Thursday, December 4, 2008

Evolution, Technology, and the Sublime: An Analysis of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Stanley Kubrick’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the spring of 1968 marked a pivotal moment in filmmaking history. Whether referring to the stark realism of space travel in contrast to such films as Destination Moon (1950) or the deafening quiet and lack of dialogue reminiscent of the silent film era, 2001 was and remains to this day unique. Many argue, including co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, that the story is an expansive 4 million year history of human evolution through intelligent, alien means. I will argue that through Kubrick’s use of music and imagery of the sublime, the film is indeed about human evolution, but more precisely, it concerns the evolution of the human relationship with technology. I will show how the film's depiction of technology makes a commentary that it is not simply a tool of human masters to achieve ends otherwise impossible to our physical selves, but that it actually informs and defines identity and the human condition. As such, human evolution and the human condition are dependent upon technology and the ensuing culture that technology allows, blurring the distinction between master and servant. I will describe the visual and musical aspects of the sublime from the pre-film overture through “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later” as support. Lastly, I will briefly discuss a possible implication and future of the human relationship with technology.

Kubrick begins to set the tone of 2001 before the MGM logo even appears by playing a three-minute musical overture of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” against a blank screen. The eerie quality of the music puts the audience in an expectant mood, which, after the brief appearance of the movie logo and before the opening credits, is delivered by a stunning image of the sunrise over the planet Earth. The imagery immediately places the viewer and that of mankind within an intended perspective – humans as a small, almost insignificant entity in an immense, awe-inspiring universe. Richard Strauss’ grand “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is playing forcefully, further adding to the mood and affect of the sublime. The planetary alignment is representative of the sublime in its grandeur, beauty, and vastness but more importantly, it speaks to the meaning of this celestial configuration in human history. The religious importance of lunar and solar eclipses throughout the history of civilization is undeniable. The black screen of the overture coupled with the sunrise over Earth scene could be interpreted to be symbolic of the religious in that many creation stories start with absence of light and nothingness to a sudden birth of light and form. The creation of the ape-man in “The Dawn of Man” is left open to speculation but this opening sequence sets the stage for the birth of man within the universe, not just within a localized region of our planet.

“The Dawn of Man” opens with wide still-shots of what appears to be the African savannah. It is desolate, vast, and immensely quiet except for the sounds of crickets and wind. This imagery, lack of music, and minimal sounds are used by Kubrick to convey the state from which our ancestors lived – sublimely beautiful and terrible. It is clear from the first images of the ape-men that their nature is different from conventional thought of innate human aggressiveness. They are weak, non-threatening, and starving to death. They forage for plants in the dust alongside obviously plump tapirs and are preyed upon by a leopard from a position above the framing of the shot. The viewer sees sun-bleached humanoid bones strewn about also as an indication that even the basics of what we would deem civilization has not yet been established. The point of this prelude to the monolith is that the ape-men are on the brink of extinction and they do not have the intelligence or means to do anything about it. This is exacerbated by the nighttime scene of fright that seems to be evident on the strained faces of all of the ape-men.

Dawn, however, brings something different to both the ape-men and the audience. It begins with light upon their sleeping faces, the waking of one of their number, and the rising music of Ligeti’s “Requiem”. Before we see the monolith, Kubrick creates another expectant mood of the sublime or, arguably, the religious. When the audience finally sees the monolith, it is with the same curiosity and wonder as the ape-men exhibit, and this is deliberate. The monolith is itself an image of the sublime in its perfection and mystery. It further conveys the notion of the sublime and, again arguably, the “birth” of man when the alignment of the Sun and Moon rise over the rectangular form. Whether divine or alien, the monolith seems to give our ancestors the push they need to survive through the discovery of tools. Primitive in rock and bone, our evolution to sentience is dependent on what will later become technology. The ape-men no longer starve replacing the leopard on the top perch of the food chain. What is troublesome and poignant, however, is the immediate association with appears to be the first murder at the waterhole. A double-edged sword perhaps, but certainly an essential dependence on technology and factor in the evolution if our species has been born.

The image of a bone thrown into the air transposed into a satellite, a leap of 4 million years into the future, is at once memorable and purposeful signifying that maybe mankind has become more sophisticated with the use of tools but not with issues related to what is necessary to take another leap in evolution. Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube” further conveys the idea of sophistication and evolution as well as once again setting a sublime mood associated with the beauty and vastness of space. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore possible interpretations of Kubrick’s vision of what our next step in our evolution might look like in “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, but I argue it must involve elimination or, at very least, a minimization of the double-edge nature or dark side of the interdependent relationship we hold with technology. In “TMA-1”, the double-edge nature of technology is evident in the fragility and dependence of not only the physical human self throughout Heywood Floyd’s journey to the Moon, but with the interaction with the Soviet scientists and deception imposed by the discovery of the second monolith as well. It is double-edged or a dark side because, just as our ape-men ancestors, we still rely on technology for life yet use it not to unify but to divide. Most notions of an evolutionary next step involve a move to a more ideal, peaceful, and unified humanity. It is possible that this step will only be achieved by a true mastery of technology coupled with a lack of dependence, which I will further explore next.

In “TMA 1”, we start to see a similarity between man and machine. First, the clothing and emotion are sterile just as the space technology of 4 million years of evolution is sterile. Secondly, there is a mundane quality to the action (or lack thereof) of the characters including Heywood Floyd and the flight personnel. The technology may not be mundane, even by today’s standards, but the acceptance of the technology seems to be associated with quiet boredom or the mundane. From eating liquid food from an enclosed tray to using a gravity-free toilet, the dependence on technology does not seem to be on a conscious level of awareness. When the shuttle lands on the Moon and is lowered into the docking bay, the shuttle itself looks like a human head. Further the bay itself is lit with red light, which gives the impression of womb, more symbolism Kubrick uses to bring together the idea of human evolution and technology. The act ends with the approach of Heywood Floyd and company to the second monolith. Again, there is the same reverence, curiosity, and awesome potential meaning associated with Kubrick’s filming of this scene in a similar way as the ape-men scene with the first monolith. Ligeti’s “Requiem” is again playing communicate both the similarity to our ancestors and the sublime nature of the spatio-temporal moment in history. As before, the imagery of the Earth, Moon, and Sun is highlighted with the monolith, which is abruptly disrupted by the radio interference generated presumably from within.

The acceptance of and dependence on technology sets the stage for next act, “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later”. Again, boredom and the mundane seem to be what Kubrick is trying to convey about the reality of space flight. The carousel and the introduction of HAL are a constant reminder for the audience of the dependence Bowman and Poole, indeed humanity, have with technology. The cryogenic chambers with seemingly dead bodies within bring this notion clearly into focus. The similarity between man and machine is also developed further through the seemingly robotic apathy of Bowman and Poole along with certain characteristics of HAL. He suffers from hubris and seemingly human emotion but it is interesting that his speech is maintained at a monotone level from the beginning of the scene through his destruction. It is the emphasis of similarity between man and technology that highlights the interdependence of the two. The tool cannot be without man while man cannot be without the tool. Mankind still wins out in this scene because Bowman is able to achieve what HAL could not - murder. It is also seems clear that since HAL is one of the first of his kind that this might not always be the case unless the construct is changed concerning the interaction and relationship between mankind and technology.

The construct Kubrick portrays through imagery and music of the Jupiter Mission along with the relationship between HAL and the crew of Discovery is at the heart of my thesis – the story of human evolution is inextricably linked with the evolution of technology. Further, technology informs us and defines certain aspects of identity through what is culturally possible with technology. In the case of 2001, the similarity between man and machine are almost necessary for the rigors of space travel. At the same time, it is doubtful that the encompassing technology of HAL and Discovery do not shape the identity of Bowman and Poole. The simulacra that HAL represents, is not only evidence of how far evolution has taken us but what we may become. The more we advance technologically, the more risk we take in changing the human condition that is itself shaped by the technology we create through the our advancement. This is not so hard to believe when we look at cell-phone technology and how it has transformed how we communicate and how we relate to each other. What is even more startling is the relatively short time these cultural changes have taken place. Text messaging has streamlined the number of words necessary to relay a message to someone we may never actually physically have contact with. How is this so different from the design of the cell-phone technology we created to allow us to do that in the first place? We have shaped the technology as much as technology has shaped us.

2001: A Space Odyssey, is both a sublimely beautiful and cautionary at the same time. Like the relationship humans have with technology, the tale carries with it throughout the film the thread of interdependence, danger, and identity in exploring one possible explanation for our evolution. The monolith with its coldly perfect form may be part of our past as well as our future in ways that Kubrick never intended. In other words, maybe technology gave birth to us so we could give birth to more technology, but maybe we are the monolith and our destiny is to merge with technology, to become cold and perfect. If we continually strive to advance and perfect technology and technology shapes who we are in relation to the universe, it is logical and inevitable that humans are headed down the same path to advancement and perfection. The question then is: will we reach that destination or, like the creation of HAL, will we create our own demise? One thing is for certain, our relationship with technology will remain tenuous until we can master ourselves and maybe that was the real message that Kubrick was trying to convey. Only with this mastery of ourselves can we shape advancing technology that will in turn shape an ultimate destination, not a demise.

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