An essay on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, and their cinematic walls of perception
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick, takes the viewer on a journey though space, time and ultimately the inner self. Here, I’ll be exploring 2001’s subtext concerning the nature of cinema – a subject that is important for understanding the film, and gaining a greater comprehension of the relationship between cinema audience and cinema screen. I’ll then compare it with Inception (2010), directed by Christoper Nolan. I’ll be investigating our perception of movies; the language that is created onscreen, the way philosophy is linked with film – and how film conjures up a method of thinking all of its own.
While both films offer multiple angles of comparison, I’ll be focusing on issues of the Lacanian Gaze, framing and special effects. The central question with which I am concerned is: how do these films use subtext to attain a relationship between director and viewer, and to what extent are they successful?
A New Perspective
In the time since 2001 was released, it has grossed $56,954,992 worldwide. It was originally intended to be shot in the 3-film-strip Cinerama format, used for epics or westerns such as How the West Was Won (1962). It was then changed to Super Panavision 70 after distortion problems under Douglas Trumbull’s – photographic effects supervisor – instruction.
In terms of style and genre, 2001 is groundbreaking. It’s usually included in many ‘greatest sci-fi films ever’ polls (IMDB website). Its importance has been felt through cinematic history since its 1968 release (just a year before the first moon landing); it practically validated the concept of using science fiction as a means to express philosophical questions, about the human condition and existence, through the medium of film. Many have since followed suit – Solaris (1972), Blade Runner (1982) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) are all prime examples. In relation to older films of the genre, before its release science fiction cinema was limited to b-movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953), The Blob (1958) or I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), not at all dealing with the high-brow concepts present in 2001. George Demet, an avid analyist of Kubrick’s work, says
“Before 2001, the genre of science fiction cinema had been characterized by poorly written, low-budget “B” grade features with titles like Radar Men From the Moon and Teenagers from Outer Space. A very small number of “A” level features, like Forbidden Planet and The War of the Worlds stood out from the rest, but before the mid-1960s, most studios had been reluctant to spend large amounts of time and money on what they considered to be “Buck Rogers” adventures for children” (1997-1998).
Kubrick was at a stage of critical and commercial success in his career. Two of his previous films, Dr Strangelove (1964) and Spartacus (1960), each earned domestically $9,164,370 and $1,830,650 respectively – this, along with his well-known control over the studio regarding his films, allowed him to create a more daring work, but one that was going to be subject to studio doubts. However, the pivotal function that 2001 played was one of subservience; to this day, film fans and critics alike would argue the meaning of the piece, and even Kubrick himself never let on to what it truly meant – if it meant anything at all.
2001 was premiered two days ahead of its general release on April 2nd 1968 at the Uptown Theater, located in Washington DC. It was shown in its original 70mm presentation at Cinerama theatres, even though it wasn’t technically shot in that format. The impact it had upon original release was substantial. 2001 came during the time of the American and Russian space race (1957 – 1975), so it benefited from the interest of the public. It was a box office success, despite initial critical derision – the ambiguity over the film’s meaning forming the crux of most debate. Joseph Gelmis, American film critic, dictated that the film needed “an innocent eye, an unconditioned reflex, and a flexible vocabulary” (Newsday, April 20, 1968). (Interestingly, Gelmis was an initial critic of 2001. However, with repeat viewings, he eventually warmed to the piece, and interviewed Kubrick about 2001 in 1969. You can read the transformation of his outlook on the film here.)
The reason for the passion directed toward 2001 (whether it be positive or otherwise) boils down to the art. At its beating heart, Kubrick made sure it was something that resonated on more than just one level for viewers. Here, a still from the film (that I’ll be using as the main example) depicts David Bowman and Frank Poole conversing in secrecy, under the watchful eye of the HAL 9000 supercomputer. They believe their conversation is safely out of earshot in the airtight pod, but they don’t count on HAL’s capability to lip-read.
The shot appears at a point in the film where they are questioning HAL’s ‘malfunction’. The framing is tight, almost claustrophobic, opposed to the wide expanses of the rest of the scenes around the Discovery ship. This brings the audience down to a more personal level with the two human characters, and also introduces a new, tangible direction of plot, with the conspiracy forming against HAL and suspicion of the supercomputer’s own motives.
But the composition of this image is testament to Kubrick’s infamously brilliant mind, layering 2001 with many important meanings in reference to the characters onscreen and us, the viewers. HAL is the rectangular box with the circular eye in the centre of the shot, while an empty spacesuit is perched behind him. Notice the positioning of the two; the impression is given that a cameraman is filming Bowman and Poole, or indeed, us; it’s pointed straight at the screen. It is the ultimate invasion of privacy, yet the viewer is not consciously aware of it. As V.F. Perkins affirms, “We are not aware of ‘reading’ the image. No act of interpretation, no effort of imagination or comprehension seems needed” (1993:138).
Concerning form, the editing of the scene in which the still takes place is interesting to the extent of where the film’s omniscient narrative shifts briefly to an internal, or diegetic, focus: we view David and Frank from outside their pod, viewing through the red lens of HAL’s eye. This fits in with the ‘cameraman’ theory: if the director is god of his world of the film, then we are looking through his own eye in this one instant; the camera.
There is also the emergent pattern of the monolith. It appears at key moments in human evolutionary history in A Space Odyssey, but also acts as a smaller motif – its shape is positively littered through the 142 minute running time. In the image, HAL is clearly represented in the shape of one of the monoliths – this is crucial to note concerning the role of the Gaze in 2001. The monolith, when turned 90 degrees, becomes the shape of the cinema screen. See the images below for how one moment can be viewed singularly; the drawing of curtains from around a screen in an auditorium, the performance starting, throwing the audience into what is, essentially, a film within a film.
This all led to a reinterpretation of cinema, at least in its artistry, in mainstream culture. The film-going public would have to expand their acceptance of what was the Hollywood norm in conventional story telling. A major part in this would be the advent of Kubrick’s groundbreaking special effects, for which he won an Oscar. Reviewers of the Harvard Crimson remark, “After we have seen a stewardess walk up a wall and across the ceiling early in the film, we no longer question similar amazements and accept Kubrick’s new world without question” (2006: 21)
And so, special effects were finally proving their reason for existing: they meant that far-flung realities could be a possibility, at least in the Kino Eye of the cinema-goer. It also resonated with counterculture at the time, providing a novel escapism. Robert Kolker ruminates about the youth at the time: “… seeing the film (often numerous times) became a rite de passage thought to be the source of a special knowledge that distinguished them from their parents and “square” adults in general” (2006:14). Something was stirred in the youth in 1968, such as the very awakening of the Starchild.
The Next Generation
What other film, then, to compare 2001 with but the most recent sci-fi release to turn heads? With Inception (2010), which concerns the navigation of the subconscious via dreams, an image not from the film itself – but a production still – best portrays the link both films have.
That link is that both movies symbolize the journey of the filmmaker and the audience, through their respective subtext: in 2001, it is the filmmaker showing the audience their relationship between them and the cinema screen. In a similar vein in Inception, it is the audience journeying through the filmmaker’s creative process.
As an examination on the human psyche, the medium of cinema takes on a new perspective: Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory (1936/1949) is utilized by film theorist Todd McGowan:
“According to the early Lacanian film theorists, the spectator inhabits the position of the child looking in the mirror. Like this child, the spectator derives a sense of mastery based on the position that the spectator occupies relative to the events on the screen.” (2007:3)
Here, cinema is seen to be the penultimate storytelling device. 2001 utilizes this capacity to the extent of creating its very own metatheatrical theatre; Kubrick makes a cinema theatre within a cinema theatre, via the placing of HAL’s omniscient camera Gaze illustrated in the first image. It is here, and in reference to McGowan’s quote, that the main point is expressed in regards to form: the production still from Inception exhibits Christopher Nolan, the director, looking in a mirror next to Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the protagonist Cobb. So according to McGowan, Nolan’s looking in the mirror means he is master (i.e. director); DiCaprio’s parallel stance to Nolan indicates they are the same. And the spectators – us – are Cobb, following the same Lacanian logic. Cobb’s character as director can be professed by his relationship with the rest of the cast, as Jason Pettus, of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, points out:
“…with Ellen Page’s Ariadne (the dream’s “architect”) as his screenwriter, Tom Hardy’s Eames (the “forger”) as his cast, Dileep Rao’s Yusuf (the “chemist”) as his tech guy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur (the “point man”) as the producer who sets up all the logistics and makes sure things are running smoothly, and Ken Watanabe’s Saito (the client) as the studio head, willing to give Nolan’s stand-in creative control and a ton of money, but demanding specific results in return.”(Personal essay)
Coming back to Lacan, the ‘Gaze’ was a famous conjecture that is now incorporated into modern film theory. The Gaze is where the viewer is conscious of his or her own external image, and this can be shifted to become the camera’s gaze in cinema: in 2001, the movie is shown through the perspective of the omniscient narrator – in story-telling terms, this means that everything that happens in the film is viewed through a non-biased perspective, letting the audience know what some characters may not find out (the fact that the Discovery is actually on a mission to discover the source of the transmission nearer the beginning of the film), and sometimes things that the characters would never know at all (the entire Dawn of Man opening).
This omniscient narrator ties in with the gaze being centered on the camera; in a more subjective sense, it is the gaze of that of the filmmaker himself, Stanley Kubrick. Christoper Nolan, then, has his Gaze fixed through that of Cobb’s eyes. The narrative of the film is more from a third-person perspective, allowing the viewer inside Cobb’s – the director’s – head. He evidently understands films are basically dreams, like the subject matter of his blockbuster: there are numerous layers and layers of meaning, and each one is subjective to the view of who is having them.
What is worth noting is the medium of the two images. We have the film still of 2001, and the production still from Inception. Both are psychologically linked with our own presumptions, of what to expect from each medium: from the film, the art as we are supposed to see it. From the still, we may look at it out of curiosity; after all, no-one is in character, and the edges are still rough. We are removed from the fiction that we precipitate to be the finished work. The Inception still is obviously looking from an outside perspective, in to the filmmaking process, and interestingly was released during the build-up to the film’s release. But is this really a production shot? After all, Nolan is not visibly directing anything within frame: he is looking placidly at his own reflection. And to note is that DiCaprio appears to be in character, wearing the same air of uneasy remorsefulness that Cobb emanates through Inception; a low stance, linked hands, a far-away look in the eyes. This is the greatest evidence for the film-within-a-film theory for Inception, and relates perfectly to 2001’s own agenda. Perhaps it isn’t a still at all.
This is where the cultural impact of 2001 makes its real mark among contemporary filmmakers; see below for a production still of 2001. Kubrick is dressed in black, like the monolith to his left, surrounded in a semi circle by scientists. The same scientists who surround the same monolith, on the same set, in the actual film. Kubrick is the monolith, it would seem.
In relation to the actual style and genre of both 2001 and Inception, both are classed in the wide genre of Science Fiction. Lighting, mood, pace are all different; but it is in the underpinning of reality-equals-film that they compliment each other stylistically. It’s already been communicated that the former reinvented special effects, creating a tangible world; there is a case for the latter to have brought special effects back into the same league in the current climate. Where current sci-fi films rely heavily on CGI (computer generated imagery) to illustrate their worlds as realistic possibility, Inception rarely uses this tool.
The best scene to portray this is the revolving corridor fight: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is flung wildly around a gravity-shifting hallway, using the same technique that Kubrick utilized on 2001. The Inception corridor scene and scenes onboard the Discovery were filmed on sets built on machine-powered platforms. They revolved the set and the camera, while the actors actually remained in a perfectly normal orientation with the ground (though the technique was pioneered in the film Royal Wedding, 1951).
It is in showing us on-screen something that looks impeccably real, while off-screen it was real to the extent that there was no superimposition effects or green screenery added. So culturally, within the realm of the filmmaker, 2001 has influenced Nolan in producing tangible worlds on the cinema screen. Within the wider realm of the filmgoer, the spectator’s trust that what they are seeing is real through their own private Gaze, their relationship with the screen has become closer.
A Space Odyssey still sends ripples through culture. Its plot devices have become iconic: HAL’s red eye, the Starchild, the bone-to-satellite match cut, the monolith. It’s even added a line to the plethora of memorable movies quotes. Its focus on the pragmatism that special effects could have, influenced countless aspects of filmmaking – these including the realism of the vacuum of space, providing zero noise, unlike the noisy outer space battles of Star Wars (1977).
Kubrick and Nolan are world-class directors; 2001: A Space Odyssey strives for Nietzschean enlightenment on the surface, but it is the subtext of the viewer watching themselves watching, gazing, that trumps as the most symbolically powerful; the ‘real’ story, if you will. Kubrick’s knowledge and application of frames such as the one used in this essay bring a more aware film-going community into existence – whether that be consciously, or subconsciously.
He understood the concept that the cinema screen is basically a more up-to-date Plato’s Cave: what we see, we either choose to believe or not. The Gaze of HAL’s camera eye pierces any cultural dogma of what a film’s ‘narrative’ is supposed to convey, and with the likes of films such as Inception, it is clear that it has rubbed off on contemporary filmmakers. To show more than just what is on the surface, is unmistakeably paramount: as Kubrick himself once said of 2001, “That is what happens on the film’s simplest level… reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself” (Gelmis: 1970).
Kubrick was a chess enthusiast, and teases us to challenge him with an electronic version of the game that is briefly shown between HAL and Frank Poole in 2001. The codes, motifs and symbolism he presents are all evident of a mastermind at work, taking one deceptive move at a time, and it takes a more turned on cinema-going attitude to catch all the layers of meaning – and to fully appreciate his work. Like HAL says to Poole as he checkmates, “I’m sorry, Frank. I think you missed it.”
Gary Green, March / May 2011
This essay was one I submitted to my uni, and has been altered to less fit into the academic requirements at the time, and suit the blog format – in terms of formality and structure – instead.
[1968 Oscars winners and nominations]
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Directed by Stanley Kubrick. [DVD] England: MGM studios (original), Warner Bros. (current)
[2001: A Space Odyssey box office]
Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott
[DVD] Warner Bros.
The Blob (1958) directed by Irvin Yeaworth
[DVD] Paramount Pictures
Chandler, Daniel. Notes on the gaze: Form of gaze
Dr Strangelove (1964) directed by Stanley Kubrick
[DVD] Columbia Pictures
[Dr. Strangelove box office]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) directed by Michel Gondry
[DVD] Focus Features
Gedult, Carolyn (2005) The Production: A Calendar. Reproduced in: Castle, Alison (Editor). The Stanley Kubrick Archives. ISBN 3-8228-2284-1
[Filming Cinerama for 2001: A Space Odyssey]
Gelmis, Joseph (1970) Excerpt from “The Film Director as Superstar” (Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York)
[Greatest science fiction films]
How the West Was Won (1962) directed by John Ford
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) directed by Gene Fowler Jr.
[DVD] Paramount Pictures
Invaders from Mars (1953) directed by William Cameron Menzies
[DVD]Twentieth Century Fox
[Jason Pettus (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography) personal essay on Inception]
Kolker, Robert Phillip (2006) Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Lacan, Jacques (1936/1949) The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience
[List of sci-fi movies]
McGowan, Todd (2007) The Real Gaze, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7914-7040-4
Royal Wedding (1951) directed by Stanley Donen
Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrick
[DVD] Universal Pictures
[Spartacus box office]
Solaris (1972) directed by Andrey Tarkovskiy
[DVD] Visual Programme Systems
Star Wars (1977) directed by George Lucas
[DVD] Twentieth Century Fox
V.F. Perkins (1993) Film as Film
ISBN – 0306805413