The Cold Depths of Space, Part 1


It’s a plot that has become iconic. A spacecraft encounters an incomprehensibly powerful and ancient alien artefact. It does things. Concurrently, the crew of said spaceship is also dealing with a hostile AI bent on their destruction. The crew deals with the AI. Unfortunately, they find out that their superiors back home deceptively and deliberately put them in this situation. All the while counting on the AI to keep everyone on script. The conflict ends with a sole survivor who flies off to meet an uncertain fate.

It’s good stuff. However, there’s a question here, and that question is: is this a description of Alien’s plot? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey’s? The answer to that question is yes. However, despite the similar story beats, the two films are more like companions than clones. In fact, it could be said that Alien works very well as an inversion of, and commentary on, 2001.

A Singular Accomplishment

               Part of 2001’s enduring success is no doubt due to Douglas Trumbull’s dazzling special effects and remarkable production design overall. Designed with the best science of the late 60’s in mind, all of 2001’s futuristic world looked like it worked. One of the most referenced shots in the film, where the camera simply keeps running as the entire length of the spacecraft Discovery One passes through shot, shows off the stunning model work. Likewise, pains were taken to get the lighting right for any scenes taking place in space, resulting in a stark, washed-out look for many exterior shots. While not perfect, even according to the science of the day, it’s still closer to natural than even many films today get. Generally speaking, the film looks astounding even now.

               Predominantly, most of the futuristic interiors were blinding white, with sleek, softly curved contours. This was not wildly dissimilar from sci-fi aesthetics of the time, which trended towards minimalism, but 2001 was genuinely stylish as well as functional. As in everything in the set looks like it does something and wasn’t just there to look cool. This aesthetic saw quotation in several other films, even films that were decidedly not science fiction. Finally, there was its ambitious attempt at creating a comprehensive story of the human race as a whole. From our early days in Africa, to our first faltering steps into space, and finally our ascension to a higher order of existence.

But an Unsettling One

This is, however, never depicted as a pleasant or painless process. More than that, the cinematography and sound track all worked to make sure that the film was highly unsettling despite its ostensibly grand story. The human characters notably behave in a stilted, robotic fashion and seem more concerned with professionalism than anything else. The sinister HAL 9000 supercomputer, while depicted as an incredible achievement, nonetheless murders many human characters for no discernable reason. The mysterious aliens responsible for man’s ascension are represented by the Monolith, an inscrutable slab of black material with unfathomable power and unknowable motives. Last but not least, the ending of the film is one of the most infamous mind screws in all of cinema, with critics arguing about how to interpret it to this day.      

Mixed Reactions

               On release in 1968, 2001 was met with a mixture of indifference and confusion. Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, was no stranger to difficult films, previous efforts such as Paths of Glory, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove more than proved that. However, these films were difficult because they dealt with uncomfortable subject matter. On top of that, Kubrick took a very alienating approach to filmmaking in general. In the case of 2001: A Space Odessey, audiences were unsure just what they’d actually seen. The film was deliberately confusing when it wasn’t just being cryptic. One famous anecdote involves actor Rock Hudson emerging from a showing and saying, “can someone please tell what the hell I just watched?”. Amusingly, this made the film popular with LSD users. To the point that many of them used the film’s final sequence to trip.

It also bears mentioning that while audiences of 1968 were more than familiar with science fiction, it was still by and large a B-picture genre. Even the most lavish science fiction offerings available at that point in time, such as 1956’s The Forbidden Planet never shed their B-picture trappings. 2001 was manifestly not a B-picture. Also not helping were the languorous pace and surgically cold atmosphere that pervaded the film. Something which put audiences off. In fact, some reviews actually called 2001 boring.

A Shift in Paradigm

               It wasn’t just audiences and critics that found themselves at a loss. Film as a whole didn’t know what 2001 represented for it. Even with bewildered audiences and mixed critical reception, the more perceptive members of the industry knew there was no topping Kubrick’s film. This was not a simple matter of exceeding 2001 in terms of spectacle. That would have been difficult, but not impossible. The real problem was that 2001 explored human potential and our place in the grander scheme of things in ways that even literary science fiction of the time rarely had. Coupled with its genuine sense of cosmic significance, 2001 was difficult enough to replicate, never mind improve. Science fiction cinema found itself in the embarrassing position of having no clear path forwards.

A Brighter, Yet Darker World

               As New Hollywood’s championing of auteur directors became more commonplace, Science fiction found a partial answer to 2001 in the form of “sterile” sci-fi. This form of science fiction took its inspiration from literary science fiction. In fact, it often adapted novels and short stories wholesale, and explored humanity as a phenomenon. Films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was also directed by Kubrick, and Logan’s Run (1976) used the same frigid yet stylish aesthetic as 2001, hence the name “sterile”. However, these films often dealt with dystopic subject matter and the darker aspects of human nature.

At least in part, this shift in tone is due to Vietnam souring people on humanity. The perceived failure of the counterculture to affect any real societal change also fed into this sentiment. These films didn’t look outward, as past efforts had, but instead looked inward, generally exploring psychology, politics, and the consequences of repressive systems. Space exploration was still covered, Silent Running (1972) being a prime example. However, even these films tended to look inward instead of out.

               In time, though, a few films emerged which challenged this paradigm. These films traded in the morose meditations for comedy and high adventure, but also managed to avoid being simple, brainless fun.

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