A Review of 2001: A Space Odyssey

by Samuel R. Delany

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 and Henry Morrison, Inc., his agents.

Once past the titles, you see landscapes: muted earth colours, yellows, lots of rock, little vegetation. The feeling is horizontal stasis. Almost every line is as long as the horizon itself. The point of view is immobile.

In the penultimate sequence, you are propelled with fantastic energy through landscapes full of verticals: crags, mesas, canyons, waves and precipices, as rich and violent as the opening ones are serene. Some of the scenes are solarised, some are developed with colour replacement techniques that increase the visual violence.

The journey between the two is an odyssey that takes a million or so years. We watch proto-humans begin it with a brilliant sequence in which men/apes learn to distinguish the subjective from the objective, and so invent tools, first used to gain food, then as weapons against their own kind. At its end a starchild, man-become-something-more-than-man, moves through space inside a translucent amnion, regarding the planet earth. The journey has unexpected twists, goes in many odd directions, is ultimately circular; and great steps of it are bridged in the space between two frames of film.

Kubrick concentrates perhaps two-thirds of his vision on one "moment" of the journey: the incidents up to and including the nine month expedition of the space ship Discovery to Jupiter. The ship is seeking, unbeknownst to the two conscious humans on the crew, still another of the possibly-sentient slabs that have stood as guide posts since the beginning of the journey. In this section of film, the images are highly mechanized. People talk to one another, make speeches, listen to orders (and in the un-cut version, one set of orders is run twice verbatim to great ironic effect), and only moments later do we realize that the inormation content is nil. Machines on the vast cinerama screen, showing jeweled Lunar and trans-Lunar nights, dance, offer themselves to one another, supplicate and entreat each other: in one scene, mechanical hands bear a corpse before an implacable, sperm-shaped space ship whose computer-brain has possibly gone "...half crazy over the love of you..." Throughout this centre section of the movie, Kubrick carefully creates a gravity-less universe: as the film progresses, concepts like up and down disintegrate under the cinerama medium, until at last a human standing with his head pointing straight at the audience has the same visual weight as another standing "upright" in the same frames. In the un-cut version we were given a long and lyric sequence of Gary Lockwood walking, running, jogging about the walls of a great circular room. The original length of the scene gave the audience time to make the very difficult translation of their own physical movements into this new space. Now the scene is considerably truncated, and in the viscera (or more accurately, in the dark coils of the middle ear) where the film grabs, the hold is a little looser.

But even with the excised twenty minutes (cut by Kubrick himself after the first blunderings began to come through from critics completely at a loss over what to do with a film so blatantly unconcerned with the nineteenth century problems of human mistakes grown from the passions - rather than the intellect, the spirit, or defects in other sensibilities) the bones are still very much intact.

The problems in interpreting the film do not lie in the visual glut of the closing half hour. With all its complex and exquisite imagery, I think everyone will agree it is a visualization of rebirth. The problem throws us back to the ship Discovery: what sort of man is being reborn?

Two man and a computer are the three conscious entities that make the voyage. By the time the ship is in Jupiter space, the computer has killed one of the conscious men (and all three of the ones in hibernation), and the survivor has lobotimized the computer. But all three are presented as dehumanized products of a bureaucratic culture where people congratulate one another on how well they can use jargon to avoid saying anything.

When Keir Dullea undergoes transmogrification, is he a hero who is being rewarded for avenging his companion? Is he the murderer who destroyed the only "mind" on the expedition that understood the real purpose of the journey? Or is he a purely mechanical person acting solely under the dictates of the situation, and who bears no moral weight one way or the other? These are the interpretive decisions the audience has to make before it can decide whether it agrees or disagrees with what Kubrick is saying. Whether one agrees or not, the argument is austere and staggering. The pacing (at least in the original) was elegant and stately, and set the viewer up magnificently for the final explosion of light, sound, and imagistic juxtaposition.

The amazing white on white on white scenes in the Orbiting Hilton (cf. the unpainted apartment in Godard's technicolor, cinemascope film Contempt) is an incredible visual dare that works. There are myriad little gems like this for the buff. For the rest of us there is an amazing amount of visual excitement. It is not the excitement of fast-cutting. In Cinerama, three hours of that and you'd be ready for dramamine and cornea transplants. It is simply that the images and objects are presented with superb visual intelligence: they are exciting to look at, and they are exciting to think about after you have looked at them.