Thursday, July 1, 2010

2001: A Triumph in Physics

I've never been much of a Stanley Kubrick fan. It's not that he isn't a good director, but his style is too preachy for me. The few films of his that I do like were early in his career and at the top of the list is 2001: A Space Odyssey. When you have a great science fiction author like Arthur C. Clarke combined with a great director like Kubrick, and the author is allowed to work closely with the director, and the director is given the freedom to do as he wishes, and he wishes to remain true to the original author's wishes, you end up with a classic sci-fi film. I don't think I actually got around to watching it until my college years, and because I was studying Physics at the time, one thing really jumped out at me. With the exception of certain mystical elements, the film was amazingly faithful to the actual laws of physics. Thus, the title of this entry.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First, since space is a vacuum, there is no sound. All sequences shot from space (external to any ships) were either completely silent or had an added music track only (some space walks included what the astronaut was hearing inside the suit - breathing, intercom, etc.). There was no rumbling, no screeching (like Tie Fighters in Star Wars), no audible explosions, etc. Second, since there is no gravity in space, the research lab simulated gravity by spinning on its axis. Most other films assume some sort of auto-gravity technology however implausible that may be. In the Orion shuttle vehicle, which looked uncannily like the future NASA space shuttle, they used magnetic shoes, getting around by carefully making sure one foot is firmly planted before lifting the other. One scene where a hatch is blown open and everything shoots out into space, you can see how the papers fly straight out as if there was no air resistance, just as expected. Objects in motion in space stay in motion, virtually forever, as predicted by Newton's first law. This attention to detail, which I attribute to Clarke's influence, adds to the film's sense of realism. In the era of NASA's moon missions, a year before the first lunar landing, the memory of real space footage was fresh in audiences minds to compare it to. It is amazing that you can hardly tell the difference between the effects achieved in 1968 and something you might see in a news item on the ISS today.

Also adding to the realism was Kubrick's choice to film many scenes almost in real time, giving a sense of the long hours and slow motion required to work in space. The famous end sequence, which is artsy and largely symbolic, probably included his touch. I always loved it even though it seems incomprehensible. Another one of Kubrick's influences was the musical score. I've now learned that there was an original score already composed which was scrapped by Kubrick in favor of his own choices of classical pieces, and those choices were absolutely outstanding. The Zarathustra piece by Strauss was made famous by the film itself. Originally representing a sunrise, the music evokes anticipation of something big about to happen. In the film, it is used at great turning points in the proposed history of man. The Danube Waltz was used for long sequences in space. I subconsciously always thought this was a perfect match but didn't know why, until one day I realized that everything in space moves slowly and continuously like a ballet dance. It actually transforms something like a boring space docking sequence into an appreciation for the beauty of the movements. I don't think anyone has ever duplicated what was achieved in the scoring of this film.

There are two main threads to the story line which seem quite disconnected. The first is a notion about the history of mankind being influenced by some alien force beyond. This thread is mysterious and abstract and somehow involves the famous "monoliths". The idea itself is now overused and could be taken as silly if not for the unique and interesting way that it is presented in 2001. The second thread is more concrete and involves the computer HAL 9000. It deals with the question, again more original at the time than today, of how an intelligent computer would face the prospect of its own termination. Would it choose to preserve its own "life"?

I am surprised at how much I have to say on this film. Then again, it is an undisputed classic of the genre. And I would be remiss not to include a few words about its one and only sequel - 2010: The Year We Make Contact. This is a wonderful film in its own right and was also based on Arthur C. Clarke's own follow-up novel. It has some good performances by Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren, and a chance to actually see John Lithgow successfully pull off a dramatic role. The story continues directly from the first film but is much more complex. The monolith thread is explored and explained in more detail, while the thread involving HAL's malfunction turns into a really wonderful side twist. The climactic ending here is more concrete and dramatic. In addition to all this, a new political drama is weaved in as a major story line. Filmed at the height of the cold war, the story involves a necessary joint mission of Americans and Russians which, when tensions rise at home, causes difficulties for the astronauts stationed near Jupiter's moons Io and Europa. Although not quite as artsy as its 1968 counterpart, it contains plenty of meat to chew on. It has a great opening scene - a Russian flags down Scheider at a large antenna array to propose the mission. The dialogue between them is highly entertaining. The only embarrassing element for me is the attempt to bring Bowman back as some eternal Star Child, but I hear that was Clarke's idea too.

Finally, I end as I started by giving the sequel 2010 an A+ in its faithfulness to the laws of physics, just like its predecessor. I was actually teaching Physics to high school students at the time I saw it and remember other science teachers marveling at this. Again, the ship simulates gravity based on centrifugal rotation of the living quarters. When they reach the Discovery spaceship from the first mission, it is found spinning lengthwise on its axis like a twirling baton. This is physically accurate, since any freely floating object will with random perturbation eventually move toward rotation around its greatest moment of inertia. And all the no gravity space scenes look just as good, even without the classical music. There are a few exceptions though, like when Scheider floats a pen in mid air in the rotating cabin. I'm afraid a gravity simulated by rotation would appear to drop that pen right to the ground, even though it would only be Newton's first law in action.


  1. Actually is quite accurate about gravity ... assuming that you can create artificial gravity by rotation with the centrifugal forces.. in the middle of the rotating axes it would be a blind spot with no gravity ..

    1. That is correct, however, in the movie the astronauts are nowhere near the center of rotation! Believe it or not, according to general relativity, even a simulated gravity field will not be distinguishable from a real one within a small region of space.

  2. Very nice review of two movies that I consider icons of Sci-fi.
    I saw 2001 when I was about 13 years old and remember that about half of the public (it was during the afternoon in a weekend, so there weren't that many people in the theater) left the theater after about an hour of watching.
    I didn't fully understand the movie at that time, but it immediately captured my imagination. The silent space scenes, the music score... it all added to the drama and the realism. Truly a movie that was burned in to my memory :-)

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, that's really what this site is about. From your moniker I would guess you liked Matrix too. Hope you have a chance to browse that entry as well.

  3. Hi and sorry for this late reply.

    You ment the Matrix movies (1,2,3)? If you mean those then the answer is yes. Not in particular because of the effects etc. but mostly because of the intriguing idea behind it, that we could live in a world that's made up/not real and not even realize it.