptions about the camera's relationship with character, the camera's relationship with us, and what can possibly occur within the frame. We ask ourselves whether the camera's perspective is the same as the character's perspective, which in turn leads to the question of what deliberation went into the filmmakers' design; are they lying to us, or is this the only way to convey something truly impossible to understand?

Then we're left with one more important question: will Dave Bowman's ascension bring further violence? Perhaps he defeated violence when he dismantled the violent HAL - but that itself could be construed as an act of violence, and maybe violence is inherent in any massive change.

I don't think the film has a clear answer to these questions; it's evident from other pieces of Kubrick's filmography that he was influenced by the Cold War, and the ending of this film reflects the moral ambiguity and potentially apocalyptic advancements of that period. Near the beginning of the film, there's slight, almost imperceptible tension between American and Russian characters who meet on a space station. But if there's one thing that can be definitively taken away from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's that it believes art has the power to influence people: the film itself shows influence from older stories, and the driving force behind the humans' actions is something that can't be explained except by the intervention of the film's own creators. The film won't tell us what Dave Bowman intends to do as the Star Child; we have to decide how it influences us.

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