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2001: A Space Odyssey
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Film

The Odyssey of 2001

2001: A Space Odyssey, 55 Years Later

The American motion picture industry has a low tolerance for arty filmmakers and an even lower tolerance for their attempts at cinematic art.  They only abide either as long as they put cash in the box office till.  And when they don’t…

Think of Orson Welles.  Think of his classic films, milestones in the American film canon, films like Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958)…  Yeah, sure, some of Welles’ professional wounds were self-inflicted, but the fact remains that, according to David Thomson’s Rosebud:  The Story of Orson Welles, he only turned out one hit in his entire career:  The Stranger (1946).  Seems the ticket-buying public didn’t have any more use for Citizen Kane (and everything else he did!) than Kane’s studio, RKO, had for Welles, and after a few more post-Kane box office stiffs, as Welles often told interviewers, he wound up spending more time scrounging financing for his passion projects than he did making them.

But there was one American filmmaker who hit that very sweet sweet spot where cinematic art and commercial viability could occasionally overlap (if barely):  Stanley Kubrick.  Beginning in the 1960s, nobody pushed the limits of commercial filmmaking further or more daringly – or more successfully — than Kubrick, and out of his body of iconic against-the-commercial-grain films, none pushed as far outside the bounds of mainstream cinema as 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968).

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2001: A Space Odyssey
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Kubrick seems to have been born with an exceptional visual sense.  By the time he was seventeen, he’d graduated from taking photographs for his high school newspaper to becoming one of the youngest professional magazine photographers in the country, turning in impressive work for Look, a leading competitor in the large format glossy photo magazine market to Life.

Even as a kid, he’d been an avid filmgoer with a growing interest in making films.  Much like photography, he learned by doing, making several shorts in the early 1950s and then a few independently financed features, none of which made much of an impression at the box office or with reviewers.  In fact, his first feature – the heavy-handed anti-war Fear and Desire (1953) – even Kubrick would, in his later years, look back on in embarrassment, so much so he tried to remove prints from circulation. 

But he was learning and in quantum jumps.  Looking at Fear and Desire and the work he was doing just a few years later, they hardly seem turned out by the same hand.

Kubrick began to gain some serious attention with just his third feature, The Killing (1956,) a still-nifty noir playing with multiple timelines thirty-eight years before Quentin Tarantino bragged about carrying off the same narrative juggling act in Pulp Fiction (1994).  Although The Killing didn’t perform well, it caught the eye of Kirk Douglas, then a huge Hollywood name.  Douglas asked Kubrick if he had anything else in the works and Kubrick showed him the script for WW I drama Paths of Glory (1957)Douglas signed on, his name and connections got the film made, and even though the film underperformed, the reviews were impressive and Kubrick’s connection with Douglas pulled him up from the indie circuit and into the major leagues.

Kubrick got another major boost from Douglas when the actor’s Roman era epic Spartacus (1960) ran into trouble with its director, Anthony Mann.  Douglas axed Mann and tapped Kubrick for the job.

It would, however, be an unsatisfying experience for the thirty-two-year-old director.  On his indie work, he’d been used to having full control over his films, but Spartacus was producer/star Douglas’ passion project, his property, and his word was final on all decisions.  Kubrick chafed at the lack of control and would always consider Spartacus not part of his canon.

And yet…

It was a massive production, and the young director, with only four small-scale films under his belt, turned in a masterful epic.  Joel Finler, in his book The Directors Story, writes that, with Spartacus, Kubrick “…became the youngest director up to that time to handle such a multi-million-dollar production.”  For all his pissing and moaning about how the movie wasn’t really his, Spartacus would turn out to be one of the best – if not the best (and I include 11-Academy Awards-winner Ben-Hur [1959] here) – of the cycle of so-called “sword-and-sandal” big-budget epics of the period.  More important to Kubrick’s career than reviewers’ praise for the film, however, was the only measure Hollywood pays attention to:  money.  Spartacus wasn’t just a hit, it was a ginormous hit, coming in as the seventh highest earning title 1951-1960.

That kind of success buys a filmmaker a lot of leeway.  Kubrick’s first film after Spartacus was a film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita (1962).  This time around, Kubrick was able to exercise what would become his trademark total control over the film.  Despite mixed reviews and having to castrate Nabokov’s story due to the censorship standards of the time, Lolita was the twelfth highest-grossing film of 1962, and managed to do so with minimal ad support, mostly on word-of-mouth.

Kubrick followed with what could be considered the first undeniably Kubrickian Kubrick hit:  Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963).  Kubrick took Peter George’s nuke thriller, Red Alert, and transformed it and its topic of nuclear Armageddon into the darkest of dark laugh-out-loud comedies.  The reviews were raves (years later Roger Ebert would call it “…arguably the best political satire of the century”), the movie earned four Academy Award nominations including for Best Picture and Best Director, and provided Kubrick with yet another box office hit (dividing the movie’s $9.2 million gross by average ticket prices of the time to figure out admissions and multiplying that by 2023’s average ticket price of $10.45, the movie’s 1963 earnings were the equivalent of a contemporary box office of $113.1 million).

Kubrick had been unhappy with the apathy Columbia execs had shown to Dr. Strangelove, which is why, in 1964, it was MGM announcing it had the director’s next project:  a science fiction piece then titled Journey Beyond the Stars.

And this is where the fortuitous timing comes in.

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2001: A Space Odyssey
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

It’s worth noting that while the artistic and commercial success of 2001 can be credited to Stanley Kubrick’s talents and skills, that the movie got made at all — and was a success to boot — was just as much a product of lucky timing. 

By the 1960s, the American motion picture industry appeared to be dying.  Weekly attendance had fallen almost 80% from its World War II peak of 84 million per and would continue to decline through and beyond the decade.

The industry was getting hammered on multiple fronts.  A long-simmering anti-trust lawsuit by the Federal government had cost the major studios their theater chains, the growing popularity of television kept people in their homes with entertainment which was much cheaper and certainly more convenient than moviegoing, and the Old School movie moguls who had run the studios for decades – legendary guys like MGM’s Louis Mayer, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, Warner Bros.’ Jack Warner , 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck – had completely misread the demographic changes in the moviegoing audience.

As early as the 1950s, studio research had shown ticket-buyers to be predominantly young, but that was a demo whose makeup and sensibilities were alien to the aging moguls.  As the fortunes of their studios declined, some of the old chiefs retired, others were pushed out or sidelined within their companies.  In their place came a generation of young production executives more willing to take chances on riskier material than their staid predecessors in order to get young asses back in theater seats.  They were also willing to risk studio dollars on young, adventurous directorial talent, youngbloods like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and – as if you haven’t guessed by now – Stanley Kubrick.

Another factor also came into play….

Beginning in the 1950s, as TV ate its way into the moviegoing audience, the studios tried to counterattack with technical gimmicks ranging from widescreen and stereo sound to stuff from the bizarro world like Smell-O-Vision (no kidding) and 3-D.  The bizarro stuff came and went, but widescreen, and the increasing use of color and multitrack sound were things that stuck.

But what to do with those bigger screens?  How about bigger stories?  The 1950s and early 1960s were boom times for epic-scale movies like Ben-Hur, How the West Was Won (1962), The Longest Day (1962), The 10 Commandments (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and, of course, Spartacus.  Kubrick, coming off three hits in a row and having helmed one of the biggest smashes of the previous decade certainly seemed like a reasonable bet for a big budget spectacular in a genre – science fiction – which had shown itself popular with the now critical young demo during the sci fi explosion of the 1950s.  Certainly, the guy behind such idiosyncratic stuff as Lolita and Dr. Strangelove would know how to take a genre whose signature seemed to be low-budget schlock about monsters on the loose or alien invasions and produce something distinctive.  In fact, part of Kubrick’s pitch to MGM was he’d deliver something worthy of the studio’s widescreen Cinerama process (think of it as the IMAX of its day).

Not only had the average age of the movie-going audience changed, but so had its sensibilities.

This was a new, cinema-literate generation.  Peter Biskind, in his account of the era – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:  How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood — writes about how movies had become pop culture-cool in a way they never had before, in a way that went beyond Old Hollywood-type fandom.  Young people knew their directors, they knew the classics by Ford and Hawks and Hitchcock et al, and what seemed to engage them was how the new crop of younger directors were taking the old forms and twisting, expanding, inverting, exploding them, energizing age-old genres with approaches which made them relevant again in a time – the 1960s – of great social turmoil.

Consider:  It’s entirely possible that a few years earlier, especially without the success of Spartacus, Kubrick could never have gotten a project as risky and daring as 2001 made.  And less than a decade after the film’s eventual release, as audience sensibilities changed again with the blockbuster success of Jaws (1975) and especially Star Wars (1977) – movies which pushed the industry toward merchandising-rich franchises with a more juvenile bent – no way Kubrick’s opaque, non-narrative epic would’ve gotten a green light.

Right time, right place …and the right filmmaker with the right property.

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2001: A Space Odyssey
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As was Kubrick’s custom, when he became interested in a possible subject, he went on a reading binge and had been particularly intrigued by “The Sentinel,” a short story by one of literary sci fi’s Big Names:  Arthur C. Clarke. 

First published in 1951, “The Sentinel,” (under its then title, “Sentinel of Eternity”) had a lot of the common trappings of sci fi of the era with its matter-of-fact presentation of a lunar colony of explorers.  The hook of the story – and what grabbed Kubrick – was that the colonists discover a pyramidic artifact of obviously alien origin which has, apparently, been transmitting to the advanced race who left it behind countless years ago.  When the colonists eventually break open the pyramid, it stops transmitting.

The closing lines of “The Sentinel”:

“…its signals have ceased, and those whose duty it is will be turning their minds upon Earth.  Perhaps they wish to help our infant civilization.  But they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young.

“I can never look now at the Milky Way without wondering from which of those banked clouds of stars the emissaries are coming.  If you will pardon so common a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait.

“I do not think we will have to wait for long.”

Kubrick reached out to Clarke.  This is from Clarke’s The Lost Worlds of 2001:

from the beginning, (Kubrick) had a very clear idea of his ultimate goal…He wanted to make a movie about Man’s relation to the universe…he was determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe…even, if appropriate, terror.”

The anticipated schedule for the project, beginning with writing the screenplay through post-production and pre-release prep would be a shade under two years.  In his book, Clarke recalls how ridiculously optimistic even that marathon timeline was.

It was Kubrick’s idea that the best way to get his inchoate ideas into some kind of usable form as well as something which would give MGM an idea of what he would be attempting was to shape them into a novel and then build a screenplay out from the novel.  Clarke had first met and discussed the project with Kubrick in late April of 1964.  They would spend the rest of the year in “talkathons” (Clarke’s word), ideating, Clarke sifting through his past material for possibilities, and, of course, drafting, with the writing of the novel and of the screenplay feeding each other.  Into the spring of 1965, Clarke was still revising the novel in consultation with Kubrick even as Kubrick had begun discussions with the various technical departments which he anticipated working on the project. 

Kubrick began shooting 2001 at Shepperton Studios in the UK (the filmmaker had relocated to England during the filming of Dr. Strangelove and it would remain his home base for the remainder of his life) on December 29, 1965.  The film would not be released to theaters until April 2, 1968.  From the time of Kubrick’s first meeting with Clarke until that release date was a span of just under four years.

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“A writer who sets out to describe a civilization superior to his own is obviously attempting the impossible.  A glance at the science fiction of fifty – or even twenty – years ago shows how futile it is to peer even a little way into the mists of time, and when dealing merely with the world of men.  Longer-range anticipations are clearly even less likely to be successful…”

That was Arthur C. Clarke writing in The Lost Worlds of 2001.  But that was what Kubrick, aided by Clarke, was trying to do.  Trying to make a best projection based on what the world had already witnessed with the short-range Mercury manned launches, the duration flights and rendezvous practices of the two-man Gemini craft, and the public conversations and images for the projected Apollo lunar program (the first Apollo flight would occur the same year 2001 was released), Kubrick wanted to create a not-too-distant future which was plausible, credible, and believable. 

From a 1966 profile of Stanley Kubrick in The New Yorker by Jeremy Bernstein:

“…Kubrick has assembled around him a group of thirty-five artists and designers, more than twenty special effects people, and a staff of scientific advisers,” all to fulfill the filmmaker’s aim of presenting a vision of the near future which was scientifically plausible.  Clarke writes in his book that, knowing men would probably be walking on the moon by the time 2001 hit movie screens (it would actually happen the following year), “Our main problem…was creating a story which would not be made obsolete – or even worse, ridiculous – by the events of the next few years.  We had to outguess the future…”

The end result may not have been accurate – after all, here it is 2023 and most of what 2001 depicted hasn’t come to pass – but it still presented a level of sci fi realism rarely equaled…or even attempted (once you get past Gravity [2013] and The Martian [2015], who has even tried?  I’m not counting Apollo 13 [1995] since that’s science fact).  But take the limitation of “2001” out of the title, and the film still comes off as a credible presentation of a believable future.

Kubrick was lucky in that he had a supportive MGM behind him; necessary for a movie whose production ran over by years and its budget by millions (originally budgeted at $6 million, 2001 would ultimately cost over $10 million; as a point of comparison, the first Star Wars entry – Episode IV – A New Hope [1977] cost $11 million).  Kubrick would later say of Robert H. O’Brien, chairman of MGM during 2001’s production, “My relations with Mr. O’Brien were very good…Although (O’Brien) was bothered constantly by the problem of maintaining control of the company, warding off various attempts at usurpation of his authority, and having to win the affection of the stockholders, he never burdened me with any of these problems.  He realized that it was necessary for us, somehow, to overcome the previously unsolved problem of making special effects in the film look completely realistic…” (O’Brien was removed from his position the year following 2001’s release).

Kubrick avoided all the then standard sci fi cliches.  Compared to the sleek, dart-like spaceships of the 1950s, most of the interplanetary craft in 2001 are clunky looking, the massive ship taking a mission to Jupiter looks like a freight train with a globe stuck on one end and a blast furnace at the other.  There’s no cheating with the myth of artificial gravity; things float free, stewardesses on space shuttles are held in place by Velcro shoes, passengers and crew eat zero-gravity-friendly paste-like food, and on the Jupiter expedition, the only gravity aboard is provided by a revolving centrifuge (this was a massive, remarkably constructed full-scale turning set).

The technical work in the film – the model-building, the matte effects, and most impressively the psychedelic light display of the movie’s Third Act – pushed the limits of what the technology of the time could do.  I would argue that even in today’s CGI-saturated cinema environment, 2001’s effects still hold up not just because of the expertise in their execution, but because of the visual beauty with which Kubrick imbued them.  This wasn’t effects razzle-dazzle; this was a hypnotic drawing in of the audience into an environment that was both incredible…yet felt possible.

Kubrick grounded his scenes of the extraordinary with identifiably banal cues the audience could plug into.  The interior of a space station in ballet-like orbit around Earth isn’t too dissimilar to the promenades of the typical major hub airport.  There are signs for Howard Johnson restaurants, a Bell Telephone booth to call home, and the flight to the station happens on a Pan Am space shuttle (one of the ironies of the movie is that every familiar brand name in the space station scenes represents a company which eventually disappeared before 2001).

For decades, 2001 would stand as the gold standard in special effects.  Until CGI came along, other sci fi flicks might be able to match it (i.e. the first Star Wars trilogy, Silent Running [1972], Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1977], Alien [1979]) but many genre flicks that came after – even expensive ones – fell short (Logan’s Run [1976], might be campy fun but doesn’t even come close).

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2001: A Space Odyssey
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The screenplay Kubrick and Clarke spent so much time laboring over ultimately emerged as something paradoxically direct…yet challenging. 

Broken into four distinct parts, the opening chapter – “The Dawn of Mankind” – takes place millions of years ago as a tribe of pre-human hominids struggles for survival on the African plains.  A mysterious, featureless black monolith appears – something clearly unnatural and alien – and it somehow imbues one of the ape pre-men with the idea of a tool:  a bone which can be used to club animals for food…and to be used against another tribe in what might be humanity’s first war.

The film leaps ahead millions of years to 2001 and the discovery on the moon of another monolith, buried and left behind by someone or something millions of years ago.  Now exposed, when the sun hits the monolith, it emits a screeching radio transmission which shoots across the solar system.

Another jump eighteen months later and we’re aboard the Discovery, a huge exploration spaceship heading for Jupiter.  The crew consists of three scientists in cryo-hibernation, two astronauts – Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood) – and the HAL 9000 computer (HAL being something of an inside joke, the acronym just one letter off in each position from real-life computer giant IBM) which is instrumental in helping the astronauts run the ship.  But the true nature of the mission has only been disclosed to HAL, and the computer’s guilt over keeping it from Bowman and Poole (HAL suffers from the primary emotions brought on by what today we refer to as Artificial Intelligence), that it suffers something of a nervous breakdown resulting in his murder of Poole and the three cryo-nauts.  Bowman survives an attempt by HAL and manages to disable the computer.

In the final chapter – “Jupiter and Beyond” — Bowman has reached Jupiter, the monolith is seen floating in space in the area, and Bowman passes through (Clarke’s description in the novel) a “stargate” which ultimately delivers a now aged Bowman into what appears to be a hotel room.  In a couple of advancing cuts, Bowman ages, ends appearing to be dying in bed when the monolith appears at the foot of his bed.  Bowman then transforms into (Clarke again) a “Star-Child” who returns to Earth.

Despite its fantastic content, this could seem a straightforward narrative line.  It was, however, barely a narrative in a way familiar to most audiences (and, as we’ll see, many reviewers as well).  The different segments were held together only by the reappearance of the monolith, there were no recurring characters and there’s little substance to the few who populate the film.  The dialogue is, by Kubrick’s intent, often banal, offers little or nothing in the way of exposition or explanation, the performances are quite low-key.  In fact, a number of reviewers at the time complained the most (and only) developed character in the film was the conflicted HAL.

During a briefing scene in which we think we’re going to get some insight into the discovery on the moon, the scene cuts away just when that part of the briefing should begin.  We jump cut to a “moon bus” taking several scientists toward the monolith site, and all we learn from the little bit of conversation we get is that the monolith seems to have been intentionally buried millions of years ago and that no one has any idea what it is…period.

And that’s when there is dialogue.  The opening “Dawn of Man” sequence offers nothing but grunts and simian screams.  Even one of Kubrick’s own science advisors – Frederick I. Ordway, senior research scientist at the University of Alabama Research Institute – balked at this counseling the director:

“The ‘Dawn of Man’ scene should be shortened, and above all narrated (Ordway’s italics).  The importance of this cannot be overemphasized.  No one with whom I talked understood the real meaning of this visually beautifully and deeply significant sequence.  Its intended impact was lost.”

Kubrick did not add a narration.

There was method to this apparent madness as he told Playboy in a 1968 interview.  He was going beyond narrative to create…

a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes of film, there are only a little less than forty minutes of dialogue.  I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content…I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does…”

Unlike most commercial films which have a solid narrative line to follow and characters to carry the viewer along it, 2001 challenges the viewer to make connections, to fill in the great, empty spaces Kubrick chose to leave in what little plot there is.  Critic Alexander Walker may have described the process of understanding the story of 2001 best when he wrote that the film was “…the first mainstream film that required an act of continuous inference.”

Making it even more of a challenge is the movie is slow,,,really slow, and by today’s ADHD-rhythmed action fest blockbusters, probably unbearably slow for a contemporary audience.  Scenes are long, languorously cut, and provide little (if any) forward narrative momentum making a long movie (142 minutes after the premiered 161-minute version prompted walkouts which sent the director back to the editing table).  Anyone who has seen Dr. Strangelove or Kubrick’s energetic 2001 follow-up, A Clockwork Orange (1971,) can’t help but conclude that Kubrick’s choice for what critic Renata Adler called “uncompromising slowness” was a deliberate directorial tactical choice.

And then there’s that extended Third Act psychedelic light show; Bowman’s passing through the stargate.  It was, after much discussion between Kubrick and Clarke, a way of doing what both had come to realize was, on film, undoable.

The two collaborators were flummoxed by how to end the film, how to deliver an ultimate revelation.  Clarke wrote several different finales, one of which was used for the novel (you can find something similar to the one in the novel during the interstellar transportation scene in Contact [1997] where an advanced, gently guiding race has created something of a space/time transportation hub).  A favorite oft-repeated Kubrick quote is, “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed,” but Kubrick found himself thumping against the limits of what was technologically possible in 1968.  That aside, maybe Kubrick also realized it would be impossible to come up with something both visually as well as thematically satisfying (the comparable scene in Contact is visually attractive, sentimental, and, in my view, a bit that’s-it? underwhelming, but that’s me).

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Still The Ultimate Trip.
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

MGM took advantage of the years of building expectation for the film to release it on a massive wave of publicity and cross-promotions with some of the products featured in the film (see?  Cross-promotion is nothing new).  I can still remember, as a fourteen-year-old, stopping with my family at a Howard Johnson’s on the Garden State Parkway and eating off 2001 place mats featuring drawings of scenes from the film.  Kubrick oversaw and approved every element of the marketing, even, as one of MGM’s marketing department reported, to picking the frames for the publicity stills.

If it makes any of you who have tried to sit through 2001 and/or wonder what all the hullabaloo about the film is, take some comfort that at the time critics were hardly unanimous in their praise.

“Big, beautiful but plodding…” – Variety

“…2001 is a disaster because it is much too abstract to make its abstract points.” – Andrew Sarris

“Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is a major disappointment.” – Stanley Kauffmann

“…a spectacular glorious failure.” – Joseph Gelmis

And so on.

And yet…

2001 was a box office monster, the 16th highest-earning film of the 1960s, ahead of blockbusters like The Dirty Dozen (1967), West Side Story (1961), You Only Live Twice (1967), and even Lawrence of Arabia.

(*The novel was also a bestseller, moving one million copies in paperback, no doubt by people who wanted to understand the movie they’d just seen.)

That does, however, come with a caveat:  due to its (for the time) astronomical costs, 2001 finished its first run in the red.  But subsequent rereleases turned the film profitable and 2001 became an MGM evergreen.

(*By the 1980s, with cable’s endless recycling of popular films, and then later, the advent of home video, and still later, streaming, the idea of rereleasing films may seem quaint or maybe even impossible to understand.  At the time, every major studio had in its vaults landmark releases so popular and treasured by the public that it paid for the studios to hold them back from television and occasionally rerelease them in theaters.  We’re talking about movies like Gone with the Wind [1939], Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, et al – the evergreen biggies.)

How did a demanding movie with just as many pans as plaudits generate so much box office?

In a 50th anniversary commemorative piece for The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes:

“Hippies may have saved 2001.  ‘Stoned audiences’ flocked to the movie.  David Bowie took a few drops of cannabis tincture before watching, and countless others dropped acid…The iconic Star Gate sequence…could even be timed, with sufficient practice, to crest with the viewer’s own hallucinations.  The studio soon caught on, and a new tagline was added to the movie’s redesigned posters:  ‘The ultimate trip’.”

Maybe the dope heads helped, but there was a larger audience than college dopers, and the purple hazed fans had little to do with a changing perception among the critical community.

Over time, the ranks of the negatives thinned, and the movie was increasingly judged landmark cinema.  Even some of the reviewers who had panned 2001 on its initial release later revisited the film and their opinions, admitting they’d gotten it wrong the first time around; that, finally, they’d figured out what Kubrick was up to.

In 1991, the Library of Congress chose the film for preservation in the National Film Registry on the basis of it being “…culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  In 2022, a Sight & Sound poll of almost 500 filmmakers voted 2001 as the Greatest Film of All Time, ahead of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Godfather (1972).

Yet for all the changed opinions and box office rewards, from the time of its release up through today, 2001 remains controversial in every aspect:  its meaning, its execution, and despite the obvious technical accomplishments which were always universally saluted, is it even any good?

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Well, at the risk of being too glib, it depends on who you ask.  I doubt 2001’s plotless, nearly character-less, slow-paced journey into the cosmos, along with its brain-stumping ending, would fly very high today for a mainstream audience which is now a generation (or more) deep in its addiction to hyperkinetic, FX-jammed action fests.

2001 was one of the top earners of its decade.  Consider that in contrast to the top ten box office earners of 2019, the last year before the COVID pandemic sent moviegoers home:

Avengers:  Endgame

The Lion King

Toy Story 4

Frozen II

Captain Marvel

Star Wars:  Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Spider-Man:  Far from Home

Aladdin

Joker

It Chapter Two

Putting aside the issue of 2001’s demanding pace vs. the non-stop express train that’s your average contemporary blockbuster, we have become even more entrenched in conventional story architectures…and 2001 isn’t storytelling at all.

One of the recurring knocks on Kubrick is that his films tend to be more about technique than storytelling, technical mastery rather than engaging human drama, that they are emotionally cold and aloof.

In his book The American Cinema:  Directors and Directions 1929 – 1968, Andrew Sarris summed up that particular view of the filmmaker:

“…Kubrick spent five years and ten million dollars on a science-fiction project so devoid of life and feeling as to render a computer called Hal the most sympathetic character in a jumbled scenario.  2001…confirms Kubrick’s inability to tell a story on the screen with coherence and a consistent point of view.”

And from Joel W. Finler’s The Movie Directors Story:

“(Stanley Kubrick) has been rightly been criticized as a cold and calculating director…Kubrick’s generally cold and impersonal approach…makes it difficult for him to develop a mean ingful and sympathetic involvement with his characters…the characters (in 2001) were dwarfed by the technology.”

But it’s a criticism based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Kubrick is creating. 

“…A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.  It should be a progression of moods and feelings.  The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later…” – Stanley Kubrick.

I remember my first film teacher at the University of South Carolina, esteemed academic and cinephile Dr. Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap explaining 2001 similarlyby comparing it to the just released Star Wars:

“Star Wars is rock ’n’ roll.  2001 is classical music” (Kubrick would’ve liked that!).

I’d go further.  The signature piece of music, and possibly the only piece of classical music to become a staple of pop culture because of its use in a movie, is Richard Strauss’ 1896 symphonic poem, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and the film is built similarly:  gradually, deliberately building through the ascension of Man to the climactic moment of the transformation of astronaut Bowman into a “Star Child.”

Like a piece of music, 2001 – and the Kubrick films which follow it – are not about the value of any single instrument (plot, characters), but the sensation created by the whole.  2001 is as much a film to feel as to watch, to sink into the imagined reality Stanley Kubrick rendered on the screen and in that unreal reality find one’s own meaning for that reality.

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The back-to-back impacts of Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove capped off with 2001 cemented Kubrick’s stature as one of the most important filmmakers on the world cinema stage at the time.  Warner Bros.’ John Calley, one of the new breed of production execs taking the helms of the major studios at that time and a fan of auteur directors, made Kubrick the envy of filmmakers everywhere by offering the director a permanent home at Warners, free to pursue whatever projects he chose, and to take as long as he needed to develop them.  It was a unique wedding of a filmmaker with an arthouse sensibility with the resources of a major motion picture studio.  Out of that union came A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), this last completed just before his death in 1999 at the age of 70.  Without fail, each opened to a mix of reviews which eventually evolved – as they did with 2001 – that Kubrick had delivered if not a classic, a one-of-a-kind piece of cinema, but none more unique, more rule-breaking, more challenging to the mass audience than 2001.

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I know that aesthetically I should probably have ended this essay there, but in the vein of everybody finding their own meaning in 2001, let me add this exemplar:

I saw the film when I was fourteen.  My father, my eight-year-old brother, and myself were all home with the flu.  I don’t remember when this was other than that the weather was cold and slush was on the ground.  Although we were all running a fever, my dad felt we were all going a little stir-crazy and thought to take us to the movies.  There’d been a lot of buzz about 2001, the movie I’d seen hyped on my HoJo’s place mat, so that was our choice.

The movie played in New Jersey’s only Cinerama theater:  the Clairidge.  A massive screen, a multitrack stereo system with speakers all around the theater so that sound would travel with the action on the screen, and there were us three, half-dizzy with fever and sitting there…dazed.

As we got up to leave the theater, I asked my dad the same question so many people who bought a ticket to 2001 asked:  “What was it about?”

My dad shook his head, frowned a bit.  “I’m not sure.  I think it had something to do with God.”

I figure that was as good a guess as any.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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