God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The allegory of His light is that of a concave mirror behind a lamp that is placed inside a glass container. The glass container is like a bright, pearl-like star. The fuel thereof is supplied from a blessed oil-producing tree that is neither eastern, nor western. Its oil is almost self-radiating; needs no fire to ignite it. Light upon light. God guides to His light whoever wills (to be guided). God thus cites the parables for the people. God is fully aware of all things. — Quran -[24:35]
There is a widespread belief among many science-fiction film critics that science, having an accurate, precise and strong footing in the natural reality, and fictions, imaginary tales, are in essence incompatible and cannot be drawn near to each other, let alone stand together side by side. Those in favor of this viewpoint assert that as a cinematic function science fiction films can never serve to render or portray future reality or be able to penetrate into realities beyond what is visible and tangible in our realm of everyday life experience, and that these films will always remain as works of sheer fantasy, serving no higher purpose than mere entertainment.
It is contended here that such an assertion is inaccurate and that science fiction films, when viewed as extensions and products of intelligent imagination, can reveal objective possibilities as well as ideas, paradigms, or existential potentialities that may become manifested in one form or another at some future time. To support this contention, the Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is examined herein as it fundamentally challenges the circumscribed and limiting view of science fiction films.
From a scientific perspective man lives in a four dimensional realm. While we are most cognizant of the three-dimensional space, we cannot ignore the fourth silent and invisible dimension — time. The dimension of time is as much a necessity in scientific explanations as those of the theory of relativity as it is in our perceptions of reality. Perhaps because our perceptual modality is constructed such as to see a liner progression of events, of cause followed by effect, of a past, present, and future we cannot make sense of reality without the dimension of time. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey masterfully incorporates the notion of time in the plot by portraying images from past and future in its suggestive arrangement.
Before discussing how the element of time is used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is important to speak of the timelessness of this work of art as a whole and as a representative of the expressive abilities of science fiction films. An artistic masterpiece, be it a musical, a literary work, or a sculpture, always seem to strike a cord with the person examining it.
Many individuals who criticize of science fiction films seem to take an attenuated view of time and view such films as mere fictional conjectures about the future. However, a science fiction film can, as is the case with 2001: A Space Odyssey, deliver a message and project ideas about a future that is nonetheless not confined to any particular time. How this feat is accomplished depends as much on the medium as on the message. For example, a piece of written literature may be timeless and yet speak of future by using allegory, metaphors, and symbolic expressions that appeal to people because of its allusion to human condition and characteristics.
By reference to essentially human essence, artistic works can speak to and of people and situations in a manner that escapes historical time. 2001: A Space Odyssey achieves this state of boundlessness also by alluding to subject matters that are timeless such as evolution, destruction, order, awareness, and intelligence.
Thus to criticize this work by making a simple argument that we are living in 2005 and cannot yet nonchalantly travel to outer space, or live on the moon and make phone calls to our loved ones on earth is to miss the aims that can be fulfilled by science fiction films. Indeed, the purpose that a science fiction fills is not necessarily to be a prophetic work in the literal sense by specifying events and dates of their occurrence, but by projecting possibilities that can become manifested.
The science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey presents us with a journey not only in space but in time. We begin in darkness, perhaps representative of the primordial and absolute nothingness. And then light emerges, depicted through sunrise. This opening shot is accompanied by the orchestral music of Richard Strauss, from his “Also Sprach Zarathustra” symphony.
The musical segment played is specifically the “Tone Poem,” which was named after a book written by the philosopher Nietzsche who in turn described the being based on the teaching of a prophet named Zarathustra. Darkness and light in Zoroastrianism have particular significance and are extremely suggestive in the movie. If we accept Kubrick’s own words that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a “mythological documentary,” the choice of symbols, music, and the work they are based on and the suggestions they impart become clearer. [Stanley Kubrick, Director: by Alexander Walker Pp. 162]
For instance, the religion of Zoroastrianism is widely held to be a forerunner of the major monotheistic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Zoroastrianism, light and fire are symbolic of the creative power itself. One cannot also ignore the reference to light in the Book of Genesis, where we read that in the beginning “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…And God said: Let there be light.”
Thus, the transformation of darkness into light could be symbolic of existence. Moreover, one cannot ignore the works of Nietzsche who described the life and teachings of Zarathustra in his philosophy of the “Superman” that Man would evolve into. Thus existence is not a purposeless happening. Indeed human existence in the context of an evolutionary process can be towards a higher state of realization where Man actualizes his/her potentials.
Of course, in the journey of time, as in a lifetime from birth to death, existence is countered by the prospects of death and destruction. In this journey, as it was for our progenitors, as it is for us, and as it shall be for our descendants, we are engaged in the act of survivals or more broadly speaking, of self-preservation. This timeless challenge is portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey beginning with scenes from the Pleistocene world, where ape-man competes for food and water with other animals as well as with other rival groups from the same species.
What is unfortunate but real is that the act of self-preservation can be violent. At least this proposition holds true historically as humans, who even after having developed consciousness have set out to slay others for resources. It should be noted that consciousness is not necessarily accompanied by moral excellence. Indeed, as it is portrayed in the movie, consciousness seems to be awakened in our progenitors as they used a bone as a tool.
This primitive tool, as is the case with other technologically advanced tools of the modern time, extended the physical reach and limitations of man and is symbolic of intelligence as it embodies the idea of function and utility. However, the irony that Kubrick masterfully demonstrates is that the tool is used as a weapon and thus emblematizes destruction as well.
What is suggestive in 2001: A Space Odyssey is that scientific progress in and of itself does not curb the human tendency toward destruction and that we impart our innate and untamed violent tendencies to our own technological creations, as sophisticated as they may be. In the film, the ape-man throws the bone into the air and in one associative cut, the bone turns into a space vehicle “Discovery”, suggesting that the human evolutionary progress advances through technological development.
Scientific progress is demonstrated throughout the film beginning with shots of space vehicles making their orbital flights as in a ballet movement to the music of “The Blue Danube.” At the beginning, when viewing the spacecrafts and hearing this waltz, it seems that man has escaped the confines of this planet and by extension has escaped his own limitations and has reached a state of harmony and order. However we gradually come to realize that technological advances do not ensure inner or outer tranquility and Man, wherever s/he may be, must confront discord and destruction.
This confrontation with our lower tendencies and vis-à-vis the struggle for survival was expressed in many different ways in the movie. For instance, the number of scenes revolving around food was noteworthy and extremely suggestive. Food, of course, can be symbolic of survival for without it one cannot exist. While in the movie the ape-man used the tool to kill for food, we see Man in spacecrafts presented with variety of foods that is served by others on a tray as well as dispensed through machines. Even near the ending of the film, the aged astronaut is seated and dines in elegance and with great formality and civility.
Thus the suggestion seems to be that even with abundance of food, that basic necessity of existence, for which our progenitors had to kill and be killed, and whether or not this basic human need is satisfied through technology (e.g., machines), the human existence is more sublime and beyond simple digestive requirements. Even in a materially abundant and advanced state, man is plagued with mistrust and discord as it is implied by Dr. Floyd’s attempt to hide the discovery of the monolith from the Russia scientists or even from the crew of the Discovery.
Covering up and evading the true reason for his top-secret mission, Dr. Floyd intentionally refuses to answer questions: “I’m really not at liberty to discuss this.” Given such a disposition, how else would a humanly created machine like HAL 9000 which was a major and a talking computer in the space ship strategize furthering its own interests? “…and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen,” said HAL 9000 to astronaut David.
As the film suggests, suspicion, egoism, destructive tendencies and other base human characteristics cannot be remedied through scientific progress. Previously it was mentioned that we may in fact endow our own sophisticated technological creations with such lowly inclinations. This proposition seems to be supported in the film most vividly through the HAL 9000 computer. HAL 9000 is not a mere machine; it is a thinking entity upon which man has bequeathed his own intelligence, awareness, and character. And, this advanced creation displays human characteristics such as pride in the fact that it and those like it have never been known to make a mistake. This thinking machine does not merely kill because its survival is at sake, but rather goes on a rampage to hide its deficiency, its failure.
When the astronauts realize that the machine may have made a mistake in detecting equipment failure, they ostensibly hold a secret meeting to determine the fate of this thinking entity. If a fault is detected with the machine, the decision is to disconnect the machine, to bring an end to it. We see the machine speak as a person to convey its fight for survival. Of course, how the machine fights and kills is in itself telling of man’s behavior.
When in a secure position, having control of the environment, the machine is confident, overpowering, and absolute in its dictates to others: “I’m sorry Dave; I can not let you do that, …I know you and Frank were planning to disconnect me…and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen …This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” But, when the situation changes and this thinking entity realizes that its survival is in jeopardy, there is a noticeable change in its expressions. “Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this…I ‘honestly’ think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over.” “I feel much better now …I’m completely operational and all my circuits are functioning perfectly.”
When faced with punishment and destruction, the thinking being is transformed from an autocratic murderer to a negotiating, pleading, obedient and submissive one. HAL 9000 thus epitomizes not merely the possibly most advanced creation of Man, a conscious entity, but also symbolizes the reality that our creations are inculcated with our characteristics.
But, where does that leave the audience, or mankind? Is journey through space and time, is material abundance, and is scientific progress no more than an elaborate game of survival ending in mortality? 2001: A Space Odyssey does not seem to present such a despairing end. At the ending of the film the audience sees an embryonic figure facing Earth.
The universal creative cycle continues and the embryo represents evolution, existence, and human potential. The embryo facing our familiar planet may suggest that Earth, with all of its particularities, is a designated place suited not only for human existence but for our evolutionary progress toward a noble state of self-actualization. “We have established you on earth, and we have provided for you the means of support therein. Rarely are you appreciative [Quran – 7:10].”
Perhaps our struggle is or ought to be for more than satisfying our needs for such necessities as food and water. Perhaps humans are endowed with the potential to change their existential condition and their very destiny and that such transformation needs to begin from within and cannot be realized through mere scientific achievement. One thing that is certain is that no matter where Man goes, even to the outer reaches of our galaxy, s/he must face his/her own self.
2001: A Space Odyssey thus deals with and inspires one to ask very essential questions that have to do with human origin and destiny. The fact that this is a science fiction film genre does not detract from its expressiveness about present and future human conditions, and its fictional aspect adequately articulates timeless themes through familiar subjects. This film thus demonstrates that science fiction work can contain philosophical and historical elements such as mysticism, religion, and modern scientific theories to address human concerns and evolutionary challenges.
The existential human struggle and search for meaning, our ongoing battle with our own impulses, the effects of technology in particular and our created world in general, the uncertainty of our affairs and our future, and many other significant subject matters can therefore be addressed in a work of science fiction. That a science fiction film can approach such vital topics and engage the audience in thought and discussion shows that this genre is not merely a domain of fiction, fantasy, or entertainment, but as open and expressive as any other genre or artistic work when employed for constructive, objective, and practical purposes.