No one saw it coming. Kubrick had made substantial changes in cinema previously, but to revolutionize an entire genre and change the state of cinema forever? No one could have guessed. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that completely deviates from the style of classic Hollywood cinema and reinvigorates the notion of science-fiction in cinema. With a few exceptions, the majority of science-fiction cinema was considered “B grade”. Popcorn flicks screened at shady cinemas with very little substantial material to sink your teeth into. A genre not to be taken seriously.
That changed when 2001: A Space Odyssey arrived in 1968.Co-writen by sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick presents a film in which the entire narrative arc is understated through minimal dialogue delivered by non-traditional characters. The film also plays on topics such as mind and identity, man vs. machine, and the grandest of them all: human evolution.
Instead of ham-fisted exposition through the use of action, explosions, and dystopian cities, the audience is presented with long periods of silence, intermittently interrupted by classical music or minimalist dialogue. Viewers are kept engaged through the aesthetics and set design, and by the intrigue that such a minimalist narrative creates. While traditional Hollywood films drive the narrative by the use of dialogue and character action, Kubrick intentionally subdues these aspects forcing the audience to formulate their own opinions and interpretations of the material presented, challenging the Hollywood standard of spoon-feeding their viewers. Audiences likely sauntered in the theater, expecting cheap sets, low budget values and a story that could have come straight out of a pulp magazine. It’s not hard to imagine the surprise when they were confronted with long gaping silences and the challenging of human origins.
Through mise-en-scene, soundtrack, dialogue and character action, Kubrick uses non-classical Hollywood style filmmaking to demonstrate the isolating effects of space and to subvert traditional character roles, in particular the relationship between HAL’s humanity vs. Dave’s robotic nature. Easily the most memorable scene in the film is the non-diegetic use of Gayane’s adagio; the slow somber nature of the music immediately evokes a feeling of isolation, melancholy, and loneliness that Dave feels, encompassed by the endless void of space—a rather de-romanticized portrayal of the stars. Kubrick’s use of non-diegetic classical music during space sequences (as there would be no diegetic sound in space) is prevalent throughout the film in order to provoke emotion, from the haunting sounds of the choir upon finding the monoliths to the exciting, adventurous feeling evoked by the Blue Danube waltz when the ships are docking, to the innocent, sad nature of HAL singing Daisy Bell as he is shut down.
In combination with the classical soundtrack, Kubrick’s use of sound becomes minimal and muted during the space sequences to depict the sparseness and isolation of space; this is evident in the sequence where there is no sound apart from HAL and Dave’s dialogue and the muted humming of bland technology. Kubrick contrasts this subdued audio against the raucous cacophony of the primitive apes presented earlier in the film.
Another primary aspect of 2001’s aesthetic is the non-traditional set design. Clean, white surroundings convey feelings of a technical prison and the sterile isolation of space. As Dave walks through the rotating centrifuge, his isolation is further identified by the lifeless, mummified crewmembers that surround him, as though he’s walking through a tomb. A dead man walking, so to speak.
Kubrick’s innovative set design is further evident throughout the interior of the ship. Hallways are shaped in basic geometrical patterns such as octagons and circles, while the usage of locked-off smooth camera work accentuates the geometrical consistency of the set design and makes moments such as the usage of a distorting fish eye lens for HAL’s perspective stand out.
Through static shots we see Dave showing his artwork to HAL. The shot makes us feel as if we are having an unaltered glimpse into the scene—like through a space porthole. We see a point of eye-line shot from HAL’s perspective as he remarks in a mildly sarcastic tone how Dave has “improved” dramatically in his drawing. HAL’s statement gives us an insight into his self-perception—a machine who remarks that a human is getting “better”, despite how art is subjective and HAL himself is unable to create art, placing himself in an elevated state that transcends humanity. This trope would be followed for years to come in many countless science-fiction tales, essentially setting the standard.
Through the use of a fish-eye lens, Kubrick displays the limited scope of vision that HAL who, despite being omnipresent and able to navigate the ship at will like some sort of god, is still restricted to the limitations of his technology. This inability to “see” everything is portrayed in his request to look at Dave’s “art”. He is unable to see it himself and must ask Dave to show it to him, placing the images in front of him in an almost mocking fashion.
The theme of HAL’s humanity is one of the driving narrative themes throughout a film in which a consistent narrative thread is missing. HAL’s struggle to contain the information he knows about what happened on the moon is the catalyst for the majority of the film’s action. This guilt that HAL feels is particularly evident through his dialogue within the sequence; the way he attempts to engage Dave into the gossip surrounding the events on the moon demonstrates his inability to cope with hiding secrets (a particularly human trait).
Kubrick’s narrative both directly and indirectly addresses the nature of HAL’s humanity; Kubrick succeeds in proving the depth of HAL’s humanity with a single scene—his death. During the scene, as HAL’s memory cores are being removed, we see him revert back to an almost childlike state as he sings Daisy Bell. We glimpse and can interpret an entire past for HAL, something Kubrick achieves through a single character moment that other traditional Hollywood films would have labored on.
Throughout the film Kubrick contrasts HAL’s humanity against Dave’s bland android-like nature. The shots of Dave’s bland posture, his utter disinterest in HAL’s questions, and even the way he has perfect “cropped” hair, all signify his android-like state that emphasizes the lack of humanism in Dave. His banal, abrupt dialogue with HAL as he attempts to explain his suspicions about the mission are likened to a dutiful machine or servant that takes zero interest at the task at hand, but does so anyway because he has been programmed to do so, like a long-suffering servant. Dave and the other humans speak in terse, emotionless voices, whilst HAL speaks calmly and slowly, intricately plotting each and every word that he speaks.
Additionally, the medium shots of HAL’s body (or computer system) show clear messages on the screen. Upon bringing up the matter of the mission, the word “DMG” (damage) flashes up on screen. This is direct foreshadowing to future events, and is also symbolic of Dave’s inability to read what is—quite literally—in front of him. In some cases HAL displays “body language” when the screens pulse and flicker—something comparable to tense blinking or showing his “emotions”. However, Dave sits in his seat, completely unreadable and utterly unemotional. His clothes—a bland, one-piece suit of grey fabric demonstrates his monotony and lack of empathy. This contrasts with the orange spacesuit when he is enlightened and undergoes advanced evolution that propels him to the next stage of humanity.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that completely goes against the crowd in terms of narration and the choice of a main protagonist perceived as a traditional “hero”, deciding to head in a more ambiguous direction where the audience is told to form their own opinion on the film. This is in contrast to the typical Hollywood style, where the audience is given a specific set of clues to follow and arrive at a general conclusion. And for such a significant change to take place, primarily within the science-fiction genre, places 2001: A Space Odyssey as nothing short of a revolutionary film that would alter the genre for years to come.
© Jeremy Szal and Thomas Elliot
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