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Fearing the Future: Stanley Kubrick and Fritz Lang

This article was edited by Zeynep Bedir.

The Future and Science-Fiction Movies

When looking into the future, people have long been obsessed with the idea of what it will be like. This obsession is often reflected in movies, especially science-fiction movies, as filmmakers can share their stories and visions of what could be awaiting humankind through their camera lens. This opens up limitless possibilities for the creative mind.

The Future Constructed in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey portrays a future primarily based on the developments made during the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s. A large international space station has been constructed in the movie, and space travel has become commonplace. The space station is a vital part of humanity’s colonizing and exploring space. Interestingly, the movie has some predictions that come true in the latter times, such as tablet computers, voice-print identification, voice-controlled computers, flat-screen TVs and video calling phones. This may be because Kubrick employed scientists and researchers while working on the movie (Williams et al., 2002). Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a story about human evolution at its core. There is a space voyage to Jupiter in a ship called Discovery One that contains Bowman, Poole and Hal 9000 as crew members. As the voyage progresses, the crew members experience strange and disturbing events. Bowman eventually discovers that the true nature of the mission is far more complex than he could have imagined. In the movie, “Kubrick attempts to explore phenomena such as God and human and artificial intelligence in the context of post-modernism and post-human studies philosophically and ethically” (Küçük, 2020).

The Future Constructed in Metropolis (1927)

In the movie Metropolis, directed by the visionary expressionist Fritz Lang, there is a future divided into two distinct classes. The ruling class lives in a very orderly, luxurious setting comprised of towering buildings and cold people. Meanwhile, the exploited working class that built the city for their masters reside underground in the dirty, crowded slums. The future in Metropolis is a bleak and colorless place, where the rich are isolated from the poor, and technology has been used to create a repressive, authoritarian society. Contrasting with the dystopian undertones, the city’s construction gives it a utopian futuristic look. Metropolis’s story revolves around the son of the city’s ruler, Freder Fredersen, who falls in love with Maria, who is the beautiful and evangelical figure among the working class. Throughout the movie, they try to break the chains of the workers and free them from the repressive class. It is a movie comprised of opposites such as heart and mind, up and down, fascism and socialism, Christian and occult, fire and water (McAuley, 2015). Perhaps the best character that embodies this opposition is Rotwang (Brosnan et al., 2022). He is both a scientist and a wizard that tries to play god and fails miserably.

Understanding the Depictions

Comparing Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s portrayals of the future, it is interesting to see how two dystopian science-fiction movies can be so different from each other. This makes one wonder how the contexts in which these movies were shot affect the futuristic depictions of human relations. To understand this, it is essential to grasp the times and conditions these filmmakers were living in, as well as their motives. Also, it can be helpful to note the social dynamics between characters as well as the essential items and important environments. 

The Effects of The Space Race on Kubrick’s Work

When it comes to Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) filming conditions, in 1957, USSR won the race to the Moon by launching the very first artificial satellite into orbit (Küçük, 2020). Following this, in 1961, they also orbited around the Moon, leaving the States in a position of disadvantage. Americans recovered from this after sending the first human to the Moon and later with their fastly increasing space investigations. This war was an ideological one  between the capitalist Americans and the socialist Soviets. They both believed their ideology was superior, and the other party tried to take over the world. Agel (1970) explains that after completing Dr. Strangelove (1964), which is about the politics of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick became captivated by the idea of life on other planets and decided to make a science-fiction movie. By doing so, he focused on humankind’s never-ending quest to play god even in hugely uncertain times. In this movie, the significant social relations are between the active crew; HAL, Frank Poole and David Bowman. Bowman is the spaceship’s captain, in which Poole is one of the crew members, and HAL is the AI that operates the ship’s systems, aiding the crew. Among these three, Bowman has the authority. At least at first. After HAL overhears Poole’s ideas about HAL’s disconnected, it murders Poole violently. Since it is the product of human intelligence, the audience is shown that HAL also has human-like emotions. He is a perfectionist who stops at nothing to get what he wants. He also feels guilt and shame. Bowman, on the other hand, is more emotionally stable. He has a good relationship with the other two at first. It could be said that in the relationship of the three crew members, he is the person that is linked with the ideal American values and the ethical side of humanity. His determination is rewarded at the end since he is the only survivor, and he achieves immortality. When it comes to environments and objects, perhaps the most crucial ones in the movie are the monoliths, the Moon and the spaceship, as well as the vast space surrounding the spaceship and the Moon. The monoliths represent the incomprehensible but intriguing mysteries of the universe (Course Hero, 2017). It is why early humans became humans and why Bowman and his crew got into the spaceship in the first place. Through its power of presence and purity of texture, it works as a disruptive construct that sends out messages. It is perhaps the ultimate truth that humanity will always be looking for. The Moon, perhaps the first step to uncovering the secrets of the monolith, has always symbolized humanity’s desire to learn and the search for truth. It is intertwined with concepts of wonder and humanity. It is also very relevant to the political context due to the Cold War. The spaceship, aptly named Discovery, is the vessel that both brings humans closer to and takes them further away from their goals. “In that floating freedom [the spaceship with no gravity], all directed and purposive movement becomes work, the simplest task an exploit. The new freedom poses for the mind…the problematic implications of all freedom, forcing the body’s recognition of its suspended coordinates as its necessity.” (Michelson, 1969). 

The Struggles of Germany in Lang’s Metropolis

Proceeding to Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s movie is interested in touching upon cultural and n political themes. Germany’s political environment and societal concerns are clearly reflected in the film as well as a cautionary tale of what it could become in the following decades is told (Film Education, 2010). Metropolis was shot throughout Germany’s first effort at democratization in the harsh post-World War I period. High inflation, public rebellions, and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and unhappiness with the class in authority followed Germany’s failure economically and politically. It may not have satisfied German viewers for Fritz Lang to paint a realistic picture that addressed the existing problems directly. Instead, he used a custom-built and strongly stylized dystopian environment rich in metaphors to express similar themes, handling Germany’s internal conflicts, concerns of friction and long-term anxieties. The main characters which the dynamics of their relations will be noted are Freder Fredersen, Maria, Joh Fredersen and Rotwang. Freder is the son of Joh and conflicts with his father throughout the movie after he falls in love with Maria. He is an idealistic man. Maria is a working-class member, and she is taking care of the children besides his duty as a religious figure. She falls in love with Freder and works toward uniting the two classes. Joh Fredersen is in charge of the city and cruel towards both the working class and his son. He has lost his wife during Freder’s birth. Rotwang, who allies with Joh later on, is a scientist/magician in Metropolis. He has a fixation on Freder’s deceased mom since she and Joh had competed for her attention, and he lost the battle. He builds a robot in the appearance of Maria that makes everything drift into chaos. As stated earlier in this text, this movie is based on opposites, and it is clear to see these opposites in the workers’ city and the rulers’ city. Lang depicts two urban landscapes. Clean contemporary structures shine amidst the city of the ruling class. The structures are beautifully towering, with a variety of shapes and a wealth of intricacy and textures (Patterson, n.d.). The higher the structures are, the higher classes they reflect. As a result, Joh Fredersen’s office, called the Tower of Babel, is the city’s highest and most recognizable structure. All of the colorless buildings in the city of workers lined up beneath the artificial lights are dirtier than the angelic structures above. Structures here appear to be devoid of any intricacy or adornment, as though they were constructed out of necessity. It is clear that the ruling elites imprisoned them here, disabling them to create a life of their own. The rough monotony of the laboring class’s city area exemplifies their industrial lifestyle, much as the ruling classes’ riches and luxuries are vividly depicted in the urban areas upstairs. 

The Variations of Portraying the Future

When one looks at the cinema of the past, it is interesting to see filmmakers’ different predictions of the future. In Metropolis (1927), the city is a futuristic hive of industry, with workers toiling in factories day and night. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the future is much more advanced, with space travel and advanced computers. The film portrays a future in which human beings have evolved to the point where they can travel to other planets and interact with advanced alien intelligence. Both of them could be considered dystopic. This is because both of their starting points are fear. Nevertheless, their differences come from the social contexts these movies emerge from. Kubrick’s fear was towards the unknown. He feared the sacrifices required to be made to know the unknown. He feared that through the struggle to get to the ultimate knowledge, we would lose our humanity. On the other hand, Lang feared something he could see coming. He feared the destructive power of insatiable thirst in human beings who would stop at nothing that got in their way. Through cinema, they got to depict these fears they had and not only warned others but also got rid of their psychological burdens. They tried to construct the future by showing the audience the opposite of what they wanted, which is what they feared the most.


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