Science-fiction films have been produced since the earliest days of cinema. Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) set the agenda for the fantastic and futuristic that has continued to the present day. What other medium could translate dreams in the way that film can? It can reject spatio-temporal continuity in a way bounded only by the imagination. As a genre however, it has been diluted by more mainstream factors to form hybrids with elements such as horror (Alien, 1979), comedy (Dark Star, 1974), action (The Terminator, 1984), bubble gum cards (Mars Attacks, 1996) and many more. Of the relatively few films which wholly embrace the sf ethos, 2001 and 2010 are two that champion the cause, and yet both are significantly different from each other in their outlook and execution.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – 141 minutes – Cinerama/Ultra-Panavision – Metrocolor
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Director of Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott
Special Effects: Douglas Trumbull, Wally Weevers, Con Pederson, Tom Howard
Music: Score by Alex North replaced by classical selections from Aram Khachaturyan, György Ligeti, Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic poem, in distinct parts, that tells the story of human evolution thus far and then extends into the future, to the year 2001 and beyond, each phase being linked by an enigmatic monolith. Visually and aurally stunning from the start, this is by no means a conventional film. The pace is extraordinarily slow (and could quite easily have been even slower) as we pass through millions of years of the development of planet Earth.
The film opens at the dawn of time. Apes (still more monkeys than human) and other creatures co-exist on the plains of Africa, but the Apes are learning to develop, despite the presence of predators. Breakthrough arrives in the use of a bone as a tool, a tool which can initially break inanimate objects, but then becomes a weapon which can control other animals. Thus begins the simultaneous glorification and damnation of the dominant species.
This is all we need to see. Millions of years of evolution can now pass by. The temporal jump is illustrated by the juxtaposition of two images; the ‘bone tool’ hurled triumphantly into the air transforms into a ‘spaceship tool’ by the use of one of the most famous jump cuts in film history. The film continues with images of spaceships dancing slowly and majestically through the cosmos to the tune of The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss. The exterior beauty of the spaceship is reflected in its interior design: smooth, silent and wonderfully sophisticated.
A mission to Jupiter is initiated as a result of discovering a signal emanating from an monolith found buried on the moon. The mission is guided by HAL, a caring, concerned, capable, compassionate and controlling computer, who interacts closely with the humans, Dave and Frank, the remainder of the team being kept in suspended animation. However, HAL malfunctions and the mission is put in jeopardy – all the crew are killed, except for Dave. This is super-evolution – humanity has created something more superior and powerful than itself, and this entity has gone out of control.
The film’s final scenes are – after Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925) – probably the most discussed in cinema history. What makes them fascinating is that they are obscure, surreal and open to as many interpretations as there are cinemagoers; difficult to summarise in words, they are an extreme visual and aural experience, the enormity of the universe compressed right down to the individual’s fundamental existence – we are born, we eat, we sleep, we die. And we reproduce, thus allowing the perpetuation of evolution. But we are not alone. We are not even particularly significant; all part of a greater universe, that we do not yet understand. When Dave gazes upon himself in the final moments, is it as someone viewing his ultimate demise or apotheosis?
Clearly reflecting the times, posters announced 2001 as ‘the ultimate trip’ (sic) and indeed the LSD soaked hippy fraternity came in droves to freak out to the psychedelic effects overload. Douglas Trumbull, the man behind the effects, clearly had the financial and artistic backing to realise the project: ‘I’m going to need to build a machine as big as a house’ said Trumbull (Sight and Sound May 1995) and he did. It is a testament to the quality of all the film’s effects that thirty years later they still impress (more so than the already dated CGI in the re-released Star Wars Special Edition). This is down to Trumbull’s reliance on quality of vision as opposed to acceptance of current thinking. He is an innovator (Blade Runner  still looks great 15 years on and Brainstorm  has the special effects to save it) and a creator whose oblique way of viewing technology makes his work so distinctive. In an age where CGI is available to ‘Johnny Six-Pack with his PC’, it is to his credit that his vision still stands out.
Sympathy throughout the film lies less with the human element and more with the human situation, a situation that is reflected in the audience’s emotional response to HAL. HAL’s voice is at once soothing and monotone, his attitude is reasoned and his descent into madness moving and inevitable. The fact that gender can be allocated to a bank of electronic components is testament to ‘his’ persona. Extracting sympathy from what is essentially a pulsating bulb (shades of Goddard’s Alphaville  here) is achieved by granting HAL a past. To make life easier for his human companions his programming has given him a ‘love’ of chess and the concern of a true friend, and as a result we accept his descent into madness because he has had a childhood and thus suffered mental scars that burden developing sentient beings. In his final death throes (surely one of the longest on-screen deaths in cinema) he is reciting a song, Daisy taught in ‘childhood’, and this creates empathy with his character. We are told by HAL that a conflict of interest has resulted in this behaviour and we witness a plot by the humans to override his authority. When he kills and the body of Frank is retrieved we feel tense because of the silence, the uncertainty and our association with Dave as the holder of the cinematic gaze. We do not feel empathy with either Frank or Dave as people, but with their situation. Kubrick has always been cited as an emotionless director and a perfectionist, indeed he knew and recited all of HAL’s lines during the initial filming. Is it any wonder that our sympathies are in tune with the director’s preferred outward persona than that of the script?
Kubrick uses musical devices to mirror the development of mankind. From the opening strains of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra we are made aware of a majestic primitivism that is reflected in the earlier part of the film. When this theme is reprised in the climactic, enigmatic final moments, the primitivism is in the nihilistic supposition that ‘God is dead’. This is a two-pronged attack on philosophical sensitivity, at once humble because our position as intelligentsia has been sharply curtailed by superior intelligence, yet also empowering in its rejection of Judeo-Christian deism. In the final scenes is Dave a man or Übermensch? Is Dave still the ape to highly evolved lifeforms? (‘What is the Ape to Man, a laughing stock, a thing of shame? And just the same shall Man be to the Superman’ Nietzsche.) It is between these bookends that the strains of Johann Strauss’s An der schönen, blauen Donau sweeps along, the dainty complexity a rejection of the primitive and condescendingly civilised, as we are shown the beauty of man’s technological advances. How like a God to break from the earth and nature, how like a man to overemphasise his own importance in the cosmos. The lack of dialogue too, particularly at the start of the film (there are no words spoken until twenty-five minutes in) emphasises assured direction and precocious conviction – why limit philosophical ideas by the use of language, when visual and musical icons are a language unto themselves?
2010 (1984) – 114 minutes –Panavision – Metrocolor
Director: Peter Hyams
Screenplay: Peter Hyams
Based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke
Director of Photography: Peter Hyams
Art Director: Albert Brenner
Special Effects: Richard Edlund, George Jenson, Neil Krepela, Henry Millar, Mark Stetson
Music: David Shire
Producer: Peter Hyams
Cast: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Dana Elcar, Madolyn Smith
As 2001 was a poem, the sequel 2010 is a story, a direct follow-on to the events of the former. As Hollywood entertainment, it offers a definitive solution and rejects cerebral ambiguity in favour of a basic quest scenario: a mission to find the Mission to Jupiter. Character tension is created through the reintroduction of the Cold War, forcing potentially co-operative characters to become suspicious of each other and introducing claustrophobia and paranoia in the vastness of space. The characters begin to succeed in their quest via a number of setbacks and triumphs, but when they re-discover HAL they discover Dave and he has the ultimate revelation that will render any petty bickering back home worthless. The film aims to consider humanitarian issues, such as those of the nuclear family and the pride of nationalism, as well as dealing with the existence of superior intelligences and a fundamental change to our solar system, which redefines our lives and way of thinking. This sets up a dichotomy, some of which we can relate to and part of which we have no way of knowing our reaction to, either as individuals or as a race.
2010 as a stand-alone is basic, wholesome, good commercial cinema –but as a sequel to one of celluloid’s masterpieces it is lacking because it feels obliged to explain the inexplicable, and then expand upon it. For example if one obsidian monolith is awe inspiring and enigmatic surely thousands of them will be thousands of times more awe inspiring and enigmatic? To the film’s credit it is cinematic, the sound is outstanding and the direction is clearly a labour of love by Peter Hyams, who also shot, produced and scripted.
2010 does tend to fall into the major trap of showing earth in the (near) future. 2001 avoids this by setting the film either in space (to which very few people can relate) or at the ‘Dawn of Mankind’ (to which no one can relate), and its sets are impressive, simple, monochromatic and therefore hard to pin down; 2010, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind by including shots of life on earth in the future. It either looks exactly the same as 1985, or you get the ultimate sci-fi set crime – the Habitat ‘future’ household, complete in this instance with en-suite dolphin.
Visually, the film is wonderful. The special effects, while not as groundbreaking as those in 2001, were clearly an advance on effects of the time, and the pinnacle of non computer-generated work. In particular, the space walks are stunning in their enormity and convey a claustrophobic tension that produces genuine concern for the characters. The film also takes a certain pride in the scientific accuracy (as we know it) of the events that take place and as a result is far more practical. For example, nowadays it is accepted that Europa has the potential to sustain life and notably after the success of the recent Mars Mission, we are constantly learning more about the possibilities of space travel to the further reaches of the solar system.
So, where do these works stand philosophically? Both address the issues of the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence and superiority, indeed they demand it. In 2001, there is no need for an explanation as to why life beyond the Earth exists – it merely forms part of the mystery of the Universe. In 2010, it is the source of wonder – the creation of the second sun that changes our existence forever and the physical proof that we are not alone. Additionally, both films question the possibility of artificial intelligence and whether such intelligence is feasible, plausible, acceptable or exceptional. HAL is a conscious entity. How far can a mechanically created object exist as an individual with a conscience? At what point is the mind separated from the soul? HAL aims to do good, to fulfil his program and be a member of the crew: to err is human, is HAL therefore not human? To murder (in 2001) and then to pay amends and perform the ultimate act of self-sacrifice (in 2010) the machine created by the humans evolves a social consciousness from what was earlier a primitive ego-based consciousness. HAL evolves because of his errors, he becomes conscious because he ceases to be entirely logical and instead relies upon reasoned, if erroneous responses. Is this not sentient evolution?
Both films do however, state very clearly that there is enlightenment beyond our understanding. 2001 denies the continued existence of God, whereas 2010 glories in Its magnitude. This is not to deny an ecumenical perspective but to approach it from alternate angles; either we are now one of the sentient beings, we are not alone and have joined the universe, or we are not worthy, there are beings we should revere and we should be humble. If 2001 taught us that we are not God’s but part of the greater cosmos, 2010 shows that we are just one more cog in the glorious machine that is creation.
Considering both films together, 2010 is clearly in the shadow of 2001, particularly from a ‘cinematic experience’ point of view. This is not to say that 2010 is not a good film. It is difficult to see how it could have been made any better and that is testament to its director’s vision and the thrust of the narrative. That said, the quality of both films, despite the differences in their execution, ensures that if you want pure, unmitigated science fiction cinema, you’d be hard pressed to find two better examples.