Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Changing Space

Stanley Kubrick’s immensely influential and deservedly canonized science-fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a film obsessed with and grounded in evolution: technological evolution, intellectual evolution, philosophical evolution, and spiritual evolution. Not only does the film concentrate on the presence of change and development, but also the lack of change and development that unifies the human narrative by providing a stable, constant, and extra-temporal reality. The film analyzes the core from which humanity has improvised, or at least encounters the illusion of such an fundamental essence. Kubrick’s film explodes the confines of its genre by probing for a metaphysical, philosophical course of advancement that will permit humanity to transcend the confines of time, space, science, and society. 2001 is a film about faith; faith in the possibility, perhaps the inevitability, of change and progress for the human race. Kubrick revels in this progress, and everyone wants progress, right? Well, everyone wants it until that progress means the proliferation of homicidal supercomputers.

2001’s exposition is synonymous with the exposition of humanity. Majestic space shots of the Earth rising over a still moon and the sun rising over the dwarfed Earth, livened by a Strauss’ "Also Sprach Zarathustra,” give way to sunburned frames of rocky landscapes, populated by a clan of humanoid apes. This is Earth at “The Dawn of Man,” as is denoted by the title card. The apes are depicted as bickering over water and resources with other clans, struggling for survival. Amidst their Darwinian travails, they are subject to a strange, assumedly extraterrestrial object: a giant black monolith, perfectly geometric, sleek and sharp, a haunting
emblem of intelligence, cunning, and detached rationality. Immediately following the mysterious appearance of the monolith and the hesitantly curious response from the apes, comes the initial act of humanity, in the eyes of Kubrick.

An ape, seemingly enlightened by the monolith’s mysterious powers, lethargically smacks a large bone from a windswept animal skeleton against the ribs of the fleshless carcass. Intrigued by the destructive impact of his strike, the ape begins bashing the skeleton harder, eventually demolishing the animal’s skull in a shot which is visually rhymed with another shot, a flash forward, of the ape using the bone to crush the skull of a live animal, killing it and then proceeding to devour its flesh. The ape has learned to use a tool, perhaps the first spark of
technology, the initial act of utility and innovation. Most importantly, the ape has learned to use the tool as a facilitator of dominance and control. This is the key advancement, the evolutionary move, which elevates the apes from their state of submission to nature to their dominance of nature – essentially the first large step toward humanity. It’s slightly depressing to define humans merely as apes that learned how to beat things with bones, but that’s Kubrick’s approach.

Soon after breaking in their tool, the apes apply their newfound conduit of dominance and violence to their social strife. In a gloriously ruthless scene, the bone-wielding ape, humanity’s pioneer, leads his clan against a rival clan to gain control of a watering hole – gaining access to the most essential resource. Full of rage, the bone-wielder attacks a member of the other ape clan, bludgeoning him to death with relentless intensity, verging on glee. Kubrick then employs perhaps the single greatest edit in the history of cinema. The murderous ape, revealed once again during his moment of violent discovery with the skeleton, is shown hurling his bone triumphantly in the air. The camera follows the flying bone in a close-up, admiring its strange grace. Suddenly, the shot is slammed into another, a perfect match cut of a space satellite, stunningly similar to the shape of the bone, floating serenely in a vast expanse of black space.

Perfectly utilizing the Eisensteinian technique of intellectual montage, Kubrick makes remarkable statements about evolution and humanity in this single edit, all grounded in the idea of humanity being defined by its use of tools for the purpose of dominance and survival. Bluntly, the cut suggests the parallel nature of the bone and the satellite: both are human tools, products of technological innovation. This is the constant, essential property of the human condition that 2001 expounds upon throughout its narrative, which continues with the second appearance of the black monolith on the Moon in the year 2001, which prompts an American space mission to Jupiter, where the monolith is emitting a signal, possibly a clue to discovering the nature of the alien intelligence assumed to be responsible for the creation of the monolith. 2001 utilizes a definition of humanity by its relationship to technology and dominance to question the nature of humanity and its value, and, most importantly, what might come after humanity.

The mission to Jupiter is undertaken by two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), along with a crew of three scientists, who spend their time on the ship, the Discovery One, in suspended animation. The final member of the mission crew is a supercomputer, capable of human reasoning and emotions, the HAL 9000 (voice by Douglas Rain), referred to as HAL by Dave and Frank. As the mission progresses, and the power of the black monolith seemingly invades HAL, he grows more aggressive, manipulative, and power-hungry. He begins to lie to Dave and Frank, violating the systematic perfection that the 9000 series is famous for. Dave and Frank grow suspicious and plan to disconnect HAL, feeling him no longer trustworthy.

HAL’s nasty attitude soon escalates to the point of homicide. HAL intentionally detaches Frank from the ship while he is fixing a problem on the hull that HAL intentionally creates, sending him careening into space in one of the most terrifying murder scenes on celluloid. During Dave’s rescue attempt, HAL reveals his rationale for killing Frank, stating, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” HAL has transformed from a tool, a technological device, to, by the film’s definition, a human, employing tools of his own to manipulate, dominate, and survive. This is blatantly revealed earlier when HAL explains the problem he manufactured on the hull, assessing that, “It can only be attributable to human error,” when, in fact, it is HAL’s fault, he commits the “error,” violating his own perfect programming. HAL transcends his limitations – he breaks the human monopoly on humanity, taking the step of the skull-bashing ape. Significantly, both HAL and the ape are inspired by the black monolith, a puzzling catalyst of change and development, perhaps a symbol of chance, fate, or God...maybe all three.

Upon Dave’s return to the ship, he proceeds to shut down HAL in a scene whose remarkable pathos is the definitive proof of HAL’s humanity. As Dave slowly deactivates HAL’s non-necessary functioning elements, those that allow his consciousness and human qualities, HAL poignantly pleads with him, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid.” HAL’s slow death is incredibly moving. His fear of dying is tear-jerking, revealing a vulnerability that evokes sympathy, even for a murderous computer. Dave witnesses that the tool has become human. The bone has learned to think, to manipulate. The next step of Dave’s journey to Jupiter answers the seemingly imminent question: if the tools become human, what do the humans become? What is next in the evolution of humanity? How can humans, like HAL, transcend their confines, physically, temporally, and spiritually? What is the next step on the course of change?

Following the shut down of HAL, Dave enters into a strange vortex, traditionally referred to as a “Star Gate” (not like the Kurt Russell movie), which is apparently instigated by the presence of the black monolith, which elegantly glides through the void of space, aligning with Jupiter and its moons, ripping open the seam through space and time which Dave soon travels through. The visual wonder of the Star Gate sequence is unrivaled in cinema, and the transforming power of Dave’s journey through the laserlight, psychedelic rift in space/time results in Dave’s vision of himself in an oddly decorated and brightly lit room, aging. Prompted by the black monolith, once again, change erupts. Dave watches himself change, privy to the knowledge of development, advancement, and evolution that may have been previously only contained in the monolith. As Dave is seen on his deathbed, the monolith appears to him once more and he leans forward, grasping, attempting to embrace the physical manifestation of change. The result of Dave’s acceptance, even yearning, for the black monolith and its qualities of change, evolution, and survival, results in his own rebirth, an evolutionary reconfiguring. Dave appears as a giant, celestial fetus, creeping through space in an orb of bright light.

Deconstructed to his initial state, Dave is reconstituted in a new form, perhaps exceeding the restrictions of humanity, a post-human being – the next step forward. Dave submits to change and the irrational, rather than attempting to dominate it, as the ape did with his bone weapon. This is Kubrick’s hope, that through the irrational, the inconceivable, the unknown, humanity will exceed itself and make the next change, dropping the violent bone and the metal satellite. 2001 places the possibilities of change in the metaphysical, that which is beyond the grasp of humanity, like the monolith for the dying Dave. Without science, reason, or violence, humanity leaps forward by, in a sense, reaching back, being reborn. What is important, the film suggests, is the desire for rebirth, for evolution, the lunge toward the unknowable and the mysterious, the spiritual. A thrust forward, in the direction of the extra-human, is essential, like the glowing, radiant fetus, gazing at the Earth – the repetition of the cycle of change. The film ends with this stunning image of the reborn Dave, approaching Earth, full of untainted possibilities, completing its narrative just as the narrative of the next stage of humanity begins, a promising future for a species in desperate need of one.

by Brandon Colvin

Editor's Note: This review was originally published in "Rise Over Run Magazine."


Brandon Colvin said...

Where's the rest of it?

Neil Fulwood said...

Nobody loves a pedant, I know. Still ... 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' was composed by Richard Strauss, not Richard Wagner. Sorry.

Otherwise, spot-on article.

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comment/correction, Neil. Has been corrected. Thanks for coming to the site! Enjoying yours as well!

Brandon Colvin said...

My bad . . . thanks Neil.

Neil Fulwood said...

Sorry again, guys. Pedantry on my part.

I used to work in a shop that specialised in classical music recordings. We got a lot of custom from people who'd heard a piece in film and could only tell us the title of the movie. 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' still captures people's imaginations (it's definitely more popular than the Blue Danube waltz) and remains as inextricably linked with '2001' as 'Ride of the Valkyries' is with 'Apocalypse Now'.

Thanks for your visiting my site, James.