The Visual Anatomy of a Masterpiece

2001: A Space Odyssey

… is a helluva movie.  For starters, it’s one of the consensus best movies ever made, by nearly every maker of such lists.  It’s a landmark in cinema history for its complexity, its astounding special effects, and its genre-defying ways.  Its release was a watershed moment in the history of science fiction, too, marking perhaps the first time this type of story reached the mainstream.

Spoilers follow, although — if anything — I suspect that they will improve your enjoyment of the movie.  In rough outline, 2001 concerns the discovery and subsequent contact with an alien artifact whose purpose is unclear.  It begins in prehistory, as a group of apes are somehow evolved by the artifact into using tools (the Dawn of Man).  It continues in the year 2001, when the same artifact—or perhaps an exact copy—is discovered on the Moon, and emits a mysterious transmission to Jupiter (To the Moon).  The third section is the most famous, and concerns a mission to Jupiter to figure out precisely what the artifact was transmitting to (Jupiter Mission).  This segment is the site of Hal’s battle with David Bowman (“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave”—that Hal), who eventually disables the artificial intelligence.  Bowman continues on to Jupiter, where a bunch of trippy ???? happens, and the movie closes with a giant fetus called the Starchild—who is perhaps David Bowman?—floating above the Earth (Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite).

Go back and reread that paragraph.  I assure you, it will make even less sense the second time.

Stanley Kubrick, the director, and Arthur C. Clarke, the writer, are said to have designed the movie to be purposefully inscrutable, to be not easily comprehended.  For the most part, that has withstood the test of time: scholars and denizens of the internet debate to this day what the movie means.  I set out to see what color analysis had to say about the mystery.


The Match Cut

The Match Cut

The first thing that struck me was the Match Cut.

I say “the Match Cut” because this is literally the paradigmatic example of a match cut.  A match cut is when the movie cuts (changes frames) between two objects that look approximately alike but aren’t—in this case, the bone flying through the air, and the space station hovering over the Earth.

This cut is famous most of all for its implied message.  In the context of 1968 (when 2001 was released), the space station on the right was viewed to be a spaceborne nuclear weapons platform; while the bone symbolized prehistoric man’s desire to destroy.  The implication, then, is obvious: despite millennia of progress and the technological feat of space travel, humans are still bound by their primordial need for ruination.

The cut is astounding, too, because it separates two sections with incredible abruptness—almost violence.  It is the single fastest frame transition from the movie, and the side-by-side picture ought to convince you of why: the Dawn of Man image, in light blues and the bleached white of the bone, gives way to the obsidian black of space, with the only object being the grey nuclear weapons platform.  Although shape-wise these two frames are nearly identical, the violent color shift confirms the significance of the transition.


Incredible Stillness

Besides the match cut, 2001 is an incredibly slow-moving film.  That’s not a criticism, it’s a statement of fact: Kubrick is happy to let the camera linger on a visually-astounding zero-gee maneuver, with music swelling in the background, and only the tiniest bit of motion to break the visual monotony.

Take a look at this histogram of mean frame color speed (definition here).

Histogram of Color Speeds for 2001

There’s a peak at zero color speed.  What means is that there was literally no motion in frame, for the length of at least one second.  Notice, too, that this zero motion bin is the mode of the distribution: the single most common value was zero.  In fact, fully 403 seconds of the movie had zero color speed, or almost 7 full minutes.  Another ~3 minutes had color speeds <.001, which is effectively nothing, for a grand total of 10 minutes of stillness.  That means that more than 5% of the movie was spent with nothing happening on screen.  This fact staggers me; no other movie I’ve seen spends so much of its time in stillness.


Color Structure

2001 is unusual on account of the way it is segmented into four parts.  Before three of the parts, there are title cards naming the subsequent sections, while “the Dawn of Man” is separated from the second segment (which I whimsically named “To the Moon”) by the famous match cut discussed above.  While all works of narrative possess a structure, not all demarcate the borders between elements as obviously 2001 does.

This segmentation provides a natural way to analyze the color structure of the movie: by analyzing each of acts separately, I hoped to gain some insight into the flow of the movie.  I computed the mean values each of the three predefined color statistics in each section.  As a reminder, color lightness represents the mean brightness of a frame, or how close to pure white it is; color diversity, the overall spread of colors within a set of frames; and color speed, how quickly the movie transitions between colors.


2001 color diversity by section VA_collightness VA_colspeed

The message is consistent for the three statistics.  Segments 1 and 4 are relatively similar, while segments 2 and 3 stake out a different set of parameters.  More specifically, segments 1 and 4 are brighter, faster, and more colorful than segments 2 and 3.  Colorwise, it is not entirely surprising to see the middle two segments together and darker, as both take place in space and primarily involve space travel.  What is more astonishing is that the Dawn of Man and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite co-segregate so closely.  One of these takes place on prehistoric earth, and concerns a group of apes evolving; the other in some liminal timeframe, as David Bowman is mutated into the Starchild by the monolith.  And yet, with regards to these genre-markers, those two segments are quite similar.

Moreover, the pattern of each statistic is mostly consistent.  Two graphs has segments ranked 1, 4, 2, 3, and color diversity is the lone outlier at 1, 4, 3, 2.  The movie becomes darker and slower-moving towards the middle, and most especially in the climax of the film, wherein Bowman battles Hal.  In a previous analysis, I found that darkness and low color speed effectively marked “Drama” movies in contrast to other genres.  I wonder now whether these same patterns hold within a movie, so that each movie’s most dramatic moments are its slowest and darkest.  Regardless, one can clearly view the path of the story as the tension increases towards the middle and is relieved at the end.



What struck me most from the color analysis of the movie was Kubrick’s clever pacing.  In the movie, Kubrick plays with extremes of transition: from moments of complete inactivity, to the violence of the match cut, to the steady building of drama in the middle of the film, there is a constant tension between motion and serenity.  It helps that Kubrick’s shots are composed like paintings and surrounded by orchestral sound, so that the 10 full minutes of silence come across not as padding but as some hushed contemplation.  It’s impressive how bold Kubrick was to let the action unfold at this glacial pace.

What can we make of all this?  I’m not sure, and I won’t pretend to be.  This movie has baffled critics and fans.  It was designed to do so.  I will hazard an interpretation which I hope you’ll forgive, as it’s a bit far afield.

There aren’t many stories that are arranged in four parts—that is an unusual number.  We are accustomed to considering stories in three; that is, beginning, middle and end.  2001 lacks much of a beginning; it’s first segment is disconnected from the next two by the match cut.  And after you’ve waded through an hour or so of space travel and the relief of Hal’s defeat, you are once again greeted with a non sequitur, a section literally entitled “Beyond the Infinite”, a contradiction and a paradox.  Suddenly there are bright colors again, abstract landscapes, a domestic scene; but there is no conclusion but the sight of a giant fetus hanging over the Earth.  I was not the first to sit there slackjawed for several minutes, desperately attempting to piece together what it all meant.

The four part structure makes me think of Kishotenketsu, an Eastern narrative structure.  Whereas the traditional three part structure is founded on the notion of a conflict between characters, Kishotenketsu has no such conflict.  The idea of it is to present 4 seemingly disconnected observations or ideas, which then somehow reconcile towards the end to imply—but not directly state—a meaning.  This four-panel cartoon is an excellent example (coupled to a great explanation here).

I wonder if 2001 isn’t a kind of Kishotenketsu.  While all of the segments are disconnected—there is no single character who appears in all four, and thus there can be no consistent conflict—there is the lurking specter of a deeper meaning behind it all.  That meaning is profoundly hidden, certainly, but it’s not unreasonable to see a message about evolution in there somehow.  Maybe the stillness of the movie, and the ambiguity of its purpose, are there not to communicate some message but rather to pose a question about the ultimate destiny of mankind.

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