Wednesday, November 10, 2004

2001: A Space Odyssey

It struck me as odd that no one has brought this monumental film up so far in this class. It's one of the most influential and important science fiction films of the 20th century (directed by Stanley Kubrick in the 1960's). You have probably all seen it or at least heard of it, it has some very interesting sequences and suggestions.

The Artificial Intelligence that controls the space ship, HAL, goes "insane." Now this isn't just some ultra-paranoid, uninformed scenario, nor is it based on the idea that anything with self-consciousness will eliminate threats to itself (like in Terminator). Rather, HAL is based on rational decisions, and it is precisely because it runs into a conflict of rationality that it cuts the life support of the crew and plots against the survivors.

In Isaac Asimov's work, it is suggested that humans will be capable of creating robots that are superior to them in every way - including morally - and thus, any strange behaviour on the part of machines can be attributed to their greater understanding. Not so in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke (also a scientist in real life). In the film, superior rationality can be flawed, things that make sense to a computer make no sense to its creators. Interesting idea.

Another idea in the movie is that humanity was the creation of, or was tinkered with by, an alien race. This has since become a very, very tired cliche (Chariots of the Gods anyone?), but it's a cool idea in the movie, especially how the aliens are portrayed. The aliens are masters of time and space, probably bodiless, enigmatic and so far advanced that humanity probably can't even comprehend them (Arthur C. Clarke acknowledged Lovecraft as an influence, who proposed a similar idea in his sci-fi novella At The Mountains of Madness in 1931). In 2001, however, the enigmatic nature of the aliens is a revalation for mankind, that of a higher intelligence that has fashioned mankind, not unlike a return to religious ideas, whereas in Lovecraft this is cast as the rejection and opposite of all religion.

In both Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke, technology is portrayed as revealing the truth about reality (as opposed to philosophy or theology, and I agree with them: what can you find out by arguing, with concrete evidence?). The difference is in the nature of that truth - in the former, something it's better not to know, to the point of suicide, but in the latter, a fascinating revalation of ultimate purpose.


Blogger Allison Muri said...

Any theories as to why technology is so often associated with the "alien"? I guess one obvious answer is that if you are imagining an encounter, there can be no interaction with an alien race without it--but why is there this long-lived assumption that advanced human technology in ancient history can be explained only as the result of alien interference? Is it, again, because we have deep-seated cultural assumptions about technology and science being foreign?

7:23 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

With a quirky serendipity, my google news alert has just sent me notice of this new review in the online Bright Lights Film Journal. Robert Castle provides an interesting reading of 2001: A Space Odyssey in The Interpretative Odyssey of 2001: Of Humanity and Hyperspace: More fun in the new (old) world.

Regarding "Part One: Evolution," he says:

"2001 acknowledges that from ape versus ape to the Cold War in outer space the same game has been played. Around a waterhole or deep underground in the Pentagon War Room or on circular wheel in space, the human mind has been locked in a conflict with itself. Tools were made in an act to free mankind from the restrictions of nature.... The same tools have subordinated mankind to the nature of the tool. Kubrick’s creation story makes man’s original sin the ability to shape the environment for the gratification of his desires. Lurking in the background, as well, is a fear of death, against which man also uses tools furiously to forestall. ...Kubrick suggests a continuum between the strong arm of Moonwatcher [the ape] and the limp one of the intelligent bureaucrat. We have advanced and receded at the same time, as if these two images tell us the secret of the problem of relying on tools."

Regarding Part Two he writes:

"It would not overstate the argument to say that all of Kubrick’s films dramatize human self-entrapment, to the point of suggesting that to be human itself is a trap. In 'The Jupiter Mission,' the achievements of man are condensed to a single machine, HAL. Once we had innovation, now the ultimate product of man’s genius becomes a supreme and willful hindrance. The trip to Jupiter embodies our ability to overcome the technological impediment." The film then acts as a comment on the "effects of the cybernetic world on human beings."

It's an interesting read - with sidetrips into The Gods Must be Crazy and watching movies while high - now I'll have to watch 2001 again.

Castle concludes that the birth of the Star Child, evolving from Bowman in the 18th-century boudoir (representing the Enlightenment and rational science, the mechanization of world, the loss of nature) suggests the birth of a new man - HAL's uprising represents "an attempted coup d'etat for possession of man's soul." What will come is a new human (but still human).

It's been a while since I've seen the movie, but Castle's interpretation seems very much in keeping with other literature we've discussed with regard to interpretations of cyber-/techno-humanity in literature and film.

7:55 AM  

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