2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most important American science fiction films. It is revolutionary in many senses – as a technical achievement, a brilliant example of deep thought-provoking storytelling, and a genre movie, made by an outstanding auteur film director. Before Kubrick’s film, science fiction was considered to be a low genre, a material for cheap b-movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey changed everything. It transformed the way science fiction films are made and watched. It paved the way for many generations of filmmakers, from Steven Spielberg to Christopher Nolan, who personally admit enormous influence of Kubrick’s masterpiece on their films. 2001: A Space Odyssey implements many filmmaking techniques, revolutionary for the time. It tells a complex story without simplifying it for the audience and adds a layer of scientific fact and philosophic substance for the more sophisticated viewer. It’s a unique mixture of science fiction, technological thriller and reflection on the themes of evolution, technological progress and endless search for the unknown.
The film was shot in 1968, based on a short story of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke. The screenplay for the film was written by Clarke and Kubrick, and while it follows the basic plot of the story for the most part, the film is more unambiguous and complex with its themes. The film was created during the rise of space exploration: first man went to space, and the moon was landing just around the corner. Space exploration was penetrating the popular culture on the pages of newspapers. The film was a reaction to these major historic events, and also a filmmaker’s reflection on these historical processes. Kubrick was already an acclaimed director with a distinct style and directing manner, which he brought to the science fiction filmmaking. Much scientific knowledge was utilized in the design of various elements of the film, to make it look authentic.
2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of the evolution of human civilization, as it discovers the secrets of the Universe from the rise of humanity to deep space travel. The plot of the film is complex. In addition to this existential journey, it focuses on the conflict between humanity and technology, and human contact with extraterrestrial beings, who observe the ascension of our civilization and guide us in the right direction. In the film, one can see three major leaps in human evolution. These milestone events are connected with people finding an extraterrestrial artifact – the monolith. The finding of the monolith brings the civilization to its next step. The central plot of the film revolves around spaceship traveling to Jupiter. The artificial intelligence of the station – HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) – becomes self-aware and decides to kill the crew, considering that humans present a threat to the mission. The last surviving crewmember, David Bowman (Keir Dullea), confronts HAL and destroys it. The spaceship succeeds in its travel and takes a journey through time and space, shown as a colorful special effect sequence. Bowman’s journey ends in a strange room, where he grows old and faces the monolith for the last time to transform into a new form of being and return to earth.
The film is a great example of Kubrick’s style of cinematography. With his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, Kubrick carefully creates every shot paying attention to detail. The shots are geometrically constructed from detailed backgrounds, positions of characters and objects within the shot, the movement of characters and camera. The use of colored lighting, unusual low angles of the camera and the usage of wide-angle lenses are also present throughout the film. Some of the most amazing shots required combination of massive set structures with cameras and special effects. In one scene, Bowman is running inside the space station, and it is turning with him. The camera is fixed on the character, while the whole room is spinning. To make this single shot, a massive construction was created. This scene is one example of Kubrick’s obsessive desire to make effective visuals. The film was revolutionary for its time due to the usage of special effects. The space stations were recreated in great detail and their movement in zero-gravity was unusually realistic.
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Another distinctive feature of the film is its editing and the usage of classic musical score. Most of Hollywood films shot before 2001: A Space Odyssey had dramatic musical score composed especially for them. Kubrick utilized pre-existing classic recordings (“Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and “The Blue Danube” by Johan Strauss) and music written by composer Alex North. According to the researcher William Whittington, Kubrick, unlike other Hollywood filmmakers, used the score not to underline the dramatic events in the film, but to create almost operatic feel of the movie. Thus, the music and the visuals worked in separate dimensions and provoked different emotions in the audience. The director used the classical music score to express his ideas. Whittington mentions that by using Strauss’s score in a scene, where the prehistoric human encounters the monolith for the first time, the director links the soundtrack with the image of the extraterrestrial artifact. This symbolic link proved to be so effective that it retained its meaning even outside the film and became a symbol of human advances in science. The usage of musical score is now integrated in culture and exists even outside the film, recreated and parodied in other fictions (Whittington, 2007, p. 46-49). In addition to music, Kubrick uses sound effects and silence to create one of the most intense scenes of the film. The scene of HAL spying on the two crew members, who discuss the AI’s dysfunctional behavior, serves to reveal HAL’s cold calculative intellect, its ability to pretend. This silence in this scene works better than menacing orchestral score. Other scenes in this most thrilling part of the movie are also devoid of the musical score. The director relies on mechanical sounds of the space station on the background, the silence of space, and HAL’s chanting during the culmination of this scene, when Bowman confronts the computer.
The film is very light on dialogue. It is used at the beginning of the film to establish the plot and to move the plot forward during the confrontation between human characters and the AI. The only character presented mostly through speech is HAL. The final monologue, when HAL tries to dissuade Bowman from destroying him, reveals the deeper sides of this character. As the monologue draws to a close, HAL becomes more humane, its emotions become more real. Limited dialogue, usage of silence and effective sound effects in the most intense and suspenseful scene of the film – the confrontation between Bowman and HAL, along with claustrophobic cinematography and colored lighting, make this scene a great example of thriller filmmaking.
Another achievement of Kubrick as a filmmaker is editing. The film contains a match cut which is a perfect illustration of visual matching and an instrument of bringing the films message to the audience. The essential conflict of the film is the complex relationships between man and technology. It is touched upon in the opening scene of the film, the prologue, which takes place during the “dawn of man”. The audience witnesses a pre-historic human ancestor using a bone as an instrument for the first time. The bone tool is used as a weapon both for survival (hunting) and committing violence. The opening scene ends with a famous cut, which switches the bone, thrown up in the air, into a spaceship. The cut effectively incorporates the whole history of human scientific development and also reflects the author’s pessimistic view on the dangers of technology (Rasmussen, 2005, p. 55-58). The montage of space stations floating on the Earth’s orbit and the interior shots of a space shuttle and the station helps to show how far human technology reached in the course of time, and how superficial and common its achievements have become. Once again, the classical score is used. Combined with cuts, camera movement and objects (spaceships and a pen, floating in zero-gravity) moving within the frames, it forms a visual spectacle reminiscent with dance or ballet.
In the closing scene, where the protagonist of the film – astronaut Dave Bowman, makes a journey through time and space, into a mysterious metaphysical room, Kubrick uses several cuts to demonstrate the process of the character aging. Bowman sees himself as an elder man, and in the next cut, the character becomes the older re-imagining of himself. Cutting helps to show aging (which is both physical and spiritual) without the use of special effects. The same cut is repeated several times, until Bowman’s final transformation to the new form of being. Like in the first famous cut mentioned above, in this scene Kubrick condenses human evolution in a series of shots.
Technological and artistic choices made by the director serve the main messages. The film reflects director’s cautious views on the path of human civilization. There is a mixture of moderate optimism and rational dread, with which Kubrick sees the human future. On the one hand, technology opens limitless possibilities for discovering mysteries of the universe. On the other hand, human tendency to violence and self-destruction can bring evolution to sudden and tragic end. Both of these views are present in Kubrick’s philosophic work.
For the viewer, Kubrick’s film works as a metaphysical and spiritual journey. With very little exposition and explanation, the audience is left alone with the hypnotic and sometimes surreal imagery. The ambiguity of the film is most evident in its final scenes, which depict Bowman’s journey to the unknown and his transformation into a new being. Director refuses to hold the viewer’s hand during this sequence and leaves it for us to understand and to decrypt. It is not surprising that the film caused opposing audiences reactions and speculations on its meanings. The essential reaction to the film by critics and audiences was polarizing. As described by famous critic Roger Ebert in his review, many of the people who attended the premiere were puzzled by the film and left the screening baffled and unsatisfied. However, those who remained regarded Kubrick’s visionary film as one of the greatest in the history (Ebert, 1997). From the modern point of view, the importance, artistic values and technological achievements of the film are obvious. As most of Kubrick’s works, it created many myths and speculations on its hidden messages and even an absurd legend of Kubrick staging the moon landing.
Watching and researching this film is an unusual experience. With volumes of analytical and critical work written on the film, it was a challenge to define a personal attitude. As for the viewing experience, the film proved to be entertaining and stood the test of time. It is easy to understand how the film revolutionized the art and technology. Many modern blockbuster-directors fill their films with endless special effects and action sequences for mindless entertainment. Kubrick used technical achievements of cinematic industry to take the audience through time and space, to challenge one’s view on technology and evolution, to ask important and difficult questions, without providing obvious answers. Ironically, technology, the director was so cautious about, helped to bring his vision to the viewer.