Deconstructing the sci-fi genre: From metageneric to metalit
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) is a critically acclaimed
experimental and science-fiction film. The film has less than 40 minutes
of dialogue, yet it keeps audiences in their seats and explores themes
such as the Nietzschean teleology of human evolution and artificial
intelligence with the help of special visual effects as well as other
formal qualities. Starting with “The Dawn of the Man,” a mysterious
black monolith enlightens prehistoric apes and enables them to use tools
and kill their own kind. An ellipsis cut takes the audience through 4000
million years to the second stage of “Jupiter Mission” where human
beings are sophisticated and enjoy advanced technologies. The detailed
settings of new and mysterious environments, such as the spaceship and
extraterrestrial were possible by the Apollo missions and advancing
cinematic technology of the 1960s. Main characters of 2001 are
emotionless American astronauts on a mission to Jupiter, in search for
the symbolic black monolith. The mission remains confidential since it
would likely alter humans’ understanding their evolutionary path. The
“mastermind” computer HAL9000 is programmed two contradictory orders
regarding the mission’s confidentiality and thus murders all crew
members but one—Dave Bowman. He survives to destroy HAL and travels
through light years of sublime space. Dave becomes a specimen in the
third segment for the aliens in a self-imagined room. He ages in a
series of short, unconventional cuts and is reborn as a Star Child of
Carl Freedman argues in Kubrick's 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema that “Kubrick performs a metageneric deconstruction” and exposes science fiction as an “impossible (filmic) genre”: how will audiences react cognitively to this literary genre when they are overwhelmed by the special effects? To him, films like Star Wars and Close Encounters are only superficially science-fictional because they exploit visual effects without providing enough conceptual depth. Yet sci-fi genre is still “possible” today because science fiction cinema is defined by both special effects and intellectual content.
The sci-fi genre tempts Freedman to lament over sci-fi films are subject to “aesthetic hegemony of special effects,” such as dominant eye-candy sci-fi like Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). However, visual effects are now an accepted formality that is often secondary to philosophical and psychological concerns discussed in movies such as Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010). It would not have succeeded commercially or critically if the film only had superb visual effects. Freedman’s definition of cognitive sci-fi genre was relevant during 2001’s initial screening, yet it has been replaced by the films that depended on special effects, and the intellectual content adds to the success. Special effects did not continue to overshadow the philosophical concepts.
The sci-fi genre is also much more broadly defined, not only because of advanced cinematic technology, but also because of audience’s shifting concerns. Science fiction in the 60s and 70s focused on Cold War sources of existential crises, such as threat imposed by the alien “enemy.” The irony that complacent humans can be destroyed by their own technology is still intriguing today but it has progressed from suspecting imaginary aliens to real life apocalypses such as Day After Tomorrow’s global-warming induced flood. Films that explore virtual reality do not require an alien source to be categorized as science fiction. Writing in 1998, Freedman anachronistically fails to recognize the change in genre.
Consequently, Freedman emphasizes the importance of 2001’s visual effects in explaining Kubrick’s monumental success in the sci-fi genre yet neglects how this innovative form is connected with the other formal qualities. Freedman only devotes one paragraph for mentioning Kubrick’s use of “dull dialogues,” “wooden acting,” Strauss’ Blue Danube and theoretical references to Nietzsche’s ideas on humanity, but does not explain how they are related to the visual effects.
2001 is essentially different than any other sci-fi film because Kubrick experiments with formal qualities, such as futuristic visual effects, the Wagnerian music, breathing sounds of the astronaut, extremely long takes and montage editing, to substitute traditional narrative techniques. These reassembled forms enable 2001 to show the story rather than narrate it. Without the decision to obliterate traditional narratives, special effects would have been less powerful and 21st century audiences would not appreciate 2001 as much. This Kubrickian method is not unique to sci-fi, as Freedman notes. He does not realize that in this sense, Kubrick not only deconstructs science-fiction by creating as a “metageneric” film; he deconstructs and redefines film by creating a “metaliterary” text that is no longer constrained to verbal narratives.
Furthermore, for audiences today, 2001's visual effects are secondary to the philosophical concepts. Kubrick said that “the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it,” not one interpretation is right. Since 2001’s dialogue is sparse and the plot is ambiguous, the audience is responsible to be hyper cognitive and infer meaning from the text. This technique introduces more suspense because the audience is not sure of his or her own logic. Some audiences understand that the famous match-cut of a spaceship in outer space succeeding a lethal bone thrown into the air implies the destructive nature of technology. When so little is explained, many details become metaphoric and symbolic to innocent spectators. HAL’s ominous red eye enlarged by the extreme close up foreshadows the crew members’ fate, yet it also coincidentally parallels Dave’s blinking eye when he travels through space. What does this imply? Is it significant at all? Kubrick calls for individual interpretation through his radical use of forms that are uniquely cinematic. 2001 involves audiences into a highly attentive state, even though some like Freedman may have been overoccupied with the visual effects.
2010 Oct. Language of Film
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