Eric D. Snider July 20, 2010
Have you ever watched a film that’s considered one of the best ever made and come away wondering what, exactly, the big deal is? I know I have. I even started writing a weekly column about those movies, called “What’s the Big Deal?” You are reading “What’s the Big Deal?” right now. And this week’s topic is the movie that is, for me, the quintessential “What’s the Big Deal?” film: 2001: A Space Odyssey. It ranks high on many people’s best-ever lists. It is spoken of with awe and reverence as a sci-fi classic. But other people call it long, tedious, and incomprehensible. What do the admirers see in the film (or smoke before watching it) that the detractors don’t? Let’s open the pod-bay doors and find out.
The praise: It won the Academy Award for best visual effects and was also nominated for its screenplay, director, and art direction. It was ranked 22nd on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the best American movies ever made, and moved up to 15th place in the 2007 revised list. It’s the only science-fiction film to place on Sight & Sound‘s once-a-decade poll of greatest movies according to film critics (#10 in 1992, #6 in 2002). It’s on Empire magazine’s top 5000 list (#25), Entertainment Weekly‘s top 100 (#26), and the Vatican’s (!) top 45 list. Among Internet Movie Database users, it’s currently 75th.
The context: Stanley Kubrick had been successful in several genres, including war (Paths of Glory), political satire (Dr. Strangelove), and historic epic (Spartacus), when he turned his attention to outer space in the mid 1960s. Interested in the possibility of alien life, he wanted to make a science-fiction film that addressed the idea, and was advised to collaborate with Arthur C. Clarke, then regarded as the world’s preeminent sci-fi writer.
Clarke and Kubrick were a good match, both well respected and thought of as eccentric and somewhat reclusive geniuses. Clarke considered screenplay writing to be tedious, so he and Kubrick initially planned to write 2001: A Space Odyssey as a novel, then to adapt it for the movie. In practice, the book and script wound up being written simultaneously, each influencing the other, and the book was published a few months after the film opened. Though only Clarke’s name appears on the novel, he later wrote (in The Lost Worlds of 2001) that it should have been credited to “Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick,” in that order, while the movie’s credit — “Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke,” in that order — accurately reflects the way the film turned out.
The first day of shooting was Dec. 29, 1965, but the film didn’t open until early April 1968, some 27 months later. Kubrick was editing until just a few weeks beforehand. By the time the movie was released, it had cost $10 million to make (that was a lot in those days) instead of the budgeted $6 million, and was well over a year behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the Space Race — the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to see who could do the most awesome stuff with rocket ships — was at its peak. The latest developments were reported in the news media almost daily. Kubrick and Clarke couldn’t have chosen a better decade in which to tell a story about space exploration; the subject was on everyone’s mind. A significant chunk of 2001 is set on the Moon, and it’s easy to forget that when the movie came out, the notion of walking on the Moon was still a fantasy. Some scientists were still debating whether it was even possible. It was just 15 months later, on July 20, 1969, that Neil Armstrong and friends landed on the lunar surface. The fantasy had become a reality — and 2001: A Space Odyssey had gotten there first, many of its details eerily accurate and realistic.
You wouldn’t know it by its reputation now, but the film polarized critics when it was released. It got scathing reviews from Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffman, Andrew Sarris, and Renata Adler (of the New York Times), as well as Variety. Among the positive reviews were those in the New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Time magazine, and Chicago Sun-Times (that’d be Roger Ebert, who’d only been on the job a few months).
The movie: A black monolith resembling a large, blank iPhone suddenly appears in prehistoric Africa, causing (?) the local monkey-men to learn (?) how to use tools, which leads (?) to the knowledge of how to kill each other. A few million years later, scientists discover a similar monolith on the Moon. A couple years after that, astronauts head for Jupiter to trace the thing’s origin, aided by a super-intelligent computer named HAL.
What it influenced: It’s hard to keep track of something like this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 2001: A Space Odyssey is the film that has most often been referenced, mentioned, homaged, or spoofed in other media. The ape-man sequence, the mysterious black monolith, and the dispassionate voice of the all-knowing HAL computer are distinctive, memorable, and readily imitated (or parodied). The film’s “movie connections” page at IMDb lists several hundred movies and TV shows that have contained references to it.
The famous opening theme music, from Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” has become the go-to device when something comically momentous is happening. It’s shown up in The Simpsons, WALL-E, and The Jerk, to name three off the top of my head. The Strauss piece was also the source of a funky pop version recorded by Eumir Deodato in 1973, later used in Being There (1979).
HAL, the calm-voiced, all-knowing computer that runs the spaceship, is the godfather of many similar machines in subsequent films, including WALL-E, Sunshine, Moon, Meet the Robinsons, and Stealth. Such devices have become increasingly popular in movies as real-life technology has made us more uneasy about being “plugged in.”
By the time it was actually 2001, it was easy to take the movie’s Oscar-winning special effects for granted. Star Wars and its sequels, building on what 2001 had done, made realistic-looking space scenes commonplace. But in 1968, sci-fi films were still in their cheesy phase, and Kubrick’s spending more than half of his budget on the special effects was virtually unprecedented. Conventional wisdom was that even if you did spend all that money, you wouldn’t get results that looked good enough to be worth it. Kubrick bucked that trend: More than 40 years later, nearly every special effect in 2001 holds up remarkably well, all the more so when you consider Kubrick and his effects guy, Douglas Trumbull, didn’t have CGI to help them.
What to look for: There’s little disputing that many of the film’s enthusiasts in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when it became a cult favorite, enjoyed altering their minds a bit while watching it. There are certain parts (like the extended laser-light-show-in-a-space-tunnel scene) that are probably more impressive when viewed that way. But the movie lends itself to much deeper contemplation and analysis than that reputation would suggest, and more than your average sci-fi film does, too.
This is partly due to Kubrick’s refusal to spell things out. It’s fascinating to read Clarke’s novel and then immediately watch the movie — as I recently did — and notice how many things are clearly explained in the book but are cryptic in the movie. Kubrick and Clarke knew they were dealing with two very different mediums. The book, obviously, consists entirely of words; the movie, on the other hand, has no dialogue in its first 25 minutes or last 25 minutes, and is pretty taciturn in between.
In an interview with Playboy shortly after the film’s release, Kubrick said:
I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to “explain” a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film — and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level — but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.
This point of view can be frustrating to viewers who don’t get it and WANT to have it explained, so they’ll know what it is they’re not getting. Rock Hudson is reported to have exclaimed on walking out of the movie’s Los Angeles premiere, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” His sentiments are shared by many.
Is it possible to “get” 2001 on the first viewing? I don’t think so, not entirely. Neither did Clarke, who said, “If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.” Kubrick thought Clarke was being “facetious” and said:
The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not — and should not — require further amplification. Just speaking generally, however, I would say that there are elements in any good film that would increase the viewer’s interest and appreciation on a second viewing; the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen.
Kubrick wanted the viewer to feel something powerful upon viewing the film just once, even if the viewer wouldn’t be able to put into words what, exactly, he felt. Clarke elaborated on his “you can’t understand it in one viewing” quip with this:
I still stand by this remark, which does not mean one can’t enjoy the movie completely the first time around. What I meant was, of course, that because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure — and sometimes more than one — behind everything that happens on the screen in 2001, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simpleminded critics to the contrary. (Quoted in Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer.)
In other words: Yes, everything in the film means something. No, we won’t tell you specifically what we intended it to mean (though the novel will help). Kubrick told the Playboy interviewer:
How much would we appreciate La Gioconda [The Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth” — or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover.” It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a “reality” other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.
2001 deals with some heavy, trippy ideas. What is the nature of Man? What defines us? Is it our machines? Our weapons? If our primitive forefathers evolved into us, does that mean we might still evolve even further, into something as far removed from modern man as modern man is from Neanderthal?
The film doesn’t have a conventional protagonist. Its “main character” — the one that faces obstacles and learns and grows — is the entire human race. Or, to look at it another way, the film has a series of three protagonists (the monkey man, Dr. Heywood Floyd, and Dave), who represent humanity and have experiences that are roughly analogous to one another.
Todd Alcott, a screenwriter and insightful blogger, has another view: that the film’s actual protagonists are the alien beings (or whoever) that put the black monolith on Earth in the first place. His summary:
A group of extraterrestrials, or someone, for reasons never explained, decide one day, a few million years ago, to grant a bunch of monkeys the power of an intelligence greater than they already possess. The monkeys respond to this gift in interesting ways, eventually getting to the point where they can get a single man in the same room with the extraterrestrials, or whoever. The extraterrestrials, or whoever, then grant this single man the gift of greater intelligence.
Everything else, Alcott says — Dave and HAL, the stuff on the Moon, etc. — is just subplots.
One of the most famous bits of symbolism in the film has an obvious meaning. After the monkey-men have learned how to use animal bones as tools, one of them throws a bone in the air. As it falls in slow motion, we cut to a shot of a similarly shaped space station, a few million years later, an example of modern man’s tools. (This type of editing — cutting between things that are similar in shape or composition — is known as a “match cut,” by the way. Another famous match cut is in Psycho, when we cut from a shot of the bloody shower drain to a shot of dead Janet Leigh‘s open eye.)
In general, it’s useful to look for contrasts and incongruities throughout the film. The character who expresses the most emotion, and who has the most interesting dialogue is HAL. Nearly everything that everyone else says is negligible. The monkey-men are savage, primitive, and filthy, while the humans in the space station are polite and civilized, almost painfully so, their day-to-day activities dull. Which society is more interesting?
Oh, one other thing to be prepared for: Parts of it are really, really slow. That’s just how it is. Perhaps it’s to give you a chance to ponder and contemplate the things that have already happened. Maybe it’s to help the scope of the film feel grander and more epic; it covers several million years, after all. It helps to see the film on as large a screen as possible, and to enjoy the beautiful classical music Kubrick chose to accompany some of the space sequences. Being stoned probably also doesn’t hurt.
What’s the big deal: The film’s special effects and unconventional narrative structure were groundbreaking. It was the rare movie that offered visual spectacle and food for thought, and plenty of both. Different viewers can come away from it with different interpretations of what “really” happened and what it all means without there being a definitive right or wrong answer.
And that isn’t a cop-out. Part of the film’s message has to do with man finding new, advanced knowledge beyond what he already has. By definition, we don’t know what form this new knowledge would take: We don’t know what it is that we don’t know. What Kubrick and Clarke do is suggest that there is such knowledge, and give it a metaphorical, symbolic representation in the film. How, exactly, we might obtain it is left to the viewer to decide.
Further reading: Unsurprisingly, the film has inspired a great many treatises on its themes and meanings, only some of which were written under the influence of mushrooms. Here are a few useful ones:
Rob Ager’s long, thorough analysis.
P.S. I want to give special shout-outs to two pals who helped with this article. It was movie-geek brainiac Bobby “Fatboy” Roberts who suggested reading the novel as a means of understanding the film, which for some reason had not occurred to me to do. (I think I assumed the book would be as obtuse as the movie.) And Travis Ezell, an unabashed 2001 lover and a screenwriter his own self, had many smart things to say about the film’s content that were useful to me, several of which I stole and passed off as my own.
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Eric D. Snider (website) takes HAL’s side in the HAL-vs.-Dave argument.
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