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The future is here. That's the feeling you get when you leave the theater after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most realistic science-adventure movie ever filmed. It uses an astonishing combination of camera tricks and scientific fact to give you the closest thing possible to the actual sensations of space travel. 2001 shows the boldness of a new breed of heroes who conquer space to colonize the moon - and the heartbreak of death when a rescue mission fails an astronaut becomes a satellite around the sun. Here's the fascinating scientific background for the scenes that the camera caught - plus some of the amazing things you do not see on the screen that made it possible. The picture ranges from the dawn of man - which is shown with the aid of a revolutionary new projection technique - to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligent beings in outer space. The existence of such life somewhere in the universe is the absolute conviction of Arthur C. Clarke, famous scientist and spinner of science fiction tales, and producer-writer-director Stanley Kubrick, who co-authored the screenplay. By the end of the movie, you may be convinced yourself. Kubrick destroyed a mad, mad world with a nuclear-bomb orgy at the climax of his last film, Dr. Strangelove. Here he resurrects a far better world in which you find man routinely shuttling to the moon. The earth's natural satellite has been settled. Children have been born there and know no other home.
Nuclear power and a highly developed, almost human computerized technology make anything possible (Clute, 87). Why is it all believed? Kubrick and his staff did pains-taking research to make sure that everything they show in this incredible movie will be achievable in 33 years. Indeed the difficulty of creating a sense of awe in the science fiction can be seen in this movie, which has often been described as having spiritual and religious overtones. This movie is deeply committed to science fiction. It will take something impossible and make it seem possible, from the presence of a black monolith stuck into the surface of the moon, through the exploratory space journey to Jupiter to see where a mysterious signal is coming from. Even the computer that malfunctions, Hal, is believed as what computers might be like in the future. In the end the movie could easily be said to be a spiritual or religious, but the characters on the screen give no hint that they are in the presence of something divine or unaccountable. Dave Bowman the last living person on the space ship, finally leaves the mother ship and heads off in his pod toward Jupiter and another monolith we see floating in space. Before considering Dave's reaction to this, shift back to Oh God! For a moment. Remember John Denver's expression when he discovers the extraordinary things George Burns can, and does, do. He is shaken to the core and cannot believe what he is seeing.
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Experiencing rain just inside his car, someone who turns invisible and appears and disappears at will, all throw him for a loop. He breaks down and quivers in his bathroom when George Burns appears (Willis, 16). And Dave? When he sees and experiences extraordinary things, does he react in the same normal way he had throughout the movie? Is he shook up, surprised, startled, or fearful to find hunks of metal in space or that he is being transported through a light? It does not seem like it, or if he is, we would never know.
He just keeps going in his pod. You never hear him say to himself, "Oh my God, look at those colors, what the hell is going on here, where the hell am I? And when his pod finally lands, he is in some eighteenth-century rococo drawing room where, looking out the pod window, he sees himself walking across where, looking out the pod window, he sees himself walking across the room to see someone else sitting down eating at a table. "Does he say, "What is going on here; this is crazy, am I dreaming, on drugs, what?" No, not at all" (Pringle, 42). Well, it gets even crazier as the guy at the table turns out to be an older Dave, who now gets up and sees someone in bed, and it's Dave even older yet, and as this dying old man reaches for the monolith, now at the end of his body is transformed into a glowing fetus.
I understand all of this is supposed to be poetic imagery. And it is. But that is my very point. To attain something extraordinary, hence to hint at something spiritual or religious requires violating the integrity of the science fiction premise upon which 2001 was built. Up until Dave departed the mother ship, everything seemed quite natural. The monolith discovered on the moon is treated as if it is really there. Haywood Floyd the space scientist flies out to take a look. Great care is taken to make it all seem realistic. He dozes on the flight and his pen floats in the weightlessness of space; he calls his daughter and wishes her happy birthday on the moon colony's pay phone; and he casually opens a box lunch and has a sandwich as the space shuttle scoots across the moon's surface heading toward the implanted monolith.
This is followed by the exacting reality of the space flight to Jupiter. Hal, the talking computer of the future, seems real. Dave's reactions also seem real: he is co-piloting the mission, he logically figures out a way to get back on the ship after Hal locks him out; and he reasonably decides its time to disconnect Hal. All normal reactions. What, then, is one to make of Dave's decision to get into his pod and head out alone for Jupiter and that flying piece of monolithic metal? Suicide? That does not seem part of the spiritual message this ending is supposed to convey. But if we stick with the science fiction premise so far, there are few other reasonable conclusions. Going off alone is certain death, so why does he do it? There isn't an answer, of course, and that is part of the external mystery of this movie. Some say it is supposed to make us think and speculate or that the images that follow are trying to hint at things like human evolution or cosmic rebirth. All of which is fine and these images succeed, more or less, in placing such hints. But what must be recognized is that this effort at the larger cosmic, or religious implication, is only attainable by rupturing the science fiction premise upon which the movie is founded.
Why is the science fiction abandoned? Who knows, but let me suggest that the openness of the science fiction format, in naturalizing everything in its path, now leaves no room at the end of the movie for the intended spiritual, mystical, religious, or cosmic conclusion that is desired. If science fiction premise continued, and there was an extraordinary intrusion, whether the floating monolith or the chateau-like room in space, Dave, following the science fiction premise, would be compelled to treat it as a real problem and try and figure out a solution. After all this is what happened when they found the monolith on the moon. No one said this might be some sort of divine signal. They went to investigate as if it were a natural phenomenon. And the signal from Jupiter. They went to investigate that too. And Hal's malfunction, it too was treated in a normal rational fashion: disconnect the computer. But now Dave, at movie's end, does not treat his new experiences in this way at all. He seems spellbound by the light show and undisturbed to find someone like himself in this rococo room.
The reason, of course, is that Dave is no longer Dave the real space man, but now Dave the cut-out image assembled along with a marble floored eighteenth-century room, the dying old man, and the glowing fetus to create a montage of images that works better as a painting than as a continuation of the science fiction narrative that made up most of the movie. In short, the movie was stuck. It wanted to make a larger spiritual message but the science fiction format would have absorbed any such outrageous thing it could possibly come up with, so it just switched to being a college of images. 2001: The Science Fiction Movie ended when Dave left the pod on his own and 2001: The College art work began. It is as if Kubrick decided at the end to turn the movie into a painting because he could not introduce his spiritual/religious message about human birth/re-birth within the format that had gotten Dave and the spaceship close to Jupiter.
The movie screen became a giant college. In 1914 Georges Braque assembled a college titled "Newspaper, Bottle, and Packet of Tobacco" and in 1986 Stanley Kubrick ended his space movie with a silver screen collage we could call, Rococo Dining Room, Old Man Eating/ Dying, Glowing Fetus." "I think there was no choice, given the science fiction premise" (Pringle, 42). The passive aggressiveness of science fiction would have absorbed any effort at hints of the extraordinary and without his collage at the end he would have been left with Star Trek or Star Wars, or any other science fiction movie. The only way out of science fiction reality is to end the movie and start a painting within the movie. Did his collage work? The film is loved, but the ending has remained controversial on the simple grounds that no one seems to know what it really means. I believe that a good part of this comes abandoning his science fiction medium to insert his college construction. I think Luke looks at them and smiles; they look back and smile. A normal day out here in deep space where life on the astral plane is part of normal physics, such that no one is surprised that the deceased should materialize in front of everyone, or that you should recognize their presence.
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Compare this with the looks of Molly and Sam at the end of Ghost. Molly is amazed that she can see Sam and the emotion is overwhelming some capacity. Agreed, they were husband and wife and that accounts for a lot of the emotion, but the possibility of a crossing between the livings and dead was also a tremendous emotional experience for both of them (Pringle, 42). If we eliminate the macro science movie too, how then does one put a hint of God in a movie? There are no doubts many ways, but here is one. If micro films portray a reality so tightly drawn it does not allow for intrusions from the other side, and if the macro science fiction films provide cosmic intrusions, but naturalize them, then what is the correct cinematic formula? The answer is to combine the strength of each genre. From the science fiction movie take the presence of unexplainable intrusions into everyday reality, but now insert them into the tightly defined reality of the micro realist movie. The result: things we cannot explain plus the awe and amazement produced by the fact that this event cannot be explained in worldly terms, leaving a hint of God as the only other possibility. Both elements are absolutely necessary. It cannot work with only one or the other. In science fiction things happen that are not immediately explainable, which the regular micro mo-vies provide. Finally, since the characters cannot suspect Klingons, they are left with the hint of God, for what else could so contravened the laws of nature. Fixed everyday reality plus a cosmic intrusion: two seeming opposites, which is exactly the formula to allow the hint of God. If you allow too much flexibility in the reality they will always suspect Klingons or space time warps. If you allow no reality flexibility there will be nothing out of the ordinary.
If it is difficult to have hints of the supernatural intrude into films with a deep commitment to a believable everyday reality, then it would seem the more open-ended, everything is possible science fiction movie would constitute a much better backdrop for hints about God's presence. But this is not so either, although for different reasons. If, in the micro human story movie, everyday reality is just too tight to allow a hint of God to peek through, then the open-ended science fiction is just too loose (Nicholls, 56). In these futuristic worlds anything goes and nothing is impossible. Where reality ends and the supernatural begin is never pinned down, making it extremely difficult to come to the conclusion that some thing is ever from the other side. How can anyone suspect God when it might be some alien force or parallel universe or some cosmic space time warp? Science fiction movies do, though, have a great deal of extra worldly intrusions that are not found in micro realist movies, which could, in principle, be taken for hints of God's presence. But by and large, they are not, because it is always possible that there is some natural thing out there that is the cause.
What science fiction does, then, is to naturalize extra ordinary occurrences, turning potential grace experiences into science-like puzzles, where the normal reaction is to search for a solution rather than be awestruck and suspect the presence of the divine. No matter how out of the world the initial premise, the rest of the movie turns into a technical game of figuring out how this extraordinary experience is, in fact, part of the laws of some physics somewhere. Even when the characters do not know the exact science of what is going on, the conclusion is not that this is a hint of God's presence, but that this is simply a world so advanced that we as yet do not understand its operating principles (Stocker, 23). To get a feel for this naturalizing effects consider the culmating scene in the non-science fiction movie, Oh, God! Where George Burns is in court claiming to be God. Now imagine this same scene in, say, a Star Trek movie. In Oh, God! No one believes Burns is really God and so he proposes a small demonstration. He starts to walk out of the court room. Halfway out he turns invisible, then continues to walk out, pushing - without being - the doors open at the end of the courtroom to enter the hallway. Here we have a clear commitment to everyday reality - a day in court in South California - and a very unnatural, if not downright supernatural, event, turning invisible. The reaction of everyone in the courthouse is shock and amazement. Mouths drop open. They stare in disbelief. They cannot believe what they have just seen. It brings the whole scene to a halt.