2001; Solaris

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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2001

This now venerable masterpiece is beginning to show its age. What werecutting edge special effects in 1968 are routine now. The once dazzling computerdisplays in spaceship cockpits now look antiquated. Some of the scenes areobviously cutouts on a painted background. Yet this is the film that movedspecial effects to a new plane by showing, for the first time, absolutelyrealistic visions of space. 2001 made Star Wars possible.

When Stanley Kubrick approached Arthur C. Clarke about collaborating on ascience fiction film, Clarke settled on a short story he had written called TheSentinel, about astronauts on the moon discovering an alien device placedthere millions of years earlier. Clarke developed a novel simultaneously withKubrick developing the film. The film can stand alone but some aspects becomeclearer if you've read the novel as well.

Prologue

We see the dark side of the moon, then suddenly the earth with the partiallyeclipsed sun behind it appears over the horizon. The background music is theopening fanfare to Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, which wasimmediately propelled into one of the most memorable themes of all time.

Also Sprach Zarathustra is Strauss' musical interpretation ofFriedrich Nietzsche's book of the same name, describing the eventual appearanceof a superman who would rule humanity. Nietzsche's ideas inspired Naziism, ofwhich Strauss was a supporter. The selection is appropriate, given the overalltheme of the film. Apart from its glorious opening fanfare, it's aneminently forgettable piece of music.

Act I: 3,000,000 B.C.

In the novel, Clarke startles us by stating that the hominids were alreadyfar down the road to extinction when the extraterrestrials came. We are used tothinking our evolutionary triumph was a done deal. In the film, the lives of atroop of hominids are interrupted by the appearance of the famous blackmonolith. Its effects are hinted at by vignettes of their steadily improvingsuccess over their prey and, finally, a rival hominid troop. The victoriousleader flings his bone club into the air in triumph...

Act II: 2001

...and in the most famous one-frame transition in history, it becomes anorbiting spaceship. After a series of various orbiting space stations, we zeroin on a Pan American Airlines space shuttle ferrying a passenger first to anorbiting space station, later on to the moon, all to the music of JohannStrauss' Blue Danube.

The spaceflight sequences are still among the most moving and beautifulscenes ever put on film. Even today, I find the scene where the twin wheels ofthe space station pass on either side awesome. To see it for the very first timeon a wide screen, when nothing like it had ever been seen before, was utterlybreathtaking.

During a brief stopover at the space station, the passenger, Americanscientist Heywood Floyd, calls home on a Bell telephone with video screen, thenparries some queries by suspicious Soviet colleagues. At one point we see aHoward Johnson restaurant in the background. More than mere product placement,these scenes were consciously crafted to show that this future society wouldevolve as a continuation of our own.

Neither Kubrick nor Clarke imagined that long before 2001, the Bell telephonemonopoly, the Soviet Union, and Pan American Airlines, all seeminglyindestructible in 1968, would cease to exist. I never visited the former SovietUnion, but I did fly Pan American Airlines a few times. Both seem to have hadabout the same level of concern for customer satisfaction. I don't miss eitherone.

It's interesting to compare the space scenes with actual 2001 technology.Computer displays have far outstripped the vision of the film. Other featureslook quaint. On any future commercial space flights, the flight attendants(still exclusively female in the film) won't be stuck to the floor with Velcro(R). Velcro was a novelty in 1968 and portrayed in loving detail because manyfilmgoers were still unfamiliar with it. Instead, flight attendants will simplybe trained to move safely in zero gravity. They won't need helmets to covertheir hair; female astronauts don't wear them.

Even had the United States not cravenly thrown away its lunar travelcapability, it's questionable whether we could have had a moon base on the scaleshown in 2001. The huge space station might have been doable, but it's nolonger clear whether we really need huge spinning wheels to generate artificialgravity. Short-term visitors won't need it, and permanent employees are likelyto be rotated back to Earth frequently enough for a stay in zero gravity not tobe a serious health concern.

Heywood Floyd arrives on the moon and is taken out to Tycho Crater, where areplica of the monolith has just been unearthed. It's there as a sentinel, andwhen the sun hits it for the first time in three million years, itresponds. Kubrick was extremely concerned that the Apollo missions mightdiscredit his lunar scenery as soon as the film was released, but although thescenery is a bit more craggy than the real moon, it's reasonably credible.

Act III: En route to Jupiter

We see a ship en route to Jupiter, with two awake crewmen (Gary Lockwood andKier Dullea) and four in suspended animation, plus the sentient on-boardcomputer HAL. For the hundred millionth time, HAL stands for HeuristicALgorithmic Computer and it is sheer coincidence that the letters are only oneremoved from IBM. Clarke himself was stunned when someone pointed this out andhas repeatedly disclaimed any intentional parody.

The boring routine is interrupted when HAL detects an imminent fault in acritical part. If it fails, communication with Earth will be impossible. Thepart is replaced, but checks out as sound. The astronauts, having noted otherstrange behavior by HAL, decide to shut down his higher mental functions. Theydiscuss their plans inside a space pod, unaware that HAL can read their lips.

What follows is undeniably the most brilliant, menacing, poignant and funnymachine-goes-berserk sequence in history. When one of the astronauts goes out toreplace the removed part, HAL kills him. When the other goes out to attempt arescue, HAL kills the four sleeping crewmen, then refuses to let him back in. Heopens an emergency door manually and ejects from the pod without a helmet. Idefy anyone to watch this scene without holding his breath. On the other hand, Ican't imagine any astronaut taking off in a pod without a full suit. What ifthere's a malfunction in the pod, or he needs to do a space walk?

This was Kubrick's most brilliant scientific gamble. Many biologists feltthat any exposure to vacuum would be almost instantly fatal, although it's hardto see why. It takes time for the oxygen in the blood to deplete and emboli toform. The experiment has never been done on a human, but experiments on animalssuggest that brief exposure to vacuum is survivable.

The astronaut then proceeds to shut down HAL's consciousness. HAL, havingtried every means at his disposal to kill him, is now utterly powerless andbecomes terrified when he senses his consciousness ebbing away. When theastronaut finally does disable HAL, a video recording comes on to inform him that the real purpose of themission has been kept secret. The ship is exploring Jupiter because the alienmonolith sent a signal in that direction. HAL had decided the mission was toocritical to entrust to humans and tried to take over.

Scientifically, even if we had pushed onward from the Apollo program, it ispretty unlikely that we could have sent a mission to Jupiter by 2001. For onething, the radiation environment around Jupiter is lethal, something barelysuspected in 1968. We are nowhere near creating a computer as sentient as HAL,or putting people in long-term suspended animation.

On the other hand, we are much further ahead in robotic planetary explorationthan either Clarke or Kubrick pictured. In the novel, the target was not Jupiterbut Saturn because Japetus, one of Saturn's moons, is much brighter on one sidethan the other. Clarke pictures the moon as having been engineered by aliens asa signal. As the astronauts pass Jupiter, they have only sketchy images of itsmoons from unmanned missions, and time to eject a probe into Jupiter'satmosphere. Long before 2001, we had detailed pictures of the moons of Jupiterand Saturn, including Japetus. Any manned flyby of Jupiter in a ship the size ofthe one in the film or the novel would include a massive program of mapping the moons usingmuch bigger telescopes than any on an unmanned probe, as well as a barrage ofprobes into Jupiter itself. The reality is that probes to Jupiter would havebeen launched days or weeks before the encounter, not in the last few hours. Oneimprovement on reality in the novel is that the Jupiter probe included a camera,something lacking on the Galileo Jupiter probe, an omission that reducedthe scientific value of the probe essentially to zero.

Act IV: Jupiter and Beyond

In Jupiter space, we see an orbiting monolith. When the astronaut venturesout to investigate, he is flung into a succession of incomprehensible visualimages. Dazzling in 1968, and viewed with various chemical enhancements by manyviewers, this sequence seems overly long today. Solarization was new and verycool in 1968, but the solarized images seem beaten to death nowadays. In thenovel it's clear that he is being transported through some kind of hyperspacetunnel system.

In the novel, the astronaut ends up in an ordinary room, created by someincredibly advanced intelligence to protect and reassure him. When he goes tosleep, his mind is incorporated into theirs. He returns to earth, and like thehominid three million years earlier, is puzzled as to what to do with his newpowers, "but he would think of something." In the film, the astronautmeets progressively older versions of himself until the dying astronaut seeshimself as a fetus in the womb, looking down at the earth.

Unlike ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity, ambiguity because the writer hasnothing to say, or ambiguity because the writer doesn't know how to get out of abind, the ambiguity in 2001 works because it's part of a coherent vision. Clarkestarted out writing about encounters between humans and humanoid aliens (usinganother short story, Encounter in the Dawn, as a model), but asthe project evolved, he realized that beings millions of years in advance of uswould have technologies and motives utterly incomprehensible to us. As Clarkewas fond of pointing out, "any sufficiently advanced technology isindistinguishable from magic." The novel fleshes out some of the detailsthat are omitted from the film. But even without the explicit clues in thenovel, a viewer can figure out that the aliens are using their powers tostimulate the development of consciousness.

Vision and Reality

For a very long time, my overwhelming feeling upon viewing 2001 was seethinganger. Yes, we would not have been traveling to Jupiter by 2001, or had sentientcomputers or suspended animation. But we could now be doing much of what wasin the film. We could certainly long ago have had a large, permanent spacestation, a permanent lunar base, and far more efficient space transportation.But we just gave up. We quit. We folded, caved in, got bored, lacked the courageto stand up to the anti-intellectuals.

September 2 should be observed annually as a national day of shame. It was onSeptember 2, 1970 that NASA announced that the final three missions of theApollo program would be cut. There would be no Apollo 18, 19, or 20. This cameone year, one month and 12 days after the first landing on the moon.

Why? Ironically, much of the pressure came from purported intellectuals.Angry about Vietnam, they hated any venture that cast the United States in afavorable light. Social activists pressed for transfer of space funds todomestic programs, although anyone with minimal numeracy could look at thebudget and see that space exploration had no serious impact on social spending.The space program invited invidious comparisons between its success in solvingextremely challenging problems, and the utter failure of social activists tosolve much more mundane problems with far larger amounts of money. Finally, avision of humanity that had reduced humans to stomachs and gonads - the ills ofthe world could be solved by welfare programs and free love - was mortallyimperiled by what was a deeply spiritual venture, motivated by excitement andwonder.

The absolute nadir of hypocrisy came with the issuance of the Eisenhower andSusan B. Anthony dollars. The tails side of both coins features an abysmallydesigned image of an eagle landing on the moon. No nation that goes to the moon,then turns tail and quits, has any right to celebrate that accomplishment ontheir coins.

Solaris

A succinct description of this film is: the last ten minutes of 2001developed into a full length picture. It is inspired by a 1961 novel by Polish authorStanislaw Lem, which was made into a Russianfilm of the same name that I have not seen. Homages to 2001 are all overthe place, especially the views of an astronaut with display lights reflected inthe faceplate of his helmet.

Chris Kelvin, a psychologist (George Clooney) is struggling with the death of his wife whenhe gets a guarded call from a friend on a space station orbiting the planetSolaris. Weird things are happening, but he can't give details. A securitydetachment sent to investigate has vanished (we never do find out what happenedto them).

Solaris (in the film, not the novel) is a bizarre planet surrounded by plasma currents and energydischarges. It looks like some views of the sun as seen through various filters. When Clooney arrives, he finds two crewmen dead andothers vanished. One crewman is a weird neurotic, the other a scared and angryblack woman physicist (Viola Davis). Clooney is merely told he won't understand until"it" happens to him. Why not? It doesn't happen to us, but weunderstand.

I have no patience in films, novels, or real life for people who say "Ican't explain" or "You wouldn't understand." My response is"Fine, think about it until you can explain - or at least describe -it. Meanwhile, I have better things to do than waste time on you." Would itkill anyone in the film or the novel to say "What seems to happen is thatthings in our minds come to life?"

Clooney sleeps and dreams of his dead wife. We learn of their courtship,marriage, and her ultimate suicide in dream flashbacks. Clooney awakes to findhis wife beside him. Realizing she cannot be real, he locks her in an escape podand sends her into space. Next time he awakens, there she is again, with nomemory of having been launched. Still in deep grief and guilt over her death, hefinds himself falling in love with her and eventually becomes determined to takeher back to earth.

These Visitors, replicas of persons drawn from someone's memory, are sentientand intelligent. Clooney's replica wife realizes she is somehow created bySolaris but cannot communicate with it. She also realizes that her self isdictated by Clooney's memories, and that if they are false, her personality willreflect that.

At one point, Clooney is also visited by a replica of one of the deadcrewman. When Clooney asks "What does Solaris want?" he is told"Why do they have to want anything? There are no answers, justchoices." In contrast to the ambiguity in 2001, this is ambiguitymerely because the writer hasn't got anything serious to say. Say "I don'tknow," "We are forbidden tell you," "Your mind is too primitive tograsp the reality" or something coherent, but don't spout psychobabble.Even "Forty-Two," the answer to the meaning of life in Hitchhiker'sGuide to the Galaxy, makes more sense.

This is mostly a psychological drama, and what science there is is pure mumbojumbo. The other crewmen have also had their Visitors. The physicist figured outthat if she could "generate a Higgs field" and "create a beam ofHiggs anti-bosons" she could obliterate hers. Clooney's wife begs thephysicist to use the device on her, and leaves a farewell message for Clooney.

Clooney and the physicist discover the body of a crewman stashed above someceiling panels. It turns out that the neurotic crewman is actually a Visitor. Assoon as he appeared, he was attacked and killed the real crewman in selfdefense. He points out, helpfully, that ever since the physicist used her Higgsboson device, the mass of Solaris has been "increasing exponentially,"as only science fiction planets can do. Clooney and the physicist scramble forthe escape pod.

We see Clooney back on earth, though his voiceover describing his having torelearn earth behavior makes us wonder. In flashbacks, we see him leaving theescape pod at the last second, or maybe it's his replica. Maybe the real Clooneystayed behind and a replica boarded the pod. Then we see him in his apartment,or is it his replica? Is Solaris creating all this in his mind? When his wifeappears, he asks "Am I alive or dead?" "We don't have to thinklike that any more," she says, "Everything we've ever done isforgiven." They kiss. Awww.

Although the plot line involving Clooney and his dead wife are fairlyfaithful to the novel, the novel provides far more detail about the planet,which bears no resemblance to the one in the film. In the novel, Solaris iscovered by an ocean of a fluid-like substance that has been intensively studiedfor a hundred years without much success. There are abundant hints that theocean possesses something akin to consciousness and certainly the ability tocontrol matter in unexplained ways. For one thing, the planet is in a doublestar system in an orbit that should theoretically be unstable. Nevertheless, theorbit is actually stable. Furthermore, the fluid of the ocean avoids contactwith foreign bodies and periodically erupts into myriad complex solid structuresthat then decay back into the fluid. Lem constructs a complex future history ofthe evolution of scientific thought about Solaris. Vast quantities of data havebeen gathered, institutes and schools of thought founded, tens of thousands ofpapers written, but real understanding of Solaris and how it works has escapedscience. The film omits all this context and makes no attempt to portray thecomplexity of the planet. That's unfortunate, since it could have been visuallystunning.

Although written in 1961, the novel has somewhat the flavor of sciencefiction of the 1940's and 1950's. We find, for example, the mixture offuturistic devices like anti-gravity units and gamma ray pistols on one hand,with archaic terminology on the other (the radios still use "valves,"a long-obsolete term for vacuum tubes - and note the complete failure to foreseeanything supplanting the bulky and unreliable vacuum tube, even thoughtransistors had been around since 1948 and were beginning to enter widespreadcommercial use in the West in 1961.) Also typical of a lot of early sciencefiction, in many respects the science is very vague. We are told the atmosphereis poisonous, but not why. Samples of the ocean fluid taken to earth eventuallydecompose to "a light metallic ash," but there's no mention of whichmetals, and the mass of the ocean is given at "700 billion tons." Evenallowing for the European use of "billion" as a million millions, thefigure is far too small for something with the dimensions of the ocean onSolaris and seems to have been pulled out of thin air. Surely somebody in acentury has analyzed the chemistry of Solaris' ocean, but there's no mention ofwhat it is. Solaris has small land masses and even some mountains, butapparently nobody has suspected that the history of the planet as recorded inits rocks might hold some clues.

In contrast to 2001, where the reader is told what the purpose of themonolith builders is (and the film hints pretty clearly), in the novel Solariswe see things solely from the viewpoint of humans confronting an impenetrablemystery. There are strong clues that the Visitors were triggered by acommunications attempt several weeks earlier. Only Kelvin's Visitor roams thestation openly; the other two crew members refuse to allow theirs to be seen. Weare told that a Visitor is based on themost distinct memory, but possibly something so dark that one does not realize (or willnot admit) he hadsuch desires (this is reminiscent of the classic film Forbidden Planet).The novel hints strongly that the hidden Visitors are too embarrassing for theirhosts to reveal. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel the characters come to beconvinced that the ability to create the Visitors, possibly from neutrinos,shows clearly that the ocean has consciousness and is at least able tocomprehend human minds.

Apart from the idea that there are things that might forever remaininexplicable, the philosophy of the novel is the muddled vacuity of 20th centuryEuropean philosophy. Toward the end of the novel, Kelvin describes his belief inan "imperfect god:"

This god has no existence outside of matter....That is the only god I couldimagine believing in, a god whose passion is not a redemption, who savesnothing, fulfils no purpose - a god who simply is.

Say what? The whole theme of the novel is that it is arrogant topresume that humans will understand things that are far beyond them, and then wehave a character imposing a simplistic conceptual model on God? Andfurthermore, having the arrogance to say that God must have this nature because hecan't accept any other kind of god? Solaris can apparently manipulate matterusing methods that a hundred years of intensive study have failed to penetrate.Is there really any basis here for even asserting that Solaris is notsupernatural? It's a bit surprising that Lem doesn't foresee the possibility ofreligions about Solaris arising (though perhaps understandable given his livingin a society that pictured Marxism as the end state of human evolution.)

Despite the lovely visual moments in the film, the tender love story, the skillful storytelling, and the psychological suspense, there's even less overall vision herethan in the novel, andthis stands in sharp contrast to 2001. During one of the flashbacks, there's a very telling snippet of a dinnerparty. The diners are discussing religion in the facile, superficial manner ofpeople who have no clue what any serious theologian ever said about anything.And that's basically how the film ends.  Then there's that closing line, "Everything we'veever done is forgiven." What on earth, or Solaris for that matter, doesthat mean? Forgiven by whom or by what? Why does anything need to be forgiven?Why is there any reason to think the forgiver has either the right or the powerto forgive? There's no message in the ambiguity;it's simply ambiguity for lack of anything profound to say.

Played Out

This vein has been mined to exhaustion. The only thing you can say aboutincomprehensible entities is that they are incomprehensible, and that's beensaid. Like Ravel's Bolero, a piece that repeats a single theme over andover again, it probably needed to be done once just to show it could be done.Incomprehensible aliens have been done more than once.  


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