Art 441 – Fall 2013
2001: Space Odyssey and Gravity
There are more differences than similarities in the details of 2001: Space Odyssey and Gravity, but the overarching themes and visual are quite alike. Both films are set in outer space, with stunning back drops and detail-oriented scientifically accurate portrayals of the new frontier. They both have an incredibly minimal cast, only a handful of characters and a literal couple of main characters. They both depict stories of relatable, improved-upon ordinary people who are scientists-turned-astronauts, exploring and researching in deep and nearby space respectively. In Space Odyssey humans investigates the appearances of mysterious, alien, probe-like monoliths in the solar system aboard the spaceship Discovery One. In Gravity, they space walk and test technology aboard the space shuttle Explorer. A physically devastating disaster from the universe happens in both and represents the problem needed to overcome in both stories. In neither story do the heroes save the world from disaster. Disaster happens to them and they need only to save themselves.
There are some basic general differences between the two films that are worth noting as well. Space Odyssey is an epic narrative, containing scenes from the distant past of mankind’s dawn and the technological future of casual earth-moon travel and space exploration. Gravity is an action-packed suspenseful thriller set in modern times with modern technologies, depicting astronauts doing routine space shuttle maintenance, space walks and technology testing. While Space Odyssey is known for its psychological depth and incredibly open to interpretation of all kinds sort of ending, Gravity is a very literal depiction of an event. Space Odyssey was made with very little computer generated special effects while Gravity is almost entirely CGI. The important differences lay in their way of storytelling. The significance that can be read in each tale, which is the same type of story, can be found in the characters. Not only in the personalities of the characters presented, who follow archetypal guidelines significant to the time the movie is made, but also in the way each person deals with problems presented to them.
An important thing for any film to have in order to gain ground and success is through strong characters. It is important for them to be relatable, but not boring, and recognizable character types help a movie to tell a story in a couple of hours with little character development. The archetypes used, and which ones are cast in the main roles are significant to the time of the film. Such usually stereotypical, but recognizable characters can be seen in Space Odyssey and Gravity. Male leads are strong, collected and capable. They are usually a being to look up and aspire to. The female lead characters are more human and representative of morals. They are compassionate and sympathetic.
In Space Odyssey and most early-on science fiction films, the main character is a strong and smart male character who is cool, capable, and charismatic. He survives by his capabilities, by knowing just what to do and doing that thing well. Dave Bowman is a good representation of this model. When he is first introduced, he is going about spaceship activates just as he would regular earth activities, he regards the amazing space mission he is on with a cool head. When problems and danger show up, he deals with them in a confident manner.
The female lead for the earlier movies is a complete counter to this sort of personality, usually sweet and supportive, and womanly incapable. Her reaction to trouble is to either panic, pass out, or both. She relies on the hero to save her, and quite often dies due to her own weakness or inability to protect herself. Space Odyssey does not even have a female lead character. Sure, there are a couple of female characters, but they do nothing to advance the plot, only to present amazing special effect visuals or depict the interesting and cool aspects of a future society. The closest actual representation of the usual female role to counter Keir Dullea’s lead role as Dave Bowman is Gary Lockwood as Frank Poole. Poole is used in some of the same ways that a lead female character is used. Dialogue between Dave and Poole is used to introduce narrative devices and trouble and to advance the plot. They bounce ideas off of each other and discuss possible courses of action for dealing with Hal. Poole is supportive to Dave’s more superior role, and he even is killed in an almost unceremonious way by the film’s antagonist.
At some point the lead roles switched at least partially; Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies was a significant change to a strong female lead. The main character of many of today’s science fiction films is an intelligent female character with incredible luck and survival instincts, usually a scientist or cultural leader. This a typical lead female role portrayed in science fiction, but the important thing is their taking over the main lead role as well. Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Gravity is a good example of this type of character, with some of the traits of the typical early female role in science fiction. She seems more human than Dave Bowman, with a more developed personality with flaws and back-story. Reaction to her personality is subjective; it can be liked or disliked depending on personal preferences. When she recounts to Kowalski the death of her child, she is a character to be sympathized.
Ryan is a doctor with half a year’s space program training testing new hospital technology in space when suddenly the space station is destroyed by debris of satellite destroyed by missiles. Her more space-experience companions are killed and she is left isolated, needing to figure out a way to survive and return to Earth. The counteracting male lead for this kind of new female lead is similar to the earlier main character. Cool, capable and charismatic. He dies in some heroic blaze of glory or sacrifice for the leading lady. This is of course George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski. He is charismatic; telling stories and jokes throughout, and capable; a veteran astronaut who saves Ryan from tumbling into space and taking her back to the site of the space shuttle. When he dies, it is by heroic sacrifice, to keep from pulling Ryan into space so she can get into the International Space Station. An irritating moment in the movie regarding these gender roles and their own adequacies or lack of happens when Ryan is in the escape capsule after narrowly avoiding the incredibly beautiful and disastrous fire on the ISS. When she commits to the idea that she is stranded and probably going to die, she gives up and lowers the oxygen levels. She then hallucinates Kowalski coming back to berate her for quitting, give a pep talk and importantly give her the idea that leads to her escape and survival. Even in a lead, supposedly strong, role, the female character does not truly come up with the solution herself. Living Sandra Bullock still relies on dead George Clooney to save her.
The disasters encountered in each film have their own, unique way of happening and implications, but also have certain similarities. Both deal with human interaction and relationship with the universe, and reveal how little understanding and power we have of it. Both Space Odyssey and Gravity depict a single person not only dealing with an incredibly disaster, but doing so completely alone. While experiencing and sometimes enjoying the isolation of outer space, an unforeseen disaster wakes both Dave and Ryan to the lack of control each has over the many horrible things that can happen to them in the new frontier. The difference between the two is seen in they way each character interacts with the established, normal setting of life in space, and then in the way that they deal with the disaster and how they survive it.
During Mission Jupiter, Dave goes through a daily routine similar to a terrestrial one: exercising, eating the liquid and space mush version of food, taking interviews from Earth, talking with Frank Poole, and playing chess with Hal. Much of this can be seen as the overly comfortable reliance upon an advanced technology, Hal 9000, which oversees and takes care of most everything on and in the ship. However, while human’s trust and reliance in a sentient computer ( that eventually malfunctions) to take care of everything for us leads to the disaster in the Jupiter Mission portion of Space Odyssey, it is Dave’s cool and calm personality that provides him the ability to stop Hal and save himself and the ship.
When Hal begins to behave in a suspicious manner, Dave and Poole discuss the possible need to disconnect Hal for their own safety and the safety of the mission in an EVA pod, and in a mostly casual way (it is suspicious that they just had to have a chat in the soundproof pod). Hal only learns their plan through lip reading, there is nothing in their body language or behavior to really suggest that they may fear him or worry that he is malfunctioning. Later, after Hal kills Poole by cutting his oxygen line and Dave retrieves the body; their earlier suspicions that Hal poses a threat and needs to be disconnected are confirmed. Upon learning the ship’s computer is turning into a maniacal robot overlord, Dave does not panic, shoutily argue with Hal or perform some other form of freak out. Instead, he makes the decision to ditch Poole’s corpse and bodily enter the ship, make his way through to Hal’s controls and shut him down. While he is doing this, Hal is setting off systems in the ship, there is physical chaos and danger happening, strange and distracting lighting that Dave has to power through, but all the while he engages Hal in calm conversation. He matches Hal’s robotic monotone, which stays level even as Hal begins to panic and beg. There is no verbal excitement or intense violence between the two, only a sort of seemingly casual if antagonistic interaction between equals.
Ryan in Gravity, on the other hand, is much more nervous working in space. As a loner type person, she admits to enjoying the silence, but is unnerved and even made nauseous by a simple, routine space walk. Compared to her companions, cool veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski and joking engineer Sharriff Dasari, Ryan is a huge stick in the mud. While Kowalski chats with Houston and jetpacks around with his thruster pack and Shariff playfully floats and bounces around with his line, Ryan stays stiffly connected to the ship and is all work, avoiding casual conversation and even asking Kowalski to turn his music off. Later on, Ryan’s more fun and casual companions die, Kowalski makes the heroic sacrifice play, but Shariff and the others get killed randomly by freak disaster debris. Ryan was in the exact same place and situation, just as if not less capable as them, and yet she survives the debris storms entirely by chance. Largely, it is not through her own capabilities, talent, and cleverness that she survives but more through luck and the sheer-will to survive. She does not calm down and come up with a plan like Dave in Space Odyssey; she does just the opposite in fact.
When the disaster hits and Ryan is faced with the dangerous problem, she panics completely. Of course, being sent tumbling into space and losing contact with both Houston and her shuttle mates is a terrifying situation and she has every right to panic then. However, even after being taken back by Kowalski and his thruster pack, Ryan spends way too much time hyperventilating and using up the tiny amount of oxygen she has left. For Dave, his sense for survival nests in his ability to stay calm and collected. Ryan’s ability for survival on the other hand, comes from her restless, paranoid stodginess and a high-luck based survival instinct.
It should be mentioned that while mostly calm when dealing with Hal, Dave does in fact freak out during the last part of Space Odyssey: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. However, this is not him dealing with the disaster of the film, this is him dealing with the unknown, uncontrollable aspects of space that humans do not, and perhaps cannot, understand. It is a psychological and subjective part of the film, and a bizarre trip for Dave, who really should be terrified and freaking out and rightfully does so. It would be weirder if he stayed calm.
The visuals and concepts present in and behind 2001: Space Odyssey and Gravity are similar, Gravity often being reminiscent of Space Odyssey. They both tell tales of humans interacting with the universe, exploring and researching in outer space. Space Odyssey does it with predicted future technology, Gravity with known modern technology. The two films discuss the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable represented in the isolation of space, and depict relatable, improved ordinary people surviving disasters in a harsh, unlivable environment. By looking at the changes in presentation, technology and, most significantly, of the presented main character archetypes’ behavior and development do we see the way that Science Fiction’s epic space journey stories have evolved and adapted to time. Science Fiction is a way of showing how we interact with and deal with the problems of the universe, and change is always occurring in the modern thinking, interests and issues of society. By adapting with the changes, the genre is able to discuss issues of as well as appeal to each generation using the same kind of stories and situations, presented and dealt with in different ways depending on the era’s happenings.