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2001: A Space Odyssey

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General Information:
Year Released: 1968
Country: US
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Literary Source: Arthur C. Clarke, The Sentinel

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, US) posesses a unique view of science and technology. When the film begins, everything that we see is perfectly designed and squeaky clean. There are no signs of wear and tear or dirt on anything, despite the fact that it's all white. Everything appears to be working perfectly; the technology is completely ubiquitous. The humans in the film treat their surroundings with the utmost nonchalance; they seem incredibly bored in their bland surroundings.

As the film progresses, we realize that despite its perfect exterior, technology has gone horribly wrong. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a perfect example of technology surpassing the boundaries imposed by its human masters, and shows the fallacy of placing too much trust in technology.

The Promise of Science: Space Travel

Pristine space technology is also seen in Kubrick's 2001, a film that brings a new style of realism to space travel. Instead of relying on fantastic technology, 2001 attempts to stick true to known science. Space shuttles are not powered with hyperdrives, and artificial gravity is attained through centrifugal force instead of mysterious "artificial gravity units."

The earth-to-moon space shuttle, space station, and interplanetary space ship are all clean, boring, and perfectly maintained. These vessels also bring a new level of realism through ubiquituity to space travel that has not been seen in other films. Like Forbidden Planet, space travel is an unexciting event -- in fact, there could hardly be anything more boring. It is merely another tiring aspect of everyday life.

2001 successfully emphasizes the enormity and monotony of outer space. Travelling around the solar system (or even the universe) is an event that is both exciting and quickly accomplished in most science fiction films. In the world of 2001, nothing could be more boring than floating through space. Everything is quiet, human interaction is kept to a minimum, and a seemingly immeasurable amount of time is spent getting from one place to another. This film is incredibly successful at passing the experience of slow, boring space travel on to the viewer.

The wheel-shaped space station slowly spins in space.

The Promise of Science: Computers

HAL takes up a great deal of space. This is an image of his enormous memory banks.

Perhaps the most famous SF film computer is HAL 9000 of 2001. This machine embodies many of the characteristics of film computers we have seen so far -- it is enormous, adheres to its mission a little bit too perfectly, and communicates with a cold, disembodied voice. The classic science fiction mistake of bestowing too much trust onto a machine is illustrated perfectly in this film.

HAL was designed by top human engineers to be infallible, always correct, and -- most importantly -- to complete the mission. HAL's downfall is brought about by the lack of humanity in its decision making skills. It determines that the humans on board are not only a burden to the mission, but a threat to its own existence -- and it goes about destroying them in a series of "accidents."

Unlike most film computers, HAL possesses some very human characteristics, to the point where we almost see a man/machine role reversal. Despite its cold, calculating essence, HAL's humanity routinely surpasses that of the humans. Its will to survive and the importance of its existence seem to outweigh those of the humans. The humans are the emotionless drones operating the space ship and going through the motions of life, while the computer appears to have real emotions and a true will to live. HAL's death is perhaps the most dramatic scene in the film, but when the humans die, it's almost inconsequential.

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. erika . .
. last modified: Jul 20, 2000 .