When talking to Horizon Magazine in 1960, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had this to say:
“It has always seemed to me that really artistic, truthful ambiguity — if we can use such a paradoxical phrase — is the most perfect form of expression. Nobody likes to be told anything. Take Dostoyevsky. It’s awfully difficult to say what he felt about any of his characters. I would say ambiguity is the end product of avoiding superficial, pat truths.”
This sentiment is clearly expressed through Kubrick’s work – perhaps most famously through his dialogue light science fiction classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The film has perplexed audiences for decades and continues to inspire new interpretations and viewing experiences to this day. It exists not as a popcorn blockbuster to sit back and enjoy, but as a puzzle that invites the viewer to open his or her mind and come to conclusions both about the film and life in general. Its themes and visual treats stir a reaction in the viewer that may be unlike anything ever witnessed before and, in the end, it’s not easy to pin down what exactly the film was intended to say.
Thousands of interpretations have been published, and the film is almost universally appreciated. “2001″ is not criticized for its intentional ambiguity; it is respected for it. This is echoed through Kubrick’s future work, the work of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson to name a few. It seems that, in the art arena, ambiguity and tastefully unanswered questions are not only accepted but embraced. Were Academy members attacking 2009′s “A Serious Man” for never answering its central thesis? Apparently not, since it got a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nomination. Life doesn’t spoon-feed answers; should movies have to?
The argument cannot stay vague, clearly, or else there is no point in discussing this. Should every film embrace ambiguity and never explain motivations, themes, or plot devices? No, definitely not. As stated above, Kubrick’s thought pieces were not the popcorn flicks where the bad guy explains to a captured James Bond his every motivation and plan for destruction. Films like “Transformers” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” do not exist to probe into the difficult questions life poses. They aren’t being made to get audiences to think; they are created to entertain. There’s not much dissection of these films because, quite simply, there’s not much to dissect.
When a tentpole studio film is released, rarely does anyone expect a thought piece or something that is meant to do anything other than simply entertain. The recently released “Prometheus,” however, has caused quite a stir in audiences who got something very different from the average blockbuster. The original “Alien” films weren’t terribly difficult to follow – they certainly had terrifying themes and implications, but that wasn’t the point. What “Prometheus” does is go back to some origins of the concepts in “Alien” and further explore the implications and themes associated with its origin story. Did it exist to entertain? Not in my opinion. “Prometheus” stands as a rare studio tentpole that does entertain, but it wants to get you thinking more than anything else.
A common criticism of the film is for its lack of answers. Who were the Engineers? Why don’t they like humans anymore? What were they doing in the first place? Is there any significance to human life? Was the lack of answers the result of hiring a “Lost” writer or was it something more intentional? In the end, many saw Shaw’s plan at the end to journey even further to get the answers she desires as simply setup for a sequel, but I’m not entirely convinced that would improve anything for the series. The film, to me, was primarily a story about faith. A recent interview Io9 conducted with writer Damon Lindelof had him phrasing the central idea of the film as “Is it possible to be a scientist and maintain some faith in the unknown?”
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