The Concept of Man—Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris

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An artist’s cinematic world more or less creates a tunnel to his personality and ideas. The decisions an artist makes into the creation of the film universe are inextricably bound to his personal philosophy. In the cases of Kubrick and Tarkovsky, reality adheres to a set of radically personal visions and a highly stylized approach to filmmaking. When comparing the two movies, the thematic difference is that while Kubrick places Man is the bigger context of history, Tarkovsky examines Man in his existential doubt and the confinement of his consciousness.

One of the themes Solaris touches upon is the fragility of Man and his fictional worlds. Instead of delving into the grand scale of humanity, the movie examines the world as a personal experience. Tarkovsky focuses on the individual trapped in his own private island of reality. The narrative centers around one character and his interaction with the world. Facing the dilemma of scientific truth or desired illusion, Kelvin gives in to the temptation of emotional yearnings.

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2001: A Space Odyssey examines the human as a collective, emphasizing humanity as a continuous progression from an Ape to a higher form of existence. The plot has a concise 3-part structure: the pre-history of humanity, humanity in its conflict with A.I., and humanity as the Superhuman. Instead of dissecting individuals and their inner thoughts, Kubrick deals with Homo sapiens as the bridge between a primitive aggression-driven past and an omniscient future Übermensch.

Technology and Human Alienation

In its depiction of the future, Kubrick emphasizes the role of technology and humanity as its master. This is noticeable in every aspect of the movie, particularly the elaborate vision which enhances the futuristic feel of a point in time when humans dominate the outside world. The technology in the film is twofold: diegetically as one of the supporting themes, and non-diegetically as the revolution it was in the context of cinema through its complex use of editing, cinematography, and visual effects.

After a series of establishing shots of a past geological period, the audience becomes part of the everyday realms of a previous step in the human evolution. Fade-to-black shot transitions suggest the smooth passage of time. Recreating the atmosphere is achieved not only through the barren landscape but also through the authentic primate costumes. The shallow plot depicts the ramblings of our ancestors whose main concern is to avoid predators and secure shelter, until curiosity brings them tool-making. Thematically, the opening sequences are strung together by the theme of survival and the will to power.

Through the use of what Eisenstein called the intellectual cutting method, Kubrick condenses the history of mankind into a cinematic glimpse. The journey from the bone to the space satellite creates the parentheses which put Man at the center of the equation. From now on, the narrative follows the history of humanity’s mission to encounter other forms of life.

In one of the subsequent scenes, the astronomer Floyd has a video conversation with his daughter: probably the most personal human-to-human interaction in the movie. The videophone screen stands as a symbolic barrier for an alienated society. Separated by cosmic distances, the father-daughter dialogue revolves around the upcoming birthday of the kid and the physical distance of Floyd, who won’t be able to make it. The telephone, the desired birthday present, might be seen as a metaphor for the longing to connect in a cold world where technology is the medium of feelings. The scene makes a surprisingly relevant statement for the present-day ubiquity of cell phones and social media, although space traveling in 2017 might still be less advanced than what Kubrick imagined.

Aside from the video call, 2001 uses only sparse and inconsequential dialogue to drive the plot forward. Instead, Kubrick expresses the main themes through detailed cinematic language. Thus the overall tone of the movie is epic, distant, and cold because the means of expression are not human-like.

While the bone match cut communicates one of the central themes through film editing, otherwise camera movement and the spatial geometry of the scenes also enhance the movie’s ideas. The mostly static camera in the first part of the movie presents the human ancestors firmly shackled by gravity and swarming around the little pond of water as a confinement, while later in the film the camera and the objects in front move freely.

One of the more obvious examples for this is the scene of the astronaut jogging around the spaceship interior: gravity no longer an issue, mankind is not bound to the horizontal axis of movement and can now circle around the universe. The camera follows the character in a prolonged tracking shot—compared to the passive observation in the first part of the movie, which is cinematically expressed through mostly static camera and medium or wide shots (even in the more action-driven scenes, such as the attack of the leopard), in this scene the camera uses complex movements to actively engage in the on-screen action.

The topic of technology is impossible to overlook in Solaris—but unlike in 2001 where mankind is its ultimate master, Tarkovsky depicts it as another great unknown field of human knowledge. Solaristics as a science faces the possibility of termination due to lack of information. This places Man within the limits of its mind and the inability to fully comprehend the universe.

Within this confinement, Solaris depicts above all Man in its interaction with Man. Tarkovsky expresses its main elements mostly through character, dialogue, and poetic symbolism. The opening scene establishes the main character surrounded by nature who appears to be walking around with no clear purpose but to be alone with his thoughts. The audience experiences his solitude through a series of natural imagery.  Although the trees, the horse, and the seaweed are unlikely to represent something literal, they create the main theme of isolation. Being in nature is a paradox: man feels both connected and alienated.

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Unlike the static and emotionally withdrawn camera in the opening scenes of 2001, in Solaris an early point-of-view shot through the eyes of Kelvin engages the audience with the main character. The zoom-in to the little girl’s face expresses the warmth and intimacy in people’s relations. The delicate fabric of Tarkovsky’s Man is composed of the emotions shared with others. While Kubrick’s Man strives to overcome the outside world through conflict, in Solaris Man is longing to overcome himself by relating to other humans.

Although the events in Solaris likely take place in the future, the rendering of this atmosphere doesn’t strive for the futuristic detail as in 2001. The human is not concerned with the victory of the future; rather, he is longing for the irrevocably lost (expressed through Hari’s character).

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Hari vs Hal 9000: Death

Throughout the history of humanity, death has been the single most profound symbol reshaping every aspect of our world. The tentacles of death are spreading across cemeteries, galleries, and every other symbol created by the imagination in order to distract Man from the fragility of matter. Death has always been the final barrier and the only constant on a primordial scale—everything lasts in a time frame.

In Solaris, death is used as the indication of authentic life. Hari realizes she’s not capable of being human. Her paradox is that she has an ever-growing list of memories, emotions, and thoughts, but she’s just a projection of Kelvin. Attempting suicide is the last verdict of her nonexistence, so in that sense, death is what defines being human. But humans do not want to accept this truth, so instead, they create their worlds composed of incomplete memories, unsatisfied desires and false perceptions (such as Hari). And being trapped in the illusion of consciousness is one of the existential methods for escaping the thought of the imminence of death.

With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live, one needs illusions. Not only outer illusions such as art, religion, philosophy, science, and love afford, but inner illusions which first condition the outer, [ie., a secure sense of one’s active powers, and of being able to count on the powers of others]. The more a man can take reality as truth, appearance as essence, the sounder, the better adjusted, the happier will he be…this constantly effective process of self-deceiving, pretending, and blundering, is no psycho-pathological mechanism.

–Ernst Becker, “The Denial of Death”–

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Hal doesn’t seem to have any doubts about the authenticity of his existence. He is an individual with personality, goals, and motivations, but the audience might still be more likely to experience him as a robot. He is the most antagonized individual in the movie and in a sense has to prove his human-ness by expressing fear of death and singing: art and awareness of death, two of the most defining human features. It is mostly through his even manner of speaking and above all because of his claim to being flawless, that Hal is more likely seen as inferior to humans. So in that case, being flawed is what means being human. And it is the predilection for errors that makes humanity limitless.

So what is Man’s path after all? While Solaris denies the possibility of a definite answer—favoring ambivalence and the ongoing swerving around the traps of consciousness—2001 makes the bolder claim to human’s inevitable conquest of physical and metaphysical horizons. Kubrick’s Man represents humanity as a collective journey which ignores personalities and emotions for the sake of the bigger purpose. Tarkovsky examines Man in his subjectivity and the limits of individuality.

Science? Nonsense! In this situation mediocrity and genius are equally useless. I must tell you that we really have no desire to conquer any cosmos. We want to extend Earth up to its borders. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we’ll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of Man pursuing a goal that he fears, and that he really does not need. Man needs Man.

–Dr. Snaut, Solaris–

From the individual perspective of Kelvin and Snaut, two developed characters with personalities and traits, the desire to connect with other individuals might seem like the main goal. Man as a feeble creature cannot cope even with its own world, let alone delve into the grand cosmos. Kubrick’s Man is equally lost in the vastness, but this is shown from a distant and cold perspective. While 2001 sets a clear plan for the collective humanity which doesn’t seem to be touched by the deaths of a few individuals, Solaris experiences the denial of an objective purpose for Man.

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As one of the key moments in Solaris, this scene uses language as the main medium of expression of the movie’s themes. Solaris depicts man as he is—with all his fears and verbal limitations—as the central subject. Beyond what words can convey lies the last scene of 2001. Unlike Solaris’ tunnel which is shaped by a man-made construction, 2001’s abstract tunnel of light seems to represent something more metaphysical and ambivalent. The surreal voyage through dimensions defies verbal explanation and can be seen as a symbol of the ineffable: something so sublime and out of reach that any attempt to grasp it is incomplete. Man overcomes Man—in the philosophical sense that Nietzsche defined the Übermensch. The allusion is supported by Kubrick’s choice to feature Johann Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (”Thus spoke Zarathustra”).

After the government’s announcement about the original purpose of the mission, Dave — who from now on is no longer a specific character, but rather represents all of humanity — experiences an interaction beyond semantics. What follows is a sequence of constantly changing images, braking the dimensional paradigm in order to express the idea of a passage. From the liquid like forms, which may mean a primordial state of existence, to more geometric shapes eventually growing into planes, and culminating into the perception of solid natural objects, the essence of the film reality evolves to particulars of more human appearance—a room. The environment is filled with elements of human’s culture and the astronomer’s space capsule. Humanity has grown old and wise during the travel of knowledge. It is now ready to face Zarathustra’s third metamorphosis: the child.

But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child?
Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.
Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: its own will, willeth now the spirit; his own world winneth the world’s outcast.
Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.—

–Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus spoke Zarathustra”–

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The metamorphoses seem to designate the path of Homo sapiens in a universal way while seeming so relevant to 2017. The lion has already created the new values of scientific progress and rejected the old death-bound archetype (absolute truth). While figuring out the details of how to get to the next stage, humanity seems to be stuck in the limbo of that bone match cut.