Science fiction before and after ‘A Space Odyssey’

By Casey Campbell

What is transcendence when it comes to film? Not the ill-fated Johnny Depp vehicle from 2014, but the notion that a movie can live beyond itself and inspire a wealth of future filmmakers, even fifty years later. In this case, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) breaks the mold of science fiction and film in general, as well as transcending not only art but also human nature.

Science fiction has had an interesting place in the history of film, before and after 2001. French illusionist turned filmmaker Georges Méliès made dreams come true with his elaborate and compelling A Trip to the Moon (1902) and German expressionist Fritz Lang imagined a macabre future in the stunning Metropolis (1927). Though film itself was not widely regarded as an artform at that time, these films should be viewed as high art. A Trip to the Moon succeeds so wildly, because of its innovative filming techniques (with its hand colored sequences and clever cutting) and Metropolis mostly remains in a league of its own when it comes to world building (class warfare and the profiteering of lower income citizens) and set design.

A Trip to the Moon, directed by Georges Méliès

Despite the lofty ideas and heady concepts, science fiction was widely regarded as a novelty in the first half of the 20th century. These were the films you’d see at a drive-in theater, and expect to see men in rubber alien suits or schlocky robots taking over the world. Think Forbidden Planet (1956) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). That’s not to say those movies are bad, or unimportant in the grand scale of cinema, but they aren’t as grandiose and extravagant as what Stanley Kubrick would create just over ten years later, with 2001.

The sequence in Forbidden Planet in which a stoic yet dull Leslie Nielsen does his best to fight an invisible monster with blue lasers is the perfect example of 1950’s sci-fi camp. Militant forces stand around, touting cylindrical plastic laser shooters that look like children’s play things more than lethal weapons. The soundstage in dressed with plastic future-stuff: matte-silver big blockey shooters, and a base taking up much of the background. The soundscape is hectic, as Nielsen commands officers, lasers zip and zap, and something warbles. But that’s not to say that Forbidden Planet isn’t great, nor does it say that it was anything but ahead of its time.

The reality is that science fiction of old was more of a novelty than an art form. It didn’t need to say much about humanity, other than that we’d better hide our busty blonde women from being taken into the arms of robots or aliens, or at least that’s what their posters made clear. Where science fiction once had a flat, clearly fake quality to it, Kubrick infused realism and thought provoking filmmaking.

But what is different about 2001? If you’ve seen it, this question is surely a lost cause: what isn’t different about 2001? It’s slow, plodding, and psychedelic. It encompasses all of humanity, while only showing Earth during the dawn of man, when “men” were just apes. It took the past tropes of science fiction, thought them through, and then tossed them out the window. In doing so, it created new genre specifications and ideas that are still being pondered today.

“The Dawn of Man” sequence stands out as the first quarter of the film, taking up 25 dialogue-less minutes as men in ape costumes (mimes from London, and other performers) bound around a sandy, realistic soundstage. Moonwatcher, the main ape, earns his name by glancing up at the moon. In the next scene, they meet the monolith, a tall black extraterrestrial block of unknown origin. Moonwatcher touches it and is seen learning how to use tools in the next scene. There is a clear connection to these three scenes: the moon, the monolith, and the tools. Kubrick uses subtlety and the connecting of ideas to tell a purely visual story. It’s all there, if you follow the scenes and put the pieces together.

And that’s how the rest of the film plays out. Sequences connect, and though it may not seem immediately clear what he’s trying to do, the end product is wonderfully thoughtful and cohesive. It’s fascinating that a high-concept science fiction film can open with apes, yet work immaculately and fit within the film as a whole.

Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Courtesy of MGM

With barebones storytelling and tremendous filmmaking in general, 2001 paved the way for a new culture of science fiction. A new thoughtful, questioning culture of high concept stories that connect the unknown with a heightened anxiety about ourselves and our creations. It was the 60’s and as we were making greater advances in technology humans were finding themselves capable of more than the older generations would have ever imagined. A space shuttle to the moon was dangling over the horizon of much of the world, yet the cold war was still in full swing. While humanity was making leaps and bounds in the advancement of the species, they still maintained their violent nature. A violent nature that is all too human.

Kubrick ponders human nature and provides an explanation for evolution in the most unorthodox way possible. The monolith shows up whenever humanity is set to evolve, whether from ape to man, or man to Star Child.

Human nature is explored through the violence of humans, and it’s interesting to think about the evolutionary aliens as malicious, instead of helpful. They help humans evolve, but at what cost? The famous cut from a weaponized bone used for killing to a nuclear weapon in space says a lot about our time between the Dawn of Man to the present. The apes, once peacefully living alongside pigs, learn of tools and slaughter them for food. Furthermore, they use the weapons to kill out of anger. After an altercation, Moonwatcher uses his bone to kill a member of the opposite group of apes. Before, they would throw a fit, but walk away. The nuclear satellite in space shows how humanity is still very much focussed on killing, despite being able to travel through space.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Courtesy of MGM

Humanity is explored, very much before it’s time, through HAL9000. It shows how easily we can create things that we depend on, that can kill us. HAL was built to be like a human, another member of the team, with “genuine emotions” that were programmed into him. He ends up killing the whole hibernating crew, as well as Dr. Frank Poole.

The conclusion leaves many questions, while still satisfyingly wrapping up the film. It also spurred on a cultural change within science fiction. Rather than dwell on the future in a campy way, science fiction was once again pondering genuine human emotion and thoughts, though this time with an understated apprehension about the future. Where we once looked to the stars with nervousness, we turned our sights on our own creations.

The notion of spacefaring was not new to 2001, nor science fiction in general. It was realized fantastically, two years before, in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966), a show about bringing cultures together and exploring- not for violence or monetary gain, but to explore and seek out new life. Nor is it the last to do so.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) not only pays homage to the 2001 monolith through the robotic character of TARS, it also sets itself in a world ravaged by human greed. In order to further humanity’s survival, a group of scientists  must travail space and wormholes in order to find a new home. Even the psychedelic ending, in which Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper floats through the fourth dimension, resembles the light show in 2001’s final act. But where Kubrick left questions unanswered, Nolan flounders the finale by giving the answer to all things: love.

Wes Bentley and TARS from Interstellar. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Duncan Jones’ debut Moon (2009), one of the best bottle films to situate itself in the realm of claustrophobic science fiction, sets its sights on an Earth dealing with an energy crisis. To fix the problem, astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is sent up to drill helium-3, an abundant clean energy, on the dark side of the moon. His lone companion is a robot named Gerty, in a role that’s very similar to that of 2001’s HAL, with a pleasant twist. It also deals with human nature, though through the lens of corporate greed and manipulation.

Not only did 2001: A Space Odyssey open up the floodgates for more thoughtful science fiction, it influenced a wealth of future filmmakers to reach further with their ideas. Without 2001, we wouldn’t have Star Wars (1977), and the slow menacing opening shot of a bulky, no longer sleek, spacecraft; we wouldn’t have Alien (1979), a film which reminds us of the quiet of space, and how horrifying the unknown can be; and we probably wouldn’t have one of the most staggeringly gorgeous sequences to come from Terrance Malick, in the Creation scene of The Tree of Life.

It’s been 50 years, and the effects of Kubrick’s masterpiece are still being felt.


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