“The Sentinel”


“The Sentinel”
    (1948)
   STANLEY KUBRICK became interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the universe when two Cornell University physicists employed microwave radio to communicate between the stars. After reading ARTHUR C. CLARKE’s short story “The Sentinel,” about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, he got in touch with its author. He told Clarke he thought the story could serve as the basis of a screenplay. They first turned the short story into a novel, in order to develop completely the potentialities of the plot, and then transformed that into a movie script. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought their package, originally entitled Journey Beyond the Stars, and financed the color widescreen film, which took four years to make and was renamed 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
   “The Sentinel” was originally published by Clarke in 1948. In the preface to a 1983 edition, he acknowledges that it is his best-known story, next to “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God. ” It was written for a short story competition sponsored by the BBC, but, as he says, it was “bounced. ” Later, he realized that a story by Jack London, “The Red One,” written decades before, in 1918, contained many similar elements. “I wonder if this is the first treatment of a theme which has suddenly become topical,” Clarke commented, “now that the focus of the SETI debate has changed from ‘Where’s Everyone?’ to the even more puzzling ‘Where Are Their Artifacts?’” “The Sentinel” is narrated by a geologist who is part of a lunar expedition in 1996. In the course of the investigation party’s exploration of the region known as Mare Crisium, he notices a distant object atop a mountain peak, glittering as it catches the sunlight. When he induces his assistant to climb the mountain to examine the artifact, he learns that it is a pyramid-shaped object, 12 feet high, which he takes to be a shrine of some sort. He conjectures that perhaps some lunar civilization, long since extinct, placed it here.
   On further investigation, however, the narrator realizes that “it was as alien to the moon as I myself. ” The shimmering pyramid is surrounded by an invisible shield which the geologist and his assistant are able to break through only after two decades of experiments. They then dismantle the artifact, only to find that its advanced technology is completely incomprehensible to them.
   The narrator theorizes that millions of years before, representatives of a civilization that perhaps even then had surpassed our own left the pyramid on the Moon as a token of their passage. It was a sentinel designed to signal to them when the human race had achieved a sufficient degree of civilization to have conquered space and reached the Moon. The story ends on a tense note of expectancy:“We have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait. I do not think we will have to wait very long. ”
   With this neat little open-ended short story as a starting point, Clarke and Kubrick set to work developing a fully realized plot that would explore all of the implications hinted at in “The Sentinel. ” Thus 2001 started as a novel-length prose treatment which could serve as the raw material for the screenplay which Kubrick and Clarke were going to write. As Clarke explains in his essay,“Christmas, Shepperton (1965),” the procedure of writing a novel that can be used as the source of a screenplay is not as unorthodox as it may sound. It is beneficial to compose a script from a novel-length treatment, since this enables the writer of the screenplay to imagine the action and the characters more fully and to create them with more substance than if there had been no extended treatment on which to base the script. All of the material in the treatment is there implicitly in the background of the film, providing the firm support on which the screenplay is built. As Noel Coward once said, a filmmaker must know the characters backward and forward: “You ought to know what they would eat for breakfast, though you never have a scene in which they eat breakfast. ” This sort of background material is not to be found in the dull shorthand of a script.
   Accordingly, writes Clarke,“Before embarking on the drudgery of the script,” he and Kubrick let their imaginations “soar freely in the form of a complete novel” derived from “The Sentinel. ” Clarke recalls Kubrick saying to him more than once while they were working on the novel-length treatment,“If you can describe it, I can film it. ”
   The novel entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke published shortly after the release of the film, is basically the prose treatment which he, in consultation with Kubrick, had constructed from the short story prior to working on the shooting script; and hence the present writer shall refer to it throughout this essay as the treatment for the movie script of 2001. It is a great help in detecting how Clarke and Kubrick’s ideas changed in the course of their developing the treatment into a finished screenplay.
   Clarke and Kubrick began to compose the prose treatment of 2001 from “The Sentinel” in the spring of 1964. By the end of the year the first draft of the prose treatment was completed. As they revised their work, the “female” computer named ATHENA became the “male” computer HAL-9000; and the monolith, which began in “The Sentinel” as a pyramid, became a rectangular black block. Even while they were still writing the script under the tentative title of Journey Beyond the Stars, Kubrick and Clarke were aware of parallels between their story and Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. To the ancient Greeks, Kubrick told Jeremy Bernstein at the time, the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for people in the space age. Moreover, the islands that Homer’s Ulysses visited “were no less remote to his readers than the planets that our astronauts will be encountering are to us. Journey also shares with The Odyssey a concern for wandering, exploration, and adventure. ” With all these resonances of Homer’s Odyssey, it is not surprising that Kubrick and Clarke changed the name of the film on which they were working to 2001: A Space Odyssey before shooting began at Shepperton Studios around Christmastime in 1965.
   When they finished the prose treatment, they incorporated some of the explanatory narration from the treatment into the shooting script, mostly in the “Dawn of Man” prologue, in which an ape-man learns to use a bone as a weapon to destroy a rival ape-man, thereby taking a step toward humanity. But Kubrick eventually opted to eliminate from the final version of the film all the explanatory narration that he and Clarke had composed for the film.
   In expanding the short story into a feature-length film, Clarke and Kubrick felt that they had really done their job not wisely but too well, for the script initially was too long and top-heavy with plot details and didactic narration. Kubrick is cited in Gene Phillips’s book on Kubrick’s films as stating that he was convinced that “the feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyze it. ” He wanted to elicit a response from his audience at a deeper level than that of narration and dialogue. He and Clarke ultimately fashioned a screenplay for a superspectacle that for the first time did not depend on a strong plot line to carry the audience along. Indeed, the same set of characters do not even persevere throughout the film. This makes the movie seem, superficially at least, to be a series of episodes that are only remotely connected. It is principally through images rather than words, then, that the film unfolds. “Less than half of 2001 has dialogue,” Kubrick noted. “It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than to the intellect. ”
   Given its epic scope, it is perhaps surprising that the film uses background music relatively sparingly (although the use of music from RICHARD STRAUSS’s ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA remains one of its most memorable devices).
   Carolyn Geduld writes that, in effect, the early cuts made by Kubrick took much of the science out of the film’s science fiction. But the shadowy drift further and further away from the prose treatment “is part of 2001’s great achievement. ” In discussing the evolution of 2001 from page to screen it is worth noting along the way some of the things that appear in Clarke’s published version of the film’s prose treatment that did not find their way onto the screen when the motion picture was released in April 1968. While it is true that the film of 2001 stands on its own as a motion picture without the amplifications of the material that are found in the published prose treatment, the latter does enable one to savor more fully the experience of 2001, as evidenced by the million copies of the book that have been sold. The “Dawn of Man” prologue was originally intended to have opened with the narrator describing the Earth before the creation of humankind: “The remorseless drought had lasted now for ten million years, and would not end for another million. The reign of the terrible lizards had long since passed, but here on the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for survival had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight. In this dry and barren land, only the small or the swift or the fierce could flourish, or even hope to exist. The man-apes of the field had none of these attributes, and they were on the long, pathetic road to racial extinction. ” This heavily explanatory narration might well have given the film the air of a widescreen educational documentary and robbed the movie right from the start of some of its mystery. As this episode continues, one morning a black, rectangular, monolithic slab mysteriously appears, standing upright in a clearing. An ape-man, named Moon-Watcher (Dan Richter) in the treatment, but nameless in the film, approaches the monolith curiously and cautiously and touches it. The narrator was to introduce Moon-Watcher as a being in whose gaze there was already something beyond the capacity of any ape: “In those dark, deep-set eyes is a dawning awareness—the first intimations of an intelligence that would not fulfill itself for another four million years. ” In harmony with this statement, Kubrick and Clarke at first conceived the monolith as a teaching device for the ape-men, rather than as a mystical presence that oversees and inspires their evolutionary progress. Thus, healthy apes eating game that they had killed were to materialize on the surface of the monolith in order to encourage the ape men to learn how to capture and kill other animals. This concept was abandoned, however, because the monolithic slab might have looked like some sort of prehistoric drive-in theater screen that had been incongruously erected in the wilderness. In the film, Moon-Watcher’s acquisition of the knowledge and experience of how the bone-club extends his reach and his power is economically depicted in one neatly edited sequence. In a confrontation with a rival apeman, he picks up a bone and clubs his rival to death. In learning to extend his own physical prowess through the use of a tool-weapon to kill one of his own kind, Moon-Watcher has taken a step toward becoming human. He victoriously throws his weapon spiraling into the air, and there is a dissolve to a spaceship soaring through space in the year 2001. The cut from the soaring bone to the floating spaceship indicates, says PIERS BIZONY, “that even the blandest astronauts are still little more than clever apes in disguise, with ancient survival instincts hardwired into their brains. ”
   The next section of the film was to have begun with a narrative bridge that would explain that America and the Soviet Union were still neck-and-neck in the space race and trying to maintain the “balance of terror” (that was the basis of DR. STRANGELOVE). This was to have been illustrated by shots of Soviet and American satellites carrying nuclear bombs that could be released at a moment’s notice as they orbited the Earth. There is no reference to this situation anywhere in the final version of the film.
   The episode that follows the “Dawn of Man” prologue described above takes place 3 million years later. As this segment unreels, Dr. Heywood Floyd (WILLIAM SYLVESTER), chairman of the National Council of Astronauts, leads a party of astronauts to investigate a black monolith, recently discovered, which was buried beneath the lunar surface 4 million years ago. The discovery of this extraterrestrial artifact is the key episode in the short story, and it fuels the plot of the rest of the picture. Arriving at the excavation site, Floyd observes the monolith closely. Just at the moment he touches it, a shaft of sunlight streams down on the slab for the first time since it was dug up, touching off a piercing scream which reverberates inside the radio receivers of Floyd and his fellow astronauts.
   This radio signal emitted by the monolith, Arthur Clarke points out, is a kind of burglar alarm which telegraphs to those beings that buried it on the Moon that humans have developed technologically to the point that they have reached the Moon and found the monolith. Humans have thereby proved themselves a species worthy of the help of these extraterrestrial intelligences, superior beings that inhabit the universe beyond Earth, toward further technological progress. Because the radio signal was aimed at the planet Jupiter, a mission is outfitted to pursue the investigation of extraterrestrial intelligent life to that remote planet, by seeking the target at which the radio signal was aimed. This leads to the next episode of the film, “Jupiter Mission,” in which astronauts Dave Bowman (KEIR DULLEA) and Frank Poole (GARY LOCKWOOD) find themselves at the mercy of computer HAL-9000 (voiced by DOUGLAS RAIN), which controls their spaceship, Discovery-1.
   In the balance of this episode, Bowman and Poole discover that HAL made a crucial error in assessing some data; they accordingly decide to disconnect HAL. Unfortunately, HAL suspects their plan to “kill” him and summarily murders Poole by terminating his life support system. HAL then tells Bowman menacingly that he cannot allow him to disconnect him and so jeopardize the mission. Bowman consequently disconnects HAL’s higher functions, with a view to taking control of the spaceship. The title “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” appears on the screen and leads into the final portion of 2001’s space odyssey. In it Bowman, the only survivor of the mission, is reborn through the intervention of the extraterrestrial intelligences, as a superhuman “star child,” returning to Earth prepared for the next leap forward in humanity’s evolutionary destiny. The treatment tells us more than does the finished film about the extraterrestrial intelligences and how they have been monitoring humans’ behavior throughout the previous 4 million years by means of the monoliths. The nature of these creatures is only hinted at in the short story. There was an attempt at one stage of production to have some of these beings from outer space appear in the film. Kubrick decided against attempting to present them in any concrete form, however. In this manner, Kubrick coaxes the audience to bring their own imaginations into play. “When you are implying that god-like entities are at work in the universe,” he says in Gene Phillips’s book on his films,“you can’t hit something like that headon without its looking like instant crackpot speculation. You’ve got to work through dramatic suggestion. ”
   Furthermore, he told JOSEPH GELMIS that he did not want these preternatural beings looking like some plastic or rubber monsters. “That’s one of the reasons we stayed away from the depiction of biological entities, aside from the fact that truly advanced beings would probably have shed the chrysalis of a biological form at one stage of their evolution. You cannot design a biological entity that doesn’t look either overly humanoid or like the traditional bugeyed monster of pulp fiction. ”
   In summary, the final version of 2001, which neither shows or explains too much, enables moviegoers to participate more fully in creating for themselves the experience which constitutes the film, leaving them to speculate freely about its philosophical and allegorical content.
   References
   ■ Clarke, Arthur C. , Preface to “The Sentinel,” in The Sentinel (New York: Berkley Books, 1983);
   ■ Mast, Gerald, and Bruce Kawin, A Short History of the Movies, rev. ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000), pp. 457–460;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 131–152.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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