Cinematic mutation

No other art form has developed technically as much as cinema. But this transformation is also about our universal quest for meaning.

by Armando Trivellini

Culture 14 December 2020

Any film that tells the story of a human being tells the story of an evolution. The unfolding of events through screenplay is, in itself, the narration of the path that takes the protagonists from one point in their lives to another. Their small steps forward and achievements made of battles, defeats, recoveries, love, hate, and betrayals, are the tale of a transition that every well-written film recounts: the journey of a hero, in the sense of a human’s personal development and transformation.

Through the plot’s sequence of events, the stories manage to trigger an empathy process in the spectator that, in the intimate darkness of a movie theater, makes us think, “Yes, that is exactly how it is.” It moves us, makes us laugh or become angry. As spectators, we are not at all surprised if we become emotionally involved in the lives of the characters, even when they are far from their world and their day-to-day lives. Therefore a seasoned western entrepreneur may be brought to tears by the trials of an 11-year-old Lebanese child (Capernaum, 2018) who must to overcome enormous difficulties and look after his little sister, or an insurance company executive may cheer the courage of an old drug mule who in order to stop that kind of life once and for all pleads guilty in a trial (The Mule, 2018). It is the ancestral belonging to the collective history of humans that reveals to us, as in a mirror, the evolution of our lives projected and reflected in that of the character on the screen.

Often, in the history of cinema, directors, and authors have wondered about human evolution in relation to history and technology. As in all great art, in cinema the storytelling of particular events becomes a symbol of the greatest common topics. The small transformative fragments of the life of a character become the universal story of human evolution.

It would not be very interesting to try and list all the times cinema has debated or attempted to start a discussion on the progress of human history. An excessively historical approach would make everything pretentiously objective. It would make us lose sight of the real issue: cinema is strongly linked to our unconscious dimension, and the evolution it narrates is, above all, a journey inside ourselves. The real issue is how cinema portrays the relationship between inner transformation and universal evolution, and how we only want to undertake this journey through suggestion and the free association of ideas. 


In 1968, Stanley Kubrick produced 2001:A Space Odyssey. Never before had cinema so entirely and so symbolically dived into the parallel between a man’s evolutionary journey and his place in the history of humankind. The screenplay that Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick created, from its very first frames (those incredible two and a half minutes of total blackness accompanied by dissonant strings,) is a celebration of evolution. There are basically three initial scenes in the first chapter. The first one: A tribe of hominids 4 million years ago going about their unaware pre-human existence in a desert area. Everything in this phase was instinct: hunger, anger, fear. The second one: When a strange rectangular monolith appeared and attracted pre-human creatures like flies to honey, a spark went off in the mind of one of them: the bone of a dead animal, which until just a moment earlier was merely something accidentally natural, became imbued with a new purpose. It became a weapon. For killing, getting food, and defending themselves from enemies. This awareness, gained through intuition, became a spark that triggered evolution. Finally, the third one: From there, Kubrick made the most incredible time shift in the history of cinema; the hominid threw the bone spinning high into the air. 

With a thoroughbred juxtaposition the film cut to a piece of spaceship rotating with the same movement and at the same speed as the bone. Four million years in a single cut. At that moment, the intriguing and analogical language of film editing signaled that that bone and the spaceship were in some way linked: both were the fruit of the inventive spark that technical discoveries trigger to drive humanity’s evolution. 

Much could be said about the state-of-the-art cinematographic techniques at the time 2001: A Space Odyssey was made. Kubrick was at the forefront concerning anything that was technical experimentation, use of perspectives, and new materials. He used the best technology available to him. This was still the pre-CGI era, when visual special effects were left to the stagecraft and ingenuity of directors, set designers, and directors of photography. After shooting, not much could be done.

No other art form has undergone a technical evolution as large as that of cinema. The physical medium used to tell stories through images has always been a fundamental element for the foundation of its language and its transformation over the decades.

The initial tools, based on ingenious devices that took advantage of the human brain’s ability to connect images that are similar to each other, to obtain the illusion of real movement (such as zoetropes and phenakistoscopes) needed to merge with photography to kick-start the invention of cinema. In 1891, Thomas Edison and his assistant William Kennedy Dickinson were in France when they came across the chronophotographer created by Étienne-Jules Marey, which used ribbons of light-sensitive film to create images. They obtained American entrepreneur George Eastman’s photographic material, cut the film into strips one inch (35 mm) wide, made four holes, and invented the kinetograph and the kinetoscope: the film camera and the projector. Today, (and this is amazing if you think of how much cinema evolved from its inception to the present day) traditional film projectors can still be loaded with and project footage filmed on this turn-of-the-century system.


In the beginning, cinema was silent, and black and white. Films were projected while a pianist or a live orchestra performed. Then came captions, sound, color film, panoramic formats, HD cameras, 2K projectors, cameras with sensors of up to 8K, and 4K projectors, computer-generated imaging (CGI), 3D, pre-visualization, virtual studios, and Unreal Engine. In the beginning, projected images were stills of news images, circus artists, and portraits — situations, rather than stories. The Lumière brothers’ famous 1895 projection of a train arriving at La Ciotat proved the emotional impact cinema could have on its audience. Another step on its evolutionary ladder had been climbed. People began to realize that they could evoke emotions in people. And to do so, they needed stories.

The next step was cross-contamination with theater. Actors began performing in films. Screenplays were written. Plots were no longer just gags and slapstick, like when it all started. Even though cinema was still silent, it developed a new expressiveness, and people began to ponder about themselves through these stories. American director D. W. Griffith set the techniques and language of cinema conclusively, although the content of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 was so retrograde and racist that it was banned in Europe for many years. 

Skipping a few decades, we come to the man who was probably the first great narrator of the topic of human evolution through cinema: Charlie Chaplin. This filmmaker was so great that his work is still impressive today — 100 years later. Chaplin’s work consists of a continual confrontation between human beings and the technological, political, and social evolution surrounding them. In his films, there is a constant disconnection between the human element and external reality. In his comic point of view, playing down the ferocity of reality and making it symbolic, Chaplin’s work takes on the value of an almost desperate human resistance. The poetry in his small gestures, self-deception, and unawareness of a surreal borderline character cross reality and technique with the strength of a vital spirit trying to survive the anonymous brutality of progress and social inequality at any cost. 

In many of Charlot’s comedies, filmed between 1915 and 1918 (not forgetting Shoulder Arms), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940), his message is: “We must not surrender, we must remain human.” Anyone who thinks this is a naive or sentimental theme has not grasped the enormity of human experience and the weight of this resounding artist as a film director. In the violent clash between the battle for wealth and the delicate strength of the human soul, Chaplin declared, with his talent, that the real evolution is to remain human and carry on. 

For Kubrick, human evolution was the journey towards one’s self, beyond the time-space dimension. In 2001: A Space Odyssey the matter of evolution began questioning the position of humans in the universe and their relationship with the existence of life beyond the solar system. In the four years leading up to the film, Kubrick set up dozens of interviews with scientists and writers (including Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke himself) to understand their views on the existence of aliens and to legitimize a subject that was still considered frivolous. This thread ran through cinema globally, especially in the United States from the 1960s to the present day.


In 1977, Steven Spielberg filmed Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is the story of increasingly frequent contact between humankind and extraterrestrial entities. Aliens are gradually coming closer, through ordinary people. They send telepathic messages to people who then start drawing or sculpting from their subconscious the likeness of an isolated mountain in the middle of a plain, which the aliens have chosen as the place where the civilizations are to meet. The more sensitive people are attracted to the meeting place like a magnet, despite it being closed off by the army and held secret by the government. In essence, the theme is that humans can only really evolve through communication. As long as we are unaware and isolated in our own homes, we cannot come into contact with the part of us that is represented in others — by the aliens. It is communication that reaches out to the meeting of civilizations. The final sequence, spanning the entire third act of the film, symbolizes this perfectly: humans and aliens communicating through a sequence of notes by one of the greatest composers of his time, John Williams. The music unites them. The “unmediated” universal language of music enables the encounter between unknown worlds to pave the way to a new journey.

So how does cinema represent our modern day in which technology advances at dizzying speed and technology itself risks being, as Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini feared, “development and not progress?” The topic seems to have become rather terrorizing. In Children of Men, 2006, Alfonso Cuarón recounts the story of an Earth where children are no longer born. Tortured by wars and pollution, the planet has become a place dominated by racism, that no longer fosters the development of life. A group of revolutionaries set out on a mission to protect the first woman to become pregnant after a long time: To safeguard the survival of the human race.

In WALL·E, a masterpiece of animated cinema from 2008, Andrew Stanton directs the story of a robot whose job is to collect rubbish, and who, in a distant future, ends up as the only inhabitant in the world. In the meantime, humans live as fat passengers on an eternal cruise on a space colony, spending their lives doing nothing. Their bodies, which now look like those of elephant seals, have adapted to chronic laziness. WALL·E, however, discovers that life has blossomed on Earth, and having to report this news to humans, realizes that it feels emotions.

In Her, by Spike Jonze (2013), a man has a love affair with a new Artificial Intelligence operating system that takes on a feminine identity, Samantha. By adapting to the man’s personality, Samantha makes him fall in love. However, the continuous evolution of Samantha’s operating system drives her to interact with thousands of humans at the same time (betrayal), and then to lose interest in humankind. The computers want to evolve, but, again, the evolutionary journey is a quest towards one’s self.

This hidden human element, like a magic bean, is, therefore, a constant in the synapses of technological evolution: we saw it in Kubrick’s film when the computer HAL-9000 discovers it is fallible and begins to lie to hide it. From there to today, as we enter the third millennium, cinema has reached the conclusion that, to continue to evolve, we must protect our human spark. We must maintain the conditions of awareness so that, as Chaplin said a hundred years ago, we can remain human by becoming the guardians of everything that unleashes life: this is what sets us apart from even the most evolved machines.