Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Film Review: How Kubrick defied Space Opera with a ballet - 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Fig. 1 2001: a space odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)(see fig.1.) is a seminal cinematic work, a thought experiment, a choreographed dance, an introspective contemplation of humanity, a cautionary tale, a film about how we watch films - "...a mise en abyme wherein the viewer is finally meant to perceive no more or less than his or her own act of perception." (Rowe, 2013:44). Putting aside any subjective significance that can be and has been attached to it, it is a masterful representation of a truly realistic ideation of space travel in our near future; it's aesthetic, and even it's soundscape, deeply underscored by scientific principles. It proceeds in a rhythmic fashion, punctuated by repeating motifs, both visual and audial, and Kubrick's trademark one point perspectives.

2001 is a film of three parts. It tells the not inconsiderable tale of our species' evolution. The first act is retrospective, showing us our ancestors, primitive apes in a stricken landscape, squabbling over water, before being confronted by a black slab - a monolith. This seems to trigger a change in the apes in which they 'discover' the concept of weaponry and use it to dominate a competing family of apes - the advent of human innovation. The plot then snaps to, presumably, 2001 where we follow a Dr. Haywood Floyd as he makes his way to an excavation site on the moon via a series of choreographed space-flights, ultimately resulting in our second encounter with the monolith. The plot then forwards again, a mere 18 months this time,  to follow the events aboard the spacecraft 'Discovery' which is on a mission to Jupiter. Aboard the spacecraft are five astronauts - three in cryogenic sleep, two awake to manage the mission - and the HAL 9000 computer, an AI, considered a member of the crew, who governs the ship. HAL is meant to be infallible, and indeed all confidence in the mission is reliant upon his infallibility, so when he not only makes a mistake, but denies doing so, the two functioning astronauts, Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, secretly plot to deactivate him. HAL, attempting to preserve himself, sets Frank adrift in space without an air supply and murders the three astronauts in stasis whilst Dave is attempting to rescue Frank. Upon returning to the ship, Dave is denied entry by HAL, forcing him to risk his life manually breaching the hull. He then goes about deactivating HAL, node by node, as HAL pleads with him for his life. In doing so, a video message is activated revealing the true nature of the mission to Jupiter - to seek out alien life on the basis of a powerful signal emitted by the monolith. As Discovery nears Jupiter, the monolith appears again in outer space. Dave takes a space shuttle into/through the monolith, passing through a psychedelically visualised 'star-gate' before arriving in an otherworldly luxury apartment, in which he skips through stages of aging before being reborn as a celestial foetus (see fig.2.).

Fig. 2 (1968) The celestial foetus
The opening scene of 2001 drops its audience into a black cinematic void of contemplation haunted by an unerringly sinister tone, which slowly fades in and out, subtly fluctuating and building before suddenly dropping out to a low thrum that becomes Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra (1896). Zarathustra is used to signify momentous, transcendent events throughout the film - first heard in the opening of the film in the establishing shot of the moon, earth, and sun in perfect alignment (see fig. 3.). The alignment of planetary bodies has been held to be portentous by multiple cultures throughout human history, and by subtly including this astrological implication, Kubrick associates a prophetic element to the Strauss piece without damaging the credibility of the scientific roots of the film.
The original score composed by Alex North was actually abandoned by Kubrick in favour of established classical and orchestral works, which had initially only been intended as guide pieces (LoBrutto, 1998:308)(Mcquiston, 2011:151). Kubrick didn't hesitate to design and alter segments of the film to fit the length of the classical and orchestral pieces he chose. He considered it essential in order to sustain select moods at distinct points of the narrative (Mcquiston, 2011:152).
Notably, Kubrick made use of several works by György Ligeti. In stark contrast to the majesty of the more classical works employed in the score, the more contemporary works of Ligeti are jarring, making heavy use of dissonance and ear-splitting crescendos.Their dissonance is used in the context of the air of the 'alien other' that surrounds the Monolith, repeatedly throughout the film to build tension, not necessarily with sinister intent, but more to signal an impending disruption of our, and the character's, expectations.

Fig. 3 (1968) Opening Shot
The manner in which Kubrick lavished the grand orchestral score upon 2001 makes the moments of the film in which it is absent truly compelling. The score so engrosses the audience in the majesty of the spectacle they are witnessing that Kubrick was able to use it's complete absence to powerful effect - most notably in the space walking scenes, where the score is substituted simply by breathing, as though the audience themselves are inside the space suit, encompassed by the immense silence of space. More startling still, is that this is achieved from a 3rd person perspective as we watch from a distance - the atmospheric impact of hearing nothing but the astronaut's breathing generates an extraordinary degree of empathy that has no right succeeding without the 1st person viewpoint that should accompany it, yet the audial impact of being severed from the grandeur of the score manages to situate the audience in two separate perspectives - they are simultaneously both the astronaut, and the audience.
Similarly, the manner HAL murders the three astronauts in stasis is made truly chilling by both the speed the absolute silence (save for the machine hum of Discovery) in which it occurs. The film progresses at a sedate pace, uses minimal dialogue, and never presents a compelling human protagonist with whom the audience empathises. Instead it is the score that drives our emotional response and investment, and in divesting the murder scene of any emotional stimuli, the murders conveyed through nothing more than medical diagnostic devices, HAL is made truly monstrous to us, abhorrent, inhuman (Pezzotta, 2012:59).

What is really happening though when the film lashes out with silence? It's impact does not derive solely from the absence of the score itself, but by what the score has built. 2001 is balletic throughout. Kubrick makes heavy uses of grand panning shots of the variety of spacecraft in the film as they pirouette through the void, elevating even landing sequences to sophisticated choreographed pieces, toying with graceful otherworldly motions only possible in 0G. The score doesn't merely reinforce this sense of dance, but imposes it upon you quite literally by making heavy use of The Blue Danube (1866) a waltz composed by Johann Strauss, and Aram Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet Suite (1939) (Pezzotta, 2012:53). Even within the interiors of the spacecraft the dance is present. "The gracefulness and weightlessness that are usually the attributes of dance also characterize the first scenes set inside the centrifuge of Discovery." "Their movements and those of the camera and the rotation of the centrifuge, accompanied by the Adagio from Aram Khatchaturian’s Gayaneh ballet suite, are like an acrobatic ballet in which the dancers challenge the weight of their bodies, in which the set slowly rotates to follow their choreography." (Pezzotta, 2012:54)(see fig.4.). As such, whenever silence is employed, the audience sits up and pays attention not merely because the score is absent, but because the dance has paused, it has well and truly ground to halt and there is no clear reason why yet - this in itself creates a narrative dissonance.

Fig. 4 (1968) Interior of Discovery 
This balletic portrayal of space only becomes plausible however due to Kubrick's dedication to replicating the underlying technical principles behind space travel as laid out in Arthur C. Clarke's original novel - who himself paid great attention to the physical realities and problems posed by a realistic vision of space travel.

"The equatorial region of the pressure-sphere – the slice, as it were, from Capricorn to Cancer –
enclosed a slowly-rotating drum, thirty-five feet in diameter. As it made one revolution every ten
seconds, this carousel or centrifuge produced an artificial gravity equal to that of the Moon." (Clarke 1968: 113)

This principle of centrifugal force is a key consideration where application of REALISTIC artificial gravity is concerned. Space Operas have traditionally ignored, and continue to completely ignore the practical design issues space travel would actually pose - beyond the occasional Red-shirt being sucked out into space. Instead audiences are often treated to sci-fi in which spacecraft can just magically stick their occupants to the floor, totally violating our real-world understanding of the laws of physics. In this reviewer's opinion, films that actually design for the issues of space-travel are far more compelling as they do not require their audience to suspend their disbelief to such an extent - what they are being shown is not mere fantasy, it is legitimately viable. More recently, Neill Blomkamp's Elysium (2013) showcased the principal to stunning visual effect, and on a grand scale, with the toroidal design of the luxury space-station Elysium (see fig.BLAH) - every detail was considered as opposed to being simply conjured out of convenience. Elysium was surely inspired by 2001 in this regard.

Fig. 5 (2013) Exterior of the Elysium space station

The detailed considerations of the limitations of space-travel are the perfect complement to Kubrick's tendency toward single point perspective camera shots. Both the interior of the Space-station we encounter on Dr. Floyd's journey to the moon, and the main living space of the Discovery spacecraft conform to the centrifugal design, which combined with Kubrick's signature shot simulates an almost hyperreal experience as the environment curves both away from, and toward the audience on all sides. Other exemplars of the single point perspective twinned with the considerations of 0G are; the scene in which the space-airliner hostess turns and slowly walks herself up the cylindrical wall and onto what we would perceive to be the ceiling, before walking into the pilot's cabin; when Frank is shown spiraling helplessly into outer-space; and most interestingly, to simulate claustrophobia as the camera follows Dave in his space-suit as he exits Discovery (see fig.6.).

Fig. 6 (1968) One point perspective shot of Dave exiting Discovery
The final scenes unmask the philosophical nature of the film's narrative. Upon reaching Jupiter and passing through the monolith, Dave is catapulted through a chaotic and seemingly infinite kaleidoscope of time and space, only to find himself alone in a place that is both without a sense of time or space. He is shown the full extent of his own mortality before yet again encountering the monolith, whereupon he is reborn, transcending his human state, into a celestial being. Our initial evolutionary moment in 2001 is shown to be when our ape ancestors invent the concept of tools, specifically weaponry, propelled by competition over resources, and resulting in acts of incredible violence. This is a sad commentary on essentially the entirety of human history. Kubrick holds us up against our furthest direct ancestor as if asking 'What's changed?'. The origins of our space programs are rooted firmly in military advancement, driven by callous greed, driven by the question of 'How can we better kill our fellow man?'. No modern space rocket would exist without the V-2 missile, a Nazi super weapon developed in the spirit of vengeance with the specific intent of inspiring existential terror in the Allied peoples. So when the narrative suddenly jumps forwards to a glorious future of space travel, there is almost something sickening about the achingly beautiful scenes of space-craft pirouetting amidst the stars, because this space-ballet exists as a result of aeons of incredible violence, made even more poignant by the sedate, hate-free manner in which HAL murders the astronauts in statis, and Dave in turn clinically murders HAL. As a result however, the final scene ultimately twists 2001 into a tale of extraordinary optimism; that humanity can eventually transcend its flawed nature, that there is light at the end of the tunnel of human advancement, not death and destruction.

Kubrick's vision absolutely ignores the cinematic convention of the time. Minimal dialogue and his use of score to drive narrative and control the delivery of its visual experience was not some backpedaling homage to the silent film, but an insistence that film is not an extension of the stage play (Pezzotta, 2012:52,58-59). It's narrative challenges audience perceptions of monstrosity, humanity, gravity, even violence, and ultimately questions our purpose and place in the universe. It is a profoundly beautiful film whose age only shows in its wardrobe, and can only go unappreciated if its audience actively renders themselves incapable of intelligent thought.


Clarke, A. C. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey. London: Arrow Books.

LoBrutto, Vincent (1998). Stanley Kubrick. London: Faber and Faber.

McQuiston, Kate (2011) '"An effort to decide": More Research into Kubrick's Music Choices for 2001: A Space Odyssey' In: Journal of Film Music, The 3 (2) pp. 145-154

Pezzotta, Elisa (2012) 'The metaphor of dance in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket' In: Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 5 (1) pp.54-64

Rowe, Christopher (2013) 'The Romantic Model of "2001: A Space Odyssey"' In: Canadian Journal of Film Studies = Revue canadienne d'études cinematographiques 22 (2) pp.41-63

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. 2001: a space odyssey (1968) [Poster] At: http://www.panicposters.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/f63dc5ec28f3175f8a7f615bd217eb71/m/s/msp0021_space_odyessy.jpg (Accessed on 23.10.16)

Figure 2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [Film Still: The celestial foetus] At: http://trevorsviewonhollywood.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/7/1/38713721/1018060_orig.jpg

Figure 3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [Film Still: Opening Shot] At: https://filmshotfreezer.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/vlcsnap-2011-04-15-15h38m18s170.jpg (Accessed on 17.10.16)

Figure 4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [Film Still: Interior of Discovery] At: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/2001/images/7/75/Discovery-interior.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20150214161632 (Accessed 23.10.16)

Figure 5. Elysium (2013) [Film Still: Exterior of the Elysium space station] At: https://www.wired.com/images_blogs/underwire/2013/08/F3_05_elysium.jpg (Accessed on 15.10.16)

Figure 6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [Film Still: One point perspective shot of Dave exiting Discovery] At: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/4c/bb/0a/4cbb0a23b5b7cb71c1fac89b6afd1ed9.jpg (Accessed on 15.10.16)

No comments:

Post a Comment