Thursday, 23 October 2014

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

  • Native Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
    (Film-Cine, unknown)
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Technicolour
  • Year of release: 1968
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Budget: est.  US$10,500,000
  • Film Length: 160 minutes
  • Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer
     2001: A Space Odyssey is considered one of the most iconic of science fiction films inspired by the works of author and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke that pulls of an ambitious attempt at a narrative that begins at the dawn of mankind and stretches potentially into our unknown future. The focus of the film revolves around the enigma of strange black monoliths; slabs of glossy black metal twice as tall as a man with no discernible features beyond their unassuming shape. The events of the film's present day - the discovery of a second on the moon and the Jupiter Mission - revolve around a curiosity as to the enigma of what these bizarre and ominous constructs are. Many aspects of the film have become pop culture icons such as HAL's camera eye, Discovery One itself and the bizarre "star gate" sequence.

    2001 is one of those films that has aged very well and even though modern society has gone past the date of the film's predictions - 13 years after the established date and we have yet to establish colonies on the moon, build a proper artificial intelligence or have a commercialised space tourism industry - it is still a classic that can be enjoyed. Which may in part be because despite the title, the only reference to a date of the present (to which the bulk of the film is set within) being HAL's activation date of 12th January 1992. Other than this, there is no real sense of when this is from the film's content.

Microgravity allows you to do some things that you can't
on Earth. like walk on the ceiling to enter the next room.
    One thing that sets this film apart however is the attention to detail and the adherence to hard science, especially when bearing in mind that the film was released during the "New Wave Science Fiction" era; a time where a generation of new authors began experimenting with writing science fiction that focused more on narrative and artistic creativity and less on hard science. There were all sorts of touches that demonstrate space physics in a way that the later Star Wars films don't such as structures with rooms of differing directions (one scene shows a woman going down a corridor and using her grip-boots to effectively walk on the ceiling to enter the next room), artificial gravity via centripetal force, the general silence of space and space vessels not using their thrusters while moving at a constant speed. Considering this film was made in cooperation with NASA and released a little over a year before the first moon landing it has a very solid understanding of what it is like to live and move in space. What has perhaps kept it from becoming too outdated is that you can tell Kubrick and the production team designed everything from the inside out, with the impression that every design and every detail was suitable rather than a focus on audience appeal DIscovery One looks practically barebones compared to other iconic film vessels such as the Millennium Falcon and the Nostromo likely because the design was primarily about practicality; the sphere at the front of the ship is the only apparent section that looks designed to accommodate people and the containers are most likely cargo bays but with no air in space they're not causing drag nor are they at risk of being ripped off by air resistance. The pods inside are similar; aside from some bulkiness, it is possible to work out where every inch of the design includes functional components with as little of the structure wasted as possible. Discovery One's design is an example of how far Kubrick would go for authenticity as surprisingly, this one film showed us the entirity of the vessel itself - the wheel-like living area, the bridge, the pod bay, the emergency access shaft and HAL's mainframe are essentially everything within the bulb. 

A futurist could speculate for years what kind of tech exists
within these ominous devices and how they work (Bisdin, 2008)
    The monoliths are the same principle and largely adhere to one of the three laws of scientific prediction proposed by Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (Ashley, pg. 259, 2005) based on the principle that "magic" is a a word to describe the unexplained and that without the proper scientific understanding, that which is understood to a more advanced group conflicts with the scientific understanding of another, less advanced group. The monoliths are black, glossy, featureless bricks with no visible working parts or sounds. They stand where they are set, emitting a phenomenal magnetic field, their workings completely mysterious and work in a way that could be impossible by the standards of both the time of release and the displayed future and yet despite their unassuming appearance, they have capabilities beyond the explainable. Eerily enough, modern technology is looking more and more like the monoliths considering the design and computing power of tablet computers and smartphones. In effect, technological progression has reinforced the plausibility of these strange constructs and will perhaps further do so as modern society continues improving on computing power. There's just so much mystery to these things, despite appearing in what definitely looks like something fabricated by an otherworldly intelligence, there is no sign that Dave Bowman, even after coming al lthis way, has any clue as to who the grand orchestrators are. But maybe that's just it, the aliens could be making themselves distant to avoid some sort of contamination of an experiment, or perhaps there is a sense that "We react to its [the aliens'] invisible presence more strongly than we possibly could to any actual representation" (Ebert, 1997) and it makes these beings ever the more enigmatic as who or what they are or even if they still exist is purely left to our imagination. The image above is perhaps one of the few times we see a monolith from the front and in clear view. All the other times it is either at an angle, partially obscured or clipped by the camera angle.

HAL's eye may be iconic, but compared to the rest of the film's
scope hes's still perhaps a minor player. (Gelinas,2013)
    A lot in this film is tailored to keep you distanced and in a way, not entirely comfortable. The viewer moves though the set like a ghost, sitting at odd angles and in positions where the characters are absolutely directly in front of the viewer, as if even during close-up scenes, we're staring right at them. I mentioned before that this film likes to show off its science and this is one of the ways its done; the only times in the habitation ring where we are on the same orientation as the crew is following Dr. Bowman as he shadow-boxes and conversations with HAL (especially when the camera either looks though his eye or looks right at him. One scene has us watching the two active astonauts eat while watching the news with the angle appearing as if they were sitting on the ceiling. Another interesting thing is that despite the fact HAL 9000 became a legend, considered one of the greatest malevolent AIs in the history of film and the granddaddy of the killer artificial intelligence, in terms of screentime and relevance he's about as significant  as all the other characters save for Dr. Dave Bowman. The HAL-series computer is only explored in the third chapter where he appears and after Dr. Bowman disables him there is no mention or appearence of him ever again despite the plan being to only shut off his higher functions for the remainder of the voyage since even if he did go rogue, he was still responsible for everything working properly. Each chapter is about equal length compared to each other, which indicates that none has more focus o nthe other. Is this an indicator of the equal importance of each event, or is it merely a sign of how insignificant everything is i nthe grand scheme of things. Given the slow pace and the long periods of silence "The film, in fact, might be best described as a factual philosophical speculation, rather than as the drama it sets out as but never develops into: and like all good speculations, it leaves the spectator up in the air with a tantalising vision as food for thought." (Milne, 2010) The film effectively generates hundreds of questions but next to no answers.

There are several cases of transcendant0like imagery within the
film, most involving the emerging sun; a common represenation
of enlightnemnt. (Thayer, 2008)
    There is so much to describe with this film that its hard to swallow it all in one go. With screenplay by world-renowned science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, the film's possibly-optimistic message on human evolution and technological progress (the "star child" at the very end "the embodiment of man's ambitions, a creature who exists in space as though it were its natural environment, the transformation akin to that of the ape at the beginning of the film, for all that has happened will recur once again." (Gelinas, 2013) is hinted to be a new stage of human evolution) is clear as despite the foreboding tones, the world back home that is described is seen as a positive one, but the further we leave the bounds of mother earth, the less safe and the more foreboding reality becomes . But as the film's name implies we are on a journey to distant, dark and mysterious territory. But perhaps it is one that we must take to better ourselves and become something more, something greater. Bowman becomes a new breed and -wither literally or mataphorically its's hard to say watches high above the Earth.


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