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.


Paul Messaris teaches visual communication and digital media at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

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