Our Bright Emissaries

Spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps the most celebrated match cut in cinema history: a prehuman discovers how to use force multiplication and triumphantly hurls a bone into the air; cut to a bone-white satellite orbiting the Earth after untold ages of evolution have occurred. The entirety of human history is elided because 2001: A Space Odyssey is not particularly interested in us. When next we see the human form, it will be that of a modern man travelling into orbit aboard a spaceship. The film presents a vision of humankind extending into the cosmos, but people are not the focus of this vision.

2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be said to be about all that much, in the classical narrative sense. The plot is so thin, so reliant on and dominated by the astonishing special visual effects, that the film has the curious quality of seeming to exist primarily as a testament to the audacity and accomplishment of its own creation. It invites us to look upon it in awe of the unimaginably complex photographic processes required to create the images presented on the screen, or to look on dreamily as mundane activities are imbued with the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony. Things do happen, but never too quickly to be appreciated. The spectacle is to a great extent what the film is, and that spectacle is for the most part concerned with spacecraft.

The moments of vitality in the film always involve spacecraft going about their business with elegant and sparing motion, executing the missions for which they have been made. The spacecraft get to dance, to leap into the heavens and be flung by gravity as The Blue Danube waltz plays. The passenger sips on a liquid meal and reads the instructions for a zero-g toilet. Machines are the heroic figures, the humans are just there. We are a listless bunch whose purpose as a species has in some essential way been ceded to the vehicles we have constructed, our bright emissaries in the dark unknown of interplanetary space. In shape and colour the ship Discovery One recalls the bone hurled by a prehuman, but this tool could have hurled itself across the solar system to its destination without help.

The stunning banality of the human presence ensures that inanimate objects are always the most interesting thing on the screen. It is a future peopled by rational and tame men, replicating in themselves the qualities of their space-age technology. Bowman and Poole, the astronauts aboard Discovery One, were presumably selected for the mission because they excel at behaving just like the ship’s inhuman systems. The swansong of the coolly murderous HAL 9000 computer elicits more sympathy than we ever feel for these two nonentities, or the other crew members it kills in their sleep. Perhaps it murdered them out of sheer frustration. Discovery One did not need them on board, and in all the ways that matter, they were barely present.

2001: A Space Odyssey’s timelessness results partly from its disinterest in human affairs. The people do and say so little that we can hardly tell what period of history the actors are from, and whilst we might catch a glimpse of Pan Am or Ma Bell, the anachronistic presence of defunct twentieth century corporations is minimal. The effect is to create a vision of the future that is unmoored from its own present and demands its own terms. 2001 exudes unapproachable majesty like no other science fiction film. The spacecraft occupy a liminal position in this future between the human and the post-human states; not quite there, but closer to the film’s ideal. It is the pod, not its pilot, that first appears on the far side of the star gate.