Revisiting "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

Theatrical release poster
Theatrical release poster | Source

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) - Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick's sprawling 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly ranks as one of the Greatest Science Fiction Movies of All Time. Some viewers will go so far as to say it's THE greatest, period. As it approaches its fiftieth (!) anniversary, 2001 continues to top "best of" lists by film critics, science-fiction fans, and geeks on a regular basis and it is widely recognized as a game changer in the art of film making - not only in the sci-fi and fantasy fields, but across all genres. Nearly every film maker in Hollywood today speaks of the influence that 2001 had on them in hushed tones of awe...

...but I've never quite understood why.

Perhaps I should explain. The first time I saw 2001 was in the early 1980s, when I was about twelve years old - and at such a tender age, I was definitely not the right "demographic" for the film. My experience with the science-fiction genre at the time was limited to action-packed shoot-em-ups like the Star Wars films and TV series like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ...so naturally, I expected "science fiction" to have square-jawed heroes with laser pistols, spaceship battles, big interstellar explosions, gooey alien creatures, and comic-relief robots. Needless to say, I was in for quite a surprise when I first watched 2001. Whatever I may have expected from the film, I can say that I was definitely NOT prepared for the epic length cosmic mind-f*ck that Stanley Kubrick laid down on my pre-adolescent brain!! I will give my 12 year old self credit for having enough of an attention span to actually sit through the entire two and a half hour movie, even though it wasn't making a lick of sense to me (I doubt that either of my two kids could do the same today!) and when it was over, I hadn't understood a bit of what I'd just seen. Being a typical snotty 12 year old, of course, I dismissed the movie with a haughty "Ehhhh... that sucked!" and then I probably watched Battle Beyond the Stars for the dozenth time.

Trailer:

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What's your opinion of "2001: A Space Odyssey?"

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2001, The Comic Book: Yeah, THIS is what the movie was missing - giant flaming asteroids!!
2001, The Comic Book: Yeah, THIS is what the movie was missing - giant flaming asteroids!!

Even though I may not have been bowled over by the film at first glance, the mystery of 2001 continued to fascinate me over the years. After all, everyone and their dog seemed to think that 2001 represented the absolute pinnacle of science fiction filmmaking - except for me. I wondered what I was missing, and I truly wanted to "get" it. I read the novelization by Arthur C. Clarke while I was in high school, which helped crystallize some of the film's rather arcane concepts, and I also got a big kick out of a garish, wonderfully schlocky 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series (!) published by Marvel in 1976-77, which was written and drawn by the legendary Jack "King" Kirby. Kirby was no stranger to large-scale cosmic epics thanks to his years of work on The Fantastic Four, and his 2001 comic book contained all of the things that I'd felt the movie lacked - garish, slam-bang action sequences, big ugly alien monsters, and of course, lots of huge explosions!! I have always wondered if Stanley Kubrick ever saw an issue of the 2001 book, and if so, what he thought of it. I have a feeling that he would've said, "This guy didn't get it at all!" Kirby's 2001 comic was cancelled after a mere ten issues, which was probably a good thing if you look back at it now. It's far from the King's finest hour (it was produced during his so-called "Jack the Hack" era of the mid/late 1970s, when he created dozens of truly bizarre, quickly-cancelled series for both Marvel and DC), but it had a totally oddball charm all its own.

In the years since I last saw 2001, I've seen most of Stanley Kubrick's other films and enjoyed them (1971's A Clockwork Orange and 1979's The Shining are perennial faves, and I also liked Dr. Strangelove and even the controversial Eyes Wide Shut), so after nearly three decades I recently decided that I was finally "ready" to tackle 2001 again. I borrowed 2007's 2-disc "Special Edition" DVD from the library and made an evening out of it, sitting down in a darkened living room to watch the film on a chilly winter's evening, ready to have my mind blown. Two and a half hours later, after the final bombastic strains of Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" had faded away....

....I still don't think I totally "got" it.

"Extended" Trailer:

Huh? What Just Happened?

(** WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS**)

Don't get me wrong. As an adult I can appreciate 2001 on levels that wouldn't have occurred to me as a pre-teen. Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail, of course, is obvious throughout the film. The set designs - particularly in the "Moonbase" scenes and the rotating, centrifuge bridge of the starship Discovery One - are a visual feast, and the special effects have held up amazingly well for a film that is nearly 50 years old. The spaceship sets and models in 2001 can still hang with anything that's being pumped out of Hollywood's dream factories today, which is especially amazing when you keep in mind that all of this stuff was built from scratch, by hand. There was none of that newfangled, fancy-schmancy CGI stuff in 1968, kids! Also, if you've ever been curious to see what an LSD trip looks like without actually having to try some, look no further than the climactic, colorful and somewhat terrifying "Beyond the Infinite" sequence. (Vintage advertising for the film shows that MGM actually played up this counter-cultural connection in some of the movie's posters, using the tag line "THE ULTIMATE TRIP." 2001 apparently become a bit of a "head" movie due to the ad campaign, atttracting curious hippies into the theatres who would "tune in" at the proper moment and groove on the film's visuals. Far out, maaaaaan.)

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The story makes a little bit more sense to me now than it did when I was a kid. I'm sure that this never occurred to me when I was 12, but 2001 is set up as a drama in four acts, similar to a play or an opera. (There's even a brief "intermission" in the middle of the film, where the screen goes dark for a minute or two!) In the first "act," we're taken back to the Dawn of Man, where the mysterious alien Monolith - a huge, humming slab of smooth black stone - nudges the collective intelligence of a tribe of shrieking, cave-dwelling ape men. Touching the stone suddenly gives them the smarts to develop tools and weapons which they use to take back their water hole from a rival clan of pre-humans. In the second "act," set in the far-flung future of 2001, a Monolith is discovered buried beneath the surface of the moon, providing humans with their first tangible proof of alien intelligence. In Act III (the longest of the "acts") the massive starship Discovery One's exploratory mission to Jupiter goes horribly awry when the ship's too-human-for-its-own-good artificial-intelligent computer, HAL 9000, begins to malfunction with tragic results. Astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the lone survivor of HAL's rampage, manages to escape destruction and encounters a Monolith in orbit above Jupiter, which sends him on a lengthy "trip" (in both senses of the word) through the "stargate" and beyond the "infinite" in Act IV, eventually transforming him into a "Star-Child" or "New Seed" - a cosmic fetus-like being who stares sagely down at Earth from space as the film ends. Does the Star-Child represent the next stage in human evolution? What's the deal with the Monolith, anyway? Is there more than one of them, or have we been seeing the same Monolith throughout the movie? Is the Monolith some sort of cosmic guardian that drops in on Earth every few million years to give us another kick up the evolutionary ladder? Uh... yeah, I guess so. Kubrick was famously mum about the movie's "meaning" but it's been dissected and discussed in any number of books by film scholars and science fiction geeks over the years. Rather than try to "explain" the movie (which will cause the "comments" section under this Hub to explode with people telling me how wrong I am), I'll simply shrug my shoulders and say "Ehh... I dunno for sure." I enjoyed 2001 more this time than I did 30 years ago, even if I still don't think I totally "get" it. Would I watch it again? Sure... maybe in another 30 years.

Enter...the star gate!
Enter...the star gate! | Source

The Aftermath...

2001 may be considered the be-all and end-all of sci-fi cinema, but its formidable, near-untouchable rep didn't stop Hollywood from trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. 1984's belated sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (unseen by me) apparently tried to tie up the loose ends and answer some of the "big questions" that were left behind by 2001, but whether or not it was successful depends on which reviews you read. Kubrick had nothing to do with the sequel (based on Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 1982 follow-up novel, 2010: Odyssey Two), which was directed by Peter Hyams (Outland). A nervous Hyams reportedly sought out Kubrick's blessing before taking on the project, and legend has it that Kubrick's response was, "Sure, go do it. I don't care." Clarke wrote two more novels in the Space Odyssey saga before his death in 2008 - 2061: Odyssey Three (published in 1987) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (published in 1997) but no film adaptations of the last two books have been produced, due to the underwhelming box office response to 2010.

As it approaches its fiftieth anniversary, 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to spark discussion amongst fascinated (and occasionally, infuriated) science fiction film buffs. Regardless of what you may think of the movie, I think most will agree that it stands alone. There has never been another science fiction film like it, before or since, and for that, the movie - and director Kubrick - have my utmost respect.

...now, if only Marvel Comics would reprint that kick-ass Jack Kirby 2001 comic book series in a graphic novel format....

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Comments 17 comments

Geekdom profile image

Geekdom 3 years ago

I can never figure out if a liked 2001 a Space Odyssey or not. I think I enjoy it and then I get to the ending and I thinking....What?


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Hahaha, same here, Geekdom. The Cavemen and Moonbase sequences were pretty dry, but the scenes set on Discovery One were intriguing. When HAL 9000 goes nuts and Bowman is trying to rescue his fellow crew member, there's genuine tension there. I'm like "Finally, this movie is starting to come together!" -- then WHAM! Bowman gets sucked into the "star gate" and after a fifteen minute LSD trip he's in an ornate bedroom watching his elderly self eat dinner. Like you said... what???


Shawn Dudley profile image

Shawn Dudley 3 years ago from Los Angeles, California

I would not only say that 2001 is the best science fiction film of all-time, but one of the best films in any genre. This is the kind of sci-fi that inspires me, unconcerned with action sequences and instead focusing on concepts and asking the viewer to take part in the proceedings by bringing their own thoughts and feelings into the film. Kubrick and Clarke start the journey for you, but leave the destination up to the viewpoint of the audience.

The success of the film is then basically decided by the person viewing it. For people that need everything completely explained and cut and dried it can be a frustrating experience. But for those with vivid imaginations and the patience to accept Kubrick's challenge it can be one of the most rewarding films of all-time.

I first saw the film when I was about 12 years old (same as Freddy) but I completely loved it. I'm sure I didn't understand it on all the levels but I was fascinated and just got swept away on the journey. I've probably seen it about 15 times over the years...luckily I was able to see it in the original Cinemascope presentation in Seattle - Cinemascope is a process using 3 projectors working together shooting onto a screen that curves around the first few rows of the audience, it feels immersive like 3-D but doesn't require glasses.

The version of 2001 that everyone is familiar with now is different than the one that originally premiered in New York and Los Angeles in 1968. Prior to being released wide Kubrick cut 20 minutes out of the film, this footage evidently still exists but Kubrick put a provision into his will that none of his films can ever be altered in any way so we'll never see the longer cut.

2001 is one of the prime examples of film as "art" and I think its power remains intact over 40 years after its release.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Seriously, Shawn - you gotta start writing some Hubs of your own. Haha. Thanks for your very in depth comment. I'm sure that seeing "2001" on a big screen must've been quite an experience!!

As for me, I can definitely appreciate "2001" for its technical merits and for the influence it's had on film in general, but my mind, for whatever reason, remains un-blown. Maybe deep down I'm still that same 12 year old kid who wants robots and laser gun fights in everything. :)


Morty 3 years ago

Nice write up. 2001's the Cistine Chapel of film, the pyramids of egypt of cinema. I watch it again every year. Barry Lyndon's sublime too.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanks for the comment, Morty. Now that you mention it, "Barry Lyndon" is one of the few Kubrick films I still have never seen... maybe I should look into that one...


Witchfinder 3 years ago

If I want to watch Kubrick, I'll stick with The Shining. 2001 is visually stunning, but ultimately it's not a film that does anything for me. Its most important contribution was presenting a future that actually looked "lived in." A feature that George Lucas emulated to the fullest extent on Star Wars.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx for stoppin' by, Witchfinder - looks like we're on the same page with "2001," i.e. that it's nice to look at but isn't very involving. "The Shining" is one of my favorite Kubrick films too (along with "Clockwork Orange").


Shawn Dudley profile image

Shawn Dudley 3 years ago from Los Angeles, California

One of the primary threads in all of Kubrick's films is the idea of "dehumanization". Basically every film he made from Dr. Strangelove onward had that premise at it's core. With 2001 he demonstrated that by having the most "human" character be portrayed by the HAL9000 computer. HAL showed much more "emotion" than the human characters he worked with and was the most alive character in the film. This was done on purpose, having the actors play their roles very flat and soulless to make HAL seem much more vibrant by contrast.

One of the primary complaints you hear about Kubrick is his films seem "cold" or "sterile", however that was done very much on purpose.

I find 2001 to be incredibly involving, the kind of film that creates a magical kind of spell that the viewer inhabits for a couple hours. One of the keys to creating that otherworldly aspect is to slow the pacing down so you can be immersed in the experience, so you have time to appreciate the little details and completely absorb the experience.

These days with out post-MTV 30 second attention spans that is an art that has almost completely vanished from mainstream filmmaking. Every single sequence has to have action or movement, a cut can't last longer than 20 seconds or so, dialogue sequences are truncated and abbreviated to keep the plot moving forward at 1000 miles an hour. It can be a visceral experience in the right hands but it gets really tiring...that immersive experience is sadly almost gone except by a handful of great directors that still know how to create that kind of film.

That's why watching a film like 2001 or Solaris feels like such a breath of fresh air to me, the ability to slow down and appreciate the art without being bombarded with nonstop action and editing chaos on the screen.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Again, Shawn -- you should be writing some Hubs of your own on these topics!! Haha


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Great write-up, mostly because I think it captures the feelings of a lot of viewers; that of "eh, I don't get it". Like you said, I give you credit for tackling the whole film at 12 years old. I'm sure I would've turned it off after the "angry monkeys" scene.

I first saw the film when I was in my 20's, and I can say that I loved it from the first time, which I know isn't the case with most people. I've seen it several times after, and I can say that I still discover new things with every watch, so that's a testament to how rich the film is. I also don't think there's something "concrete" to "get". The film is as abstract as it goes, and as such, it can be interpreted any number of ways. In a way, it reminds me of Mulholland Drive, which I still don't totally "get", but still find extremely moving and emotionally affecting.

Regarding 2010: The Year We Make Contact, I can say that it definitely pales in comparison with 2001. But taken at face-value, as a stand-alone sci-fi film, it's decent. It would've been suicidal to try to emulate Kubrick's scope and ambition, so Hyams took a more straight-forward approach to the story.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Hi Thief12 - thanks for your comment. Maybe one of these days I'll get around to "2010: The Year We Make Contact," it's got a great cast, and I've enjoyed many of director Peter Hyams' other films like "The Relic," "Outland" and "Timecop."


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Just keep in mind that it's a different film with different goals and intentions. It will be inevitable to draw comparisons since they are tied together, but I think it's worth the watch, if anything for curiosity.


ChristyWrites profile image

ChristyWrites 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

It really is a great adventure! I can't believe you saw it at 12 years old.. it must look so different to you now as you watch.. Great overview of the film here.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Hi ChristyWrites - Looking back, I can't believe I sat through the whole movie at 12 years old either, haha. I guess I just kept hangin' in there because I was waiting for it to make sense.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 21 months ago from The Garden State Author

Updated


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 9 months ago from The Garden State Author

Updated

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