Beyond Rationality- the Enstrangment and Grotesque in 2001: A Space Odyssey
In the first 2’56” of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presents us with a void accompanied by Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” The pure blackness of the void goes beyond any intellectual verbalization, and yet, Kubrick is teaching us how to view the film. This film is at the edge of transcending the form of narrative, becoming a perceptual experience into the realm of the unspeakable. It is direct. The building up to this threshold of pure perceptual interaction comes not out of nowhere—minor clues scattered throughout the film introduce us to a game of puzzles.
One clue shown across the film is a sense of inexplicable strangeness through unconventional tone, style, juxtapositions, and emotional responses from the audience. To understand the strangeness, we first need to look back to Shklovsky’s interpretation of the means of art as enstrangement, seeing art as a device to alter automatic ways of perceiving reality. I believe this notion of enstrangement, as opposed to “thinking in images,” suggests that art is not about merely resemblance or representation, but rather, it breaks down our mechanical process of understanding; it is something more. In other words, the function of art is to force us to think beyond the obvious, direct associations between art and our reality. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the specific cinematography choices, such as the uses of color, shapes, sounds, and framing as well as the overall structure and complexity of characters, provide us neither with an understanding of the narrative, nor the symbolic nature of these elements. These choices leave behind the notions of concept and meaning, creating a visceral experience as a journey of spiritual awakening. This transcendental experience thus becomes a direct critique of human reason.
Formal perfection is shown through geometric shapes such as circles, squares, rectangles, and octagons as well as primary colors, red, blue, yellow plus black, and white. The word perfect usually refers to the absolute, complete, or as good as possible. Encountering the imperfections of humans, the perfection creates a horrifying effect that leads to unresolvable conflict. A sense of ludercious and hideous conflict disorients the audience so that they cannot analyze the narrative logically or react to it, which itself reveals the limits of rationality.
The notion of grotesque originally means hideous or ugly in our ordinary language. Associated with a family of words such as horror, disgust, ridiculous, shock, distortion, obscene, grotesque can not be simply defined. From my understanding, grotesqueness is to exaggerate reality in an unnatural way, creating a spectacle that speaks to the way the world actually is or ought to be by delivering both a horrifying and ridiculous effect. The effects of the grotesque are noticeable throughout Kubrick’s films, such as Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Path of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove, but have not often been discussed in the body of literature on 2001: A Space Odyssey. The minimalism and the visual astonishment in 2001 seem very distant from such an effect associated with ugliness, disgust, and distortion at the first glance. However, the visual astonishment and perfectness are in part what makes this film absurd and horrifying on a deeper level. The unreasonable demand for and reliance on a perfectly reasonable system, the irrational human quality such as pride and fear, and the emotional response from the audience result in a hideous spectacle to which we are not quite sure how to react. In my opinion, the deployment of Shlovsky’s notion of enstrangement in 2001: A Space Odyssey is specifically linked to the grotesque. This association is delivered through the juxtaposition of perfection and imperfection, which creates the contradictions that reflect the boundaries of reason and logic. This use aims to transcend such limitations of finite beings, allowing the audience to experience the realm of the unspeakable by pure perception.
The film 2001 reveals the limits of a perfect logical system through the contradicting “personality” of Hal. This discrepancy distorts and deforms the normal understanding of machinery, delivering a sense of horror and ridicule through the concurrence of perfect and imperfection. As a matter of context, In the twentieth century, there was a huge progression in foundational mathematics that proved the limitations of formal logical systems and machine computability, corresponding to Gödel's famous incompleteness theorems and the Church-Turing thesis. These advancements naturally push forward the questions of what is beyond the realm of rationality. The character of HAL 9000, on the other hand, reveals the limits of a perfect logical system from a cinematic perspective that involves more intricacies. Kubrick adopts a minimalist approach in this film, with zero redundancy and extraneous information. When HAL is first introduced, there is a full two-minute interview between Mr. Amer, David, and Hal. During the interview, the use of hyperbolic language such as “maximum”, “incalculable”, “extreme”, “enormous”, “greatest”, “most reliable”, “had ever”, “incapable of error”, “slightest”, “fullest possible uses'', “had ever hope to do”, “Let me put it this way Mr. Amer'', “by any practical definition of the words foolproof” all suggest a sense of absolute and perfection, filtered through man’s pride and ego. However, “HAL” stands for “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer”. In artificial Intelligence, heuristic algorithms are used to solve problems that cannot find any exact solution or to find a quick solution, an approximation in order to decrease the time complexity of the problems. Hal is programmed to be 100% confident, incapable of questioning his own errors, and yet, the foundation of his algorithm is by no means perfect. By fleshing out the character of Hal—portraying both his unflagging confidence and his inherent imperfection—Kubrick reveals the deficiency in the complete reliance on a perfect logical system.
The notions of enstrangement and grotesque are further developed through the character of Hal, specifically in terms of the inverse qualities of humans and machines. Hal is portrayed as both a trustworthy friend and a killer. Kubrick reverses the emotional aspect of humans and machines to create a spectacle in which humans are logical, cold, and emotionless, and machines appear to be sentimental. The acting style of the human character has a resemblance to the factory workers in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which humans are considered mechanical parts of a larger machine. On the contrary, Hal appears to have a complicated set of human qualities, such as caring and compassion, followed by ruthlessness and fear of death. Hal, as “the brain and central nervous system of the ship,” holds enormous power and demands complete control. He exists everywhere on the ship and nothing can escape his “eye”— a circular camera colored red, yellow, black, and dark blue. This authoritative surveillance reminds us of Big Brother in 1984 or Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, in which the characters or prisoners are constantly being watched by an invisible figure. The success of Hal’s mission is prioritized above all, and human value is always sacrificed when it is incompatible with the end goal. When Hal says “this mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize,” the disparity between Hal‘s gentle and almost soothing voice and his identity as both a dictator and killer makes him verge on the ridiculous, but at the same time, terrifying—a distinctly grotesque combination.
In another disorienting moment of enstragement, Hal’s dying scene elicits a strange sense of compassion in the audience coupled with emotional confusion. Over the course of the seven-minute-long scene, the audience enters both his “brain” and “body” as an enclosed space with the red tone, resembling the human womb associated with life and death. The action of Dave inserting the key resembles a knife’s penetration into the human body whereas Hal’s murder of the scientists in hibernation lasts only for a few seconds, and their death is impersonally indicated by the stopping of an electrocardiograph. During the dying scene, Hal's tone changes from “what do you think you are doing Dave” and “I am entitled to” into “I know everything has been quite right for me” and “I feel much better now.” This shift suggests an enormous intelligence with the understanding of human psychology, and the keen manipulation of it to increase his chances of survival. When Hal says “I can feel it”, the audience’s perspective becomes the murderer’s perspective. This strange moment evokes an emotional response from the audience—a form of compassion for Hal—but we, disoriented, are not sure if it is appropriate. A similar manipulation of the audience’s expected emotional response is also present in The Path of Glory. When the German prisoner sings at the end of the film, the acting style of soldiers dramatically changes from one film genre to another– from theatrical facial expressions to a subtler, realist representation. This juxtaposition creates a transcendent effect, blurring the opposition of two warring countries, men and women, to reach a sense of collectiveness. In 2001, a similar effect is achieved by the jump cut to an enormous wide shot with the stillness and the grandeur of the cosmos. This transition overwhelms us with its astonishing beauty, thus demanding a way of viewing that transcends pure logical thinking.
The sense of enstrangement and grotesque is also highly associated with bathroom scenes across Kubrick’s films. The bathroom is used to reveal the true nature of characters in contrast to their orderly and civilized disguises, in part because of its function of displacing human waste, usually considered as dirty, filthy, and uncivilized, from the bright side of society. For example, in Dr. Strangelove, while General Tugidson uses the euphemistically described “powder room”, his secretary takes a phone call and repackages and translates his furious, crude manner into civilized language. In Full Metal Jacket, the bathroom is designed with absolute order, but is also a place where all of the order breaks down. The perfect structure of discipline, with no tolerance for minor flaws, eventually leads to Pyle’s psychological breakdown. The space of the bathroom, underneath the disguise of perfect order, thus shows the true nature of the contradiction and absurdity of war and military.
The first bathroom scene in 2001 lasts only a few seconds, which conveys a sense of absurdity through redundancy. Accompanied by Johann Strauss Jr.’s “The Blue Danube Waltz'', the “Zero Gravity Toilet” is introduced with sophisticated instructions divided into 10 steps. The name “Zero Gravity Toilet”, combined with the confusion on Dr. Floyd’s face lends a humorous and ludicrous quality to the scene.
The other bathroom scene conveys enstrangement and grotesqueness by showing the repulsiveness of the human body, and the hideous and horrifying effect by mirroring the absurdity of human existence. When Dave enters the final room projected by the higher intelligence, the camera glances through the bathroom and Dave looks at himself in the mirror– inside the red astronaut suit, he sees his aging face. Dave stares at the mirror long enough, so that his whole appearance seems nonsensical. Associated with the human body and flesh, the notion of grotesque often incites a feeling of both nausea and hideousness. Here, the crumpled skin evokes a sensory response of disgust, revealing the inevitable fact of human aging. Besides that, the whole final room can be considered as “a mirror in the bathroom.” The fish eye shot accompanied by an eerie soundtrack of heavy breathing and unidentifiable demonic voices recalls the horror genre. Similar to the black monolith, the grids on the floor suggest the room is built in an abstraction or a generalization of space. The 18th-century-styling of furniture, the paintings on the wall, and the way how Dave eats his meal all suggest a sense of western high culture and bourgeois. The combination of elegancy and oddity rebel against “gentee beauty, bourgeois realism, and classical decorum”, and which, as James Naremore points out, is a modernist approach of the grotesque. Surrounded by high western cultivated decorations, this space is supposed to be considered comfortable and familiar to Dave. But this familiarity is so absurd that it leads to a description in the book Nausea by Jean-Paul Satre: “I looked anxiously around me: the present, nothing but the present. Furniture light and solid, rooted in the present, a table, a bed, a closet with a mirror, and me. The true nature reveals itself: it was what exists, and all that was not present does not exist.” In this generalization of space, the distinct placement of each furniture emphasizes their own presence and function, which again, creates an inexplicable strangeness through this so-called “familiarity”. This strangeness is shown through techniques such as long takes and slow movement, which makes Dave’s existence similar to an animal in the zoo; The sudden breaking of the wine glass, which creates a sense of dread and illogical; The juxtaposition of Dave’s different stages of aging, which disturb the linear structure of narrative. Here again, the audience is not sure how to react.
The black monolith, on the other hand, adds another layer of enstrangement and grotesque by introducing a formal perfection. As Naremore mentions in his essay, Kubrick was strongly influenced by the artistic modernism he absorbed in New York during the late 1940s and 50s. Like the opening scene, the black monolith calls to mind modernist abstract paintings. For example, it evokes Rothko’s black color field paintings, by which he wants his viewer to be entirely taken over, conveying a sense of pure emotion with no elements of reality. It also recalls Kazimir Malevich’s painting of the black square, which is meant to evoke “the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.” Both artists see art as an absolute and pure abstraction, which brings us to the myth of the black monolith. According to Arthur C. Clark in his original novel, the dimensions of the monolith are 1:4:9. This ratio, based on the squares of 1, 2, 3, delivers a sense of mathematical simplicity and beauty, and as Clark points out, suggests the potential for higher dimensions. The inconceivable smoothness of the surface, together with its mathematical perfection and precision, indicates an enormous intelligence beyond what humans could possibly think of. The unknown is explored through perceptual experience mixed with awe, shock, discomfort, confusion, scare, and disorientation. For example, in the second scene, the audience experiences a sudden strong noise together with the character in the film. The discomfort can be considered a direct act of punishment of man’s lust and desire, portraying the unknown through horror and disorientation. Likewise in the stargate scene before Dave enters the final room, the audience travels through space that is not physical but almost supernatural. Color is bursting out from the center of the screen, stars disperse circularly. Celestial bodies blend with the darkness, and we see what Dave sees. These abnormal perceptual experiences blur the spatial and conceptual distance between the viewer and the film. Eventually, it reveals the constraints of logical reasoning, leading into the unspeakable.
The full title of 2001 carries the connotation of Homer’s Odyssey: the epic poem of a heroic homecoming warrior, with romantic narratives of fantasy and mystery, one of the building blocks of western culture. However, 2001 challenge the form of narrative, ideas of heroism, romanticism, and western culture. Kubrick virtuosically manipulates genre and the audience's expectation, as he does in all of his films–2001 has elements of horror, comedy, absurdity, philosophy, as well as the drama and tension we expect from a space film. The theatrical undertaking delivers operatic effects, and yet it subverts general classifications such as “space opera,” the futuristic science fiction epics that take us into the great beyond, with romantic and melodramatic plot points. While the film is thematically powerful and awe-inspiring, what is underneath this grandeur and formal perfection is a twisted abnormality and weirdness. This sense of hidden grotesque and enstrangement embedded in the film is what makes it special and impossible to classify. Together with this strangeness, the deep examination of what it means to be human, and the transcendental effect push beyond traditional ways of experiencing film, which is in large part why 2001 still feels revolutionary and monumental today.
 Shklovsky, “Art, as Device,” Duke University Press (Oxford University Press, September 1, 2015).
 James Naremore, “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque,” Film Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2006): pp.5
 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (London: Royal National Institute for the Blind, 1980)
 Matthew Drutt and Kassimir Severínovitx Malevitx, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism (New York: Guggenheim Publications, 2003).
 Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: ACE, 2019).