Advertising the Future: Cameron vs. Kubrick Part 1

In an earlier post on this site, Moira O’Keeffe talks about her research on the kinds of images that inspire young people to become scientists and engineers. In her interviews with science students and professional scientists of all ages, science fiction was a recurring topic. As O’Keeffe points out, movie critics and scholarly writers have often pondered the cultural significance of mad scientists, Frankensteinian experiments, doomsday weaponry, and the various other fictional conventions that the creators of science fiction employ to build drama into their stories. This kind of analysis of science fiction usually focuses on the narrative content of movies rather than their visual style. But style has its own meaning, its own appeal, and its own ways of advertising a worldview. Style can sell, and it’s fascinating to try to figure out what and how.

Science fiction is not lacking in examples of great-looking movies, but any short list would have to include James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Both movies are major milestones in the history of special visual effects. Taken as a whole, the range of techniques that Kubrick used to create a scientifically informed vision of space travel can fairly be considered the high point of pre-digital effects, and they won Kubrick the only personal Oscar of his career. The brilliant technical innovations that Cameron developed for Avatar’s 3D effects, and the exceptional artistic intelligence with which those innovations were deployed, are, to this date, the most compelling reasons for believing that 3D will becomes a permanent feature of visual media, and that the earlier history of 3D movies (born in the early 1950s and dead before the decade was over) will not be repeated.

Beyond technical excellence, 2001 and Avatar have few things in common. In many respects, the two movies are polar opposites of each other. Indeed, one way to describe Avatar is as an explicit rejection of the future envisioned in 2001. Kubrick’s movie was written in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, master of “hard” (scientifically plausible) science fiction. The story line is a methodical, rationally worked-out account of what humanity’s first encounter with aliens might look like. Because the earth is so much younger than the universe as a whole, Clarke and Kubrick assumed (in common with other science-minded writers who have speculated on this topic) that the aliens would get here first, and that they would be technologically superior. For unspecified reasons, 2001’s script also portrays the encounter as benign: the aliens trigger humanity’s evolution from primordial apedom to the technological sophistication of a civilization capable of flying to the moon. When humans do get to the moon, the aliens set in motion an even greater boost to their evolution.

Avatar is sometimes referred to as a rare example of a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster whose script was not based on an existing book, movie, comic, or other property. But the movie’s story line, created by Cameron, draws very heavily on two themes with a very long prior history in both literature and cinema. As in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the interplanetary encounter portrayed in Avatar is initiated by a technologically superior species with malevolent goals. Wells wanted to make his British readers see the evils of colonial conquest, the invasion of the earth’s weaker peoples by British “aliens” intent on economic exploitation. Cameron’s purpose in Avatar is the same, but his method is even more direct than Wells’s. The War of the Worlds invites readers to see the beleaguered earthlings as stand-ins for the victims of colonial oppression. In Avatar, the viewer doesn’t need to make any metaphorical leaps. The humans are the bad guys. Moreover, drawing on a second fictional convention, this time from Westerns (e.g., Broken Arrow) rather than sci-fi, Cameron portrays the put-upon victims of humanity as a tribe living an Edenic existence in perfect harmony with nature. The movie’s upshot can be seen as a reversal of the evolutionary trajectory traced in 2001. Declaring that the material achievements of human technology are worthless, the movie’s hero abandons his human identity permanently, and chooses to live on in the form of his alien avatar, as an adopted member of the aliens’ tree-worshipping tribe.

Avatar’s message is spelled out explicitly by its central characters, and in any case it is a message that anyone growing up in the US has heard repeatedly from her/his teachers, as well as from movie stars and other celebrities: The only thing that deflects Avatar from perfect alignment with contemporary environmentalist advocacy is the fact that the aliens’ skin color is blue instead of green. But what is the viewer supposed to think about the things that happen in 2001? It is easy to imagine a critic – a fan of Avatar, perhaps – taking a disapproving view of the proceedings: aliens messing with the natural course of evolution, disrupting the apes’ harmonious existence with nature, and unleashing the development of the destructive human species. I described 2001’s aliens as benign, but no one in the movie says anything like that. 2001 is famous for containing less dialogue (much less) than any other Hollywood feature film since the advent of talkies in the 1920s.

It is fascinating to compare 2001 with the two movies that are most like it, because they were partly based on it: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) and Brian De Palma’s woefully under-appreciated Mission to Mars (2000). In both of those movies, the character who gets to meet the aliens expresses her or his attitude toward the experience verbally. But the astronaut protagonist of 2001 remains totally mute. During the entire last section of the movie, after he has played the recording that reveals the hidden purpose of his mission, not a word is spoken. If we want to know what Kubrick wanted us to think, we have to look at the movie’s visual content: the production design, the cinematography, and the appearance and demeanor of the actors.


After 2001 makes its stupendous, four-million-year leap from a mob of growling pre-humans to a graceful procession of early-21st-century spacecraft, almost everything that happens in the movie takes place in structures fabricated by humans: a space station, a moon base, and various types of space vehicles. In the unfiltered sunlight beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the outsides of these structures become patterns of gleaming reflections. Every shape is perfectly smooth, and every surface is immaculate. The interior spaces are spotless, and the objects inside them are arranged with meticulous precision: the very first act that we see when the camera moves inside a spaceship is a flight attendant retrieving an errant pen from its zero-gravity wanderings and restoring it snugly to the breast pocket of its sleeping owner.

The visual qualities of the production design are echoed in the cinematography. 2001 was the first movie in which Kubrick made extensive use of two devices that became trademarks of his later style: (1) tight compositional symmetry in the framing of his images; (2) smooth, steady, perfectly controlled camera movement. Anyone who has made movies knows that both of these ways of shooting a scene require a lot of effort. When a shot is framed asymetrically, the camera’s position can often be displaced substantially without doing any perceptible damage to conventional artistic criteria. But when the framing is symmetrical, the tiniest displacement completely destroys the intended effect. As for camera movement, even when the camera operator is using a Steadicam (which didn’t exist when 2001 was made, although Kubrick did employ it in later movies), it is very hard to keep the movement’s pace absolutely even and the direction absolutely consistent.

What does all this add up to? In one word: control. Kubrick’s vision for the future is of a world in which humans have attained perfect control over the rough edges of existence. It is a hard-won control. When the movie’s most famous character, the supercomputer HAL, malfunctions, he kills all but one of the humans on the spaceship that he has been guiding. But the remaining human uses his own knowledge of the spaceship’s workings to subdue HAL and take over command of the mission. Humanity’s intellect and physical daring once again bend the rest of the material world to their purposes. With the lone surviving astronaut at the helm, the spaceship resumes its stately progress through the solar system and arrives at its intended rendezvous with the aliens.

It is instructive to take one more look at the differences between 2001, on the one hand, and Contact and Mission to Mars, on the other. In Mission to Mars, the astronaut who meets the aliens has a look of ecstatic, transcendental anticipation on his face as he prepares for the encounter. In Contact, the scientist who sets off for the world of the aliens is terrified by the memory of an explosion that obliterated an earlier version of the spaceship that she is about to board. But the astronaut of 2001 goes about his mission with no visible display of emotion. Keir Dullea’s tightly focused, self-contained performance in this role is one of many examples of 2001’s very high level of visual intelligence.


Dullea’s demeanor is the logical complement of the movie’s broader vision of where we humans might be headed for. By appealing to our admiration for elegance, order, and precision, Kubrick’s imagery is an advertisement for a future in which we use the powers of technology, science, and reason to make all of reality a work of human art. That was what Kubrick was selling. Have viewers bought it, then or now? Very few other movies, before or since 2001, have looked anything like this one. However, there is considerable affinity between 2001’s production design and the sleek, stripped-down geometric forms favored by mid-twentieth-century Modernism, as exemplified by Eames furniture or such glass-and-steel skyscrapers as the Lever House in mid-town Manhattan. There is even greater affinity between Kubrick’s visual compositions and the work of the photographers who documented Modern architecture and design, such as the renowned, Los Angeles-based Julius Shulman, or his equally distinguished East Coast counterpart, Ezra Stoller. If we wanted to figure out what 2001’s specific style has meant to viewers over the years, we would have to do a lot of guessing on the basis of stray and fragmentary evidence. However, the American public’s feelings about Modernism as a whole are much better known.

Anyone interested in understanding the cultural implications of visual style needs to take a close look at the writings of Virginia Postrel. The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel’s first book, was published more than twenty years ago, but it remains the most perceptive and subtle analysis of the ways in which people’s stylistic choices reflect broader aspirations – and apprehensions – about the kind of society they would like to live in. In the book’s introduction, Postrel talks about the evolution of Disney’s Tomorrowland. In its earliest version, which opened in 1955, this section of Disneyland featured integrated design and simple, smooth architectural forms. Postrel describes it as a place of “impersonal chrome and steel.” By the late 1990s, however, when Postrel wrote her book, Disney’s designers had loosened the relationships among Tomorrowland’s new structures, and they had introduced greater architectural complexity and more extensive vegetation. Postrel sees these changes as responses to the public’s distaste for the uniformity and encompassing vision of Modernist design. Instead, she says, people prefer variety, choice, and the mingling of old and new. That may well be. But, back in the world of science fiction movies, things seem to be heading in a different direction. The line from 2001 to Avatar does not lead to a future of fruitful coexistence between human technology and non-human nature. It leads deliberately backward, to a world that wouldn’t be able to recreate any of 2001’s technological marvels even if it wanted to. TO BE CONTINUED….


Postrel, Virginia. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. New York: The Free Press.

Postrel, Virginia. (2003). The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.

Patton, Phil; Postrel, Virginia; & Steele, Valerie. (2004). Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Music Video: Bass Down Low by DEV


Dev’s “Bass Down Low” music video executed two different visual techniques seamlessly throughout the video: video-audio sync and propositional montage.

The video actually implements video-audio sync in a couple of ways. The first is through their physical body movements. The scene at 2:33 is a great example of how the body is used to visually represent the beats in an entrancing way. The second way video-audio sync is executed is through quick cuts. Certain scenes throughout the video rapidly changes simultaneously with each beat, further giving viewers a visual stimulus that complements the audio. These quick scene changes are also very effective in grabbing the viewer’s attention because studies have found that fast editing increases the ratings for activity, potency, and persuasiveness. Comprehension suffers however, and this is where the use of propositional montage comes in.  

The video makes use of propositional montage to compensate for the potential lack of comprehension. It visually shows the physical object that is said in the song as it is sung just in case the viewer did not fully catch the word. There is a succession of these propositional montages starting at 1:28 and they continue throughout other parts of the video as the music continues on with its rapid pace.

Each technique worked incredibly well in itself but the combination of the two is what truly gave the video its effectiveness – both visually and aurally.



Media and the Making of Scientists

This image is reproduced from Rudolph Zallinger's massive 110-foot mural, The Age of Reptiles, completed in 1947 at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. A paleontologist, who had encountered images of the mural in a children's book, described visiting the original site for the first time as an undergraduate: "These were the images that I’d grown up with in the children’s book and that I’d known for ten years. I almost wept. They were so beautiful. I'd had no idea that they existed in any other form, other than the book."

On August 11, I defended my Ph.D. Dissertation, “Media and the Making of Scientists.” This dissertation explored how scientists and science students respond, as viewers, to fictional, visual media about science. Drawing on interview data, I considered how scientists think about fictional images of science in relation to their own career paths from childhood onwards. I was especially interested in the possibility that entertainment media can inspire young people to learn more about science.

Such inspiration is badly needed, as schools are failing to provide it. Science education in the United States is in a state of crisis. Many educators worry about the performance of U.S. students compared to students from other countries, and studies repeatedly find low levels of science literacy in the U.S. The shortage of qualified science and math teachers exacerbates the problem. This bleak situation exists during a boom in the popularity of science-oriented television shows and science fiction movies. How might entertainment media play a role in helping young people engage with science, or in promoting broader science literacy in civil society? To grapple with these questions, I interviewed a total of fifty scientists and students interested in science careers, representing a variety of scientific fields and demographic backgrounds, and with varying levels of interest in science fiction.

Most respondents described becoming attracted to the sciences at a young age, and many were able to identify specific sources for this interest, such as a parent who was a scientist or doctor, a particular book, a media image, or a trip to the planetarium. The fact that interest in the sciences begins early in life demonstrates a potentially important role for fictional media in the process of inspiration, perhaps especially for children without access to real-life scientists in their homes and communities. One key aspect to the appeal of fiction about science is how scientists are portrayed as characters. Scientists from groups traditionally under-represented in the sciences often sought out fictional characters with whom they could identify, and viewers from all backgrounds preferred realistic, well-rounded characters to the extreme stereotypes of mad scientists or dorky geniuses.

Genre is another aspect of appeal. Some respondents identified a specific role for science fiction: conveying a sense of wonder. Visual media, in particular, introduce viewers to the beauty of science. Special effects provide viewers with the opportunity to see how extinct animals might have moved or how humans might live in space. Advocates of informal science learning initiatives suggest that fictional media can be used as a tool for teaching science content. The potential of entertainment media to provide a sense of wonder is a powerful aspect of its potential to inspire the next generation of scientists.

UHURA’S LEGACY: Media Images and Diversity in STEM Careers

What was really great about Star Trek when I was growing up as a little girl is not only did they have Lt. Uhura played by Nichelle Nichols as a technical officer […] At the same time, they had this crew that was composed of people from all around the world and they were working together to learn more about the universe.  So that helped to fuel my whole idea that I could be involved in space exploration as well as in the sciences.

                                               – NASA Astronaut Mae Jemison (Then & Now, 2005)

Nichelle Nichols ("Lieutenant Uhura") in 1977, talking to students about The Space Shuttle

In 1966, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura was a groundbreaking character. As the Communications Officer on the Starship Enterprise, Uhura provided a vision of a successful, career-oriented African American woman previously absent from late-1960s television fare. The portrayal resonated with audiences; the studio was flooded with fan mail about Uhura. While Star Trek provided an appealing utopian fantasy of a future devoid of racism, such ideals were not reflected at Star Trek’s studio, Desilu Productions. In her 1994 autobiography, actress Nichelle Nichols recounts how poorly she was treated by studio executives, who not only cut Uhura’s lines and screen time, but also conspired to hide the volume of fan mail that Nichols’ performance was generating. When she learned that the mail room clerks had been ordered to withhold her mail, Nichols decided to quit. Shortly after reaching this decision, Nichols met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and learned that he was a big fan of the show because, as he said, it was about “[m]en and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals” (p. 164). He convinced her to continue with “the first nonstereotypical role on television” for an African American actor . He argued that Uhura’s cultural impact meant that Nichols had a responsibility to stay with the show because “for the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people–as we should be” (pp. 164-165).

Constance Penley theorized that Star Trek has been particularly successful in creating a forum for “citizens to engage in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be human in a technological and multicultural world” and that this success provided the basis for a “symbolic union” between Trek and NASA which benefited both the show and the space agency (1997, p. 16-17). This union is seen most dramatically in the relationship between Nichelle Nichols and NASA.

Star Trek was cancelled in 1969; the show’s demise gave rise to the phenomenon of Trek fandom. Starting in the early 1970s, Nichols and other cast members became regular guests at Star Trek conventions. In 1975, Nichols and the rest of the cast attended a large convention in Chicago with an unusual featured speaker: Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer, NASA’s science director and a fan of the show. Although attendance at prior conventions had demonstrated that many NASA employees were Star Trek fans, this 1975 convention marked the first time that NASA had an official presence at a convention. Nichols describes being inspired by Puttkamer’s presentation about the space program, but her enjoyment was marred by the space agency’s poor record of inclusion:

There was no one in the astronaut corps who looked anything like me. There were no women, no Blacks, no Asians, no Latinos. I could not reconcile the term “United States space program” with an endeavor that did not involve anyone except white males. No offense to those fine, brave men, but if we in America tell our children they can be all that they dream, why weren’t there women and minority astronauts? Thousands of fans wrote thanking me for Uhura’s inspiration. Little Black girls and boys, Latino and Asian children had a legitimate right to share in that dream. Things had to change (Nichols, 1994, pp. 210-211).

Soon, Nichols was an outspoken supporter of space exploration and was appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Space Institute (NSI), a civilian space advocacy organization. In a 1977 speech, she outlined her criticisms regarding the lack of diversity at NASA and emphasized how it was hurting the space program’s legitimacy with the general public.

NASA knew that it had a problem. The agency was recruiting astronauts for the new Space Shuttle program, which was open to astronauts who were not pilots. While this new openness theoretically meant that a wider range of people could become astronauts, women and minorities were not applying to the program. NASA was embarrassed by its inability to recruit astronauts who did not fit the image of the white, male astronaut which had been the norm throughout the history of the agency. Officials at NASA knew of Nichols’ activities in space advocacy, and they were well aware that the Uhura character still resonated powerfully with African Americans and women from all backgrounds. In an effort to change, NASA hired Nichols to run an outreach program with the goal of increasing diversity in the pool of potential astronauts. The program was a success—Nichols was responsible for dramatically increasing the total number of applications as well as the percentage of applications from women and minorities (Nichols, 1994). Astronauts who were recruited through this program include Guion Bluford (the first African American in space), Sally Ride (the first US woman in space), and Ron McNair (the second African American astronaut; killed in Challenger disaster) (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, n.d.).

The first African American woman in space, Mae Jemison (quoted above), was “recruited” not by Nichols, but by the character of Uhura herself. In many interviews, Jemison has recounted how her girlhood dreams of spaceflight began with watching Star Trek. When she was on the space shuttle, Jemison used Uhura’s signature line “Hailing frequencies open” during the course of her duties (Penley, 1997, p. 19).

The story of Uhura—and, indeed, of Nichelle Nichols herself—provides an entry point for a broader discussion about the importance of diverse media representations of people in careers related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). This is the topic of my dissertation, Media and the Making of Scientists. Lieutenant Uhura inspired a generation of women, not just at NASA, but also across the STEM disciplines. During the course of my dissertation research, when asked about childhood media exposure to images of science and technology, both African American and white women in STEM careers described Uhura as a positive influence. An African American, female aerospace engineer said of Uhura, “I do realize that, for me, her just being there, [that there was] such a multicultural team [which] included a black woman, helped me to envision my being there.”

In my dissertation, I explore what interviewees from groups traditionally under-represented in real-world science have to say about how such groups have been portrayed in the media. First, I contextualize this material by touching on the issue of real-world diversity in STEM fields. This is followed by an examination of what the study participants think about the lack of representation for women and minority scientists, as well as their reactions to those representations which do exist. Then, I consider why science fiction, as a genre, is a particularly rich arena for talking about these issues. Finally, I discuss some aspects of the media landscape for the next generation of scientists, taking into account interviews with teenagers as well as the media outreach efforts of two of the adult respondents.

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