"In a science fiction movie, the first act is a little longer than it is in most movies because there is so much world-building to do." So says director of Top Gun: Maverick and Tron: Legacy Joseph Kosinski. World-building has entered the culture as a way to describe how creative minds generate imaginative worlds and some genres world-build more than others, even if all films might create a mise en scene specific to their ends and perhaps none more so than science fiction. When the genre meets with a director known for his attention to detail no matter the project, a vividly delineated world is inevitable. Few worlds are more specifically generated than in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tony Masters, "noticed that the world of 2001 eventually became a distinct time and place, with the kind of coherent aesthetic that would merit a sweeping historical label, like 'Georgian' or 'Victorian.'" (New Yorker) While many directors work hard to get the period right, they have a past to go on but here Kubrick is projecting into the future a fully realised world, one where he cannily worked with some of the key designers of the period to anticipate the future. "Kubrick brought to his vision...the studiousness you would expect from a history film," Dan Chaisson says. "Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brandsWhirlpool, Macy's, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon." (New Yorker) Kubrick also uses well-respected designers like Olivier Mourgue and Arne Jacobsen. For all the film's fascination with metaphysical questions, what Pauline Kael called Kubrick's interest in the ape to the angel, the film remains the exemplary work of S/F film design. "The whole project was suffused with a determination to make everything look believable." (Variety) the filmmaker and special effects expert, Douglas Trumball notes. "To accomplish this", Matt Hurwitz says, "Clarke and Kubrick brought in consultants both from space agencies and industry to advise on things like spacecraft design, computer display and control design (courtesy of IBM)." (Variety) James Cameron went as far as to say the film made science fiction respectable. "It made science fiction a first class genre" moving it beyond "just your monsters and your spaceships."(Variety) Some might wonder if Cameron helped move it back in the other direction, no matter the director's attention to detail in films like T2.
It leads us to wonder what such detail serves; how Kubrick manages to create a world without arriving at gimmickry or idle futuristic speculation. It rests on the nature of its question and why we invoke the metaphysical. The film wants us constantly to be marvelling at creation in its various manifestations rather than a generic work that, after its initial unrecognisabability, becomes narratively and even stylistically predictable thereafter. If Star Wars was described as a Western in space, and even Blade Runner for all its immensely careful design, a noir set in the future, 2001 is a film of constant wonderment because it never loses sight of its central concern, which is how being evolves. It is "basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic," Kubrick says. "The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting." (The Film Director as Superstar). Like Tarkovsky's Solaris and Stalker, and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Crash, 2001 wants us to see the film as an exploration of a parallel world (futuristic or interplanetary) that must insist on a strangeness that should never quite go away in the viewing experience. If so many science fiction works envisage a made world and leaves it in the background as the story takes precedence, Kubrick's world-building insists that the strangeness takes place throughout the story.
Initially, numerous viewers found the film slow, including disappointed MGM executives, but 2001 is as fast as it needs to be for the vision it chooses to explore: the question of being as productive in one form or another. The early, wordless scenes where the apes go about their business of base survival are transformed after they come into contact with the monolith, which we will later find out is 4 million years old. It suggests a higher life form that nevertheless immediately leads the apes to practise lowly instincts. An ape picks up a bone and realising it can be used as a weapon, smashes in a creature's skull. It will of course go on to be part of the most famous match cut in film history: the bone thrown into the air and turning into a spaceship. Kubrick doesn't make this cut lightly, as though the wit in the transition is insignificant next to the weight of the transposition. The director recognizes that the technology we have is indebted to the violent tools we have discovered. Homo faber is homo violentia; it makes tools because it knows it must make violence. It is of course an idea Kubrick would return to in A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket but the director could also say this isn't to insist we are a violent species but that our bodies make us violent, and what we share with our evolutionary predecessors is that body, however transformed.
Where Hal fits into this claim is moot he is an AI turning rogue who 'kills' the hibernating members of the crew by switching off the technology that allows them to remain alive while constantly comatose. Yet it would be a stretch to call Hal aggressive as the apes so obviously happen to be, and we could add that Hal is a logical system rather than a disembodied spirit, the sort of soul that Kubrick appears to conclude on when he shows us the embryo of the star child. Perhaps one needs a consciousness greater than the body rather than one which replaces it, and is this not the purpose of many a spiritual claim? It is a Bergsonian notion, with Lenard Lawlor saying for the French philosopher Henri Bergson": "...It is a certain kind of philosophy, insofar as it is able to place itself back within the creative impulse, which is capable of realizing the necessary 'complementarity'...of the diverse, partial views instantiated in the different branches of scientific knowledge and metaphysical thought so as to reestablish the absoluteness of knowledge, defined by its coincidence with absolute becoming." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Or as Kubrick reckoned, describing the most ambiguous part of the story: "In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man's evolutionary destiny." (The Film Director as Superstar)
Kubrick's work has often been about getting beyond the impulses or our failure to do so, but he is also of course known as a perfectionist, as though he wished to tame his own impulses through the most concentrated worldbuilding a filmmaker could hope to achieve. We can talk about the legendary length of time it increasingly took him to make a film, but more interesting is what he hoped to reveal in such attention to detail. If many found 2001 so slow, it rests on most films appearing so fast that their interest in things is only as apparent as the plot demands, and that the plot will allow us quickly to understand why the things are there. A simple example: a 40s film like All This and Heaven Too. A shot of Paris, a date, 1848, comes up on the screen, a shot of a house number, and a carriage drives into the courtyard and Bette Davis gets out. All this in 20 seconds of screen time, and though the film is almost exactly the same length as 2001, nobody would be likely to call it slow. It understands as most films do what constitutes a unit of narrative information, and detail is there to carry us plausibly from one unit to the next.
Kubrick insists instead on a unit of observation that carries the story information within it. It is as if character and situation are contained by a context greater than the narrative that holds them, and the director wishes the viewer to take their time in observing the information he has put on screen. When we see the spaceship passing through the galaxy the film wants to us to pause for thought, to absorb the wonderment, instead of seeing it as merely an establishing shot that can then promptly show us the interior. When Kubrick offers us an interior shot it isn't just to that we can then get on with the story but so we can comprehend a world that is new and should be understood in its newness. As Chairman of the United States National Council of Astronautics speaks about the discovered monolith and the need for secrecy, we see him arriving first in a stopover in shots that play up the scale of his tiny craft against the enormous space station, while the film also shows the touches that make space travel both luxurious and precarious. A pen floats for seconds in the air and the hostess rescues it as we see her walking in shoes with a special grip. This moment takes longer than All This and Heaven Too takes to establish Bette Davis in Paris. The space station lounge looks like it has been carefully designed for powerful people to occupy the space with comfort and yet aloofness, especially as rival factions occupy the same lounge: the chairman speaks to a Russian contingent. Trumball says of the story it was based on, Arthur C. Clarke's 'The Sentinel'. that Clarke "'...didn't write about fanciful things, he wrote about real science, real technology' something that had great appeal to Kubrick. All these details aren't there only to tell the story but to imagine an incipient reality.
Darko Suvin notes that S/F can be distinguished from fantastic fiction by what he calls (borrowing from Ernst Bloch), the novum, saying "the novum is postulated on and validated by post-Cartesian and post-Baconian scientific method." (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre) Kubrick insisted on extending this need to generate a world based on plausible science, by adding to it a desire to pay attention to the specifics of that plausibility. 2001 isn't only a slow film because it wants to hold us in its meditative, metaphysical forcefield, insisting we ask questions about the universe, but also to muse over newness in our lives that has become a constant. 2001 might have more or less coincided with the space race but the vast technology of NASA became the nanotechnology of Microsoft and Apple that the sort of grappling the astronauts do became a reality for us all as we tried to download apps, master platforms and decide which internet provider would give us the best coverage at the cheapest price. It may even seem the astronauts have it easy Hal makes sure until he goes awry that all their technological needs are immediately met. We needn't see the two astronauts Dave and Frank trying to set up a Teams meeting or wondering why they have suddenly lost connection. If Alien's tagline was in space nobody can hear you scream, that might partly rest on knowing that you're not responsible for your own tech, unlike on our present planet earth.
We might wish to insert a bit of humour into this ostensibly mirthless director's world but though there may be something funny in a person who drops their pen in the air rather than on the floor, or about picking up a bone only to use it to smash in another bone, namely the skull, humour in Kubrick is only as good as the observation it serves, even in his most comedic film, Dr Strangelove. Strangelove does have a moment which might remind us of our own struggles with technology when Mandrake tries to make an important phone call to the president and finding he doesn't have enough change on him to get through. But Dr Strangelove sought to explore the bureaucratic and jingoistic absurdity of a world in which nuclear annihilation could be couched in the language of the triumphal or the procedural. 2001 remains the director's most ambitious film as he world-builds all the better to ask us to pose the most demanding of questions about the self. As Kubrick says, "the God concept is at the heart of this film. It's unavoidable that it would be, once you believe that the universe is seething with advanced forms of intelligent life. Just think about it for a moment." (The Film Director as Superstar) 2001 asks us to think about it for quite a few moments indeed.
© Tony McKibbin