Decentralising Humanity in Science Fiction Cinema Part One – 2001: A Space Odyssey

While film as a medium has traditionally centred humanity, giving us a privileged position in the world that aligns with the humanism present in art from the Enlightenment onward, science fiction is an arena in which humanity’s place in nature and the wider universe is more frequently questioned. Works within this genre, more so than any other, seek to topple humanity as the presumed pinnacle of existence. I will be examining the relationship between the human and nonhuman (specifically the nonhuman natural) in two such films: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.

By subverting typical depictions of the triumphs of humanity, these directors shake the foundations of what human ‘progress’ truly means. They explore how easily it can be catalysed or undone at the whim of the natural world, whether that takes the form of different species dominating Earth, or the incomprehensible cosmology that lies beyond reach. So, beginning with 2001, let’s look into how cinema has the power to make us question our assumed power over the wider world.

The Inconsequential Nature of Humanity

In both Arthur C Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film, the presence of any kind of humanity is questioned throughout the work. This is clear in the fact that the first chapter of Clarke’s novel is titled The Dawn of Man – humanity appears to be somewhat present in the hominids, particularly in Moon-Watcher’s ‘dim disquiet’ at seeing his deceased father, but the distinction between animal and man is largely blurred. Even the presence of the monolith, which leads the hominids to their advancement into man, doesn’t immediately make these creatures recognisable as people. This distance between the hominids and humanity as we know it is heightened in Kubrick’s film version of the text. Individuality cannot be found in Kubrick’s depiction of early man –  every hominid looks and acts nearly identically to the others.

Where Clarke provides us with some individuation and alignment in Moon Watcher, allowing him to be a temporary protagonist, Kubrick’s hominids are barely distinguishable. The lack of any audible voiceover, point of view, or any other technique that would align us with the hominids also makes them less relatable. You could even argue that this opening portion of the film possesses a level of documentary realism often found in educational nature films: wide shots of large swathes of animals, and a lack of any kind of identifiable narrative. Visual comparisons are even drawn between the hominids and tapirs, Kubrick shooting them with equal proportions of the frame and at the same level to suggest that they are fundamentally the same: prey. While this is later overturned with the discovery of the monolith, this opening depiction of humanity foregrounds the idea that humans are just another variety of animal, who achieve greatness through circumstance and cosmic help rather than any kind of innate quality.

Though I would argue that 2001 has a narration too distant to have a true protagonist in the traditional sense, the audience is aligned spatially and temporally in acts two and three of the film with Dr. David Bowman, his last name suggestive of the more primitive weaponry that has lead humanity towards technological progress. Bowman is not a protagonist in the traditional sense of the word, which typically suggests a character whose thoughts, feelings and goals make up the motivation for the plot. Instead, the film seems to depict the trajectory of humanity as a whole, reflecting how the importance of humans within the wider universe is questioned in the film. Arguably, Kubrick actually made Bowman more generic in order to more appropriately fill this role: little is known about his life on Earth, and actor Keir Dullea’s blank expressions allow him to reflect the rest of humanity without being clouded by potentially distracting specificities. This is taken even further by his ultimate fate at the close of the film when he seemingly becomes the Starchild – everything recognisable about Bowman has been removed at the whim of the unknown forces that have always guided humanity’s journey.

The Unknowable Universe

Throughout 2001, the place of the natural world in relation to humanity is as an unknowable force, capable of affecting us in ways we cannot truly comprehend. This is foregrounded by the opening moments of the film: a black screen, scored by dissonant music with no sense of melody or rhythm. Evocative of importance in its ability to overwhelm, this lush, orchestral music also suggests how 2001 will draw upon an intellectual tradition, far from popular conceptions of B movie science fiction. When we are eventually provided with a visual beyond a black screen, the position of Earth is deeply symbolic; it is all we can see at first, but eventually the remainder of the solar system becomes clear, dwarfing our home planet and reminding us of the universe beyond. This image of the planets aligning also appears to hold a grand, cosmic significance, but the nature of this significance is never clearly revealed to the audience, reinforcing the inaccessibility of space. The idea that the universe is ultimately incomprehensible to humanity is particularly interesting within a historical context: the space race that took place in the 1960s largely reflected Imperialist ideas of conquering new land, while the film actively places humanity as inevitably unconscious of what exists in outer space.

Most of the runtime takes place in space and on various spacecraft, but the early sequence following the hominids depicts Earth as a hostile environment that was only truly conquered with the assistance of the monolith. Created with studio sets and matte paintings, the environment of the prehistoric African savannah is almost unrecognisable from Earth as we know it today; the dirty red hue of the rocks and the lack of plant life causes it to almost resemble concepts of the surface of Mars. This appearance can be interpreted as a subversion of the Garden of Eden from Genesis, transforming a land of ‘life’ to one more closely associated with death and destruction.

For instance, while Eden is described as full of vitality and plenty, with ‘trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food’, early Earth is a barren wasteland with little sustenance to go around. This theme is most prominent in the scene of the interaction that the monolith has with the hominids. When the first hominid touches the monolith, it does so with the index finger of its outreached hand, mirroring the gesture that Adam makes towards God in Michaelangelo’s painting ‘The Creation of Adam’. This creates an association between the mystery of the cosmological and religious omnipotence, in which humanity has been created by forces beyond its comprehension and control. Simultaneously, it subverts the classical beauty of this painting – rather than an image of civility and intellect, Kubrick highlights the humbler beginnings of humanity that have been scientifically identified in the time following Michaelangelo.

In contrast, a later sequence of the film that depicts Bowman’s journey into the monolith is characterised by incomprehensible surrealism, enhanced by the ground-breaking special effects, that is designed to be overwhelming in the context of a cinema. The vibrant flashing colours and lights are shown from Bowman’s perspective, intentionally placing the viewer in a similar position of confusion and awe rather than allowing them any greater knowledge through the narration. The length of the scene also seems designed to designate importance to what is being shown, as well as to continuously overwhelm the senses – for roughly five continuous minutes, the audience is made to travel through the stargate into the unknown. In doing so, this scene subverts typical images associated with space travel and extra-terrestrial life. Rather than referring to images like the little grey men that became a default appearance for aliens, the lack of any physical form implies that life beyond Earth has transcended beyond the plain that humans occupy, instead appearing as dazzling lights that cannot be conventionally understood. In 2001, despite depicting a journey of human progress beyond Earth, humanity is decentralised, and as a result the look of the celestial beings that control us is not derived simply from an altered version of our own image.

Planned Progression

2001 appears on the surface to chart the ever-progressing journey of humanity, as we ascend from hominids to star children. However, this progress is suggested to be from an external force, and not because of any intrinsic value that humans hold as a species. The purpose of the monolith in the narrative remains somewhat unclear, but because humanity appears to make a great leap forward after every encounter with it, it can be inferred that it is a type of alien or even divine technology, used to artificially guide humanity. It is a blank slate that can represent whatever the viewer chooses, the mystery and intentional vagueness surrounding it actually being the source of its cinematic intrigue. While it can be interpreted as a technological device, I argue that the monolith primarily exists as a symbol of the incomprehensible power that exists in pockets in our universe, humanity progressing essentially through the luck of it being placed in their path.

This can be explored through the narrative structure of the film, which can be divided into three acts: the caveman sequence, Bowman’s struggle against HAL, and Bowman’s journey into the monolith itself. Each of these acts is marked by different modes of humanity being influenced by the presence of the monolith, and symbolises three struggles. The first, as previously discussed, depicts the creation of humanity as we know it, conquering other Earthly species. The second arguably depicts another form of the same struggle; though it can be interpreted as humanity’s mastery of technology as Bowman outwits HAL, the human qualities displayed by the AI render it similar to the more simplistic victories that humans had over other tribes in the first act. The third appears to show the beginnings of our domination of outer space and the wider universe, the image of the Starchild looking upon Earth suggesting the unlimited potential of our new form. But while this sense of progress can be distinctly charted, the purpose behind it and our place among nature and the cosmological is far less clear. Ultimately, the powers and motivations behind the monolith are never revealed, creating the sense that this progress, while spectacular, is somewhat hollow, and not because of humanity’s innate value.

So how does a more recent film like 12 Monkeys differ in its depiction of humanity’s relationship with nature? Find out in part two!


Updated: Dec 31, 2020

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