The science fiction genre is home to hundreds of films, each with their own meaning and implications. Among them is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece challenged it’s audience to find a meaning among it’s vague plot and unusual metaphors. Almost fifty years later, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity presents a fresh, more realistic take on the genre. Using modern technology and a somewhat believable premise, Gravity proved to be the space film that people were waiting for. Because 2001 was such an important and influential film, surely it would have had an impact on most subsequent science fiction films. Despite showing some signs of inspiration from 2001, Gravity has it’s own identity, mostly void of direct influence from Kubrick’s film.
Gravity tells the story of two astronauts trying to return to earth after they are stranded in space by a storm of destructive space debris. The reason for their predicament: a Russian missile test destroyed satellites and sent them flying towards the space shuttle at supersonic speeds. Why was Russia in particular chosen to be the indirect protagonist of the film? Perhaps this was a nod to earlier science fiction films during the missile crisis era. At first glance, the plot of Gravity bears no resemblance to 2001, a film with no real clear meaning. 2001’s captured the feelings of loneliness and helplessness in it’s man versus machine subplot, which turned out to be a stepping stone toward’s its intention of telling a story of the evolution, and eventual rebirth, of man. While the narrative of 2001 is unique, the filming techniques and sound of the film were nothing short of innovative, and influenced many films that came after it.
Throughout Gravity, there were only a couple scenes that could have been inspired by 2001. One of those scenes was the very first one of the movie. After the title screen, there is a long shot of the earth rotating. For a while, the camera doesn’t pan and there is no sound at all. After about thirty seconds of silence, the character’s radio chatter starts to come in, and gets louder as their bodies and the space shuttle start to come into view. Although there isn’t a scene just like this in 2001, there are plenty where there is a lingering shot of something with no sound and minimal movement on screen. For example, the scene where Hal and Bowman are staring each other down in their own ships had a similar vibe to it, as before either of them talk, there is about a minute of shots of the ships without sound.
The second scene in Gravity that seemed like a nod to 2001 was toward the end when Stone reached the international space station. She closed the airlock and took off her space suit and then curled up into a fetal position and just floated there for a few seconds. This scene immediately recalls the end of 2001 where the giant fetus is hovering beside earth, especially since earth is visible through a small window behind Stone. Despite not seeing the whole earth to get a size comparison like in 2001, both scenes look very similar. The purpose of them within the movie was different, though. In gravity, Stone’s fetal position was meant to show a sense of safety and relief, considering what had happened earlier in the movie. The fetus scene in 2001 had a completely different meaning since the baby wasn’t flying through space in a death spiral for the past hour. This is where the specific scene similarities between Gravity at 2001 end. Other than both of them being set in space, each movie has it’s own style, which is not very much like the other.
One aspect of 2001 that was surprisingly not a part of Gravity was a lack of much dialogue or music. It would make sense that, by being alone in space, there would be a lack of dialogue. Both movies have supporting characters who aren’t present throughout the movie, but handle them differently. In 2001, Bowman and Hal aren’t exactly friendly, and since Hal can read lips and hear everything, Bowman can’t talk much around Hal. Prior to their falling out, there isn’t much talking between Bowman, his Colleague, and Hal other than short plot advancing conversations. This isn’t echoed in Gravity, as Stone and Kowalski have much banter throughout the movie. Other than talking about how to try to survive in their situation, they talk a lot about other stuff like their lives back on earth and their families. While they’re still together, they don’t really stop talking, which makes sense since Bullock’s character is clearly having a panic attack throughout the movie. Even after Kowalski goes away, Stone continues to talk, either to herself or to Houston. At times, it seems like she is giving a monologue to the camera rather than trying to calm herself down, which does take away from the suspension of disbelief that the movie otherwise succeeds at creating.
The use of music is also very different in both movies. 2001 uses music very sparingly, with the entire middle section having almost no music at all. Because Kubrick chose to minimise the amount of music in the film, what music there is really accentuates what is on the screen and establishes the mood of that scene. The scene after the prehistory intro, for example, shows rotating space stations with a Johann Strauss waltz being played over it. The music interacts with the movement of the space station, which even without the music appears dance like. The visual combined with the music really enhances the scene and gives it more depth than if it were to have either no music or different, non waltz music. Also, the main theme of the movie, Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” is played multiple times throughout the film in certain spots where it can elevate the scene. Because of the grandiose sound of the piece, the scenes that it’s paired with are equally magnificent. The most obvious example is in the beginning when the monkeys learn to use the bones as tools. The music hits the forte as the monkey frantically hits the bones, which makes the discovery that much more profound. The middle section of the movie is pretty much void of any music, as the silence and ambience of space act as the soundtrack, intensifying the eeriness and loneliness of their ship. The only time music is heard during this time is when Hal sings as it’s being disconnected by Bowman. Although it’s not as grand as the main theme, Hal’s song continues the trend of music being played only in climactic scenes.
Gravity is much more like a normal action movie when it comes to the music. In the beginning, up until the first destruction scene, there is only the sounds of talking and breathing. It seemed at first that the movie would stay true to there being no sounds in space, other than the characters talking to one another. After the shuttle was destroyed, and the movie started to become more of an ordinary thriller type, the music became more frequent and present. Sometimes it was nonintrusive, with quiet string music being played underneath dialogue scenes with the intent of making the scene more dramatic or emotional. While that is fine, other parts of the movie with large amounts of destruction had music being played loud and almost covering up sounds of the character. Because the audience already knows what is going to happen by Stone looking at her watch, the music doesn’t heighten the suspense of her almost dying again. Also, if the movie what have used more sounds of the characters hyperventilating and generally freaking out, it might have been more successful at maintaining the level of suspense throughout the movie. The only thing Gravity at 2001 share musically, would be the final scene. As Stone walks out of the water, the music reaches it’s climactic, triumphant section as the movie ends, similar to the main theme of 2001 being played as the baby floats next to earth.
It’s almost unfair to compare 2001 to Gravity as they are so radically different. While Gravity favors a more modern thriller formula where the main character survives a near death situation, 2001 is much more nuanced in it’s meanings. After seeing 2001, you might spend time pondering the meaning of the film. What does the baby represent, and how does it relate to the monkeys at the beginning, for example. As for Gravity, the special effects are the redeeming quality of the movie. The predictable plot and lack of any subtle, deeper themes can be overlooked because of the amazing visuals. However, being from different time periods, this can be expected. The end results are two films that are the epitome of their genres that, despite having few similarities, showcase innovative techniques and reflect the time in which there were created.