The Infinite Set
Damon Smith on 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey screened on 70mm from July 29 to 31, 2016, at Museum of the Moving Image.

Science, art, and the spiritual have been linked for centuries across pictorial traditions, but they achieve a unique synthesis in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, an audaciously cerebral epic that, whenever seen or contemplated in its original 70mm format, never feels like anything less than a miracle of human imagination. The relevance of 2001 has kept pace with the times, too, as it coolly examines our relationship with technology and the grand mystery of cosmic reality, which grows richer and stranger the more we learn about the physics of massive phenomena we cannot directly observe (dark matter, black holes) and the even spookier action of quantum-scale particles. Grappling seriously with our place in the universe as individuals and as a species, 2001 was the first modern sci-fi movie; mature, intelligent, technically precise, and ambiguously metaphysical, the film mostly dispenses with conventional narrative in order to represent, for much of its 160-minute duration, the physical and psychological experience of “being in space.” More importantly, by coding his unusually realistic visual journey with mythic totems and baffling set pieces, Kubrick heightens the subjective experience of viewers, leaving the logic of the whole intentionally fuzzy and open to innumerable readings. Forty-seven years after its debut, 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to fascinate audiences, influencing filmmakers as artistically dissimilar as George Lucas, Alfonso Cuarón, and Christopher Nolan, and casting a long, monolithic shadow over any filmic depiction of interstellar space, all without losing its seemingly timeless mystique.

Leaving aside the enormously complex technical accomplishments of the film in the pre-computer age, which are well documented in books by Jerome Agel, Piers Bizony, and others, there is more to the story of 2001’s enduring appeal. The world Kubrick brings to life is not “the future.” Nor is it a place of love or striving, or a celebration of mammalian rationality and Apollo-era ingenuity, though it does hold the grace and beauty of aeronautic design in high regard. On one level, the film dramatizes the limits of our know-how and intelligence, and quite radically questions whether intelligence itself is uniquely human. A famous cut—the tapir bone thrown skyward by a Dawn of Man hominid, matched to a flying spacecraft in the film’s “present”—and the uncannily poignant dying vocalizations of a malignant HAL 9000 computer are two expressions of this theme. Yet 2001 is also an origin myth, an alternate history of the universe in which notions of evolution (Schelling’s idealism as much as Darwin’s biological materialism) are jumbled with extraterrestrial sentience, hippie-friendly astrological mysticism, and contemporary theories on the multi-dimensionality of space and time. Scientific thinking informs the production design and ambience of 2001, while a few inspired figurations of the Absolute—a consciousness-raising monolith, a death/birth wormhole passage, a Star Child incubating in a space bubble “beyond the infinite”— are wedded to elements of pure science fantasy. The power of mixing myth and empirical science in this way was essential to Kubrick’s enterprise. An avid reader of hard science and science fiction (as well as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which he asked co-writer Arthur C. Clarke to absorb), he aimed to connect audiences with realities that exist on a scale far vaster than we can comprehend. But how do you frame the infinite?


Cosmic space has been a recurrent topos in narrative film since the dawn of moving pictures. In 1903’s A Trip to the Moon, George Méliès mischievously fired a rocket into the lunar surface as if he were gobbing spit in the eye of heaven. The off-planet science-fiction genre reached its apex at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, just as the first U.S. and Soviet satellites were successfully launched into orbit, raising the possibility that manned spaceflight might not be only possible, but imminent. This era also saw the adoption of widescreen entertainment by a movie industry hemorrhaging audiences to the ultimate home invader: television. By 1953, five thousand movie theaters had closed in the U.S. alone. Cinema's industry titans had to recreate mass entertainment or go bust. They responded first with three-camera Cinerama and 35mm squeeze-and-stretch anamorphic CinemaScope, both based on expensive preexisting (but long ignored) technologies that ballooned screens to huge proportions. As Russian and American scientists were beginning to explore space, so too were studio filmmakers—forging new destinies for film and the worlds it would discover.

Hollywood had not so much conquered outer space in the 50s as colonized it with monstrous beings (The Angry Red Planet, It! The Terror From Beyond Space) and alien adversaries (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Science was advancing quickly on popular fantasy by the early sixties, when astronauts entered Earth’s orbit for the first time and more sophisticated aesthetic strategies were required to match reality. Widescreen formats had already been put to work re-invigorating popular genres like the musical (Oklahoma!), the Biblical epic (The Ten Commandments), the Western (How the West Was Won), and even the gladiator film (Kubrick's own Spartacus, which he later renounced), but explorations of cosmic space were increasingly left to NASA's real-world mission control. When it came to big-budget spectacles shot in one of the newer formats—VistaVision, Technirama, Ultra-Panavision 70—space really did seem to be the final frontier.

Released by MGM in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn't the first major widescreen movie to deal with extraterrestrial environments—that distinction belongs to Fred M. Wilcox's CinemaScope classic Forbidden Planet (1956)but it was the first to dispense with the clichés of the genre (ray guns, force fields, saucer-shaped craft, robot mascots, nuclear anxieties, invasion dread) in a quest to achieve something more visceral and more profound: call it cosmic cinema. In order to envelop viewers fully in the visual experience of 2001, Kubrick shot his film in Super Panavision 70mm, with an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, for presentation “in Cinerama,” which by 1966 had become a more streamlined single-camera process. (According to biographer Vincent LoBrutto, Kubrick’s decision came out of an early conversation with technical advisor Bob Gaffney, who advocated for the more “immersive” widescreen format.) The considerably sharper resolution of 65mm stock (with its Dolby-dwarfing six-channel sound), along with innovations in front projection, modeling, lenses, and other special effects gave Kubrick the baseline technology he needed to visualize interior and exterior spaces (the African savannah, the surface of the Moon, deep-field space) in the most realistically detailed fashion. But the 70mm effect was felt to its fullest when 2001 premiered with special optical prints on the 3,000-square-foot curved screen of the Loew’s Capitol Theatre in New York and the 86-foot-wide Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, venues that had previously accommodated an aspect ratio of 2.59:1. Space had finally arrived.


In painting or film or photography, the frame is a boundary, an enclosure, a limit field where the components of any image reside. It might be sufflated with information, or empty of visual (and sonic) data. Only convention determines the right-angled dimensions of the film frame—a square or rectangle, rather than an ovoid or elliptical shape more in keeping with the physical properties of the human eye and visual perception. The function of any frame is to separate the space of art from everything else; that is, all other kinds of spaces, real or imagined. As an illusory three-dimensional system, film is flat, planar, and being composed of light, lacks the texture of a painting. Yet it has an eerie power to produce mental spaces and virtual realities that feel uncannily lifelike. If nothing else, the film frame is like a wormhole into cross sections of the past, revealing the lived experience of people, actors, and the environments they inhabited while the cameras were rolling, albeit from within a limited point of view (whatever's in the frame), at a certain angle of relief, and only within the discrete moments made available through editing.

Cosmic space, an unbounded elsewhere that refers to an unknowable whole, was not conceptually well represented before the advent of widescreen. Given the limitless expanses of our rapidly expanding universe, now measured in orders of magnitude (megaparsecs, as it were) that derange any sense of human relevance, it’s not hard to see why. Small screen formats gave intensities to character, privileging psychological depth (in the close-up) as well as action and movement; or they spatialized states of mind by introducing diagonal geometries of the frame, as in the case of German expressionism and classic film noir. Widescreen formats created a sense of the world at scale: the frontier, a landscape, the curve of the Earth could all appear with an appropriately panoramic magnitude and extension. For this reason, John Ford’s panning shot of Monument Valley in Stagecoach (filmed in a boxy Academy ratio of 1.37:1) has a homey, humble beauty but seems less majestic than the geologic sprawl we merely sense through a darkened doorway frame in Ford’s The Searchers (VistaVision). Sometimes the horizontal sweep is utilized to limit what we see in the frame and subtract all but the most potent information—to suggest rather than show.

Such is the case with the overture (a longstanding convention of Golden Age roadshow exhibitions) before 2001, which presented audiences with a black screen and the eerie, discordant strains of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, building from a low hum to a more dynamic cacophony of unusual sounds over the course of two minutes. Inherent to every film image—every framed shot—is an out-of-field that is either implied or made (momentarily) invisible. Panning shots or cuts between different points of view can create extension in space and orient the viewer in the basic cartography of an observed environment. In the pre-film overture, which sets the stage for Kubrick’s interplanetary epic, the entire cosmos is the out-of-field referent, a space-time volume so inconceivably huge even a sequence of Hubble-grade “star field” shots could never approximate it. Kubrick resolves this dilemma through a kind of symbolic shorthand that collapses the entire universe into a static shot: an empty one. The black field—an absent mise-en-scène—stands in for the vast, cold, indifferent emptiness of galactic space. Like the onscreen void, where no light or motion is discernible, the Atmosphères score is a cluster of disjunctive harmonics and jarring glissandi that seems to hang outside of time, before creation. Such a bold gambit may have been without precedent in the history of MGM releases (Kubrick even got the studio to drop its trademark roaring lion for a silent, motionless blue logo), but the effect is the same regardless of which aspect ratio it is projected in, 2.20:1 or 2.35:1: a borderless black field engulfs viewers in primordial darkness.

In its insistence on conjuring a cosmic feeling through nonrepresentational means—the image is flat, the screen dark—Kubrick’s overture follows in the lineage of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Square, a Suprematist painting that radically repudiated figuration for pure abstraction. Part of an avant-garde clique, Malevich imagined that his consciousness was evolving, and believed the new species of artists and poets to come would progress toward higher forms of feeling “commensurate to the infinite cosmos” by abandoning the impulse to represent reality. For him the human mind, like the universe, “possesses no ceiling, no ground, only offering space for projections which allow the appearance of gleaming points, stars in space.” His move into abstraction, which harkened to the Orthodox tradition of iconography, was informed by science, astronomy, and evolutionary biology, as well as a bright wash of self-aggrandizing gibberish. “I have transformed myself into a zero of form,” he wrote at the time he composed Black Square, “and have gone beyond 0 to 1.” Though born of panpsychic hubris, that formulation has great significance to the history of infinity, from Pythagoras to George Cantor, whose revolutionary set theory in part describes the infinity of numbers between zero and one, between absence and presence, as well as the infinity of multidimensional space. Existence, in mathematics and cosmology and 2001, begins with the empty set—the empty frame which contains nothing.

Just the opposite effect—a saturation of the 70mm image—was created by a young Douglas Trumbull for 2001’s famous stargate sequence. After scientists make a shocking discovery on the moon indicating we have had visitors to our solar system in the distant past, astronauts Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) embark on a months-long voyage to Jupiter, hibernating researchers in tow, to investigate the source of a powerful radio signal. En route, the Discovery’s onboard computer — a state-of-the-art, ostensibly infallible HAL 9000 series model (voiced with fey brilliance by Canadian actor Douglas Rain)—goes rogue and methodically eliminates everyone but Bowman, who finally manages to lobotomize the too-self-conscious, more-human-than-human A.I. Upon reaching Jupiter, Bowman is guided into a wormhole, triggering Trumbull’s bravura psychedelic sequence. On either side of a perpendicular line dividing the screen, two vertical planes of brightly colored lights and shapes emerge, rushing past and out of frame, giving the illusion that Bowman (glimpsed in a juddering cutaway shot and then in paralytic stills) is racing through a corridor of infinite dimensions at speed-of-light intensity. Modeled in part after the avant-garde films of Jordan Belson (who later created special effects for The Right Stuff) and fraternal animators James and John Whitney (collaborators with Saul Bass on Vertigo’s title sequence), Trumbull recreated screen space with his slit-scan technique, combining long exposures of circuit board diagrams, Op Art prints, film negatives, and electron microscope photographs for this sequence, which cleverly exploited the simple x and y axis geometry of an ideally proportioned widescreen frame.

Although Kubrick’s aspect ratio was dictated largely by his choice of format, it’s possible that Trumbull could not have achieved these effects in any other, since he was able to maintain a depth of field between 15 feet and 1.5 inches from the lens of his Mitchell 65mm camera using a slit-scan device he had custom-designed for the occasion. Such focal control was unusual in widescreen filmmaking of any gauge. It was widely known at the time, for instance, that the anamorphic CinemaScope format flattened space and created difficulties in depth of field, requiring a more lateral staging style. (“I don’t know how the hell to direct people in a row,” grumbled George Cukor while shooting A Star Is Born in 2.35:1.) The spherical lenses of Super Panavision 70 resulted in higher resolution than 35mm ’scope but narrowed the aspect slightly, and the process was prohibitively expensive to boot. Yet 2.20:1 allowed for more verticality in shot composition, more visual data at the top and bottom of the frame. And that extra bit of viewable area was essential for some of 2001’s most memorable sequences.

Kubrick arranges other elements in his 2.20:1 frame with similarly striking geometric precision, for altogether different purposes. As the first three familiar notes of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra ring out in the film’s iconic title sequence, Kubrick sets up an important visual motif: a vertical alignment of moon-Earth-sun that perfectly divides the frame along two axes. (Astronomers call this straight-line configuration of celestial bodies a syzygy, a periodic phenomenon that causes strong ocean tides and seismic tremors on the moon.) With the dark side of the moon in the foreground, the camera position rises to reveal an arc of sunlit Earth in the middle distance, and continues upward to resolve on an image of the Sun sitting atop these two orbital crescents as the film’s title appears onscreen. Space flattens into a two-dimensional icon suggestive of cosmic scales of duration and, perhaps, a kind of consciousness or universal Mind.

Another important use of verticality in the film’s 70mm aspect ratio—and a key to the mythology of 2001—arrives in the colossal encounter between Paleolithic ape-men and the black monolith in the Dawn of Man sequence. As an herbivorous clan of proto humans awake to find a twelve-foot-tall, graphite-colored column planted in their midst, a disturbingly atonal passage from Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” rises in volume on the soundtrack. When the alpha male (Daniel Richter, dubbed “Moon-Watcher” by Arthur C. Clarke) dares to touch and caress the otherworldly slab, Kubrick cuts to an awkwardly vertiginous angle, establishing an extraordinary point of view that rises upward from the base of the monolith to the cloud-scattered sky. In an echo of 2001’s opening motif, the sun looms like a portentous eye in center frame, peeking just above the zenith of the alien stone. Then a crescent of moon materializes above the bisected star. Kubrick’s totemic image, which combines pure science fiction with some notion of transcendental visitation, has strong psychological aspects, like any close-up. But in this case, the “face” is abstract and silent, its meaning obscure. Yet its featureless facelessness invites our gaze, like one of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings (first exhibited at MoMA in 1963, while Kubrick was living in New York City), and gives the monolith an undeniably imposing, almost sacred presence.

The height-to-width proportions of the frame are as essential to the power of this image as the alignment of elements and submissive angle of framing. In a wider aspect ratio, the lateral plane would predominate, pushing the edges a bit further out and slightly diminishing the towering effect. (This is exactly the case with anamorphic 35mm prints of 2001, created when the film went into wide release — at reduced prices — after its initial roadshow tour: The top and bottom portions of the 70mm frame were cropped to accommodate the extra width of a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.) Machine or messenger, the monolith is the film’s only constant character, accompanying the human species on its four-million-year journey from Pleistocene tool user to Zarathustrian new man incubating in a cosmic cocoon, an idea first embodied (with a lotus theme) in Les Nénuphars, a 1901 painting by Czech artist František Kupka, another modern visionary smitten by physics, astronomy, and Nietzsche’s philosophy of transhuman evolution. In its epochal manifestations, the stone transmits knowledge (Moon-Watcher’s “discovery” of the bone as tool/weapon is accompanied by a flashback to the power shot of the monolith), produces a beacon signal that instigates a manned mission to Jupiter, spurs the magical alignment of Jovian satellites that triggers Bowman’s stargate experience, and appears one last time—stoic, eternal, absolute in its impenetrability—in the serene white dream chamber where an aged, bedridden Bowman, beyond heuristics or any mappable coordinates in time and space, undergoes a final transformation.

Elsewhere, Kubrick uses his 2.20:1 frame to emphasize curvature, deploying an arsenal of arcs, spheres, and other foregrounded celestial crescents to depict travel through interplanetary space. He also creates an entire series of rotational shots for interiors—the Pan Am shuttle stewardess’s zero-gravity, upside-down walk to enter the cockpit is the first and most dizzyingly fun. The famous tracking shot of Dave Bowman jogging along the Discovery’s preposterously curved, Ferris wheel–like hull opens the “Jupiter Mission” sequence, while the command module itself is a sphere with circular air locks for spherical pods, oval portholes, and a rounded hublink corridor that Bowman traverses as it turns 360 degrees. Earlier, the Earth spins wildly through the windows of the pinwheeling space station where Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) cagily ducks the inquiries of a scientist concerned with rumors of an “epidemic” on the moon. Such an abundance of onscreen curvatures seems metaphorically related to Einstein’s revelation that the fabric of spacetime is curved by massive gravitational bodies, a scientific axiom that surely must not have been lost on Kubrick. And then consider the bowed arcs of the Cinerama screen, a giant volume that bends on either side toward the audience, an effect that undoubtedly accentuated 2001’s curved spaces and transformed the entire theater into a starship. No wonder the counterculture embraced Kubrick’s vision so enthusiastically. It was, as the tagline boasted, "the ultimate trip."

With 2001, Kubrick created cosmic cinema for an age grappling with the threat of extinction. Its grace and beauty and profoundly optimistic expansiveness remain impressive and enduring in a career that otherwise seemed content to explore the perversity of institutions—whether military (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), patriarchal (Barry Lyndon, The Shining), or marital (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut)—with brilliant incisiveness and satirical pessimism. Contemplating the nature of life in our universe must have inspired a different impulse, unlocking for Kubrick a potential in the film form itself. In grasping the ungraspable, he very explicitly sought to push that form beyond its limits, using the height and width of his widescreen format as a navigational instrument. Filmic space is limited to two dimensions (or three, it you count time, and why wouldn’t we?) and by the frame that encompasses its constitutive elements. But in its infinite varieties and subsets, its degrees and minutes, film has special powers: it can make mysticism palatable for those who aren’t inclined to mystical thinking; induce spiritual feeling in the godless; rouse a longing for unknowable truths, and more. Like the continuum of rational numbers between zero and one, film is an infinite set that contains worlds within worlds within worlds, bright magnitudes of reality and primal emotion that can stir our “subconscious yearnings,” as Kubrick once said of 2001, and also be faithful to what we know about ourselves and our universe. Ponder that, and you will see cinema-as-cosmos, and feel gratitude for the enlightened earthling who, given a limitless idea to play with, once fit it all into an empty frame.