Orson Scott Card has written that the world of science fiction is like the stable in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: much larger on the inside than the outside. Had Card wanted a science-fiction metaphor, the obvious point of reference would have been the Tardis in Doctor Who — but perhaps the appeal to Lewis’s religiously inflected fantasy is more evocative here, hinting at the vastness of the worlds of ideas and meaning embraced in science-fiction storytelling.
In cinema history, the one science-fiction work that, so to speak, flung open the stable doors for audiences and later filmmakers was Stanley Kubrick’s towering 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, released 55 years ago. Science fiction in movies is essentially as old as cinema itself, and 1950s movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet used science-fiction tropes in thoughtful ways to explore or cross-examine human nature. But Kubrick’s landmark film, co-written with Arthur C. Clarke and based on his short story, contemplated sweeping philosophical and metaphysical questions about human origins and destiny in revolutionary ways, expanding the boundaries not only of what science fiction can say, but even of how it can say it.
Off-putting to many in its glacial pacing and emotional iciness, 2001’s cosmic scope, elliptical narrative, and visionary imagery offer to receptive viewers something rare in cinema, or in any art: an experience of awe, of transcendence. At the center of its mystery and wonder are the mysterious monoliths drawing humanity forward from apelike origins to an unimaginably exalted future represented by the Star Child. Despite the Nietzschean overtones of the film’s secular ascent-of-man mythology, the monoliths — and the unknown, unseen extraterrestrial power behind them — represent an “otherworldliness” at odds with the “this-worldliness” or “faith in the Earth” linked to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.
Kubrick, who was not at all religious, famously stated that “the God concept is at the heart of 2001 — but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God,” and colorfully derided certain hostile critics as a “lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema.” Even the staunchly atheistic Clarke said that the film’s final act ventures “into a realm that I think can best be characterized as spiritual.” If it’s become a cliché to describe an encounter with this film as “a religious experience,” it’s a cliché for a reason. With good reason, too, the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications honored 2001 in its 1995 list of “Some Important Films” — popularly called the “Vatican film list” — and, when the year 2001 rolled around, a restored print was screened at the Vatican with Pope St. John Paul II in attendance.
The long shadow of 2001 has influenced countless Hollywood movies from Superman to Wall-E to Dune. A few filmmakers have followed more closely in Kubrick’s footsteps, exploring humanity’s place in the cosmos and the nature and meaning of existence using space travel and/or hoped-for or actual encounters with extraterrestrials as metaphors of mystery, wonder, and glory. Steven Spielberg put his formidable stamp on these themes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and less directly in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), based on the novel by Carl Sagan, is as much influenced by Spielberg as by Kubrick. More recent examples include Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), and James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019).
Most of these productions seek to elicit awe and wonder, typically in connection with special-effects set pieces — with uneven results. Many viewers find (your mileage may vary) that the musical lightshow finale in Close Encounters induces goosebumps, while Contact offers an enormous buildup to an effects-driven climax that, despite Jodie Foster’s awestruck performance, often feels more like a theme-park ride than a revelation of transcendence. Interstellar is mixed. It includes perhaps the most stunning (and meticulously researched) depictions of exotic phenomena like wormholes and black holes ever filmed. Yet the climax, in which Matthew McConaughey’s Coop falls into a black hole and finds himself in a five-dimensional tesseract, is a big swing that doesn’t quite connect. Intriguingly, Arrival elicits a deeper sense of wonder from its immense hovering spaceships (like rounded monoliths) and a very simple effect involving shifting gravitational frames of reference, along with the inscrutable otherness of its alien “heptapods.” Not only that, Arrival outdoes Interstellar in its bravura portrayal of expanding human consciousness transcending linear time. (No one loves to play with time more than Nolan, but with Arrival Villeneuve out-Nolans Nolan.)
If some of these films are more persuasively awe-inspiring than others, why is that? A number of factors come into play, I think.
One important element is mystery. The awe-inspiring defies complete explanation; the experience exceeds anything that can be said about it. Kubrick went to the extreme, explaining almost nothing and building to an overwhelming psychedelic journey and an enigmatic denouement revolving around opaque imagery and metaphor. Close Encounters throws in an analytical line about all the alien musical phrases having five signals, but the finale is dominated by sensory overload. Arrival briefly mentions the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — the theory that language shapes perception — to set up its central conceit that Amy Adams’ Louise develops a deeper awareness of time and learns to see the future like the heptapods by learning their nonlinear language. Yet the mysteries of transtemporal consciousness and the implications for temporal mechanics aren’t explored in detail, as they certainly would have been in the very analytical narratives of Contact, Interstellar, or Ad Astra, where characters are forever explaining everything.
Another element is patience and willingness to linger. Surprise is abrupt; wonder is a slow build. To be blunt, a film that aspires to offer something like a religious experience must risk boring some viewers, as a solemn liturgical celebration risks boring some in attendance. Again, this was clearly no obstacle for Kubrick! Even Spielberg the entertainer, coming off a breakthrough triumph — Jaws — that still ranks among the most gripping thrillers ever made, was more than willing to let the finale of Close Encounters unfold in a sprawling, repetitive, even meandering extravaganza stretching more than half an hour. By contrast, Nolan allotted about half that time for Coop’s journey into the black hole and the tesseract, including cuts to his daughter in multiple timelines and terrestrial drama involving Coop’s son and grandchildren. And Zemeckis compressed the 18 hours that Foster’s Ellie spends traveling via a series of wormholes to another star system and conversing with an extraterrestrial ambassador to just a dozen minutes of screentime.
Finally, I at least find the “otherworldliness” of 2001 more apt to inspire wonder than the anthropocentric “this-worldliness” of Interstellar and Ad Astra — both of which raise the possibility of extraterrestrial activity, only to reveal that, nope, it’s just humans after all. Even Contact is more evocative on this front; Close Encounters and E.T. more so, and Arrival most of all, since the extraterrestrials are both the most inhumanly alien, yet also have the most movingly transformative effect on the protagonist and humanity as a whole.
For the “grandeur of space,” no one has pursued Kubrick’s ambitions further than Nolan; for the “myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence,” Villeneuve’s achievement may be unmatched. Will any Hollywood film ever again unite those two themes like 2001: A Space Odyssey? The stable door is wide open.
Last year’s Interstellar and the previous year’s Gravity follow different paths in a long tradition of asking ultimate questions against the biggest canvas available to our senses, the universe itself.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.