Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, released last week, is the first truly big speculative space exploration film that we’ve had in while, and, if nothing else, the film has made for a big ostentatious release. It’s grandiose! It’s profound! It’s a technical marvel! It’s bigger than anything else you’ve seen this year! And it’s… incredibly divisive as far as audience’s go. It’s still early in Interstellar’s shelf life, but as early reviews and fan reactions pour in (and you can read our own thoughts on the film right here) it seems that Interstellar has left more than a few genre fans reaching back towards older movies to scratch certain itches the Nolan film didn’t quite reach.
In the annals of grandiose, epic space films, nothing is more grandiose, epic, or space-y than the genre’s grandfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has there ever been a film that has made such a profound impact on so many fields? An enormous landmark for special effects, an intellectually mature rumination of our place in the universe, and a corking suspense story all wrapped up with one of the most deliciously baffling and surreal conclusions to any film ever.
So much has been written about this film and its impact in the development of modern cinema, but there’s one aspect of it that I don’t often see touched upon. Underneath the flash of the film’s incredible special effects, 2001 is a warhorse when it comes to visual storytelling. Its director, Stanley Kubrick, is rightfully remembered as one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation, a man with a gift of taking complicated dramatic ideas or personal relationships and translating them into visual terms. It’s this aspect of 2001 that I want to talk about, and rather than going through the entire film, I want to focus on one specific scene – this one:
There’s a lot to talk about in this scene, so let’s go. Oh, and spoilers for 2001: A Space Odyssey ahead.
First off, remember where we are in the story. Astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and his fellow crewmember Dr. Poole have been suspicious about their on-ship computer, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), and, conferring secretly with each other, have decided to unplug it if any other suspicious activity comes up. HAL, for his own part, has decided that their space exploration mission is too important to jeopardize with human error, and has started taking measures to eliminate Bowman and Poole. When Poole is set adrift in space, Bowman attempts an unsuccessful rescue in a small pod, leaving his spacesuit helmet behind. At the start of the scene, both characters have intentions of destroying the other one, but neither has admitted it to the other.
Also remember the unique geography that Kubrick needs to manage. This portion of the film is set in deep space, with the characters actually occupying different crafts. HAL is on board the large Discovery One, while Bowman is on the comparably smaller pod. And finally, keep in mind the physical reality of the character HAL 9000. As a sentient computer, HAL is not limited to a physical body, but rather occupies all of the space within the Discovery One, visually represented through a series of bright red camera “eyes” that are scattered throughout the craft.
So as he presented the confrontation between the two characters, Kubrick had these three major concerns to manage. How do you show the physical relationship between Bowman and HAL? How do you show the physical reality of HAL’s character? And how do you show the evolving dynamic between the two characters? The question of the scene boils down to something deceptively simple: Who is going to get what they want? Let’s take a look at what Kubrick does.
First thing on his to-do list is to establish where each character is relative to the other one. He takes care of it right at the top of the scene by sending the viewers on a little journey. If you look back on the first sequence of shots, they’re in a very specific order: close-up of HAL, wider to HAL’s environment, still wider to the exterior of the spaceship and the pod, and then in to Bowman. It’s a very specific design, with the radio transmission (“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”) acting as the bridge that takes us from one space to another. Now that Kubrick has walked us through the spatial relationship, he can freely cut to any part of it as he sees fit, and tackle his next task: showing the characters’ attitudes towards each other. Now, the script is doing a big part of the heavy lifting for him here, as HAL does not immediately reply to Bowman’s hails. The astronaut keeps asking the computer to open the pod bay doors and keeps getting only silence. That already is fairly telling about the computer’s position – we’ve already seen the embodiment of HAL at the beginning of the scene, so we can be fairly confident Bowman’s transmissions are being received – but is there a way to translate that dynamic into visuals?
For someone like Kubrick, of course there is. Rather than going back to the first shot that we got of HAL’s eyes, the film cuts to different exterior shots of the two craft, showing different angles of the face off between huge ship and small pod. The only shot from the interior of the Discovery One is from the cockpit of the ship, and it’s aimed out a window at Bowman’s pod. It’s not until HAL finally relents and says, “Affirmative Dave, I do read you,” that the film cuts back to the image of HAL that we saw at the start of the scene. Notice how every choice ties back to what the characters are doing relative to each other. We start with HAL, then leave him when our attention is drawn to Bowman through his lines. From that point onwards, we’re denied visual access to HAL until it speaks. As long as the computer stays silent, Bowman is shut out of the station and, visually speaking, so are we.
Now that communications have been opened, the battle of wills is on, and again, Kubrick adopts a new pattern to help us follow the confrontation. First off, he stops cutting to the exterior shots of the space station and keeps us focused on the two characters and the dynamic between them. He cuts between the wider shot of the prep room with HAL and the head-and-shoulders shot of Bowman. But pay attention to the care that is put into making the exchange seem visually balanced. First, both are framed the exact same way, looking directly into the camera. Even though the two characters aren’t in the same physical space, this framing emphasizes the standoff that the two are having, and the similar grounding that both have at that moment.
Next, consider the color design of the scene. HAL is shown as a red dot in a primarily white room. Bowman, on the other hand, is shown in a room that is predominantly lit by red light, except for a pinpoint of white on his face. Color-wise, they are set up as mirror images of one another, equal but opposite.
This balance is almost immediately disrupted, however. As soon as HAL announces that he can’t let human error jeopardize the mission and that he is aware of Bowman and Poole’s plans to eliminate him, the film starts cutting to the extreme close up of HAL’s red eye. The character has introduced information that has changed the dynamic of the conversation and given it the upper hand, so the editing switches over to a shot that eliminates the environment and the balance of color in the conversation. Bowman’s shot, however, doesn’t change to a wider one that would show him as a smaller part of the environment. Even though HAL might be gaining more ground, the film grammar suggests Bowman’s unshakable determination by keeping his framing constant.
For the rest of the scene, you can actually follow who is winning in the argument by watching the shots that Kubrick uses to show HAL. Bowman says that he’ll go in through the emergency airlock, HAL says that will never work, but the film cuts to the wider shot of the room, again putting the two players on even visual grounds and suggesting that HAL may be more unnerved by the idea than it’s letting on. Once Bowman goes back to asking him to open the pod bay doors, the film returns to the extreme close-up. When HAL finally ends the conversation, the film underlines this point by returning to the exterior shots of the two spaceships, the same it used in the moments before HAL was answering Dave’s call. Each step in the visual progression suggests something about who is gaining the upper hand in the confrontation.
Looking back on this scene, one of the most memorable confrontations in all of cinema no less, it’s rather astounding to see how simple of a construct it is. The entire thing is executed with less than ten camera set-ups: one of Bowman, two of HAL, and a handful of exterior shots showing the two spacecraft. There’s no camera movement, no flash cuts, no crazy fades of dissolves. But just by alternating these few simple pieces in all the right ways, Kubrick is able to map out the evolving psychology of what’s happening to the two participants. This is especially important in a film like 2001, where the confrontation is happening between stoic, emotionless Keir Dullea and literal robot HAL 9000. The film doesn’t have to rely on explosive acting because it is so eloquent in its use of color and editing.
What makes Kubrick such an exceptional filmmaker, however, is that he doesn’t overcommit to his own methods. Many a filmmaker would have had sliding shot scales for both HAL and Bowman to map out the confrontation, but Kubrick keeps the camera on the astronaut rock steady, showing us the fierce determination of the character and not using a wider shot until the very last shot of the scene, once Bowman has been unambiguously defeated. It’s efficient filmmaking that keeps tying itself to what the characters are doing, how they are relating to each other, and who they are as people. And that is why it works.