2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Tree of Life (2011): Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite Grace of Nature

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on his short story “The Sentinel”
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain, William Sylvester, and Gary Lockwood

Tree of Life PosterThe Tree of Life (2011)

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn

From my first viewing – and subsequent review piece – of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life I was struck by what I perceived to be a strong connection between this film and another auteur piece, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sections and elements of Malick’s film were so indebted to, and so strongly called to mind, Kubrick’s film that I thought to make a double-feature out of them for the purpose of more closely inspecting what connections and ruptures may exist between the two films.

The two films contain many symmetrical elements, in terms of technique, style, and structure, but also are fundamentally opposed in key areas. The debt that Tree of Life owes to 2001 is manifest from the first viewing, but a more careful consideration of the relationship between the two films illuminates a peculiarly interesting complimentary nature of one to the other. Apparent even in the beginning of each film, a dialectic emerges from similarity: both films begin with the screen showing blackness, recalling the notes of Genesis, that in the beginning all was “without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”. Out of this blackness, however, the viewer is given two disparate phenomena that signal, from their opening moments, the different aims of each film. From the blackness, in Tree of Life, Malick displays the words from the book of Job, asking where man was when God created the earth; this beginning immediately grounds the film’s line of inquiry in the realm of the spiritual, in the distinctly human realm of language and faith, in an apostrophic beginning wherein the viewer is addressed by proxy, in dialogue, by film maker, by God. Kubrick, conversely in 2001, hangs the blackness over the film’s credits, even, providing nothing but orchestral music, leaving the viewer with the sound of mathematic, the inhuman language of the universe in harmony, before presenting desolately gorgeous landscapes, the natural world at “the dawn of man”, unpeopled.

The first images of people in Malick’s film are close, natural, but adorned, fully formed; the human in Tree of Life exists in an Edenic world, co-existing with each other in the midst of nature, the process of evolution submerged in time beyond recollection. Were it not for the film’s lengthy 2001-inspired creation montage, I would be tempted to call the film something akin to Creationist. 2001 presents its human form at its dawn, ape-like, primal, co-existing with the rest of nature, competing with itself for resources. People here are alienated from the viewer, made into something foreign, by their historical, sociological and technological difference. Here, again, where Malick’s concerns with the universe are humanely spiritual, teleological, and natural, Kubrick’s focus is dehumanized, technological, fully secular. The manner in which each director films its actors manifests this distinction. Malick’s shots are often sumptuously close, on natural and human subjects alike, his camera flows over its objects affectionately caressing them; there is an implicit language of emotion to the manner which light and shadow are employed by Malick. Kubrick’s shots often consist of longer static medium and longer takes that remove or mediate emotion from his compositions. Humanity is placed under erasure by Kubrick in his attempt to explore the effects of technological advancement on the species; slightly ironic, at least in my phrasing, that is it Kubrick, not Malick, the Heidegger scholar, who employs Heidegger’s concept of sous rature.

This difference in each film maker’s focus on humanness is also apparent in their more abstract cosmic sections. Placed, structurally, in mirrored opposition within their respective films – Kubrick’s abstract space portal journey of Keir Dullea’s Dr. Dave Bowman as the penultimate act in his film, Malick’s cosmological essay on the beginning of all things coming as the second act in his – these long stretches of images function to further articulate each film maker’s particular concern. Kubrick bombards the audience with colour and shape, abstract light, devoid of any human reference beyond inserted frames of Dave’s face, reactionary and distortedly frozen, out of time; Malick’s images are punctuated by the whispery spiritual questioning prayers of his characters as they seek understanding for the action of their God. Even in the absence of humanity Malick posits their presence. This choice is also underscored in a subtle way by each director’s deployment of choral music. During his creation section, Malick deploys a choral arrangement of Zbigniew Preisner’s song “Lacrimosa”, inflecting the cosmic events on screen with a pathos that is distinctly human; elsewhere in the film, instrumental classical music is employed to soundtrack the human events on screen. By contrast, Kubrick employs only orchestral music in his film; the only instances of human choral vocals on the sound track coincide with the appearances of his mysterious black obelisk that accompanies humanity’s major leaps forward in technology/evolution. In these instances, however, the choral voices are nearly atonal, vibrating, inhuman; Kubrick utilizes the human instrument to divorce the viewer from this usually human reference point. The human voice is employed by Kubrick as a synthetic instrument and it is this schism, that organic made synthetic, that generates much of the unease resulting from this strategy.

This opposition of organic vs. synthetic can also be seen in each director’s decisions about the interior design of their films. 2001 carries with it the distinctly Kubrickian interiors: open spaces and clean lines and colours, smooth surfaces interrupted by lavish organic fabrics – leather, velour, etc.; even in the film’s final moments, when Dave is imprisoned in a sort of cosmic zoo exhibit, the furnishing provided are austere, opulent, and antiseptic looking. Tree of Life‘s interiors are more cluttered, warmer – save for the moments we see adult Jack’s, Sean Penn, house that is spartanly decorated – and organic; the walls are muted earth tone colours that echo the natural world, the characters often wear colours to the same effect. Curtains flow from every window, often moving in the breeze, indicating both a presence of the natural world and dividing the characters from it. The natural world is eminent and active in the world of Malick’s characters, where it is radically removed from the space-faring later element of Kubrick’s film.

This separation of humanity from the natural world receives a visual expression in 2001. After first encountering the black obelisk, primal man has a eureka moment while examining the bones of what looks to be a herbivore; handling a large femur, the prehistoric human notices that it can be utilized to effect the other bones, smashing them apart with strikes. Implicit in this moment is the movement of humanity beyond the natural world in Kubrick’s film; the tool, man’s first application of technology, is used to demonstrate its movement beyond both the natural world and its own historical relation to it. It is no small coincidence that this innovation is quickly put to use procuring food from the once co-habited herbivore and then establishing dominance over another group of primitive humans who look to take a pool of water from the group with tools; Kubrick quite pointed connects technological innovation to the dawn of conflict and tribalism, also. These issues of tribalism are, again, more local in their form in Tree of Life. While not overtly violent, there are issues of social and interpersonal conflict predicated on material possession demonstrated by Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien in the manner that he speaks of other people and families and the money and land they possess; the rule of nature expressed by this character is certainly in keeping with some measure of the natural order portrayed by Kubrick’s primal humans.

In both films the characters are motivated by a force external to their own lives, again, in diametrically opposed fashion. The characters in Tree of Life are spiritually motivated; whether traveling through life on the path of grace or nature, the characters still move under the influence of this divinely ordained rubric. The hand of God, however, moves unseen over the earth and through their lives; indeed, the narration and voice over work is largely motivated by this absence of explicit knowledge of what it is that God has moved them to do. While Kubrick’s main line of inquiry in 2001 may be the effect of the abstract application of technology on humanity, this force gains a visible agent in the form of his black alien obelisk that appears before humanity makes its large leaps forward; the obelisk appears at the advent of the use of tools, to move humanity to ward interplanetary travel to Jupiter and, finally, in evolving beyond human status and into star children in the film’s final act. The alien force that has created and, in one case, buried the obelisk is as unknowable as the O’Brien’s God in Tree of Life, but is far less mystical, having been given a physical manifestation in the world that denotes actual, if vague, causality.

It is through this relation of the characters to something larger than themselves that the films find their large common ground. While one film approaches the mysteries of the spirit and the other the mystery of technology, both are concerned with the development of humanity in a cosmic context. In 2001 the computer HAL 9000, voiced by Douglas Rain, gains intelligence, but is hardly human; the scene of HAL pleading with Dave not to unplug his logic and memory centres from the computer in a flat uninflected voice remains one of the most chillingly heart-breaking moments in cinema, precisely because of this uncanny valley between the fidelity of HAL’s actions and words to approximated humanness and the coldly inhuman way he speaks. Each film is also similarly preoccupied with cyclical movements, circular shapes and orbits. From Tree of Life‘s circular structure and emphasis on the cycle of nature and grace in the world, to its circular light fixtures, balls, plates, and even a tyke riding a tricycle in a circle in a dark attic, circles pervade it, thematically and visually; likewise, 2001 visually manifests circles in the orbiting space stations, the planets, and the cycle of technological evolution and subsequent resultant human progress.

What emerges is a pairing of two films, clearly in dialogue, with many technical, structural and thematic similarities and opposing concerns. Each film, and film maker, employs strategies that would render the other film entirely unsuccessful: Malick’s whispery voice-overs of spiritual longing would destroy 2001‘s austere and clinical atmosphere, while Kubrick’s impassive framing of shots and cold interiors would dissipate any emotion generated by Tree of Life‘s sumptuously natural beauty. These differences, in concern and technique, while in many ways form two films completely opposed to one another, considered together work to illuminate how each film compliments the other. In considering these two films, each with the ambition and technical ability to tackle nothing less than the entirety of human experience from both spiritual and technological standpoints, that delve into the distant reaches of time and space to provide a broader context for contemporary life, a more balanced cinematic composition emerges. Considering them together left me wanting to splice them in a strictly chronological sense to see how the resulting five plus hour film would function. Where each film’s narrative has gaps – Tree of Life‘s evolution of man, 2001‘s contemporary living human experience – the other provides added context; in much the same way, each film’s distinct perspective addresses concerns that may be absent from the other – although neither films gives any substantial weight to a feminine perspective at all, beyond Tree of Life‘s ephemerally idealized goodness. Both films end with human transcendence, be it Tree of Life‘s spiritual transcendence of the physical into a liminal and timeless heaven, or 2001‘s celestial star child, watching over the world; in each instance there is an elevation of humankind into something greater. This elevation is nothing short of the highest insight that cinema can gift to a receptive viewer.

2 Responses to “2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Tree of Life (2011): Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite Grace of Nature”
  1. pallen1138 says:

    I love the idea of splicing the two together, sabotaging the structure of either to create an enormous and disparate piece that is constantly pulling and prodding at its own moral core.

    This is a great piece.

  2. Derek. says:

    Best work I read on 2001 was Leonard Wheat’s ”Kubrick’s 2001; A Triple Allegory”,showing how each event and character was drawn from Homer’s Odyssey and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra,which also opens at dawn,the hero having his last supper interrupted!

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