2001: A Space Odyssey: A Review

by Ed Emshwiller

Copyright ©1968 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted in "The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 2" edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss, by permission of the author.

When Ed Ferman phoned and asked if I'd write a short review of Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, I gladly agreed. I hdd one strong reservation, however. I've maintained ever since I got involved in making films myself that I hated all critics and reviewers, and here I was, agreeing to join the "enemy" ranks. All my complaints about how inadequate and myopic all such reviews are seem to have come home. Now I have the problem of trying, in a few words, to say something about another man's film, something I'm hesistant to do even with my own work.

So, after all the hemming and hawing, let me say I liked the movie. I recommend it to people who are interested in cinema, to those who are interested in expanding the variety of their experiences, and to those who are interested in science fiction. But, to all those who go to the movies for ritualistic involvement in a standard adventure story, beware. The film does have one strongly dramatic sequence which is quite effective, but that drama and its resolution is not the basis of the film, merely an episode, and if you are going to savour the picture, you must enjoy other aspects as well. For example, what I would call the second sequence in the picture is a beautifully choreographed passage with just a space ship, a space station, the earth, and the stars. There is no "action" exept the docking of the ship to the station. The pace is unhurried, as is true of much of the picture, yet this sequence, with its sweeping, turning movements, makes great kinesthetic use of the big screen in an almost abstract sense, a joy of pure movement. At the same time the viewer is introduced to some of the many exceptionally good "science fiction" sets and special effects. Somehow I was prepared not to like most of the "hardware" but found that most was very good indeed. I expected everything to be too smooth. Happily there are some nice, knobby spaceships. Obviously, a tremendous amount of care and concern for detail went into the making of this film.

But it's in the very area of detail where the picture falls short of its potential for me. There don't seem to be any wrinkles or grease spots on either the people or the machines. I mean this mostly in a figurative sense. I realise the film is stylized, but the manner of conveying "human" touches, even when ironic, seems studied and unreal. I've just spent the past six months making an impressionistic film of Project Apollo and have encountered a lot of bureaucrats and spaceman types. Some I liked and some I didn't, but in all cases they were somehow more textured than their counterparts in 2001.

I should say here that there are virtually no films I see that don't have areas that bother me. This one is no exception. I guess it's my inclination to say, even of good films, "that's nice but I would do it another way," which would be a different film of course.

An especially interesting aspect of the film for me in that respect is the handling of the final sequences. At one point early in making the film, Kubrick asked me if I would assist in designing that part. I read the script he and Arthur Clarke had written. The problem obviously was to create an overwhelming alien world experience. For various reasons I did not become involved in the project, but I was intensely curious to know how he would solve the problem. As it turned out he did it beautifully, with apparent economy of means and with great visceral impact. In this sequence his sue of semi-abstractions and image modification (solarization, colour replacement, etc.) brings to the big screen techniques which once seemed the province of the avant-garde or experimentalists. (Which prompts me to say that it is encouraging to see the range of cinematic vocabulary being used in commercial movies and television today. True, it's still a relatively small segment of the total output that really uses so-called advanced techniques, but it's there and growing rapidly. So is its audience. The net result is that there are more types of films to choose from. The various value systems available are increasing, and this is a healthy thing, I think. Of course, it also means that the cutting edge of the avant-garde is being pushed by an ever-growing sophistication and has to keep moving in new directions to stay in the game.)

So, anyway, let me get on with my response to 2001. I like the fact that Kubrick chose "The Sentinel" by Arthur Clarke to base his science fiction movie on. The result is a good science fiction picture without the usual overemphasis on bug-eyed monsters (however much fun they can be sometimes). I like the sense of scale and journey he got. It is the "biggest" science fiction film yet in theme, execution and actual dimensions, at least as far as I can remember. (I'd like to see again some of the old pictures I only dimly recall, like Things to Come.) I liked it when he implied, disliked it when he explained, which, happily, wasn't often. I liked the way the styles varied for the different episodes, giving the overall structure a variety in character and mood. I was at times unhappy with the dialogue. The picture is strongest in its non-verbal sense (a type of filmmaking that appeals to me) even though its concept is based on a story. I thought his use of sound was good, very effective at times: massed voices in rising crescendo at the sight of the mysterious slabs, lonely breathing in empty space. I liked the open-ended ambiguities of the ending. The film had, for me, a satisfying amount of what Sam Moskowitz calls a "sense of wonder," and a feeling which some good science fiction has for the sensual and mysterious regions surrounding our feeling about machines, time and space. All in all it was a fine experience.