[Updated] Science fiction before and after ‘A Space Odyssey’

By Casey Campbell

[Updated from the April 7 article of the same name.]

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 what we think of human nature.

Before 2001: A Space Odyssey – Early Science Fiction Cinema

A Trip to the Moon, directed by Georges Méliès

Science fiction has an interesting place in film history – before 2001. French illusionist turned filmmaker Georges Méliès made dreams come true with his elaborate and compelling A Trip to the Moon (1902), which is widely regarded as the first science fiction film. Through the earliest days of the 20th century, filmmakers were utilizing science fiction novels as a basis for their films, with Méliès gaining influence from the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Verne’s other classic ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ would be brought to life in the 1916 film of the same name – notable for being one of science fictions first features. The films share not only influence, but the human desire for exploration.

Thomas Edison’s “Edison Studios” put into production an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ in 1910, establishing a theme of “man-made monsters” and the dangers of technology, which would be expounded thoroughly in the future.

The 1920’s saw German expressionist Fritz Lang take on the genre in Metropolis (1927), an epic that is still regarded as revolutionary. It featured a futuristic cityscape, cleverly shot with miniatures, and one of cinema’s first robots, Maria. The eponymous dystopian metropolis was heavily stratified, and controlled by enslaved underground workers.

Looking ahead, the 1930’s saw a rise in “mad scientist” films. 21 years after Edison’s adaptation, Universal Studios produced their own Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, directed by James Whale. Others include The Black Cat with other Universal big-shot Bela Lugosi, Dr. Cyclops, and The Lady and the Monster. These films further explored the dangers of technology and mankind.

The second World War created a drought for science fiction, but when they returned in the 50’s, they came back in a big way. Deemed the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” the 1950’s were the years of cheaply made (and cheap looking) B-movies. As interest rose in space exploration, so too did films set in space. The Cold War drudged on, and science fiction responded in kind.

The 1950 film Destination Moon is important for its “realistic” portrayal of the moon, as well as it’s spacesuits and rockets. As audiences took to the theaters and drive-ins, studios took notice of the money they could make. Soon, alien invasion films would ingrain themselves into American culture. Allegorical themes of anti-Americanism, and threats from foreign lands lent well to the anxiety produced during the Cold War. Films included The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Forbidden Planet (1956). The issue with these films is that they often came with men in rubber alien suits or schlocky robots taking over the world. They weren’t believable.

This sequence, from Forbidden Planet, excellently showcases the look of 50’s science fiction. A stoic yet dull Leslie Nielsen does his best to fight an invisible monster with blue lasers. 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 ship that takes up much of the background. The soundscape is hectic, as Nielsen commands officers, lasers zip and zap, and something off in the background warbles. Despite their thoughtful ideas and messages, the cheap aesthetic (despite it being rather expensive) lessens the film.

Into the 1960’s, science fiction directors put out giant monster movies, sequels, and more space exploration films. It wasn’t until Stanley Kubrick’s transcendant 2001: A Space Odyssey that science fiction was taken seriously again.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Written in collaboration with science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick went to work on making his sci-fi epic after working on Dr. Strangelove in 1964 (a film that dealt with Cold War politics). Kubrick wanted to make a movie about “man’s relationship with the universe” and sought to set it apart from the “monsters-and-sex” science fiction of the time. In doing so, he utilized old tropes of the genre, as well as invented fresh ideas.

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. Each frame is gorgeously composed and the sets feel like they have weight to them. It feels real.

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

2001 encompasses all of humanity, while only showing Earth during the dawn of man, when “men” were just apes. “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. Everything you need to know is there, but only 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. Typically, science fiction would look forward for answers, or ideas. Here, 2001 looks back, but in doing so, informs the future.

Despite barebones storytelling, 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, our creations, and the unknown was formed. It was the 60’s and as we were making greater advances in technology, humans were finding themselves capable of more than many 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 and nuclear détente with it. 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.

Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Courtesy of MGM

The film 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 the swine 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, then walk away. With the weapons, the apes learned that fighting could be escalated to lethal levels. The nuclear satellite in space shows how humanity is still very much focussed on killing, despite being able to travel through space.

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 still 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.

2001 encapsulates the many genre tropes found in science fiction, from exploration, which can be dated back to the early 1900’s, the “man-made-monster” which was established with 1910’s Frankenstein, and a fear of technology, which was prevalent in the 1950’s. It strayed from the “anti-Americanism” of old (also because it was produced in England), and even featured a Russian character who was friends with an American character, Dr. Haywood Floyd. It also reimagined the robot, by eschewing the humanoid suit for a more menacing and all seeing camera.

After 2001: A Space Odyssey: The Legacy

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 but 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 Mallick, 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.
FilmSite was very helpful in my research of early science fiction.

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