Science Fiction Studies

#75 = Volume 25, Part 2 = July 1998

Carl Freedman

Kubrick's 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema

If Stanley Kubrick enjoys an artistic authority unmatched, perhaps, by any other English-language filmmaker, not the least reason is his unique generic mastery of film as an aesthetic form. What is crucial here is not merely Ku­brick’s versatility, though his capacity to craft major films across a wide range of different genres is certainly impressive in itself. The further point, how­ever, is that the typical Kubrick film tends to remake or redefine the genre to which it belongs, taking apart the inherited conventions of the par­tic­u­lar filmic kind in order to display their formal and ideological complexi­ty, but also in order to put them back together, so to speak, in better work­ing condition than ever. The relationship of Barry Lyndon (1975) to the historical romance, or of The Shining (1980) to the horror film, or of Full Metal Jacket (1987) to the war movie, is by no means only that of example to type. Each of these films offers a critical reflection on its respective generic framework, working to lay bare the absolute presuppositions of the latter—while at the same time also exemplifying its genre with rare bril­liance. The Kubrickian project, then, is to offer a double filmic agenda and to enable a doubled viewing experience. The Shin­ing, for instance, may well be the most technically expert horror thriller ever made, and can readi­ly be enjoyed simply as such. But it also provides a rich theoretical medita­tion on the (much undertheorized) genre of horror itself, suggesting the historical function and ideological limits of horror as well as the complex in­volve­ment of horror with the whole category of historicity.1 Accordingly, the ultimate relationship of The Shining (a film deeply characteristic of Kubrick’s achievement in general) to the horror genre might aptly be de­scribed as a metageneric one.

But the genre with which Kubrick has established the most interesting and most consequential relation—the genre which he has subjected to most complex metageneric scrutiny—is surely science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is, of course, the central work in this regard. In what follows I will attempt to situate it in the history of the science-fiction film and to describe the precise ways in which it interrogates the assumptions of science-fiction cinema and of science fiction itself. My thesis is that Kubrick re-invents science fiction more radically than any other filmic genre, but that in so doing he inevitably engages the extremely problematic character of the conjunction between science fiction and film; and thus he questions whether a genuinely science-fictional cinema is finally possible at all. Paradoxically, 2001, the work that establishes the science-fiction film with more incontestable authority than any other, also views with the most cogent skepticism the very tenability of the genre that it exemplifies. At the same time, of course, this critical skepticism as to the possibility of a science-fiction cinema itself possesses a unique authority, com­ing as it does in a masterpiece by the greatest of science-fiction filmmakers.            

We may begin by locating the position of 2001 within the historical development of science-fiction cinema. Though the kind is very nearly as old as film itself (dating, probably, from George Méliès’s sixteen-minute A Trip to the Moon in 1902), and though it begins to produce major achievements at least as early as Metropolis (1926) and Things To Come (1936), the science-fiction film—particularly in America, its principal homeland—has enjoyed two distinct periods of greatest prominence: the 1950s and the years from the late 1970s until the mid-to-late 1980s—the two most socially and politically conser­va­tive periods in postwar American history. Insofar as the production of sci­ence-fiction movies is concerned, there are both significant parallels and signif­i­cant differences between the two eras. The work of the 1950s is most notably exemplified by such films as The Thing (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Forbidden Planet (1956). In their own time films like these were taken to be lightweight mass entertainment, and even in retrospect they have rarely been credited with any substantial degree of aesthetic or intellectual achievement—though they have often enough been studied as sociological symp­toms of the repressive and conformist ideologies hegemonic in Cold War America.2 Accordingly, in several respects these movies find their authentic successors in the most representative science-fiction films of the late 1970s and 1980s: perhaps most importantly in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), and later in the Terminator films (1984-1991) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger—not to mention the series of Star Trek movies launched in 1979 and still in progress. Like the science-fiction cinema of a generation earlier, such work has been offered as frankly escapist commercial entertain­ment, and has generally been accepted as such by the mass audience and the intellectuals alike. While relatively few serious commentators have found these movies interesting in any artistic or conceptual sense beyond the purely technical,3 these filmic texts have—again like their predecessors—frequently been analyzed as variously coded presentations of conservative ideology, in this case that of the Age of Reagan. Where these later films differ most strikingly from the work of the 1950s is not only in their often bigger budgets and more polished technical achievements, but also, and perhaps most tellingly, in their level of commercial success. In the 1950s, science fiction was a recognized com-ponent of the Hollywood repertoire but never one of the latter’s really ma­jor filmic genres; and no particular science-fiction film of the Eisenhower era achieved anything more than ordinary success at the box office. By con­trast, the most popular science-fiction films of the later period have been blockbuster mega-hits, reaping enormous profits and saturating American (and not only American) mass culture with their distinctive images and catch-phrases.            

The period of the 1970s and 1980s is also notable, however, for producing, in addition to science-fiction cinema of the Spielberg or Schwarzenegger type, a few films in the genre that have no equivalent at all in the earlier period— films, that is, that have been widely credited with a high level of artistic and conceptual complexity and that have been analyzed in terms comparable to those familiar in the study of the best literary science fiction (and, indeed, in the study of modern and postmodern literature generally). Here the pre-emi­nent instances are clearly Ridley Scott’s two masterworks, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The amount of critically informed discussion that these movies have attracted is unprecedented in the history of film. Stud­ies of these films regularly appear in the most rigorous forums, and have even occupied entire symposia in critical journals and entire volumes from academic presses. A review of the pertinent literature suggests, indeed, that Scott’s two films may well have provided the occasion for more intelligent and theoretically sophisticated commentary than all the rest of science-fiction cinema put together.4 They have also been the objects of considerable controversy. Though argument has taken place on a number of specific questions—the relationship of Alien to feminism, for example, or the relationship of Blade Runner to the Philip K. Dick novel on which it is (loosely) based—the most general issue in dispute has been, on the one hand, to what degree these films (especially Blade Runner) tend, like science-fiction cinema on the whole, to reinforce conserva­tive and conformist norms, and, on the other hand, to what degree they (especially Alien) tend, on the contrary, to provide some critical perspective on the status quo and even some opposition to the dominant ideologies of America during one of its most right-wing historical moments. In their capacity to stimulate intelligent critical discussion and debate, Alien and Blade Runner have, in sum, achieved a canonical status matched by no other science-fiction films and by relatively few other films in any genre.5            

In situating 2001 within the history of its genre, then, the first fact to be noted is that it belongs to neither period in which science-fiction cinema has most conspicuously flourished. Appearing in 1968, it is instead a product of the least conservative era that postwar America (or Britain) has enjoyed. Yet—as is, perhaps, suggested by its chronological location almost precisely between the Eisenhower and the Reagan eras—Kubrick’s film occupies a pivotal posi­tion with regard to both its predecessors and its successors. In relation to the American science-fiction film as understood prior to 1968, 2001 might almost be said to stand rather as Hamlet stands to the stock pre-Shakespearean melo­dra­ma of treachery and revenge. In other words, Kubrick’s film preserves many established themes and conventions of the genre—such as space travel, the existence of intelligent interstellar aliens and their relationship to us, the potential conflict between men (but not women) and machines, the evolution of humanity, and the emergence of the superhuman—while at the same time clearly transcending, in substance, complexity, and aesthetic rigor, nearly everything that the genre had previously produced. The qualitative nature of the break, which was very evident to filmgoers at the time, should not be forgotten or underestimated. It so chanced, for instance, that 2001 was re­leased during the same eventful year as the first film in the Planet of the Apes series (1968-1973); and the contrast between the two films was (and remains) clear. Franklin Schaffner’s workmanlike adaptation of a competent Pierre Boulle novel was widely appreciated as a better-than-average sci-fi thril­ler that even included a measure of self-conscious socio-political reflection; but Kubrick’s film was understood, especially though not only by those already knowledgeable about literary science fiction, to attain a distinctly new order of artistic achievement. It is true that not all viewers were instantly capable of explicating the precise nature of the film’s achievement. The bewildered look that characterized audiences leaving the movie theaters during the film’s initial run itself became famous as a cultural phenomenon; and this honest bafflement found its less honest reflection in a series of (characteristically) philistine notices by journalistic reviewers (Renata Adler of The New York Times, Joseph Morgen­stern of Newsweek, Judith Crist of New York, among others). But it was clear to serious observers, even when somewhat confused on matters of detail, that a new order of seriousness had come to science-fiction cinema— that 2001, in one early critic’s words, amounted to an “epochal achievement of cinema” and “a technical masterpiece.”6 It was characteristic that, while most earlier American films of the genre had generally been regarded with distanced contempt in the world of literary science fiction, Kubrick produced 2001 in collaboration with so respected a science-fiction novelist as Arthur C. Clarke.7           

Accordingly, 2001, to a greater degree than any prior work, established the possibility of an aesthetically consequential science-fiction cinema—particularly in the English-speaking world, though Kubrick’s influence has extended to other filmic traditions as well (the impact of 2001 is strongly registered, for instance, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian film, Solaris [1972], especially in the interiors of the research station that orbits the watery planet). Kubrick’s film has thus constituted an unavoidable precursor-text for the post-1968 science-fiction film, especially when the latter has possessed real artistic ambitions; and no later filmmaker has responded to Kubrick’s challenge more complexly than Ridley Scott. Indeed, both Alien and Blade Runner maintain—in ways that have been astonishingly little noticed in the voluminous secondary literature on them—a lively though implicit dialogue with 2001. In Alien, for example, Ash’s revolt against and betrayal of his human crewmates on the Nostromo—a betrayal in which Mother, the ship’s computer, plays an important part— recalls the treacherous rebellion of machine against humanity that HAL under­takes aboard the Discovery. In both cases, the human members of the two crews are essentially dupes of their employers, who entrust the most vital mission information to intelligent machines. Scott’s intention here vis-à-vis 2001 appears, to be sure, at least partly parodic, since he situates the duplicity squarely within the mundane context of the capitalist profit-motive, a factor that Kubrick’s film ignores. In Scott’s next science-fiction film, the antinomies of the human and nonhuman in Blade Runner owe less to the radically huma­nis­tic reflections on the subject in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) than to the more somber tripartite dialectic of machine, human, and superhuman that Kubrick stages in 2001. For Dick, the ontological and moral validity of the human essence is never in question, however difficult the hermeneutic task may sometimes become of distinguishing that essence from its simulations. Kubrick and Scott, by contrast, actively deconstruct the category of humanity and place “under erasure” (as Derrida would say) the definitional borders that separate the human from its mechanical (or, for Ku­brick, quasi-divine) others. Again, however, Scott differentiates himself from Kubrick by engaging a problematic of corporate and state power that is foreign to 2001.            

Indeed, Scott’s concern, in these films, with political and economic issues might best be understood not as expressing profound permanent interests of the filmmaker himself, but rather as one means by which Scott distinguishes his science-fictional works from their mighty Kubrickian precedent. There are, of course, other ways as well in which Alien and Blade Runner assert their dis­tance from 2001. For one thing, the relative generic purity of the science-fictional project in 2001 contrasts with Scott’s extensive hybridization of genres: Alien borrows many of its effects from the horror film, as Blade Run­ner does from the tradition of film noir. Then too, the most evident visual contrast between Kubrick and Scott is between the clean, shiny, smooth, and well-defined surfaces of the Kubrickian future, on the one hand, and, on the other, the way that Scott’s camera seeks out muck and muddle, glorying in images of junk, confusion, decay, and mutilation.            

Yet it seems to me that the most consequential revision that Scott’s two movies make of the science-fiction film as defined (or redefined) by Kubrick is one that engages the visual dimension of cinema in a rather different way: namely, that Alien and Blade Runner, for all their own visual virtuosity, are finally much less sheerly visual (or musical)—and, correlatively, much more literary—works than 2001. Though Alien and Blade Runner certainly achieve many specifically filmic effects that would be impossible in any other art—consider, most famously, the evocation of the urban landscape of Los Angeles in Blade Runner—yet they finally operate according to the classic narrative and dramatic categories of plot, character, and setting to a degree that 2001, with its far more radically visual dimension, quite transcends. One convenient index is that a prose paraphrase (or a script) of Alien or Blade Runner may signifi­cant­ly, if imperfectly, represent the actual work, whereas a similar reduction of 2001 would convey almost no meaningful sense of Kubrick’s film; and the largely literary quality of the Scott films may well help to account for the fact that they, far more than 2001, have been so copiously analyzed in terms drawn mainly from literary criticism and by commentators whose primary training has been in literary studies. The literary is, of course, closely related to the entire technical problematic of acting, the roots of which lie in dramatic literature; and, again, it is symptomatic that Alien and Blade Runner helped to ele­vate Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford, respectively, to stardom—whereas the previously unknown actors in 2001 (Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester) deservedly remained very nearly as unknown even after the movie’s tremendous popular and critical success. As we will see, the literary dimension of Scott’s science-fiction films is closely related to their substance and rigor; but it also limits the degree to which Alien and Blade Runner really establish, in the strongest sense, the possibility of a science-fiction cinema.            

No such literary quality dominates the contrasting branch of science-fiction film in the late 1970s and 1980s—the branch, that is, typified by the enor­mous­ly popular work of Lucas and Spielberg. Yet, in comparison to Alien and Blade Runner, films like Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are equally, if differently, the progeny of 2001. Here the chief axis of influence turns not on artistic and intellectual complexity but on the triumph of special effects: the only category, it may be remembered, in which Kubrick’s film won an Oscar. But this overfamiliar category is itself rather problematic and in need of substantial clarification before our discussion of 2001 and its successors can proceed much further.            

All filmic effects are “special” in the sense that they depend on a complex series of quite specific and usually quite deliberate aesthetic choices that are made within the context of an increasingly complex technology. There is not a single frame in the history of cinema that simply and innocently records a pre-existing reality. It may indeed be the case that film—or rather, certain particular filmic genres such as classic Hollywood realism—can provide a more compelling sense of such transparency and verisimilitude than is attaina­ble in any other medium. But this sense of an immediately graspable reality preserved by the camera—this Cavellian notion that film offers some privileged access to how the world might appear if we ourselves were somehow not a part of it8—registers not a straightforward process of empiricist cognition, but rather the immense illusionistic power of film in all its fictionality, all its constructed­ness, all its artfulness; and in filmic realism, ars est celare artem. Indeed, the essential artfulness of the medium has occasionally been negatively (and humorously) foregrounded by filmmakers who simply turn on their cam­eras and microphones in ordinary living spaces and then leave the recording-apparatuses to do their work: when printed, the results are not only unwatcha­ble but also bear virtually no relation to any recognizable filmic kind, and least of all to Hollywood realism. Jean-Luc Godard’s famous maxim that morality is a tracking shot (Le moral, c’est le travelling) has too often been understood as a cynical dissolution of the morality of art into the latter’s technical devices. It might better be interpreted as a statement of how extremely open-ended film is, aesthetically and therefore morally. The point, in other words, is strictly parallel to that advanced by the early (left-Hegelian) Lukács in his conceptuali­za­tion of the novel.9 The range of variables available to the filmmaker is so large and diverse, and the character of the final product thus so un-predeter­mined, that to a considerable degree each concrete act of filmic practice re-invents the medium anew and imposes an aesthetic pattern of comparatively pro­found novelty. Accordingly, an immense number of artistic and ethical choices must be made simultaneously and remain bound up with one another to a degree generally unapproached in the older arts. In this way, every filmic effect is very special indeed.            

In that case, however, what makes a filmic effect “special” in the more narrow and more familiar sense of the term?10 It seems clear, to begin with, that what we ordinarily call special effects are filmic moments of a radically filmic character, moments when the particular resources of film as a medium are inflected so as to differentiate film most sharply from every other aesthetic form. In special effects, we are invited to admire the peculiar power inherent in a continuous sequence of images whose scope is delimited only by the tech­niques of cinematography, and which can be melded with sound (including music) to a degree that no earlier art can match. The transition in 2001, for example, when the bone hurled skyward by the hominid is, as it descends, suddenly transformed into a space vessel gracefully moving to the strains of Johann Strauss encapsulates human history from the invention of tools and weapons to the early space age in a way that no older medium could even roughly approximate. Kubrick’s sequence stresses both the massive develop­ment in sophistication from bone-club to artificial satellite and the essential continuity with a combination of force and economy that might seem unattaina­ble until one has actually seen it achieved. It is worth noting that such special effects—which, as we shall see, have a special affinity with science-fiction cinema—strongly distinguish film not only from the older artistic forms (fic­tion, drama, painting, sculpture, and even opera, which among the premodern arts anticipates film most nearly, especially after the Wagnerian innovation of the darkened theater) but also, and perhaps less obviously, from the newer competitor of television. For the general tendency of special effects is to overwhelm the viewer, to bathe the perceptual apparatus of the filmgoer in the very “filmicness” of film, in a way that owes much to the huge screen and sophisticated sound systems of the public auditorium—where, moreover, the viewer is reduced to a passive, atomized spectator in a darkened room and is forced to consume the proffered aesthetic experience strictly according to the temporality determined by the filmmaker. The peculiar power of special effects can hardly be achieved to anything like the same extent in the typical televisual situation. For here the space and modality of viewing are largely controlled by the individual viewers themselves, who may not only challenge the authority of the screen (much reduced anyway because of its diminutive size) by conversing with one another, moving about, leaving the overhead lights on, and such, but who may also—thanks to the pause, rewind, and fast-forward buttons of the VCR—deter­mine the actual pace of viewing.11 Film, one might say, is thus (like opera) a relatively authoritarian form, television (like print itself) a relatively libertarian one; and in special effects the authoritarian aspect of film is intensified to the maximum.            

It should be stressed, however, that the radically filmic quality of special effects constitutes only part of the latter’s definition: it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for those effects that we are wont to call special. To think otherwise would be to lose sight of that very constructedness and non-transparency that we have already noted in realistic cinema. For realism incon­test­a­bly contains moments that profoundly exploit the resources unique to film. Think, for example, of the way that Orson Welles uses the glass snow-dome in the opening death scene of Citizen Kane (1941), or the method by which John Ford offers contrasting versions of the outlaw’s final gunfight in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The former condenses the grandeur and the underlying triviality of the newspaper magnate with a succinct neatness unavai­a­ble in any earlier medium—as unavailable, indeed, as the particular medi­ta­tion that the latter supplies on the relation of mythic legend to secular history. Yet neither effect is, in the usual meaning, a special effect; and, in general, special effects have not been reckoned an important component of Welles’s fictional biography or of Ford’s Western. The crucial point here is that special effects are not only radically filmic moments of film, but moments that—unlike the examples from Welles and Ford—self-consciously foreground their own radicality. Special effects, in other words, not only use the visual (and, often, musical) resources peculiar to cinema to an unusually thoroughgo­ing degree, but also incorporate an overt recognition of this fact. Whereas the realistic film, as we have seen, strives after an art to conceal art, special effects self-consciously deconceal their own artfulness by overtly glorying in the various technologies of filmmaking. Special effects, one might say, are always about film itself, and as such make explicitly clear that there is a good deal more to cinema than pointing cameras and microphones at actors reading dialogue.            

We are now in a position to appreciate the privileged affinity between special effects and the science-fiction film. It is not just that the latter, as an arealistic genre, is comparatively free of the drive celare artem that must block the emergence of special effects as such. This is true, but the point does not in itself distinguish science-fiction cinema from such equally arealistic filmic kinds as horror or surreal fantasy (both genres that are indeed often notable for their special effects). The further point is that special effects are deliberate triumphs of cinematic technology, and that science-fiction cinema has generally devoted itself—far more than literary science fiction, especially in recent decades, has done—to the delineation of emerging and future technologies. Special effects actually enact, on one level, the technological marvels that the typical science-fiction film thematizes on a different level. In this way, the foregrounding of the individual film’s radically filmic nature that we have identified as the defining feature of special effects in general is, in the special effects of the typical science-fiction film, raised to the second power. For special effects in science-fiction cinema not only proclaim the deeply filmic character of the particular film but also propose a continuity between the film itself, as a product of cinematic technology, and the characteristic technological content of the genre. Sometimes, indeed, and above all in 2001, the portrayal of future technologies through the special effects of the science-fiction film tends to make for an interesting sort of mock-verisimilitude, a “realistic” portrayal of referents that do not actually exist, and whose nonexistence is inscribed in the very special effects used to represent them. At the same time, however, the close connection in science-fiction cinema between technology and special effects (and again 2001 is entirely typical) tends to emphasize the specifically visual dimension in the representation of technology.            

In these specific ways and others, 2001—which appeared in 1968 as far and away the most awesome success of special effects in the history of sci­ence-fiction cinema to that point—remains the paradigmatic case of science-fictional special effects. Even some of the film’s comparatively minor and marginal special effects set a new standard for the art: for example, the remarkably detailed simian costumes of the opening scenes, which help to image “the dawn of man” with more visual power than ever before in the his­tory of cinema (and compared to which, incidentally, the noisily praised cos­tumes of the Planet of the Apes series look rather shabby). The musical virtuosity of 2001 is perhaps too widely appreciated to require much further comment here. Suffice it to say that not only does Kubrick, for instance, invent a new musical life for Also Sprach Zarathustra, arguably endowing Richard Strauss’s tone-poem with depths that it lacks as an orchestral piece; but, more generally, the film’s scrupulous use of grand musical leitmotifs (most memorably from Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, and György Ligeti) to register its major thematic shifts helps to make it perhaps the most Wagnerian—the most rigorously durchkomponiert—of cinematic productions (and, in this way, one of the most interesting aesthetic successors to Wagner’s Ring). Yet we should also note that, in the context of the film’s sound-track as a whole, the use of silence is almost as important as the use of music, neatly counterpointing the grand-operatic dimension of the film with a more austere aesthetic, even while also remaining scientifically faithful to the sonic consequences of the airlessness of outer space.            

But, of course, it is the primarily visual representations of outer space itself and, especially, human travel through outer space that constitute the film’s greatest triumphs of special effects. Never before had space travel been repre­sented with such precise detail and general visual plausibility. 2001 raised the portrayal of crisis and adventure in outer space (a staple, after all, of much earlier science-fiction cinema) to a new level, most memorably in the sequence where HAL murders Frank Poole and the three members of the Discovery crew in suspended animation, but is then outwitted and overcome by the (some­what unexpected) resourcefulness of Dave Bowman. Yet what is perhaps even more innovative and powerful, and what gives the scenes of crisis a great­er and more earned force, is the film’s representation of space travel as perfected and routinized: Heywood Floyd’s trip to the moon contains a bril­liant series of estranging visual novelties (can any viewer forget the zero-gravity toilet?) while remaining as ordinary and everyday in tone as a flight from London to New York. Thoroughly aesthetic achievements, such special effects also amount, of course, to major innovations in film technology; and in this way Kubrick’s film suggests a profound connection with real-life space travel and space technology, during the heroic age of which 2001 first ap­peared. The year after 2001 was released, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on the moon; and there is a real generic continuity between Kubrick’s scenes of space travel and lunar travel and the actual video footage of such things that we owe to several of the Apollo missions—though Kubrick’s work is incomparably more polished and, paradoxically, seems to offer a more “realistic” portrayal.12 The special effects of 2001 thus amount to a technological as well as an artistic tour de force, and one that alludes to, advertises for, and in some ways surpasses actual space technology. More deeply than any other film, 2001 exemplifies the unique relationship that obtains among technology, special effects, and science-fiction cinema; and it is chiefly by way of its special effects that 2001 defines (or redefines) the template of the science-fiction film in general. Arthur C. Clarke’s intuition was at one with the spirit of 2001 when he decided that, of all the responses to the film that he helped Kubrick to make, the one he valued most highly was that of the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov: “Now I feel I’ve been into space twice.”13           

But to what degree does the centrality of special effects in Kubrick’s film preclude a genuinely conceptual grasp of space technology and of other issues with which science fiction may be concerned? With regard to 2001 itself, the answer is, as we will see, extremely complex; but it is fairly simple when we turn to Kubrick’s successors in the mastery of science-fictional special effects. Star Wars, for example, is indebted to the special effects of Kubrick’s film in more ways than have generally been noticed. The connection is manifest most obviously in the precise and sophisticated visual representations of space trav­el. But it can also be found in the film’s general Wagnerian grandiosity—and Lucas does, indeed, actually borrow several narrative elements from The Ring in addition to adapting the overall ethos of operatic pomp from 2001 and from The Ring directly (though John Williams’s original score is to my ears rather dull compared either to Wagner or to the major musical sources on which Ku­brick draws). Star Wars also records its debt to its precursor-film in such details as the extremely various aliens to be found in the Cantina, Lucas’s interstellar tavern: the remarkable costumes that help to make the scene there one of the film’s most effective are perhaps the best of their kind since the simian costumes in the section of 2001 entitled “The Dawn of Man.” An even deeper connection to 2001 is registered in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, probably the most visually stunning science-fiction film produced in the quar­ter-century after Kubrick’s own. Spielberg’s Mothership is perhaps the most exquisitely crafted spaceship in cinema since 2001 itself, and the use of musi­cal sounds to establish communication between humans and aliens at the film’s end helps to achieve a neo-Kubrickian effect that might be described as atonal­ly operatic. The use of lights in the same sequence amounts almost to a “light show,” and brilliantly recalls the single most famous visual effect in Kubrick’s film, namely the elaborate play of multicolored lights and patterns as Bowman, the lone survivor of the Discovery crew, travels through the Star Gate to a distant sector of the universe. It is worth noting, furthermore, that the visual virtuosity of Close Encounters is exhibited not only in the science-fictional special effects, but also in such contrasting mundane touches as the way that Spielberg’s camera, by strategically catching a can of Budweiser or a televi­sion set left on, can visually emblematize the secular American norm that those seeking the Mothership have chosen to leave behind. Indeed, the special effects themselves register a transcendence that the film presents as spiritual as well as technological, and the evocation of quasi-religious awe at the film’s close again recalls 2001.            

Not the least remarkable thing about this remarkable film, however, is that seldom (or never?), before or since, has any particular movie displayed such an immense gap between visual brilliance and conceptual vacuity. Yet the two are related. Or, more precisely, Spielberg’s enormously visual emphasis works —primarily through the science-fictional special effects—not only to crowd out such features as dialogue and narrative but thereby also to thwart the emer­gence of any critical logic that might conceptually organize the film. The result is to achieve (extraordinary) visual precision at the cost of intellectual confu­sion and nullity. For example, the drive that leads Roy and his fellows to the Mothership is never concretized as anything other than one of the most jejune platitudes of popular occultism and UFO-mania (the notion, that is, of extrater­restrial superhuman beings with scarcely any characteristics other than the vague desire somehow to take an interest in us), and this shabbiness of the film’s philosophical telos is matched by the extreme weakness of its story-line. On one level, for instance, Roy’s quest is supposed to possess sacrificial rigor and deep quasi-religious significance; but the latter can hardly be earned by a film that takes the destruction of Roy’s family to be, not an important sacrifice requiring complex development, but merely a trivial distraction. Spielberg seems to want to make a statement about the relative banality of ordinary life in middle-class America. But the general occultist shallowness of the film means that it cannot rigorously produce the idea of banality, or any other sig­nif­i­cant idea. Accordingly, the film cannot really produce any plausible tran­scen­dence either, and finally the real banality is entirely Spielberg’s own; and the Mothership, for all its visual splendor, offers no genuine surpassing at all.            

A somewhat similar banality vitiates the marvelous special effects of Star Wars too. All the high-tech visual effects of space travel are deployed to no end other than the revival of the weakest sort of space-opera plot, which incoherently combines advanced forms of space technology with a vaguely late-feudal set of social relations and psychological types. Indeed, probably the cleverest moment in the entire trilogy occurs toward the end of the initial film, where the dueling light sabers of Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi—powered, evi­dent­ly, by some sort of laser technology—humorously and almost explicitly ack­nowl­edge the preposterous incongruity of this combination of the feudal with the futuristic. At this point, one might say, the special effects are nearly allowed to comment on the conceptual vacuity of their own deployment. But this moment is atypical of Star Wars and its successors. In the main, the tech­ni­cal­ly consummate visual effects exist simply for their own sake, wholly ab­stract­ed from any conceptual narrative or dramatic logic. Though Star Wars, compared with Close Encounters, or, indeed, with 2001 itself, actually con­tains a good deal of dialogue, the latter is hopelessly banal (in the sense of being—in contrast, as we will see, to the dialogue of 2001inadvertently banal) and incapable of generating interest. And, beyond the merely visual and technical, nothing finally gives any substance or structure to the film except the shopworn manichean metaphysic of “the Force” arrayed in battle against its own dark side—a superficial paradox symbolized in what we eventually learn (in the closest thing the trilogy can offer to a narrative twist) to be the filial relationship of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. It is no accident that the art of George Lucas emerged onto the scene of American mass culture at al­most exactly the same time that video games did likewise. For in the Star Wars series (especially in The Empire Strikes Back [1980]) the immense movie screen is often given over to precisely the same sort of visually intricate but intellectually barren patterns that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were being daily produced in a slightly more creative mode by the players of Space Invaders and its innumerable successors.            

Reading films like Star Wars and Close Encounters illustrates in detail much the same thesis that is suggested in more general terms by what we have seen to be the generally right-wing and conformist socio-historical matrix of the most characteristic science-fiction cinema: namely, that science-fiction film, with its typical absorption in the sights (and sounds) of high technology, and with its correlative formal dependence on special effects, tends away from the critical or oppositional dimension of art and thus tends toward the production of conservative ideology. If, as Brecht insisted, the fundamental touchstone of aesthetic value is the capacity of art to make us think, then filmic special effects—and so science-fiction cinema in general—constitute art at its least Brechtian. The point here is not that the visual sense or the specific resources of film as a medium are in themselves necessarily regressive, intellectually or politically—although what we have already identified as the authoritarian aspect of film might indeed give rise to some suspicions on this matter. Yet this aspect constitutes but one tendency that, within the concrete work of filmic practice, may well co-exist with different and countervailing tendencies toward the authentically conceptual, the subversive, the “negative” in the Adornian or Marcusean sense. Consider the achievement of such critical and progressive filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard or Tomas Gutierrez Alea, whose work is often radically filmic and quite visually inflected. The general problem with special effects (for which, significantly, Godard and Alea are not much noted) lies not in their deeply filmic character per se, but in the way that they tend to accentuate film’s authoritarian dimension and to squeeze out other, contrasting qualities that filmic art may also possess. Special effects in science-fiction cinema—and hence the typical science-fiction film as a whole—overtly proclaim the supremacy of the (mainly technologistic) visual image; and this drive toward supremacy is disinclined to allow any conceptual filmic space in which the image might be rationally contextualized. The “smokers’ theater” for which Brecht repeatedly called14—in which the mind of the relaxed specta­tor would be invited to adopt as critical an attitude as possible toward the representations on stage—finds its exact antithesis in the cinema of special effects, where the perceptual apparatus of the filmgoer is bombarded into sub­mis­sion by mainly visual (though also sonic) stimuli that allow the minimum of breathing room in which anything like a cognitive response might be formu­lated. Special effects, one might say, establish the movie screen as a locus of reactionary purity, where the singular and masterful spectacle brooks no ques­tions or competition. It is no historical accident that most American science-fiction cinema has been produced during conservative eras. Nor does the conservatism of the genre inhere simply in such particular thematic formations as the right-wing pseudo-Freudian conformism of Forbidden Planet, with its “mon­sters from the id,” or the varied signifiers of California subfascism (Linda Hamilton’s muscles and bullying swagger, the evidently survivalist military camp, the prominence of Jews and blacks among those to be physically attacked, the implied relationship of Sarah Conner with the Nicaraguan contras) that adorn Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). On the contrary, science-fiction cinema tends toward a conservative acceptance of the status quo that is based on the anti-conceptual bias of its most fundamental formal re­source: special effects.            

Yet science-fiction cinema is thus structured on an immense and perhaps disabling contradiction. For literary science fiction—“the literature of cognitive estrangement,”15 in Darko Suvin’s canonical formulation—is, as I have else­where argued at considerable length,16 the critical genre par excellence: the mode of prose fiction most capable (at least since the decline of the historical novel from its greatest achievements) of questioning all dogma, of staging the fundamental social dialectic of identity and difference, of exposing the mutable and historical character of every status quo, and of offering some privileged glimpses of the utopian possibilities that may lie beyond the actual. The literary quality that we have observed in Alien and Blade Runner (and which, in the latter case, is perhaps more symbolized than really concretized in the relation of the film to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) amounts to a close alliance of Scott’s cinematic science fiction to literary science fiction; and it is on this alliance that much of these films’ critical and oppositional potential is based. As we have seen, the point is not that Alien or Blade Runner completely approximate to the forms of dramatic literature (or of television), or that they are to no significant degree radically filmic and visual, or even that they eschew special effects—quite the contrary. Yet, despite such a visually splendid special effect as, for example, the “birth” of the monster out of Kane’s stomach in Alien, Scott’s science-fiction films do not depend on special effects in any radical way. Special effects are employed but are never allowed aesthetic dominance; instead, they are cognitively situated within complex and critical narrative structures. In this way, Alien and Blade Runner are so atypical of science-fiction cinema that, against the background of the whole genre, they appear as isolated masterworks (as their practically unique position in the critical commentaries on science-fiction film strongly suggests) and so do little to validate the possibility of science-fiction cinema in general.            

Yet, on the other hand, can this possibility be validated at all? If those films that we are most accustomed to describing as science-fictional are based on an aesthetic hegemony of special effects that is fundamentally antithetical to the conceptual core of science fiction itself, then the entire project of a science-fiction cinema may well be understood as a contradiction in terms: so that those films, like Close Encounters or Star Wars, that are most deeply typical of science-fiction cinema are not really science-fictional, or, perhaps more strictly, are science-fictional in only marginal and superficial ways. The ques­tion of whether science-fiction cinema is possible ought, of course, to be a fundamental formal question for the filmmakers themselves. Yet it is a ques­tion that the latter have almost always evaded: in the case of filmmakers like Lucas or Spielberg, by erasing the most radical and cognitive potentialities of science fiction; in the contrasting case of Ridley Scott, by establishing his own, largely literary variety of science-fiction cinema that remains stubbornly eccentric to the filmic genre as a whole.            

It is the final greatness of 2001 that in this film Stanley Kubrick unflinch­ingly confronts this very question. Though at least as capable as Scott of mak­ing comparatively literary films (a capacity perhaps most memorably displayed in Dr. Strangelove [1964]), Kubrick in 2001 grants to special effects an aesthetic hegemony unsurpassed in the whole range of science-fiction cinema. At the same time, however, he avoids the intellectual banality and conservatism to which such hegemony leads Spielberg and Lucas—and most other science-fiction filmmakers—by dialectically raising the whole issue to the second pow­er: that is, by making intellectual banality itself one of the major foci of the film and thus by making what might otherwise be conceptual weakness into a self-consciously theorized component of the film’s own conceptual dialec­tic.17 A brief discussion of just how this dialectic operates will conclude our analysis of the position of Kubrick’s film within science-fiction cinema as a whole.            

Although 2001 is, as befits its visual and musical emphasis, a relatively non­verbal film—well under a third of the movie is occupied by dialogue—language and thought nonetheless constitute some of the film’s central concerns. Or, more precisely, the decay of thought and language is foregrounded. More important, in most respects, than the small quantity of dialogue is the latter’s deliberately vapid, vacuous quality. The film’s first words are completely trivial clichés—small talk spoken to and by Dr. Floyd on his way to the moon— that hardly convey more cognitive substance than the earlier screams and grunts of the hominids. Cliché remains the order of the movie’s verbal agen­da, and reaches a high point of dialectical thematization shortly after Floyd’s arri­val in the colony of American scientists on the moon. He delivers to the assembled group a speech that is nothing but a plodding series of the blandest (if sometimes slightly sinister) bureaucratic platitudes, and is later complimented (without irony) by one of the listeners for his “excellent speech.” Presumably it is excellent (or at least pretty good—there is a hint that the scientist who praises Floyd is engaging in a bit of toadying to a bureaucratic superior) by the standards prevailing at the dawn of the new century. Later, on board the Discovery, Poole and Bowman speak in accents that, if anything, are even more jejune and conceptually lifeless than Floyd’s own. Here the deterioration of the word of man is highlighted and ironically counterpointed by the comparatively robust intellectual personality of HAL. Of the crew members, only the computer speaks with any richness of timbre or resonance in “his” voice. Only HAL is interested in discussing general issues, from the virtues of conscious application to the relative fallibility of human and artificial intelligence. And only HAL, it seems certain, knows how to sing a song. It is at one point sug­gest­ed that HAL has been programmed to seem human in order to make Bowman and Poole more comfortable with him. But for the viewer, HAL actually introduces a contrast that renders painfully evident the vacuity of humanity in the human crew members.            

Of course, the banality into which language and intellect have fallen by the year 2001 serves a specific function within the conceptual program of the film. Such banality is meant to be symptomatic of the spiritual crisis that has envel­oped the human race and that requires the intervention of the evolutionary force communicated by the black obelisks—just as a similar intervention had been required to enable the evolution of homo sapiens out of the protohuman hominids when the latter had reached a much more primitive but parallel crisis. On a somewhat different level, however, this self-conscious thematization of banality enables Kubrick to solve what we have seen to be the central for­mal problem of science-fiction cinema. The dominance of special effects tends to induce an intellectual vacuity that directly contradicts the cognitive basis of science fiction itself. Kubrick responds to this apparent dilemma by preserving —indeed, immensely enhancing and so virtually redefining—the hegemony of special effects within the science-fiction film; and yet he avoids the consequent banality by directly and dialectically engaging the whole problem of banality and sublating it into the formal and conceptual structure of the filmic text. Not only the literary dullness of the dialogue and the woodenness of the acting but even the extreme thinness of the story-line itself are all self-consciously worked into the total effect of the film and so, in classic dialectical fashion, transformed from potential weaknesses into actual strengths. We might say that 2001 avoids being an intellectually banal film by becoming (inter alia) a film self-reflexively about intellectual banality—and about the latter’s transcen­dence. In a sense, the thematic analogue of all the glorious special effects—which exist on a level “beyond” language and the discursive concept—can be taken to be the alien intelligence that lies behind the obelisks. In contrast to nonentities like Floyd or Bowman, this intelligence—call it the Overmind after a somewhat similar being in Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1954)—is the real, if hidden, protagonist of the film. Yet the Overmind, in contrast to the Force of the Star Wars series or the makers of the Mothership in Close Encounters, is saved from a hopeless, disabling vagueness by the rigorous precision with which the banality of humanity and the corresponding reduction of human beings to nonentities is represented. Though the putative content of the Over­mind is by definition beyond detailed filmic (or other) representation, the spiritual nullity to which the Overmind responds is conveyed with considerable force and urgency. The film, so to speak, avoids its own crisis of intellectual vacuity by projecting just such a crisis onto the human race as a whole. In this way, the evolutionary (or super-evolutionary) intellectual problematic—which Kubrick takes directly from Clarke and so indirectly from Olaf Stapledon and ultimately from Nietzsche, who is specifically invoked by Richard Strauss’s music—provides the filmmaker with exactly the right theoretical device to allow the aesthetic dominance of special effects without any sacrifice of cogni­tive richness or rigor. Even the apoliticism of 2001 (which, as we have seen, is especially notable when the film is set beside Alien or Blade Runner) is, to a large degree, dialectically saved from the conceptual flaccidity that the sub­sti­tution of the metaphysical for the political usually involves. For the film self-consciously demonstrates that the crisis gripping humanity and the conse­quent evolutionary imperative quite transcend all partisan strategies in the Soviet-American Cold War. Accordingly, and in spite of its strategic avoidance of politics, 2001 conveys authentic utopian energy in its glimpse of a spiritual richness that may rescue humanity from the bureaucratic pettiness of a Heywood Floyd or his Russian counterparts.            

Thus it is that in 2001 Stanley Kubrick performs a metageneric deconstruc­tion and re-assembly of science-fiction cinema more thoroughgoing and radical than his somewhat parallel treatments of other filmic genres. The Shining, for example, rigorously reflects on the conditions of possibility of the horror film, but it does not end in skepticism as to the ultimate validity of horror cinema; neither do Barry Lyndon or Full Metal Jacket finally question whether historical films or war films, respectively, can really be made at all. But 2001 does sug­gest that the genre of which it is the finest example may in fact be a conceptual and aesthetic dead-end. For the film, as we have seen, succeeds in finding a happy solution to the all but hopeless contradiction between science fic­tion and cinema, that is, between the critical sophistication of science fiction and the centrality of special effects to science-fiction films at their most characteristic; yet this happy solution has a much less happy reverse side. It is not simply that by solving the contradiction 2001 clearly highlights it as well. It is also that Kubrick’s solution is so organic to the particular problematic of human banality and evolutionary surpassing that it is pretty clearly a solution that can work only for 2001 itself. Even while seeming to open up new possibilities for future science-fiction filmmakers, Kubrick suggests that the genre may well be intrinsically impossible, and that the only strategy capable of short-circuiting the impossibility is the specific one that he himself has de­vised. After 2001, it is of course possible simply to copy its own aesthetic strategy, but such efforts (as in the first of the Star Trek movies) are unlikely to produce more inter-esting work than such slavish imitation usually achieves. Otherwise, the science-fiction filmmaker can only try to evade the problem that Kubrick engages so directly, whether by making science-fiction cinema less radically cinematic (as with Ridley Scott) or less authentically science-fictional (as with Spielberg or Lucas).18           

A perceptive academic critic of the Kubrick canon has coined a nice term to describe 2001: “the ultimate cinematic universe.”19 This phrase has, of course, a double meaning: it suggests that in its content the film offers the most important portrayal of the physical universe as known to science and to science fiction, but also that its form is ultimately—or absolutely, as we might say by analogy with so-called absolute music—cinematic. In a rather similar vein, one of the more acute journalistic critics of 2001 reviewed it as “the most important work in the film’s retreat from the spoken word to a realm dis­joint from that of literary experience.”20 Though the term retreat is perhaps dubious, the statement is otherwise surely valid. It need only be added that 2001 stages this absolutely cinematic “retreat” in full self-conscious awareness of its theoretical implications: and that in so doing the film establishes itself as, in a certain sense, both the first and the last great monument of science-fiction cinema.

1. For a useful discussion of these issues, see Fredric Jameson, “Historicism in The Shining,” in his Signatures of the Visible (NY: Routledge, 1990) 82-98.

2. Much less typical than any of the films named above—but perhaps the most interesting and subtle science-fiction film that Hollywood produced in the 1950s—is the far too little-known The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The film is astonishingly thought­ful by the standards of the time, and, most remarkably, its dominant ideology is antifascist and anti-Cold-War.

3. There have, of course, been exceptions. One of the more interesting (and sur­pris­ing) is the serious defense of The Terminator (1984) as a “critical dystopia” offered in Constance Penley, “Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia,” Camera Obscura 15 (1986): 66-85.            

4. For the reader wishing to sample the best secondary literature on these films, I would recommend, as perhaps the most useful treatments of Alien, Judith Newton, “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien,” SFS 7.3 (Nov 1980): 293-97. and James Kavanagh, “‘Son of a Bitch’: Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien,” October 13 (1980): 91-100. Probably the most acute single discussion of Blade Runner is Peter Fitting, “Futurecop: The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner,” SFS 14.3 (Nov 1987): 340-54.            

5. Of the various science-fiction films produced in the wake of Alien and Blade Runner that, like them, attain a significant degree of artistic and intellectual interest, there are at least two that in my opinion deserve particular mention: John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990). The former is a remarkable meditation on the possibilities for resistance and revolution in what might be de­scribed as an ultra-Reaganized America, that is, a near future in which the increase in homelessness and general socio-economic decay has been matched by an increase in the thoroughness of socio-political control. A useful analysis and contextualization of Carpenter’s film may be found in Marcia Landy and Stanley Shostak, “Postmodernism as Folklore in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema,” Rethinking Marxism (Summer 1993): 25-45. Verhoeven’s film is based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966), and, despite the presence of Arnold Schwar­ze­neg­ger and his characteristic derring-do, it is, especially in its first half, the most thoroughly Dickian film yet made: the ontological reality-loops are as typical of Dick as is the whole humorously paranoid representation of the commodified and conspira­tor­i­al character of life under late capitalism.            

6. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1970) 139-140.            

7. Clarke, of course, co-authored the film’s screenplay with Kubrick, and he also wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, which appeared in 1968 about three months after the film’s premiere (though the novel was clearly foreshadowed by Clarke’s classic short story, “The Sentinel,” composed in 1948 and published in 1954). The relationship between film and novel is unusually complicated and cannot be discussed in detail here. Certainly neither the familiar pattern by which a film is based on or “made from” a pre-existing work of prose fiction, nor the rarer but still familiar pattern by which an author produces a “novelization” of a popular movie, seems to provide an adequate model. In general, the novel, though diverging from the film at a number of points, more often parallels it, and, in so doing, makes explicit many things only hinted at in the movie: so that the temptation has been strong to use Clarke’s novel as a “key” to explicating Kubrick’s film. Such use may seem proble­matic in that it tends to slight the film’s artistic autonomy and to treat the film as a kind of puzzle. On the other hand, it may be appropriate, at least in some contexts, to consider the film and novel together as a collaborative artistic production larger than either component in itself. In any case, Kubrick could hardly have been unaware that Clarke’s novel (as well as the collection of documents relating to the film that Jerome Agel edited as The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 [1968] and Clarke’s later The Lost Worlds of 2001 [1972], which includes portions of the screenwriter’s journal, alterna­tive versions of parts of the screenplay, and other pertinent material) would be widely consulted for explanatory help by baffled viewers.            

8. The reference is to Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontol­o­gy of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979.            

9. The reference is to Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, tr. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971. The German original of this work was origi­nal­ly published (in Berlin) in 1920.

10. A similar question is posed by Michael Stern, “Making Culture into Nature: Or Who Put the ‘Special’Into ‘Special Effects’?” SFS 7.3 (Nov 1980): 263-69. Though my answer is rather different from Stern’s, I am indebted to his discussion. Other useful comments on the matter may be found in Albert J. La Valley, “Traditions of Trickery: The Role of Special Effects in the Science Fiction Film,” and Garrett Stewart, “The ‘Videology’of Science Fiction,” both collected in Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction in Film, ed. George Slusser and Eric Rabkin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985) 141-158 and 159-207 respectively; and in editor­ial material by Annette Kuhn scattered throughout her antholo­gy, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema (London: Verso, 1990), especially 6-7 and 148-150.            

11. One difficulty of discussing the specific resources of television is that video technology today is changing very rapidly; indeed, we seem now to be witnessing the most important technical-cum-aesthetic developments since the invention of the medium itself. But, on the whole, it seems to me that these changes will tend to deepen the dis­tinction between film and television that I have briefly sketched above. Admittedly, a few developments (most notably the commercial availability of bigger and bigger TV sets for home viewing) work to enhance the authority of the screen. But far more powerful is the contrary tendency to enhance what might be called the counter-authority of the viewer. We have already seen much movement in this regard with the rise of cable, satellite-dish, and VCR technologies. What will, I suspect, be yet more decisive is the all but inevitable supersession of the videocassette by the video laser-disc. When viewing can take place by means of the laser-disc player rather than the VCR, the viewer will be able to “program” the experience in somewhat the same way that the consumer of music today programs a private concert with an audio CD player. Where­as the final editing of a film normally takes place once and for all in the director’s cutting room, video art will be edited again and again, in multiple ways, in the living rooms of individual viewers. And the large-scale melding (also virtually inevitable) of video technology with computer technology will doubtless create still further interactive potentialities that can barely be glimpsed right now.            

12. There are, in fact, several specific connections between Kubrick’s film and the American space program, and some of them involve life’s imitation of art. The com­mand module of the Apollo 13 mission was named the Odyssey, and from it the astro­naut Jack Swigert played for transmission to earth the theme from Also Sprach Zara­thus­tra that is highlighted in 2001; shortly afterwards, he announced “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” evidently a deliberate echo of HAL’s line, “Sorry to interrupt the festivities, but we have a problem.”           

13. Arthur C. Clarke, 1984: Spring—A Choice of Futures (NY: Ballantine Books, 1984) 111.            

14. The term is used a number of times throughout Brecht’s critical writings, and the concept is of course central to his entire project; but the main reference is to Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, tr. John Willett (London: Eyre Methuen, 1971), passim.            

15. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale, 1979) 4.            

16. The reference is first of all to Carl Freedman, “Science Fiction and Critical Theory,” SFS 14.2 (July 1987): 180-200, but much more amply to my forthcoming full-length treatment, Critical Theory and Science Fiction.            

17. For another analysis of how banality operates in 2001—a discussion somewhat different from that which I offer here but congruent, I think, with it—see Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, 2nd Ed. (NY: Ungar, 1987) 175-78.            

18. There is a further possibility, which lies beyond the scope of this discussion: namely, a radical reconstitution of science-fiction cinema that would accentuate the critical dynamic of cognitive estrangement while breaking with the technologistic pre­oc­cupations generally so organic to the filmic genre. Such a reconstitution would, of course, parallel many of the most important developments in literary science fiction since the 1960s. In film, however, such a project is, for the most part, yet to be attempted. Probably the most important contributions so far are Kubrick’s own Dr Strange­love and A Clockwork Orange (1971)—the two films, respectively, that Kubrick made just before and just after 2001—and one might also name such interesting filmic texts as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), and John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet (1984). Though all these films are science-fictional in the sense of belonging to a (possibly emerging) cinema of cognitive estrangement, none owes much to the technology of special effects; and it is significant that none is ordinarily or “naturally” associated with the filmic genre of science fiction.            

19. Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982) 99ff.            

20. Carl Gardner, “Odysseus Reconciled in the Stars,” The Chronicle (9 March 1973): 9.

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