Monday, March 5, 2012

Ambiguity: Let me tell you something…

…about 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In this very subjective piece of writing on this piece of film, I am going to tell you 2001 or so things about this film. Of course, that is an exaggeration. My curiosity with this film budded because I noticed one thing about it: the American Film Institute claimed it to be the no. 1 science fiction film (up to 2008 that is). This was something which I felt was not quite the case in my opinion. But why should I care, particularly since this is about opinions and it is the AFI’s opinion that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is as such - except that opinion is the one with authoritative weight. Therefore, I take it with a grain of salt. Thus, I studied the film in the second time of my viewing it.

The first thing which came through my mind is that unless humanity is smarter than what I take it to be, that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is renown as much as it is for having great special effects for 1968. This is the central point of the film really. It is an expose of technical skill, such as what films like BLADE RUNNER (1982) and very much so AVATAR (2009)*. That was what this film won an Academy Award for. Even Kubrick’s directing makes this the center piece. All of the long shots of the different things done by the special effects technicians and artists are the way they are because it holds the same amazement that seeing a dance or a ballet done with inhuman perfection does (and both would have been filmed in the same manner, no doubt). It is a SFX exhibit.

Unlike AVATAR (2009) and very much like BLADE RUNNER (1982) though, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY has an abstract story with a theme, with the ambiguitous ending mixing in with the ambiguity making the film quite an idiosyncratic piece. Again, most of it is because of the ending, which can have so many interpretations. I personally have not read any studies on the film itself, therefore these are my opinions. Case in point, when the theatrical poster said that 2001 was about "exploration" (among other things), it was not lying just to get butts into theatre seats.

The film is about the different great scientific milestones we have and haven’t (but might) experience. The beginning part, dubbed "The Dawn of Man" is the beginning of this. For the most part, people who do not understand this part of the film (meaning specifically the parts of the ape-like creatures, not the part which takes place in the future once man has achieved space travel) do not have an understanding of one of the most basic (if not the most) piece of plot structuring - it is all about one group fighting against another group for territory. When it comes to Earth-oriented organisms, any different species with intelligent cause cannot consume the same resources (or at least the same source for the resources). One football team vs. another, college students vs. a can of liquid Satan, monkeys vs. monkeys. One monkey discovers that you can use bones as a smashing tool and gets to have an upper hand against his peers.

The second part of the film (post-bone throwing in the air) is when the second great discovery (after the thought of simple machines was planted) - intelligent life other than man out in the universe. The second part shows this only to keep the proposed theme alive. It is worth mentioning that the main human character in this section is doing something which will comes to matter latter on (in a metaphysical way) - not spending his birthday with his daughter. Something quite sad, especially since the daughter seems to not even be ten years old. Quite a cold thing to do.

Part three follows the main character of Dave. Sixteen months after having found the Black Monolith on the Moon, they decide to go up and check things out. The main point of drama in the piece is Dave having to disconnect the memory system of HAL - a seemingly flawless computer system who has intelligence and life beyond what even its creators are aware of. The thing to notice though is that Dave basically killed HAL. A common thing that happens when one turns off a computer device (or at least it used to be a commonplace happening) is that computer loose their memory. If HAL was to have been rebooted, chances are he would cease to be the same spirited HAL that we saw threaten Dave.

In killing HAL, a consistent theme comes out with each new "major" discovery the film covers - each times man makes a new discovery, it comes at the price of an organism loosing its life. A monkey beats another to death with a bone, showing a creature with new intelligence killing a creature of a lesser IQ. For finding the monolith on the Moon only to follow it’s signal to the planet Jupiter, HAL lost his life to a human - the creature of less intelligence killing a being of higher intelligence. Also to note, HAL’s death really is as bad as what Kubrick makes it. HAL is truly alive, particularly when it came to his actions such as killing off the rest of the crew save Dave. He passed judgment, a judgment most likely done through the assumption that while Earth has been already basically destroyed by humans, he could prevent the same event from happening on Jupiter.

Worth mention though is how cold Dave seems to be compared to HAL. The actor for Dave shows minimal emotion, not unlike HAL. However, when it comes to the voice, HAL is much more vibrant in his vocal styles than what Dave is. HAL also seems to be not one who is totally cold when it comes to killing someone either, seeing that after Dave says for the umpteenth time "Do you read me, HAL?", HAL responds. In all of HAL’s pleading, Dave does not answer. Dave only answers when it is a question not relating to what he is doing - unbooting HAL. This follows commonplace along with the death of the monkey at the beginning and the missing of the daughter’s birthday - for man to make scientific progress, he has to be cold. This reminds me of a source of conflict within the film AKIRA (1988) in which a General and a Scientist have a bit of a disagreement, in that the scientist will be willing to sacrifice lives for scientific conquest while the general doesn’t care for that conquest as long as the population is unharmed and if danger is looming in the future, the experiment being conducted for the betterment of science is to be terminated. In a science class, you learn that there is a variation of the experimental method in which if something seems morally wrong, you only look for coincidences and claim it to be a theory (this is used for things like seeing the correlation between smokers and lung cancer). The thing is though that a good bit of scientists do not totally share that kind of humanity, with the lack of religion’s power being a source (most of humanity’s morals came from religious sources, which was at one time mandatory to learn. But since it has lost it’s influence as a major question answering institution, morals are separated into the humanities. And unless you take a class on them in high school or you just naturally grow sympathetic feelings, you lack that humanity).

We come now to the third and final part. After a nice bit of exhibiting what computers can do with film via the Stargate sequence**, we see the very ambiguitous ending. In a very European-looking house, Dave sees older versions of himself who are looking at older versions of themselves who are looking at older versions of themselves. This part of the film is totally metaphorical and might not be at all reality. A character that dwelled in the parts of the film that were reality is now being used as a complete allegory. Dave stands for the whole of humanity (the whole cast stands for the whole of humanity at any given point n the film). Dave stands for humanity when they make scientific conquest. Dave looking at himself is like humanity looking at itself and their domain in a new way once a scientific discovery is made only to try to predict and forecast the future of humanity, only that once humanity has gone on long enough (bed-ridden elder Dave), a scientific discovery is made (the black monolith) that shakes the foundations of our understanding to the point that we see almost everything new (the fetal Dave that we see in the bubble at the end). This was true when the idea of a heliocentric was discovered in the times when geocentrism was the commonly accepted truth when institutions like the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme. This is something reflected in the film PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), directed by John Carpenter (who, using a phrase coined by Ridley Scott, is the true "John Ford of the science fiction genre"). The quote, said by actor Victor Wong, goes a little something like this:

"From Job’s friends insisting that the good are rewarded, and the wicked punished [a reference to a Bible story] to the scientists of the 1930’s proving, to their horror, a theorem that not everything can be proved, we have sought to impose order onto the Universe. But we have discovered something quite shocking - there is order to the universe, but it is not at all what we had in mind."

In a nut shell, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a film about man’s exploring of science, weather it be depicting the actual act of it or showing a metaphor in which depicts humanity’s cycle when it comes to making scientific discoveries. This is a theme which is very interesting in which it is a science fiction film commenting on the scientific process, a part of human society often ignored by science fiction cinema save for the Elden theme that "Scientists shouldn’t play God" (a theme implemented in stories such as FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and turned on it’s head by PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)). It is a study of man’s intellectual side, not his animalistic side or where the two meet.

This has been a nice chat. I hope you learned something.

*James Cameron is one of the worst science fiction directors working today. His films show are action films passed off as science fiction (ALIENS (1986)) or are unoriginal (TERMINATOR (1984)) copying a couple of adapted works by Harlan Ellison, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991) being derivative of BLADE RUNNER (1982), and AVATAR (2009) imitating the story of films like DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) ). While good at pushing the limits of the medium technically, he cannot push the limits story-telling wise.

**Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin being the worst working in the genre, creating terrible works like STARGATE (1990), INDEPENDENCE DAY (1994), and GODZILLA (1998), which define the difference between thoughtful Science fiction cinema and brainless sci-fi cinema which has a bad effect on it’s audiences and even destroyed one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, GODZILLA (1954).

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