Monday, 18 January 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Country: UK/USA

The very nature and fabric of science-fiction is visionary, and as such it is a genre with an inbuilt sense of spirituality. This vision refers not only to the awesome cinematic spectacle rendered by advances in special effects, but also highly symbolic and allegorical visions of future or alternative worlds. Worlds that more often that not dramatise the effects of our behaviour in contemporary society. Science-fiction films may feel far removed from our reality, but they are implicitly connected to the here and now. Whether it be utopian visions, or dystopian (my personal favourite) it becomes very important in cerebral science-fiction to marry the visual and stylistic spectacle to the allegorical underpinnings of the plot. The necessity is for a seamless connection. It’s essential to create a set of meanings and values that work within the spectacle to such an extent that the audience does not question the reality of the future vision.

Technology is the centrifugal force in science-fiction. Its external importance lies in the creation of spectacle, and internally every science-fiction film deals in some way with themes that relate to technology. Science-fiction films are as much about technological progressions in filmmaking techniques as they are about metaphysical and philosophical questions relating to mankind’s relationship to technology. In this respect science-fiction is a genre that often struggles to hide its artifice. On the all too rare occassions that visual spectacle, allegorical symbolism, technology, and ideology work in symbiosis, the results can seem revelatory. With 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke achieved just that.

One of the major weaknesses of science-fiction in the 1950’s and early 1960’s was the failure to meet the challenge of the spectacular. The exotic alien worlds, terrifying alien monsters and sleek futuristic spacecraft more often than not failed to deliver on their promise. This was because science-fiction existed in an arena of low budgets, and a need on the part of filmmakers to be thrifty and ingenious within a restricted framework. Not all 1950’s science-fiction failed to deliver, some such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956) and This Island Earth (1955) were marvellous achievements. But in general the lack in certain areas led to an over reliance on the tropes of interrelated genres - most notably the horror film. The invasion narratives of the 1950’s still to this day spark fierce debate over whether they are science-fiction or horror movies. In this sense then the major Hollywood studios had been selling audiences short for many years. As a conceptual piece 2001 is a quite remarkable achievement. Its realisation of outer space has never quite been matched, and is more impressive when one considers that the Earth hadn’t been photographed from outer space at this point in time.

The spacecraft we see are complex, ornate, and organic. They do not shine, they are not sleek, and they lack precision. Instead they are workmanlike creations designed pragmatically for the rigours of spaceflight. Despite the impracticality of their design they weave gracefully in the desolate void of space. This delicate ballet of movement is married beautifully to selections of classical music, and this helps to give spaceflight a grandeur and importance that verges on a spiritual experience. But the human cost of space travel is illustrated by a mundane atmosphere of bored apathy. The interiors of the spacecraft are starkly lit and sterile, conjuring up not so much a vision of the future, but the implacable cleanliness of 1960’s art deco. It is only in certain choices of art direction and set design that dates 2001. The slavish dedication to the visual design, model work, and spectacular vistas, is so strictly adhered too that Kubrick virtually excises dialogue from the film. In the face of such sublime imagery what could be said? The first words are uttered some twenty-five minutes into the film and conversation is stilted and sporadic throughout. The Dawn of Man epilogue is a moment of hauntingly beautiful pure cinema.

Kubrick keeps motivation and identification to a bare minimum, and goes to great lengths to reduce characterisation. Human beings are rendered bland and inconsequential in the face of awesome technology. This makes the task of acting in the film a rather thankless one. The two astronauts Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood) who man the spacecraft Discovery on its voyage to Jupiter remain troubling enigmas throughout. They become detached human automatons, who when faced with moments of extreme danger or emotional difficulty are stony faced throughout. In ironic contrast the film places the greatest humanity in a neurotic and psychopathic ship board computer called HAL. His interactions with the two humans is the thematic heart of 2001. Although the film is open to numerous philosophical and metaphysical interpretations, I personally see mankind’s relationship to technology as the most salient. Mankind’s subservience too and reliance on machines is a very disturbing message, and one especially prescient as the uncertain 1970’s dawned. It is no coincidence that when the bone is thrown into the air in mankind’s early evolution, the 2000 year cut we see alights on a nuclear bomb. The bone and the bomb both symbols of mankind’s violence and aggression, and both heraldic symbols of evolution.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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