It is staring at me. Constant. Relentless. Unblinking. The red light is burning into my retinas. I cannot escape even when I close my eyes. There is a shrill intermittent tone. I lie alone in the darkness, staring into this red eye, pleading. Stop it, I cry silently, please stop it. And in my head I hear it reply in a soft, calm and collected voice: “I’m sorry, Rachel. I’m afraid I can’t do that”.
Okay, so my smoke alarm is low on battery. I must admit that this would not normally be considered a situation which would terrify me to my very core, force me to lie awake, staring at my ceiling, unable to move, or make me reconsider the very meaning of life in an existential yet deeply profound haze. But I have since undergone a life changing experience, and I am now questioning my very existence in even the smallest of ways. That’s right. I have now witnessed, for the first time in my life, the bizarre, philosophical and bone-chilling masterpiece that is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It happened completely by accident.
I attended the Cameo cinema in order to watch 2001 as part of its “Culture Shock” cult film series, initially believing it to be a light-hearted 90-minute space mockumentary I had seen several years ago. Half an hour into the film I realised that this was clearly not the case at all – or at least, I would have thought that had my mind not been in the process of unalterably transforming à la portal into the beyond. This therefore means that I am lucky enough to say that my first experience of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey was not only without any prior knowledge or expectation, but also in full surround sound on the big screen – just as would have been the case upon its release 47 years ago.
I am rarely lost for words, but this film managed to replace my vocal chords with nothing but shaky breathing, cat noises, and – when I got home – stifled sobbing. I honestly cannot recall the last time a film had such a profoundly moving effect on me, but when trying to explain it to my quite frankly concerned friends (“Why is she crying over a 1960s space film?”) I found that I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps it was the fact that this film was released one year before man had even set foot on the moon, yet the effects were so realistic and ahead of their time that one can do nothing but marvel at Kubrick’s vision. Perhaps it was the fact that this film foreshadowed futuristic devices such as tablet computers and Skype technology 47 years in advance, with the first tablet being released in the same year as the film’s title and Skype only two short years later. Perhaps it was the body horror of Dr Dave Bowman’s evolutionary transformation on arrival at Jupiter, or the depiction of space as a cold, silent and unforgiving environment, or HAL 9000, unarguably one of the most terrifying villains ever to appear on the big screen (did I mention my smoke alarm nightmares?). I cannot find a concrete answer.
One thing I am certain of, however, is that the fact that this film was so ahead of its time is a source of unending fascination. I have already mentioned the foreshadowing of Skype technology and tablet computers, but by examining for example, the malfunction and subsequent malice of HAL 9000, one can’t help but think about our reliance on technology and whether or not it is detrimental to human advancement. HAL has been programmed to reproduce the human thought process alongside the impeccable precision of a computer. This proves detrimental when he starts acting of his own accord, disagreeing with Dave and Frank, and conducting a series of cold and calculated murders including that of the hibernating crew members – undoubtedly one of the most chilling and harrowing murder scenes in all of cinema – all under the cold and emotionless gaze of his one red eye. Is it not true that we as a society are reliant on technology and social media, just as Dave Bowman and Frank Poole are reliant on HAL to keep the spacecraft functioning? How long before Siri starts denying our requests to call home, find the nearest Italian restaurant, check voicemail? 2001: A Space Odyssey was released one year before the internet was created, yet perfectly foreshadows the technological boom and subsequent reliance which so characterises the 21st century. Kubrick predicted much of the technology we take for granted today, so how can we be sure that our technological advancements won’t surpass human capacity in the future and act of its own accord?
Speaking of technological advancements, it is almost impossible to imagine just how Kubrick managed to direct and shoot some of the scenes in 2001. Considering that this was filmed in the 1960s, the effects can be described as nothing other than absolutely spellbinding. Every scene was a work of art, whether it was a 360 degree zero-gravity walk or a seven minute scene of nothing but spacecraft, stars and silence. Not to mention the beyond sequence – a scene comprising of ghastly atonal chanting, garish shooting colours over unidentifiable landscapes, and horrifying stills of Bowman’s petrified face as he shoots through the portal, the implication being that he is undergoing the next stage of human evolution. It is this scene in particular which caused most of my horrified awe as I found myself rigid with terror, mouth agape, and eyes frantically hidden as the music climbed to a climax and the close-ups of Bowman’s face became even more intense. And why did I react in this way?
I simply have no idea. This film struck a chord deep in the core of my being and unearthed emotions I didn’t know were there. There are so many questions raised as a result of this film, and each one drove me deeper and deeper into an existential crisis due to the unanswerable nature of them. What is man’s true purpose in the universe? Do we even have a purpose? Will technology one day surpass human control? What are the monoliths and will they ever come back? Most importantly, are we alone? When examining the questions raised, the chilling depiction of outer space, and the rather terrifying foreshadowing of modern technology, one can’t help but wonder if, in creating 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick knew something that nobody else did. I really should change those batteries.
Image: Ian Burt; Flickr.com