2001 : A Lesson In Design Fiction

Attached hereto as Exhibit D is a true and correct copy of a still image taken from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

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That is the actual text in a declaration by Samsung. They claim that the device shown in the film qualifies as valid prior art for a certain iPad-related design patent that Apple was suing Samsung for.

I discovered Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey sometime in the past. I do not really remember when. It is often said to be ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you haven’t seen it in a theater, you really should.

I watched it on the big screen with a friend recently. He hadn’t seen it before and it wasn’t the film he was expecting it to be. When I saw it the first time around, I thought so too. It was quiet. The Dawn of Man was silent. Lingering wide shots of featureless expanses. Crude man-apes fighting for water. My friend became bored. Where were all the spaceships? He asked. I didn’t care. I was fascinated. I was becoming as entranced as I had been the first time I watched it. The first time I watched it, changed my imagination and my world forever.

The Monolith was striking and unsettling. The power of a precisely framed shot. Then came Kubrick’s legendary match cut that turned a bone weapon into an orbiting spaceship. 

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I was sold. It was a moment of confusion for my younger self but it made me feel. This wasn’t simply film that I was watching, it was art I was experiencing.

Kubrick was a perfectionist. He liked to do things his way. However, it was on the recommendation of Arthur C. Clarke, they wrote the film together, that Kubrick hired spacecraft consultants Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange, who had worked with NASA in developing advanced space vehicle concepts.

Design fiction has several definitions depending who you ask but the one I am considering right now is an “approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling”. In that sense, let us see how the movie acts as a lesson in design fiction.

 

There is hardly any dialog and the one that exists is pretty banal. The characters say a lot of things that are relevant in their given context [“Open the pod bay doors, Hal” anyone?] but they don’t really mean anything. There is nothing to be taken away from the words in the movie. They say a lot but mean only what is required. Limited character development in the plot. This is not a human film. It is an epic of cosmic proportions. It is also an exercise in science and technique. In design. There is not a single moment, in this long film, that made me feel like I was looking at props. Everything looked real and I believed everything.

 Kubrick’s intention, supposedly, was to create a non-verbal, highly visual experience and make it as accurate a depiction of the future as was possible at the time. Apart from the ipad like device mentioned above, we now have in-flight entertainment TV monitors in the back of headrests which can be seen in Floyd’s trip to the Moon base. There is a sequence in which HAL, the ship’s AI, beats Bowman at chess which was unheard of in 1968. It did feel like the future.

Quite a bit of this effect comes from the music. The classical music chosen by Kubrick to score the film is uplifting, transcendent and awe-inspiring. The waltz “Blue Danube,” which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is as slow as the on screen action. The use of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. The five bold opening notes are magnificent and frightening. They show Man reaching out to the Realm of the Gods. The music is used again to symbolize the transformation of Man into God (The Star Child).

The sequence on the moon (which looks as real as the actual video of the moon landing a year later and led to conspiracy theories that Kubrick himself filmed the fake real moon landing) is a variation on the film’s opening sequence. Man meets Monolith just as the Apes met it (There are actual similarities between the way Floyd and the Moonwatcher reach out and touch the Monolith). There is a tacit understanding that the Monolith represents intelligence beyond Mankind. 

And even if we ignore, for a moment, all the technical accuracies and cast an aesthetic eye on the design, it looks so damn cool. The muted tones and bold typefaces used on the interfaces are not only redolent of the period but it is something that works very well even now. (Hint: Lumia)

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Retro-futurism possibly at its finest. Tinged by our nostalgia for a future that is yet to come.

Life on the spaceship is an exercise in functionality, routine maintenance and checklists. The astronauts suspect the AI mind of the ship which leads to one of the great shots in the cinema. The men attempt a conversation in a space pod, after shutting down communication, but HAL reads their lips. 

There is also that basal sense of wonder and unreality. The way the flight attendant walks through 180º (which I personally would expect in a Lynchian dream sequence) or the centrifuge sequence[1] when Bowman climbs down a ladder are all intriguing. The centrifuge sequence was achieved by creating a massive, spinning set and the illusion of zero gravity by clever use of camera angles and wire work.

Kubrick involved himself in every aspect of production, even choosing the fabric for his actors’ costumes (excellent use of primary colours) and selecting notable pieces of contemporary furniture for use in the film. Even the cutlery used by the astronauts is rather futuristic.

And the bright red chairs (they happen to be the first prominent burst of color) seen prominently throughout the space station. Along with the pedestal table, they mark a pristine plain white room in the space station, the space hotel ‘Hilton’.

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The chairs, called Djinn chairs, are informal and aptly named. Like the Djinn, they seem capable of changing form and shape. Red “blots” against the pristine purity of the rest of the lobby.

Then there is the lengthy instruction for the zero-gravity toilet on the Moon shuttle and the video call with Floyd’s daughter. (There is also a deleted scene featuring Floyd buying his daughter that bush baby she asked for as a birthday present via videophone call to Earth)

 

And don’t even get me started on the corridors. Corridors anchor science fiction to reality mainly because they are so functional in nature. Even if you are in the year 3556, a corridor will be  a tubular structure that acts as a basic connector between two structures. They are present almost everywhere in sci-fi spaceships, so a little love shown via corridors goes a long way in selling the larger movie magic.

 Look at this beauty. Stark, utilitarian and yet appealing.

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And who can forget HAL? I always wanted my computer to be more like HAL minus the homicidal tendencies of course. (The only real dialogue comes from HAL, who pleads “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” and sings his first instruction set in the form of a song, “Daisy.”)

Roughly 40 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail. I recently saw Oblivion and the evolution of special effects thanks to Mr. Computer is startling. Yet, the effects in 2001 are far real maybe because they do not appear as sterile as the computer generated ones in Oblivion.

This movie is about the proverbial journey and not the destination. It is not a movie of the flesh but of the intelligence.

2001 is not only an influence on me but also on new and emerging technology and design as well as other science fiction films.

 

PS. Does the monolith look like the Sony Xperia Z (or even the Iphone 5) to you?

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[1] the centrifuge scene explained http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fmB4Q49abn8

 

more corridors!

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