2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY: Evolution Through Technology

|Michael Lockhart|

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a unique and rather abstract film that offers a variety of interpretations. In an interview from 1968, Kubrick suggested that he wanted to keep the meaning of the film open to the audience.

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.[1]

Kubrick’s statement refers to the ambiguous ending of the film but I find that it applies to the motifs and cinematic choices throughout the film as well. In this regard, the emphasis on technology in the film has multiple meanings and I argue here that Kubrick ponders the use of technology to establish the theme of evolution.

The film is broken up into specific chapters. The first chapter, titled “The Dawn of Man,” features prolonged shots of the landscape setting of Earth. The shots fixate on the desolate and expansive emptiness of the environment which emphasizes the technologically underdeveloped setting at the beginning of the film. When the film shifts locals late in the first chapter, the landscape moves to outer space and the environment is occupied by advanced space-travel technology. This dramatic shift appears to be a direct contrast of the opening shots of the first chapter, as the outer space background suggests a technologically advanced setting as if in opposition to the primitive scene at the start of the film. The emphasis on technology and the outer space setting signals the shift in the stage in evolution through its juxtaposition with the opening scene. By fixating on the environments and technology in the different settings through prolonged landscape shots, the first chapter illustrates the theme of evolution that continues throughout the film.

The depiction of technology is a focal point throughout the different sections of the film.  The first depiction of technology is the apes use of animal bones as tools in the first chapter. The technology is depicted as a miraculous discovery amongst the apes, and the mastery of the tool allows them to hunt and fight in order to survive in their environment. As the chapter transitions to the outer space setting, a slow-motion shot of the bone flipping in the air cuts to a similar shot of a spacecraft mimicking the motion of the bone. Pairing the two scenes with a quick transition represents the evolution theme in the film. The connection of the spacecraft and the bone suggests that the human evolution in the film has reached a stage in which space travel and the subsequent technology is equivalent to the use of an animal bone as a tool. The bone is simplistic in terms of technology, but serves as a vital instrument for the ape’s survival; the spacecraft is to humans what the bone is to the apes. The bone may seem primitive in terms of its technology, but it serves a necessary purpose for ape’s survival, and thus the evolution of apes into human beings. The evolution theme in the film is illustrated through this depiction of technology and its banality in these two examples.

As the film progresses, the role of technology develops as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey is renowned for its cinematography and visual effects and the depiction of technology is emphasized by the film thoughtful its cinematic choices and techniques. In fact, it often feels like the emphasis on visual effects overshadows the development of the main human characters in the film. This is prevalent in the second chapter, “Mission to Jupiter,” in which the audience is introduced to characters Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Since they are introduced so late in the film, there is little development of these characters, like HAL. Instead, the technology around the characters is developed and emphasized through the visual effects. By drawing the audience’s attention to the technology displayed in this part of the film, it also emphasizes the stages of human evolution depicted in the film.

An example of the emphasis of technology is the role of the supercomputer HAL. It is reasonable to suggest that HAL is a more developed character than the two main human characters of the second chapter. Dave and Frank treat HAL as if it is basically another crew member. The computer is included in interviews with the media and the crewmembers converse with it as if they were talking to another human. The viewer also knows more about the origin and background of HAL than they do about Frank or Dave. In addition, the film evokes a more complex emotional response for HAL’s disconnection than it does for Frank’s death. Frank’s death happens suddenly and quickly, which produces little emotional connection for the audience. However, when Dave disconnects HAL, the event is drawn out and the audience is able to experience HAL’s expression of fear and desperation. The contrast of the two scenes illustrates HAL as a more developed and complex character than Frank or Dave, further establishing the importance of technology in the film.

HAL represents another stage of evolution in the film that is represented through the different depictions of technology. The use of the bone by the apes in the beginning of the film represents the early phase of human use of technology and the beginning of its evolution. As the film progresses to a later stage of human evolution, the technology has progressed all the way to HAL, a human-like supercomputer. The film begins with a representation of technology through early tool use––the bone––as an innate, controllable process of human development. As the human’s use of  technology progresses throughout the film, it evolves into the sentient, self-possessed and uncontrollable supercomputer HAL. This progression of technology represents the film’s theme of evolution.

The unique structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its stellar visual effects allows the audience to focus and absorb different elements of the film. Multiple viewings allows the spectator to comprehend, “to speculate” as Kubrick suggests, and to notice new components each time they watch the film. During my most recent viewing, it was the monotone and hypnotizing character of HAL that drew my attention to the emphasis of technology and its evolution throughout the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey screens on 70mm at the Heights Theater on Monday, July 22 (SOLD OUT) and Tuesday, July 23 at 7:30 pm. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit our website.


[1] Norden, Eric. Interview: Stanley Kubrick. Playboy (September 1968). Reprinted in: Phillips, Gene D. (Editor). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1-57806-297-7 pp. 47–48.

My 25-Year Voyage to IKARIE XB-1

|Michael Popham|

Back in the late 1970s I was a junior high school kid living in rural Minnesota. My dad had been lured out to the wilds of Isanti County by the promise of cheap land, but he got swindled into buying 30 acres that were mostly swamp. He moved an old house onto a relatively dry part of the property, and that’s where I grew up.

I spent my summers hanging around the house and slapping mosquitos, trying to stave off boredom. I devised pointless and obsessive projects: I once tried to rebuild an air-cooled VW engine without guidance or spare parts; on another occasion I built a miniature set for a stop-motion animated short that never happened because I had no money for 16mm film magazines.

On the warm humid nights I would sit up late, watching movies on television. This was the era before home video, and if you were stranded in the sticks all summer, as I was, you got your movies from broadcast TV or you didn’t get them at all. There were only 5 channels, but nearly all of them ran movies. In fact there was usually a movie playing on at least one channel from early afternoon until all the stations played The Star-Spangled Banner and signed off for the night, around 2 am.

Late one evening I caught a strange black-and-white sci-fi film that I had never heard of, and which never turned up on TV again. The movie was obviously dubbed, and had both robust production values and a tone that was a lot more serious than most sci-fi I’d seen up to that point.

In the film a group to travelers are on an interstellar journey in a gigantic spaceship, but the toll of the voyage is tremendous: the trip takes years, and the travelers become increasingly disheartened. They encounter a number of perils, some of which get members of the crew injured or killed. The travelers nearly succumb to exhaustion and ennui, but eventually arrive at their destination.

I thought about this somber film a lot in the months and years after I saw it, but I couldn’t find any information about it. I remembered the title as “Journey Across the Universe” but none of my friends had heard of it. I tried looking it up in film encyclopedias but couldn’t find a single reference to it.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that I’d had the title wrong. It was a 1963 Czech film called Ikarie XB-1, released in the U.S. the following year as Voyage to the End of the Universe by American -International Pictures. AIP was the cheapo distributor of Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon flicks, and to keep product in the pipeline would buy up the rights to eastern bloc sci-fi films, strip out anything that might smack of commie propaganda, and release hacked-up, dubbed versions. To disguise their foreign origins, names of the cast and crew were anglicized  (top-billed actors Zdenek Stephanek and Franisek Smolik, for example,  magically became “Dennis Stephens” and “Frances Smollen”; director Jindrich Pollich was credited as “Jack Pollack”).

But even though I now knew the title of the film, there was no way to see it. It had never been released on video. In the early 2000s I began corresponding by email with a film collector in Poland who had an interest in Eastern bloc sci-fi. He had a particular fondness for Ikarie and said he would try to answer any questions I had about the movie. I only had one.

“How does it end?”

For me, the movie I’d seen on TV all those years ago had only been marred by its ending. The space travelers reach the mysterious “Green Planet” they had spent so many years trying to find. Through their viewscreen the clouds part and the new planet is revealed: there is a grainy stock shot of lower Manhattan, and then the Statue of Liberty. In a twist ending, the spaceship is revealed to be from another solar system, and the “Green Planet” they’ve been traveling to all this time is actually – gulp – Earth!

Even as a kid it didn’t ring true to me. It was too cheap a gimmick for such a carefully made movie. I didn’t want it to end that way.

Happily, it didn’t. My contact had never heard of AIP’s cheesy recut ending, and thought it was amazingly daffy.  In the fall of 2004 he tipped me off that a Czech company called Filmexport would be releasing the movie on DVD soon, and I ordered a copy the first day it was available. The DVD menu was in Czech, but one of the subtitle options was English. So finally, after a quarter-century of searching, I finally got to see Ikarie XB-1.

I was fully prepared for a letdown, but sometimes life is kind. The uncut Ikarie XB-1 actually exceeded my expectations. It is a rare sci-fi movie from that era that’s actually about something: the inadequacy of even the most towering human ambitions when set against the frailties of individual people and the indifference of a vast universe.

While this stylish film wasn’t widely seen in the west, it was influential. Stanley Kubrick was known to have seen it when he was preparing to shoot 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gene Roddenberry clearly borrowed elements of his Star Trek series concept from it.

It’s very exciting for me personally that the film is coming to the Trylon as part of the summer space series. It’s screening July 14 – 16, and I want to thank Trylon programmer John Moret for booking it. Promotional support for the film is being provided by Marit Lee Kucera, Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic. Don’t miss it.

Ikarie XB-1 plays at the Trylon starting on Sunday, July 14. Visit Trylon’s website to purchase tickets or for more information.

SOLARIS in Twelve Images

|Matt Levine|

I.

Green seaweed floating in a rippling current. A green so lush only film could create it. The first shot of Solaris sets up its main tension: nature as mystical, unknowable, beyond the grasp of human control. A leaf floats across the water, fiery orange. Blades of grass shoot upward through the frame, violent and serene. Is this planet Earth?

II.

We’re at a secluded lake house, a place of memory and longing for psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), whose father owns the home. A birdcage is placed next to an open window, two yellow birds chirping stupidly inside. Throughout Solaris, humans will frequently resemble these oblivious canaries, trapped in a different kind of cage.

“I don’t like innovation,” says Kris’ father (Nikolai Grinko). His son is the antithesis, a cold and logical pragmatist who believes science has replaced morality.

A downpour rages suddenly, cascading down, though it’s still bright and sunny and the raindrops are radiant. Water reappears often throughout the movie, a force beyond human control, a reminder of our weakness.  

III.

A staggering still life. A table in the rainstorm: blue-and-white china, saucer overflowing with tepid tea and rainwater, a few cherries, a half-eaten apple overrun with ants. How and why is this so beautiful? The tableau resembles one of the baroque still lifes that Tarkovsky, an art student, loved so much, but this shot epitomizes his idea that cinema is “sculpting in time.”

IV.

A film within a film within a film: we watch government bureaucrats view footage that a cosmonaut named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) had taken of the planet Solaris. The scene with the Soviet minions is in monochrome black-and-white, overplaying the depiction of politics as mind-numbing, soul-crushing tedium.

But then we cut to the ravishing, full-color footage that Burton had filmed of the mysterious planet, all roiling clouds, sun-drenched light, and radiant, dazzling hues. It resembles the experimental cinema of Jordan Belson.

Afterwards, we cut back to the colorless world of the bureaucrats.

“Is that it?” one of the men asks. “That’s all of your film?”

“But we don’t understand,” says another. “You filmed clouds.”

We find Tarkovsky in a rare, self-reflexive mode, brushing off the censors and critics who found his work inscrutable. Maybe they weren’t meant to understand it.

V.

We’re driving into the city, twisting highways, anonymous cars going nowhere. The footage was shot outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, and Tarkovsky probably included long chunks of it to justify the travel visas obtained for the filmmakers. The winding roads are beautiful but impersonal, dystopian; as in Godard’s Alphaville, it only took filming on contemporary streets to evoke a world of futuristic malaise.

VI.

The rocket has launched, hurtling toward Solaris. Kris is in the cockpit, a shard of light falling over his eyes; soon, the camera will swoon acrobatically, superimpositions conveying the visceral assault of space flight. We are firmly in the field of science fiction now. Inevitably, the comparison is the “Stargate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, so often seen as Solaris’ counterpart, though they’re very different movies: one about the need for human connection, the other about God and self-destruction.

Then, the space station appears to us, glimpsed amid clouds through the cockpit window. It hovers over an endless sea. It’s beautiful and terrifying.

VII.

The interior of the space station is a wonder of Soviet psychedelic futurism, gleaming metallic surfaces, curving centrifugal halls, little blinking knobs and dials, a deep crimson darker than the Russian flag. Kris wears a black leather jacket, yellow mesh shirt, harness with heavy straps and buckles, looking like he’ll reappear in Fassbinder’s Querelle a decade later. Solaris is a fascinating time capsule of the U.S.S.R in 1972; it’s timely and modish without even trying.

VIII.

On the door of one of the living quarters, there is a childlike drawing, the stuff of nightmares. Scrawled in dark marker with globs of ink: “CHELOVEK.” Human being. A monstrous drawing of a stick figure in red, its torso bloated, its fingers elongating in scarecrow-like stalks, a furious scowl on its face beneath a shock of red hair like a mohawk of needles. Something blue is tied around its neck—a scarf or, more likely, a noose. Two yellow stains to the left on the paper, a nauseating shade of yellow, like urine or vomit. Add horror to the mix of genre inflections that Tarkovsky includes in Solaris.

IX.

She is viewed in close-up, the lower half of her face—the “guest” that has been conjured by the oceans of Solaris, the manifestation of Kris’ dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). The side lighting accentuates the brown-red glow of her hair, and brings out the slight down on her cheeks and above her lips. Coming after a long stretch of black-and-white imagery, this shot is as striking and wounded as the reappearance of something unattainable should be.

X.

“Part Two” opens with a shot that could be straight out of Barbarella: Kris and Hari in tight white suits, entering a cavernous room on the space station. It’s at moments like these where Tarkovsky’s lofty ambitions and the sci-fi trappings work against each other in tense (and highly enjoyable) ways. The tension is made clearer with a tracking shot that stares down into a black void—the abyss of human existence? These shots of rockets perched in the darkness and smoke being sucked into a cosmic expanse may have influenced the most jaw-dropping shot in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century

XI.

In the posh, green-walled library on the space station, where the four characters (three human, one something else) meet, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting “Hunters in the Snow” hangs. Tarkovsky uses this as an excuse to explore the images in its frame, zooming into it, panning across it, visiting the world it painstakingly evokes. The beauty and dedication of this art is presented as the film’s main conflict, between the greatness that humanity is capable of and the brutality it so often creates. It is yet another example of Tarkovsky’s indebtedness to painting, utterly transformed by the moving image—sculpting in time.

XII.

During 30 seconds of weightlessness, a candelabra with flaming candles soars toward the ceiling of the library. It passes behind a chandelier, its fiery light refracted through the glass and crystals. It’s a euphoric moment,  followed up by one of Tarkovsky’s few concessions to sentimentality: Kris and Hari floating in midair, holding hands, in love.

We cut to another abstract shot of Solaris, apparently responding to their pleasure; whirlpools and eddies flare in the bright purple ocean, a symbol for a shared, universal consciousness in which human love transforms the topography of the cosmos. 

And then the shattering aftereffect, not to be reproduced here—a devastating moment of violence and loss. Who is to blame?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Solaris plays at the Trylon starting on Sunday, July 7. Visit Trylon’s website to purchase tickets or for more information.

BANDWAGONESQUE: Mart Crowley’s play THE BOYS IN THE BAND is 51, but Friedkin’s movie is only 49

| Collier White |

Those two years make all the difference. Turning 49 this year, The Boys in the Band is a work that has straddled Stonewall for its entire life. You might be surprised at how fresh she sounds. You’ll want to rush out and see it before it’s cancelled again, because this is a truly wonderful film, an ensemble of unforgettable performances, and a film that divides opinion and continues to pit friend against friend, just like the cruel party game at its heart.

So much has been written about the queer politics of The Boys in the Band that the discussion threatens to dessicate the film’s more universal qualities. In much of the criticism of the film, a division is imposed, pitting broad humanism against identity politics. Writer Mart Crowley boldly rejected the notion that mainstream audiences wouldn’t care about a play comprised primarily the banter of eight gay men. Some assumed that interest in this gay lifestyle play would be merely prurient. Yet in 2019, The Boys in the Band looks both more politically relevant and more universally humane than that other party that devolves into shouting, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Mart Crowley admits inspired him to write this very personal story.

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