Stanley Kubrick on the Mythology of Extraterrestrial Life -A Galaxy Classic

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July 24, 2008

Stanley Kubrick on the Mythology of Extraterrestrial Life -A Galaxy Classic

14414_0013 "A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.

"If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded."

Stanley Kubrick, Legendary Director of Dr Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssesy

In Arthur C. Clarke's forward to his novel 2001 A Space Odyssey, he wrote that "the barriers to distance are crumbling; one day we shall meet our equals among the stars."

More than anything, 2001 and its journey from the origins of life to Jupiter is Kubrick's philosophical statement about humanity's place in the universe, about where we as humans rate in the pecking order of life -- "feral, intelligent and hyper-intelligent." The famous Monoliths at the opening of the film and the Star Child at the end indicates that entities have reached a higher level of consciousness. Despite the fact that humanity remains more or less earthbound in the real world, Kubrick -- through his strange, serious, infuriating and by turns terrifying movie  points towards our future: to our destiny beyond the Solar System.

The film's primary themes include the origins of evolution; sentient computers; extra-terrestrial beings; the search for one's place in the universe; and re-birth all seen within a cold, foreboding light.  Viewers often read the monoliths as signposts of our discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Shortly after the film's release, however, Kubrick told a New York Times reporter that it's more a matter of the other beings discovering us.

The film's striking cinematography was the work of legendary British director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth who would later photograph classic films such as Cabaret and Superman.

Steven Spielberg called 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) his generation's big bang, focusing its attention upon the Russo-American space race -a prelude to orbiting and landing on the Moon with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. And it prophetically showed the enduring influence that computers would have in our daily lives.

The special effects techniques Kubrick pioneered were further developed by Ridley Scott and George Lucas for films such as Alien and Star Wars. 2001 is particularly notable as one of the few films realistically presenting travel in outer space, with scenes in outer space silent; weightlessness is constant, with characters are strapped in place; when characters wear pressure suits, only their breathing is audible.

Stanley Kubrick -director of Dr Strangelove, Lolita, and Clockwork Orange- spent five years developing 2001, collaborating with SF legend Arthur C. Clarke on the script, expanding on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel". The screenplay and the novel were written simultaneously. The novel and the film deviate substantially from each other, with the novel explaining a great deal of what the film leaves deliberately ambiguous.

The film is notable for its use of classical music, such as Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube waltz, as well the music of contemporary, avant-garde Hungarian composer, György Ligeti (though this was done without Ligeti's consent).  Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and Requiem on the 2001 soundtrack was the first wide commercial exposure of Ligeti's work.

The moon docking sequence, which preceded the actual moon landing by a year, looks remarkably accurate when compared with the footage of Neil Armstrong cavorting. It's no wonder so many people believe the Apollo 11 landing was filmed on a Hollywood sound stage -- Kubrick had already done it, and he made it look easy.

One of the more crucial elements of 2001 is the lack of sound  that dominates the film, which is true to that there would be no sound in space (no atmosphere means no medium for sound transmission).

The real drama begins when  HAL, one of cinema's all-time evil and terrifying characters, makes his appearance. The HAL 9000: a malevolent, homicidal, and sightly effete (he sings "Daisy")) intelligent computer that controls the operations of the spaceship Discovery, which is on its way to Jupiter with a team of astronauts to explore the monoliths' origins.

In the movie's tensest sequence, Discovery crewmen David Bowman and Frank Poole attempt to disable the computer after the stability of his programming becomes suspect. Omnipotent in their microcosmic on-board setting, HAL doesn't take kindly to this suggestion. Bowman and Poole hole themselves up in space pod to engage in what they think is a private conversation. HAL, however, watches, reading their lips.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

For the rest of the plot action, don't miss this video:

Kubrick 2001 The Space Odyssey Explained -Video

Related Galaxy posts:

"The Great Silence" -A Galaxy Insight
James Cameron & Arthur C Clarke on 2001 A Space Odyssey
New Technologies & the Search for  -A Galaxy Insight
Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos Revisited -NASA's Phoenix Probe & the Search for
Cruising the Goldilocks Zone -The Search for "Super-Earths"
The Milky Way Enigma -How Galactic Forces May Control Life on Earth



Casey - great article but you miss the point about HAL. He isn't evil at all, just malfunctioning. The is no morality in 2001 - that's not what it's about.

HAL is an object lesson in what happens when we humans become too impressed with our own creations, when we focus only on what we CAN do and stop focusing on what we SHOULD do. He is programmed to be perfect, and that perfection is integral to his proper operation. When he makes a mistake (misdiagnosing that communications thingy that ends up not malfunctioning), he proves his own imperfection and is unable to deal with the inconsistency in his program. The only thing he can think of to solve this inconsistency is "human error" so he effectively blames Dave and the crew for everything that goes wrong from that point on. When he starts killing off the crew, it's because he think's they're compromising the mission, not because he's evil. He's programmed to ensure the succes of the mision, and he becomes convinced the crew are standing in the way of the mission's success, so he gets rid of them. Like so many of us, HAL lacks the ability to note and learn from his own mistakes. The difference is, HAL was programmed that way.

The moral of the story: WE aren't perfect, so nothing we can ever build or do can be perfect. And thinking that we can is the most dangerous kind of self-delusion.

Because Kubrick leaves so many things ambiguous in the movie, it is open not so much to interpretation.
His message is very clear but there are so many other more or less subtle underlying thoughts and messages in this movie.
I need to see it again.

Great discussion. Most mind opening points raised. For the first time I see the point that Carl Sagan was to describe in 1981; "We are the children of the stars."

It was obvious the show was designed to engage the audience to think. The risky venture was in the fact that audiences fed a pulp of happy endings and living happily ever after was incapable of the job. Not now, though. the show is as fresh as ever and the proof is in the fact that we are still discussing it as no other film has been able to engage the world.

Which all goes to show theat genius is ofen overlooked by contemporaneous personalities but truth lingers longer than that. This is proven over and over aain with the great Renaissance artists. The riddles they posed cannot be resolved by to-day's art world because it is unschooled in the tenets of common knowledge in that era.

"When he makes a mistake (misdiagnosing that communications thingy that ends up not malfunctioning), he proves his own imperfection and is unable to deal with the inconsistency in his program. The only thing he can think of to solve this inconsistency is "human error" so he effectively blames Dave and the crew for everything that goes wrong from that point on."

I hate to say it, but this is also not quite right. If you watched the sequel "2010" and read the book, HAL is not malfunctioning in predicting the communications fault. The reason he predicts it, and the ground-based identical one does not, is that the HAL on board was told of the monolith's existence and told to keep it secret from Bowman and Poole until arrival, and the ground-based one was not. He becomes paranoid while psychologically probing Bowman to see if he's onto HAL's deception. The communications hardware "failure" prediction was part of that convoluted strategy. The source of the paranoia was the conflicting directives of free and accurate exchange of information and the directive to lie to Bowman/Poole about the true purpose of the mission (to locate and examine whatever the moon monolith sent its signal to near Jupiter).

The effect Kubrick said he was trying to create was of HAL being the most psychologically deep and complex member of the crew, ironically enough.

Just my .02.

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