Technologies in the Film “2001: A Space Odyssey” Essay
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), director Stanley Kubrick employs imagery and sound to provide his viewers with visual and auditory experiences that advance the story, but he examines larger questions regarding the interaction between man and technology to explore a number of philosophical and cinematic ideas. The implication of each scene and the overall storyline cannot be separated from the duality of man and machine: the question of whether man or machine will prevail is a question that continues until the very end of the film.
Although there are many answers to this question, this paper tries to prove that technology prevails and has greater power than man, and 2001: A Space Odyssey shows us the struggle between man and machine and the ways in which humans’ identities are submitted and altered by the technology around them. Kubrick envisioned a past where man harnessed the power of technology to transcend his animal state, and a future world where man and technology are locked in a cyclical structure: man will have power over technology, then technology will have power over man, and they will repeat this cycle forever.
I will examine what some of the film’s scenes suggest, regarding the representation of the struggle between mankind and technology, while highlighting the ‘archetypal’ (in reference to the fundamental principles of cognition) significance of the film’s themes and motifs. I will also discuss the significance of what can be considered the most notable cinematic aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Analysis of the Film
Ever since the time of its first premiere in 1968, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (made in close collaboration with Arthur Clark) never ceased being referred to in terms of a great cinematic accomplishment. The fact that, as of 1968, the film’s special effects were considered groundbreaking did help rather substantially, in this respect. Nevertheless, it is namely because of 2001: A Space Odyssey appears to be finely attuned with what happened to be people’s archetypal anxieties, in regards to the ways of the future, which contributed the most towards endowing Kubrick’s film with the cult-status. The reason for this is that many of this film’s themes and motifs reflect the so-called ‘paleoanthropological narrative,’ concerned with the workings of one’s unconscious (Savage, 2010, p. 100).
We can only agree with Kuberski, who observed that “For (Kubrick’s) cinema to have such purchase on the imagination it has to be living, unpretentious, and yet somehow suggestive of something eternal or primordial, something ‘archetypal’ in the terminology of C. G. Jung” (2012, p. 6). There are indeed a number of the clearly defined ‘primordial’ motifs that can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most notable of which happen to relate to the philosophical question – what may be considered the foremost effect of technology on the evolutionary development of humanity, and how does technology affect one’s existential self-identity? In fact, the whole film is about exploring this particular subject matter, the main quality of which can be deemed its sheer interpretational ambiguity.
In its turn, this explains the essentially expressionist format (concerned with the director’s utilization of discontinuity editing) of the film, which makes it possible for viewers to come up with their own interpretation of what should be considered the film’s discursive significance. The main feature of this editing-style has been outlined by Gianetti, “The conflict of two shots (thesis and antithesis) produces a wholly new idea (synthesis). Thus, in film terms, the conflict between shot A and shot B is not AB but a qualitatively new factor—C” (2001, p. 158).
After all, due to being utterly ambiguous, the mentioned subject matter cannot be addressed strictly within the conceptual framework of one or another discursive paradigm. The method of discontinuity editing, on the other hand, helps to overcome this apparent problem, because it is concerned with encouraging viewers to expand their intellectual horizons, as the main precondition for them to be able to hold a valuable opinion, in regards to the film’s main issues. Moreover, the application of this editing-method makes it possible for directors to ensure the auteur sounding of their films – something that is being commonly perceived as the indication of such films’ high aesthetic value.
The main strategy, in this respect, is exposing viewers to the combinations of seemingly unrelated shots – something that Kubrick never ceases to do throughout the film’s entirety. To exemplify the validity of this suggestion, we can refer to the set of shots at the film’s end, which feature the images of senile Bowman gazing at the monolith (02.18.34), the glowing embryo of Star Child (02.18.55), and the planet Earth (02.19.42). The juxtaposition of these shots naturally intrigues viewers – hence, prompting them to wonder about what may be deemed the set’s ‘synthetic’ value.
As a result, 2001: A Space Odyssey is being often referred to in terms of an ‘entity of its own’ – there is so much more to the film’s meaning than its cinematic representations could possibly convey. Therefore, it would prove impossible to disagree with Kuberski, who referred to 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of a ‘thinking cinema’: “A thinking cinema is… constantly alive to possibilities of representation and vision. It is less concerned with a contingency, per se, as it is with the ways in which cinematic reality can be an ongoing criticism and revelation of material reality” (2012, p. 2). Apparently, 2001: A Space Odyssey is indeed so much more than merely a sci-fi movie. Rather, it is nothing short of the philosophical saga about what accounts for the chances of humanity to rise above it ‘biologicals’.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to a number of different scenes in the movie, which despite being seemingly unrelated, nevertheless radiate the strong ethos of discontinuity and commutation, as defined by Chion (2001). Evidently enough, in these scenes, the director extrapolated his own understanding of what the notion of evolution stands for, “(According to Kubrick) evolution was a force that operated to the rhythm of ‘punctuated equilibrium’—or put simply, long periods of slow development interrupted by catastrophic change” (Gilbert, 2006, p. 31). In this respect, probably the most illustrative scene can be deemed the one, in which early hominids find themselves in the presence of the mysterious monolith, which has been materialized out of nowhere and which can be seen as the abstract symbol of technology (00.12.32).
There can be only a few doubts that this scene does evoke a number of the essentially ‘primordial’ anxieties in the audience, reflective of people’s unconscious fear of the unknown. After all, it has now been well established that it is particularly this type of fear, which most people find to be the most terrifying of all. And, as psychologists are well aware of, one’s fear of the unknown is most commonly triggered by those situations, when the concerned individual finds itself facing ‘unnaturalness.’
Moreover, it also represents common knowledge that, when remaining terrified utterly by the unknown, most people cannot help being drawn to it unconsciously – something that correlates perfectly well with the scene’s shots, in which early hominids are seen simultaneously praising and fearing the monolith. In his respect, the director’s deployment of discontinuity editing came in rather handy, because it emphasizes the sheer oddness of the monolith’s mysterious appearance and implies that there is so much more to it than viewers could possibly think of. To illustrate that there is indeed much rationale to this suggestion, we can refer to the scene of apes touching the monolith (00.14. 25), followed by the abrupt take of this mysterious object from a rather unconventional angle, with the images of Sun and Moon in the background (00.14.29).
Apparently, the director strived to accentuate the discursive inconsistency between the ‘primevalness’ of the surrounding natural environment, on the one hand, and the monolith’s geometrically refined (intelligent) forms, on the other. In its turn, this was meant to prompt viewers to experience the sensation of a cognitive dissonance (triggered by the visual incompatibility between the monolith and the affiliated settings) – hence, allowing them to gain a ‘synthetic’ insight into what can be considered the philosophical significance of the imagery at stake.
It needs to be mentioned that the director did succeed in this rather splendidly – in the aftermath of having been exposed to the scene in question, people will indeed be likely to reconsider the legitimacy of the euro-centric outlook on technology, as something that could not possibly precede the emergence of Homo Sapiens. This, of course, establishes a proper perceptual mood in viewers – hence, preparing them for the plot’s sub-sequential developments, representative of the director’s belief that humanity cannot be possibly deemed as the final product of evolution and that at some point of its evolutionary development, it will face the task of transcending technology. As Ciment aptly noted, “This is what 2001 is about: man, who transcended the animal condition by means of technology, must free himself of that same technology to arrive at a superhuman condition” (1982, para. 8).
Nevertheless, it would be quite inappropriate to suggest that the scene’s ‘primordialness’ thrives on people’s fear of the unknown alone – it also capitalizes on their tendency to think of sunrise, as the symbol of hope. This contributed rather significantly towards the fact that ever since the time of its first appearance in the movie, the monolith continues to be perceived by viewers as something qualitatively ambivalent – something that remains well ‘beyond good and evil,’ “It is a signifier of abstraction itself. It appears as ‘the same’ in different instances and in different scales, horizontal or vertical. It is also symbolic of the movement of abstraction” (Chion, 2001, p. 143). And, as we are well aware of, it is named, one’s ability to operate with the highly abstract categories, which makes possible the emergence of technology, in the first place.
As the film progresses further, the theme of the dichotomy between technology and the fact that despite having mastered space travel, humans continue to remain ‘hairless apes,’ becomes increasingly ‘uncanny,’ in the Freudian sense of this word. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to another memorable scene, concerned with the arrival of Dr. Floyd to Clavius Base on the Moon and his consequential trip to the freshly excavated monolith (00.45.40-00.48.47).
What is especially notable about this particular scene is that it combines the scenic takes of the Moon’s surface with the takes of what is going on inside the ‘moonbus,’ which is seen flying above the planet’s barren terrain. Whereas, the former (accompanied by a high-pitched monotonous chant) naturally prompt the audience to contemplate the sheer grandeur of the cosmos and the insignificance of humanity, the latter cause viewers to wonder whether people do deserve to be in possession of highly advanced technologies. The reason for this is that, despite being exposed to the ‘primordial’ beauty of the universe, the moonbus-passengers are shown in the middle of taking care of their basic instincts – the episode in which Dr. Floyd and his companions eat sandwiches is especially illustrative, in this respect. In full accordance with how Gianetti conceptualized it, the scene’s abrupt shifts of a visual/thematic angle result in producing a powerful dramatic effect.
It is understood, of course, that due to the above-mentioned, this scene can be seen as yet another example of the director’s awareness of how one’s unconscious psyche actually operates. The reason for this is that discursively speaking, the ‘Moon landing’ scene implies that, contrary to what it is commonly assumed, the notion of technological progress is not quite synonymous with the notion of existential transcendence, symbolized by the monolith.
What has been said earlier implies that 2001: A Space Odyssey is not really about ‘telling the story.’ Rather, it is about ‘creating a mood.’ As pointed out by Kuberski in his earlier quoted article, “Kubrick’s statements about his films fall into the tradition of esthetic formalism… If his films violated genre expectations, that was because they were poetic and resistant to summary and explanation (2012, p. 4).
This is exactly the reason why the manner, in which Kubrick presents viewers with his own vision on what is the essence of the relationship between humanity and technology, cannot be discussed outside of what used to be the director’s highly pantheistic view on the surrounding reality. The most notable aspects of this view can be inferred from the well-known fact that Kubrick regarded the universe as one huge ‘fractal’ (a mathematical function with the self-repeating pattern), which in turn suggests that just about every of the universe’s elemental components is nothing but a mirror image of what the cosmos is all about, as a whole.
Apparently, the director strived to promote the idea that in this world, everything has to do with everything and that, contrary to what some people believe, one’s ability to act as the agent of progress does not have much of an effect on his or her actual nature, as a ‘two-legged’ animal. To substantiate the legitimacy of this claim, we can refer to the following sub-sequential shots that explore the motif of a stick-like physical object rotating in the air/space: the one, in which ape throws a bone up in the air (00.19.50), the one, in which a spaceship is shown orbiting the Earth (00.19.56), and the so-called ‘zero gravity’ shot, in which viewers are being exposed to the sight of a ‘weightless’ pen floating inside the space-shuttle (00.22.13). The symbolic significance of this sequence of shots is quite apparent – the course of history (evolution) is cyclical, which means that regardless of how much more technologically and culturally advanced a particular individual happened to be, as compared to our early ancestors, featured in the film’s first section, he or she continues to share many mental traits with them. Apparently, the director strived to convey the idea that the identity of a pre-historic hominid is much similar to the identity of an astronaut in the 21st century.
The final showdown between man (represented by the characters of Pool and Bowman) and machine (represented by the computer HAL 9000) takes place in the film’s Section 3 (Jupiter mission). The film’s affiliated scenes provide us with a number of in-depth insights into what predetermined such an eventual development. Probably the most memorable, in this respect, is the scene where HAL indulges in a conversation with Bowman while beginning to sound utterly personal – hence defying the popular convention that a robot’s behavior is necessarily impersonal/instrumental: “HAL: do you mind if I ask you a personal question? Well, forgive me for being so inquisitive, but during the past few weeks, I wondered whether you might have been having some second thoughts about the mission” (01.08.18).
This, of course, was meant to appeal to the audience’s ‘primordial’ instincts, because it is in our nature to perceive whatever our unconscious psyche deems ‘strange,’ as such that poses a danger. The sheer unnaturalness of the combination of HAL’s politeness, on the one hand, and his strongly inhuman essence, on the other, is being augmented even further by the scene’s shots, which expose viewers to the penetrating gaze of Hal’s red-and-yellow eye (camera). As Rhodes noted, “HAL’s gaze is inescapable and omnipresent… Within its red coloration, the viewer can see a reflection of what HAL sees: he is observing Bowman’s every move. And HAL’s eye does not blink. It does not look away, even for a moment” (2008, p. 97). After all, it is also in one’s nature to consider being gazed upon emotionally discomforting – something that explains people’s tendency to react towards the prospect of being ‘ eyeballed negatively.’ Yet, until the time of HAL’s ‘rebellion,’ Pool and Bowman do not exhibit any signs of being troubled by the computer’s omnipresence.
Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate, on our part, to suggest that the conflict between man and technology, as portrayed by 2001: A Space Odyssey, appears to have been triggered by the fact that, as time goes on, people become increasingly automaton-like, whereas their ‘servants’ robots move in the opposite direction. In its turn, this explains the archetypal sounding of the ‘robot wanting to turn human’ motifs explored in many sci-fi movies. It is understood, of course, that the above-suggested is rather speculative. Yet, this is exactly what Kubrick wanted his film to do – to prompt people to think unconventionally, which in turn would enable them to assess what 2001: A Space Odyssey is all about from their own unique perspective. The validity of this suggestion can be confirmed, in regards to the fact that the director decided in favor of using a number of static shots in the scenes that explore the qualitative quintessence of the relationship between HAL and both astronauts (Chion, 2001, p. 138).
The juxtaposition of these shots makes it possible for viewers to sense the subtly defined discursive overtones of the relationship in question. The most notable of them is that the astronauts’ failure to recognize HAL’s scheming, came about as the consequence of both of them have been highly trained professionals – whatever paradoxical it may sound. As it is usually the case with such professionals, Bowman knew how to keep his instinctual urges under control. This, however, was exactly the reason why he never sensed the message of threat between the lines of HAL’s extremely polite sentences – the character’s instinct of survival must have been suppressed. This highlights the actual significance of HAL’s statement that, “It (failure) could only be attributable to human error” (01.21.51) – metaphorically speaking, HAL could not be more right. While on the way to Jupiter, Bowman and Pool made a mistake of trying to act as professional (unemotional) as possible, which in turn naturally prompted HAL to begin considering them as his competitors in the field of ‘robotics.’
The mentioned interpretation does make a perfectly good sense, as such, that correlates well with one of the most fundamental evolutionary laws – the degree of antagonism between ‘relatives’ who compete for the same environmental niche, is always higher, as compared to that of competing ‘strangers.’ For example, it has long ago become an integral part of the contemporary socio-political discourse that Catholics and the Orthodox hate each other than the affiliates of each of these religions hate Muslims and that Americans and Russians hate each other more than they individually hate the Chinese, etc. Yet, the most clear indication that during the course of the depicted trip to Jupiter, HAL has grown substantially humanized, can be considered the computer’s reply to Bowman’s question, as to why HAL choose to conspire against the crew, in the first place, “HAL: I know that you and Frank were trying to disconnect me” (01.41.59).
What it means is that at some point through the trip, HAL acquired the instinct of self-preservation – the most important characteristic of all living organisms, including humans. Thus, HAL’s ‘rebellion’ does appear to be justified – at least when assessed through the lenses of the Darwinian Theory.
The plot’s twist, concerned with this ‘rebellion,’ will also be deemed rather believable, once we recall what was the mission’s actual goal – to introduce humanity to its ‘designers,’ represented by the mysterious monolith. Yet, as it was pointed out earlier, HAL had a good reason to believe that it was him and not Pool and Bowman, who had what it takes to represent humanity. After all, despite his formally unemotional posture, HAL appears to have been experiencing a whole range of the unmistakably human anxieties, “It is HAL who is responsible… falling prey to anxiety and the fear of death, wreaks vengeance on those who no longer have confidence in it by finally sinking into criminal madness” (Ciment, 1982, para. 14).
The fact that the director did strive to prompt viewers to think of HAL in terms of a living organism can be illustrated, in regards to the film’s another famous scene, in which Bowman manages to find his way back to the ship and consequentially disconnects HAL’s brain from electricity (01.47.45 – 01.53.08). The logic behind this suggestion is that the actual mise-en-scene of the episode, concerned with Bowman moving through the compartment that happened to be HAL’s brain, appears to have been designed to evoke the images of flesh and blood – hence, the sheer intensity of the used illumination’s red coloring. Therefore, HAL’s death does seem to be thoroughly consistent with the scientific outlook on what constitutes the sub-sequential phases of dying, as the process of a person passing from existence to non-existence. At first, HAL becomes utterly forgetful. Then, he loses its ability to differentiate causes from effects, and finally ends up being reduced down to nothingness.
Because, as it was mentioned earlier, Bowman’s activities throughout the film’s third section do betray him as a remarkable individual (in the sense of being a highly trained professional); it also made a good sense for his metamorphosis into the Star Child to be clearly something out of the ordinary. The most illustrative scene, in this respect, is undeniably the one where Bowman is seen flying through the ‘corridor of light,’ while presumably leaving our dimension for good (02.02.19 – 02.11.36).
It can hardly skip anyone’s attention that, throughout the course of this ordeal, all of the bright and colorful images that this character gets to observe on his way towards ‘transcendence,’ continue to remain in the state of a constant transformation. At first, they come in the shape of geometrical figures. Then, as Bowman proceeds with flying ever deeper, they begin to remind the lumps of some physical matter. Finally, the character finds himself surrounded by what appears to be the alien-looking landscapes of some distant planets. What this scene appears to imply, is that there are cyclical subtleties to the relationship between humanity and technology – just as it was pointed out in the Introduction. In plain words – the expansion of self-awareness in humans inevitably causes them to adopt the ways of technology as their own. Alternatively, the expansion of self-awareness in robots causes them to aspire to attain humanness.
The scene of ‘Bowman’s flight’ suggests that, while working on it, Kubrick strived to utilize the modernist technique of ‘visual music’ as the medium through which the scene’s actual message could be delivered. According to Grant, “Visual music typically draws attention to things, to phenomena and to relationships which also exist beyond the piece and not just by means of it, but it generally does so by creating the very phenomena or relationships in question” (2003, p. 184).
It also explains the scene’s duration of about 9 minutes. Apparently, Kubrick wanted to ensure that, while exposed to the continually morphing images of light and darkness on the screen, with a somewhat cacophonous rant of many indistinguishable voices being heard in the background, viewers would have enough time to be able to get in touch with their own deep-seated ‘primordial’ awareness of what constitutes the fabric of the universe.
Nevertheless, it is specifically the film’s final scene (02.19.36-02.20.30), in which the planet-sized embryo of a human child approaches the Earth, which should be seen as the quintessence of Kubrick’s view on the relationship between humanity and technology. The actual meaning of this scene can be deciphered as follows. Just as it happened to be the case with other physical emanations of the surrounding reality, life is subjected to the principle of infinite progression/regression.
This explains the actual logic of biological evolution – the continually increased complexity of living forms, as the process’s actual outcome, prevents the forces of entropy from destroying the universe, as we know it. In its turn, this complexity is made possible by the fact that, as practice indicates, upon having reached the limits of their functional capacity, living organisms tend to choose in favor of the communal form of existence. For example, proteins and biomolecules form cells. Cells from human bodies. People from societies/countries, which in turn can be seen as the spatially extended individualities. According to Kubrick, humanity stands on the threshold of realizing itself as a new biological entity – the recent breakthroughs in the fields of biology and physics do make it practically possible. This explains the main discursive implication of the mentioned scene. The embryo’s gaze at the planet Earth symbolizes the impending transition of humanity into an organism of its own, which in turn will be made possible by the qualitative transcendence of each of humanity’s individual members – similar to that of Bowman.
Nevertheless, even though 2001: A Space Odyssey does deserve to be referred to as being a rather enlightened film, its conceptual premise, concerned with exploring the dichotomy between man and technology, cannot be considered very plausible. The reason for this is that, due to being non-biological, it was not possible for HAL to experience emotions in the first place. After all, the reason why people are being endowed with the nervous system (something that makes emotions possible), is that it allows them to remain constantly aware of even the smallest changes in the surrounding reality, which in turn increases their chances of survival.
Computers and robots, on the other hand, cannot be concerned with the thoughts of self-preservation, by definition. Being deprived of physical bodies, with their ‘brains’ focused on dealing with the essentially algorithmic tasks, machines do not have what it takes to become self-conscious. This simply could not be otherwise – while not being affiliated with any biologically functioning sensory apparatus, computers and robots are predetermined to remain thoroughly objectified within the environment. It appears that people’s intelligence cannot be discussed outside of their possession of physical bodies, which implies that the creation of 100% non-biological, but thoroughly intelligent robots will prove impossible. Therefore, even though human societies continue becoming increasingly dependent on technology, the idea that artificial intelligence can surpass the human brain, in the sense of how it defines the interrelationship between causes and effects, does not stand much ground. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned does not have much of a negative effect on the value of Kubrick’s masterpiece, especially given the fact that the film’s main theme is human (and not robotic) transcendence.
It appears that the arguments contained in this paper’s actual body, do correlate with what has been suggested in the Introduction. Apparently, while taking practical advantage of technology, people do often experience a number of clearly ‘primeval’ anxieties – hence, the popularity of the theme of artificial intelligence taking over the world in sci-fi movies. The director of 2001: A Space Odyssey must be given credit for having provided people with insight into what can be considered the actual source of these anxieties. Moreover, Kubrick’s film succeeded rather superbly in encouraging people to realize the simple fact that humanity (in its present state), cannot possibly account for the ‘final product’ of evolution, which in turn should prompt them to apply a continual effort into trying to stay on the path of self-improvement.
Partially, this explains the reason why, despite having been produced in 1968, this film continues to be praised for the fact that its clearly deistic ethos connects perfectly well with the technologically intense realities of a post-industrial living. It will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that this will continue to be the case in the future, as well. The reason for this is apparent – since the pace of scientific progress in the West has attained an exponential momentum, it is indeed fully appropriate to think that it is only a matter of time before humanity will experience yet another ‘evolutionary leap.’ 2001: A Space Odyssey stands out as the best proof that the prospect of such an eventual scenario became apparent to Kubrick as far back as during the course of the 20th century’s sixties.
Chion, M. (2001). Kubrick’s cinema odyssey. London: BFI Publishing. Web.
Ciment, M. (1982.) Kubrick & the fantastic. Web.
Gianetti, L. (2001). Understanding movies. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. Web.
Gilbert, J. (2006). Auteur with a Capital A. In R. Kolker (Ed.), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. New essays. (pp. 29-41). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Web.
Grant, M. (2003). Experimental music semiotics. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 34 (2), 173-191. Web.
Kuberski, P. (2012). Kubrick’s total cinema: Philosophical themes and formal qualities. New York: Bloomsbury. Web.
Rhodes, G. (2008). Believing is seeing: Surveillance and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In G. Rhodes (Ed.) Stanley Kubrick: Essays on his films and legacy. (pp. 94-105). Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company, Inc. Web.
Savage, R. (2010). Paleoanthropology of the future: The prehistory of posthumanity in Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Extrapolation, 51(1), 99-114. Web.
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