The Evolution Equation
by Aritra Dey
TLR Rating: 9 Reels.
Ever since Homer’s famous travels have been chronicled under a single name, Odyssey was used to describe a long journey. Homer had travelled the civilized world in his time and documented his findings in the great epic – from the lands of Greece to the Trojan War. Stanley Kubrick, a man with a crazy intellect, along with Arthur C. Clarke, decided to go on a tour, much like their Greek counterparts, but not on foot. Instead the duo chose to rely on the flexibility of their imagination and travelled throughout the entirety of the timeline where no man or dream had gone before. While Arthur C. Clarke penned down his findings on paper and published them as a book, Kubrick captured the strangest events through his camera. ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ is the auteur’s diary on his exploration of the unexplored land beyond the blue skies.
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke chose human evolution and its continuity in the time-space equation as the travel destination for their imagination. Starting with the dawn of the age of man when they were apes right to the futuristic world where Man had conquered space and other celestial objects, ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ covers a wide range and Kubrick’s astounding conceptualization and direction takes the film to an entire level altogether. Starting with a black void with an eerie music to accompany it, Kubrick takes us back several millennia when apes had been the dominant creatures on planet Earth. Warring tribes over water holes seemed plausible enough, given the dry, arid landscape of the African continent and Kubrick showed it. The naturalism of the behavior exhibited by these apes is noteworthy indeed. Scratching each other’s backs, fighting savagely over a water hole, getting spooked by strange noises at night and cautiously approaching the mysterious monolith that seemed to manifest out of nowhere are some of the ape antics which Kubrick showed in this film. The significance of the strange monolith is one which is still being discussed, even after fifty years since its release. The apes certainly don’t have a clue, but somehow after its appearance, a vanquished tribe learns to use the bones of a carcass as a weapon to fend of invaders, which they do. They slowly learn to feed off the meat of the wandering tapirs rather than scourging the dirt for insects and other vegetation. Perhaps they learn to defend themselves the hunting leopards as well, and this is the top of the iceberg of unanswered questions. Kubrick leaves the world of nascent evolution and transports the viewer to the distant future where Man travels around space. The transfer in worlds is shown in the most unique of ways. An ape throws the bone high in the air and we go to the black space filled with rockets and spaceships. Mankind’s tools are best explained in this superb moment.
Exploring the moon and discovering certain important artefacts is a secret guarded extremely well by the Americans. Dr. Heywood Floyd plays with the deception while meeting with the Soviets in Space Station V en route to the moon. On the Clavius Base on Moon, the Americans have discovered an artifact that had been buried for 4 million years, the mysterious monolith which the apes had found. The black behemoth emits a high-pitched radio-wave signal while the Sun rose in the horizon. The audience again takes a major time jump as they are transported to US Spacecraft Discovery One travelling to the distant planet of Jupiter. Three of the crew are in a state of hibernation. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole are manning the craft which seemed to be almost completely automated by the computer, HAL 9000 or ‘Hal’. The futuristic events shown back in 1968 seem too close to reality, and this has sparkled several conspiracy theories around the world. The circuits and computer interface shown were shown in absolute detail, leaving nothing to imagination, at least in this field. HAL 9000 is supposed to be the flawless machine injected with a high level of human intelligent. Hal is shown interacting on a mature level with the crew through the interface which looks like an omniscient eye. The virtual being speaks in a curious monotone, yet during an interview, the journalist sensed a hint of pride when Hal spoke about the superiority of computers, telling the audience that these machines aren’t shy of emotions. Arrogance is also a part of that armory. When a twin machine back on Earth senses an error in Hal’s programming, the computer refuses to acknowledge, citing it to be ‘human errors’. Scientists Bowman and Poole face quite a stern test in overriding Hal’s intellectual system. The computer proves to be a stubborn foe however, as it reads the lips when the duo are speaking and understands their motivations. It sabotages Poole’s oxygen mask during a spacewalk and shuts Bowman from entry after he went to retrieve the body, while killing the remaining scientists by stopping their life support systems. Bowman enters the craft eventually and manages to reprogram an ‘apologetic and afraid’ Hal to its basic state. A prerecorded message plays and Bowman learns the purpose of the mission – the monolith on the moon had emitted one single transmission to Jupiter and has been inert since.
When Bowman investigates the monolith orbiting Jupiter, he is drawn into a time vortex, and amidst rushing colors and shapes, is transported into a lavishly decorated bedroom. There he encounters his middle-aged self in a space suit and his older version, having soup at the table and then on the bed, as the monolith appears towards him. Bowman is transformed into a fetus surrounded by an orb and glances curiously at the Earth from outer space before smiling at the audience.
‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ presents a myriad of images and puzzles which few films have ever done. The audience faces two options – either to be completely blown away by the spellbinding imagery and the suggestive factoids or stay put to unravel the mystery of the occurrences surrounding the monolith. The latter is the more difficult task undoubtedly. The significance of the monolith is the first question that needs answering. It appears at four distinct points and at all times set forth a chain of events which take mankind to the next level. It can be accepted that it has something to do with the evolution of man, not anthropologically but intellectually. Apes learn to use tools, albeit for murder, Man engages on a quest to Jupiter, Bowman enters the space vortex and ultimately he sees his entire life in front of him, ending the way it all began, as a fetus. Its God-like mannerisms has opened several religious conduits as well. The atheists choose the alien theory, a race in the unending universe, with an intellect several thousand times advanced than us, helping the new life of Earth to sustain and overcome challenges through the monolith. The conclusion is as bewildering as the rest of the movie. Bowman sees his present and future selves and becomes them eventually. As he lies on bed, old and weak, he sees the monolith approach his bed. Death would be too crude a term to signify it. It can be interpreted as the start of another circle. The fetus in an orb is the rebirth of mankind, in a new way. It is an evolution into a celestial being, perhaps in tune with the unseen aliens who had sent the monolith in the first place. Ape became man, man unsuccessfully tried to become a machine and finally transferred into the celestial being.
With HAL 9000, Stanley Kubrick gave us a villain which would scare the daylights out of anyone. Facing an adversary that has a tangible form is relatively easy. We know its limits and can gauge its actions to a certain extent. When the enemy comes in the form of a virtual identity with an all knowing brain and super controls, the task to overcome the foe becomes a lot more difficult. Add the already existing perils of outer space to that, and you have a situation which no one wants to be in. The calm monotone and the red eye-like interface is chilling, really chilling, as one can’t simply figure out what its next move will be. Kubrick showed Hal in an ingenious manner, helping its self out of the virtual into the real. The point where it reads the lips of the scientists gave the impression of Hal being actually present. Shooting from inside the interface, through a pinhole elevated the status of scary to a whole new level, as the audience could actually feel the presence of HAL 9000. The entire concept of an evil artificial intelligence has been stripped and re-scripted a million times over, but none can compare with this ‘flawless machine’.
Theories and symbolisms aside, ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ is one superbly work of cinematography and direction. The images shown in this film were simply stupendous and way, way ahead of its time. Even today, with all the advancements in technology and photography, very few have matched the level set by Stanley Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth had set back in their day. The opening shots of Africa as a dry and arid land set the tone for what’s to follow. The image of the monolith, with the sun rising from beneath and a crescent moon in the sky is at a high level of grandeur. This particular moment draws a line of connect between the Earth, Moon and the Sun, with the monolith acting as an interface. Spaceships and rockets dot the black space and back in 1968, this was the furthest wildest imagination could go. Another moment where Bowman and Poole were emerging from the EVM pod for a spacewalk showed their helmeted head approaching the camera. The vision seemed like a giant colored insect floating in the wide skies, and the two oval shaped ‘eyes’ suggested it even more. This picture has rarely been discussed and the symbolism it might suggest is mind boggling. A reference can be drawn to the theory of ‘panspermia’ which suggests life was seeded on the Earth in the form of insects from alien planets. The closing sequence showed the fetus in an orb gazing inquisitively at Earth, a moment which would remain evergreen in the years to come.
Rarely does the music in a film elevate its status into legendary. ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ has a soundtrack that can compare to none. Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ became synonymous with the film itself and remains a part of pop culture, where it has been used countless times. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II is also a tune that has been used in several films and entertainment channels from 1968 onwards. No dialogues are present till the 45th minute, when half the audience is ready to give up the appearance of any human in the movie. Kubrick uses music and natural sounds to his best advantage. The eerily silent moments shown in space were only accompanied by the mechanized breathing sounds and gasps, making the effect feel so very real.
‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ is a landmark movie and there can’t be any question about its style and substance. It is a testament of human imagination and skill in filmmaking. Along with a certain ‘Solaris’, this ranks as the best space fiction movie ever made. Its influence on future films is unparalleled and it serves as a template for sci-fi filmmaking. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke have penned a journey of the ages and like the Greek poem, this is an epic in the world of movies.
The author is a software engineer at Infosys and a passionate film and football buff, with a special interest in deciphering the literature behind the movies.