2001: A Space Odyssey and the Science Fiction Renaissance

2001: A Space Odyssey and the Science Fiction Renaissance

Stanley Kubrick’s films consistently provide social commentary of the spirit of the times, relevant to spatial, organizational, and technological advances.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke operate during the era of the space race, with the film released in 1968 just one year prior to the first manned landing on the moon with Apollo 11.  While this is so, Kubrick is as much making a commentary about the evolving roles of media and information, forcing the viewer to take a subconscious odyssey of the mind.

This pioneering film is just as relevant today, if not more so than it was at its release, making several predictions that hold true – the primary being man’s interaction with external devices.  This includes the use of the videophone, reminiscent of Skype or facetime with iPhone, as well as the television tablet that looks strikingly like an iPad.  Additionally, the film does not only foretell of machines possessing human traits such as empathy, but also predicts humans embodying machinic traits.  The space-suit becomes merged with man: our protagonists cannot survive without it.  This alludes to the cybernetic extension of man – giving rise to the mobility of the collective mind as an extension of the physical body that we now experience through teletechnologies, sensors, social and wireless networks combining to form a spatial ubiquity.  This Orwellian “Big Brother” notion is seen in the contrast between the red computerized eye of HAL and the enlarged human eye of Bowman.  The eye is a powerful symbol used in several of Kubrick’s films, including A Clockwork Orange.  In 2001, it symbolizes the power of the visual, especially since film (and by a large extent architecture) is primarily appropriated through visual means – enforcing not only the importance of seeing that which is near, but also that which is beyond the immediate plane of sight.

On the surface, 2001 does seem to portray several warnings about technology as a threat to humanity, a predecessor to films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and The Matrix.  With killer space-pods and the seemingly omniscient presence of HAL, Kubrick suggests the obvious: the control of machines with consciousness over modern man is a relevant concern.  However, the warning that Kubrick offers seems to be directed against mega-corporations and corrupt organizations: power put in the wrong hands.  The film is not dystopic as several other SF films of the genre are, but is instead rather optimistic, suggesting a certain enlightenment.  This optimistic enlightenment of our technological future is something that Reyner Banham, a post-war contemporary of Kubrick, capitalizes upon in his work during the ‘60s.  For one of the first times in history, Banham works in the realm of what could be, predicated not on what was but what is to come – establishing a type of preemptive historicism.  In many respects, 2001 corresponds to what Jonathan Farnham describes as the extrapolative SF by which Banham is inspired.  This includes Jules Verne’s method of “plotting the curve” of the future through ideal-becoming-real futures.1  In this respect as with 2001, science-fiction to a degree drives science itself.

This optimistic enlightenment is shown specifically in the last scenes of the film which portray the coming of the Space Age Renaissance, a rebirth of man’s relationship to technology.  Several scenes are composed in striking symmetry and balance.  Consciously or not, Kubrick parallels the classical proportions and harmony of Alberti to the new technological revolution, suggesting that they are not two completely different eras, but ones which exist complementary to each other.  This is furthered with the classical renaissance decoration in the interior of the room where Bowman ages in synchronic stages.  The naturalistic paintings and sculptural quality of the walls are juxtaposed against the sterile white and glowing glass tile underfoot, symbolizing a merging of the natural and artificial, of the virtual and the actual.  These dichotomies are merged when the natural landscape of the moon and planets are visualized as synthetic, in false color.  Bowman begins his journey to enlightenment when he becomes aware that HAL is controlling him, and decides to shut him down.  The enlightenment continues in later scenes when he sees himself in third person, coming to a recurring realization and evolution.  With this, Kubrick suggests that we are evolving to a new era that is comprised as much of the future as it is our historic past.  The culmination of the film eliminates the tripartite division of past-present-future, giving way to the omnipresent instant.  As a species, we are simultaneously the apeish primates of our past and the reborn Jupiter-baby of our future.

2001 does provoke us to consider who we are becoming as a species, but more specifically it challenges us to reconsider the notion of what it means to dwell, a question in architecture that has persisted as long as the dawn of man.  For a majority of the film we are in continual motion, in transit between one destination to the next.  This habitable circulation of the spaceship is predicated on the primary function to get humans where they need to go for the purpose of science – the issue of habitation is secondary but no less important.  The crew lives on the ship, no doubt, sleeping there and taking all of their meals out of rectangular slotted paper dishes.  This modern nomad lives his life in flux, neither here nor there but always in-between in a sci-fi heterotopia.  This obsession with mobility and fluctuation is the basis of much of Archigram’s work, at the individual scale with the Living Pod to the urban scale with the Walking City.  Similar imperatives call to mind Cedric Prince’s Potteries Thinkbelt and the Fun Palace.  More specifically, throughout the film our conventional understanding of spatial orientation is eradicated.  In the film, man is no longer constrained to the horizontal plane, or even the vertical plane.  With elaborate shots of rotating floors becoming walls becoming ceilings, man is now free to appropriate all dimensions simultaneously.  In some scenes the translucent glass tiles act as ceiling (in the beginning of the film as Floyd enters the spacecraft), and later the tiles appear as floor (in the boudoir scene).  This continual disorientation serves to pluck the viewer from his comfort zone, making him an active participant of the technological revolution who may then begin to embark on his own SF renaissance through which he may even extrapolate and forecast the beyond.

1.  Jonathan Farnham, “Pure Pop for Now People: Reyner Banham, Science Fiction, and History,” Lotus 104 (2000): 111-131