2001: A Space Odyssey (United Kingdom/United States, 1968)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
2001: A Space Odyssey Poster

Perhaps it takes the passage of time to gain the perspective to call some films great. Certain movies, despite being ridiculed upon their initial release, have been "re-discovered" years later and labeled as forgotten classics. It's a universal truth that art isn't always immediately recognized as such - this is why so many revered painters, authors, and composers have died in poverty and relative obscurity. Filmmakers face some of the same challenges - in a business climate, courage is the number one characteristic needed by anyone with the goal of fashioning a work that is deliberately thought-provoking but lacking in mass appeal. Such idealistic intentions won't inflate any director's bank account, but they may make an enduring statement. That brings us to the subject of this review: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite gaining additional adherents and growing more respected with each passing day, 2001 would likely be a failure if shown to a typical, MTV-weaned group of multiplex patrons. Watching this film demands two qualities that are sadly lacking in all but the most mature and sophisticated audiences: patience and a willingness to ponder the meaning of what's transpiring on screen. 2001 is awe inspiring, but it is most definitely not a "thrill ride." It is art, it is a statement, and it is indisputably a cinematic classic.

I was around in 1968 when 2001 was first released, but I wasn't old enough to be concerned with anything more substantive than bottles and sleep. However, in the intervening years, I have spoken to several individuals who attended premieres of the film. The level of anticipation surrounding 2001 was as high as that to accompany any cinematic event before or after. Not only had Kubrick developed the project in complete secrecy, but, with the space race in its final laps, the world was ready to inhale any whiff of science fiction. But 2001 did not satisfy everyone. In fact, the initial reaction could charitably be called mixed. While a minority of those in early audiences recognized that they had witnessed the birth of a masterpiece, many movie-goers were nonplused and confused. Several influential mainstream publications panned the film, and, while it was successful at the box office, it was not the blockbuster some had expected it to be. Yet 2001 did not die. Instead, its reputation grew, and, by the mid-'70s, it had become a Goliath.

I remember the first time I saw the movie. The year was 1981, and this country was in the post-Star Wars, early VCR era. Because of the rampant success of George Lucas' space opera, science fiction was once again in vogue. However, with home video still in its infancy, the opportunity did not exist for the average American to go to the nearest movie store, rent a few tapes, and pop them into the VCR. But many schools, striving to be on the cusp of technology in the name of education, owned video players, albeit of the bulky, unwieldy sort. My eighth grade teachers took advantage of the middle school's lone Betamax machine and arranged a showing of 2001 in an auditorium on an elevated 28" TV set. Their intentions were good, but the experience was anemic. Nevertheless, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, I recognized that there was something amazing about the movie. It was unlike anything I had previously seen on any screen, big or small. It was slow-moving, but there was a hypnotic quality to the proceedings. It would take the passage of three-quarters of a decade and another viewing (this time in a theatrical setting) before I began to qualify and quantify my impressions of 2001.

It's questionable which element of 2001 stands out the most clearly: the pacing, the music, or the visuals. In truth, the three are inseparable. Like a skilled chef, Kubrick blended them together to form a dish of incomparable excellence. They are unique ingredients, yet, once mixed, they can no longer be reconstituted into their original forms. For most movies, this is not the case, but that's one of many areas in which 2001 is an exception. Listening to a soundtrack of this film provokes an avalanche of images in the mind's eye. Can anyone who has seen 2001 listen to the Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz" and not think of the shuttle docking at the space station? And Richard Strauss' rousing, unforgettable "Also Spoke Zarathustra" has become synonymous with this picture. (In fact, "Zaruathustra" is often referred to as the "Theme from 2001".)

In terms of its approach to the science fiction genre, 2001 stands alone. This is a space-based movie without zooming spaceships, laser shootouts, or explosions. The action, to the degree that there is action, is viewed from a detached perspective. Spacecraft move (relatively) slowly, they do not zip around at the speed of light. The result is a cold, majestic motion picture, a movie that seeks to remind us of the vastness of space and our relatively insignificant place in it. Kubrick's intention with 2001 was not to thrill us with battles and pyrotechnics, but to daunt us with the realization of how much there is that we do not understand. The movie's slowness (and it is slow) not only allows us to absorb the images, music, and atmosphere, but provides the opportunity to think about the implications of what Kubrick is saying. As enjoyable as Star Wars is, it does not encourage deep introspection. 2001 demands it.

I can think of two other movies that have consciously borrowed aspects of Kubrick's 2001 style. (There may be others, but either I have forgotten them or I never knew about them to forget.) They are Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Contact. Both slowed their pace to awe the viewer with a cavalcade of visual images. It worked in the latter case but not in the former. In Contact, as in 2001, there are deep philosophical issues involved. Star Trek, however, was designed to be an action/adventure film. The movie's attempts at grandeur are ineffective because the special effects represent little more than a series of colorful images. The docking of the shuttle with the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was said to have been directly inspired by the "Blue Danube Waltz" section of 2001, yet the experience is not the same. The reason? In 2001, this sequence exists on its own. It is powerful and important in its own right. In Star Trek, it's a nicely-scored, impressive-looking, overlong transition sequence to get Admiral Kirk from Earth to his beloved ship.

2001 opens memorably in prehistoric times or during "The Dawn of Man", as the on-screen caption states. The sequence, which runs about 15 minutes, shows how ape-like creatures, after encountering an imposing black monolith (obviously the product of an alien technology), discover how to use the bones of an animal as a tool or a weapon. Like the Fruit of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, this leads to a spurt of change and a fall from grace. Armed, primitive man becomes a danger not only to potential sources of food, but to himself.

There is a jump cut as a bone thrown high into the air becomes a orbiting nuclear device, pushing the movie's time frame ahead thousands of years. Now, the human race has evolved. No longer Earthbound, they have ventured into the nearby Solar System. Kubrick's depiction of space travel is far more believable, albeit less romantic, than the visions presented in Star Trek and countless other futuristic projects. Of course, things in the movie are ahead of where they are in reality circa 2001. But, having worked on the picture during the height of space mania, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke can be forgiven mistaking the transient space enthusiasm of the '60s for a trend that would last the rest of the century. If it had, the "science fiction" of 2001 might be "science fact" today.

We encounter Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), who is on his way to the moon to explore a strange, black monolith that has been discovered beneath the lunar surface. The object is broadcasting a signal in the direction of Jupiter, but no one understands why. The monolith's existence has become a matter of national security, and the reason for Dr. Floyd's arrival is a closely guarded secret. Accompanied by a group of respected scientists, he travels to the excavation site to examine the alien object.

2001's third and lengthiest segment takes us aboard the space ship Discovery, which is bound for Jupiter to determine the reason why the monolith is sending signals out there. On board are two human crewmen, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), three cryogenically suspended scientists, and the "brain" of the craft, the HAL 9000 computer (voice of Douglas Rain), one of moviedom's famously insane electronic entities. Once the crew recognizes that HAL may be unstable, they plan to deactivate the machine. However, HAL fights back, and the duel of minds between Bowman and the computer makes for the film's most dramatically tense situation. It is also during this portion of the movie that 2001 offers its frankest moments of humor (of the gallows variety, as a doomed HAL questions Bowman about his intentions) and pathos (as Bowman shuts the computer down -- HAL's rendition of "Daisy", coupled with his refrain of "I'm scared, Dave," is touching).

The fourth and final portion of 2001, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," generates the most questions. During these 20 minutes, Kubrick suggests man's place in the cosmos - that, although we think of ourselves as possessing godlike powers, we are actually low in the universal pecking order. The Discovery finds another monolith - only this one is much larger than its lunar counterpart and is floating in space. When Bowman takes a pod through it, he is catapulted into a space/time tunnel to a mysterious locale where he spends the rest of his life, reaching a ripe old age before expiring. At the time of his death, however, he is reborn as the "star child" - either the next stage in man's evolution or an entirely new life form.

Many viewers who understand 2001 through the first two hours leave the theater confused because the movie raises new questions during the last reel, when a conventional film would be providing solutions. However, for someone who enjoys the opportunity to ponder a filmmaker's intentions and delve deeply into a movie's subtext, the final act of 2001 is a godsend. Anyone desperate for concrete answers to some of the unresolved issues can check out 2010. Produced in 1984, 16 years after Kubrick's original reached theaters, 2010 is a conventional sequel. However, while it rehabilitates HAL and solves the riddle of the monoliths, it doesn't wrap everything into a neat package. 2010 is a decent continuation of 2001 (and is well worth a rental) - just don't expect it to have the Kubrickian depth or grandeur. In fact, viewing 2010 is a good way to appreciate how much Kubrick contributed to 2001.

As is true of every Kubrick film, the meticulous attention to detail is evident. Working in close concert with co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke and other scientific advisors, Kubrick made sure that every aspect of the film conformed to known scientific fact. His vision is eerily accurate, and, even though we have not attained Clarke's prophesied advancements, we are on the same track. Additionally, there isn't a moment in 2001 that seems dated. The film could just as easily have been made in the '90s as in the '60s.

The Academy Award-winning special effects represent some of the most impressive model work ever committed to screen. They are at least the equal, if not superior to, George Lucas' efforts in Star Wars. Today, visual effects are all about pushing the digital envelope, but there are times when it's worth looking back to how things were done in a simpler era, when technological limitations demanded greater creativity. Douglas Trumbull's accomplishments in 2001 represent an innovative pinnacle.

The tag line for Alien, which was released about a decade after 2001, was "In space, no one can hear you scream." In truth, however, nearly every space movie (including Alien) has ignored the fact that sound waves cannot travel through the vacuum between stars and planets. Consequently, Kubrick opted for silence, and the result is eerie and memorable. Every time there's a space sequence, no sound can be heard - except for the occasional strains of the classical compositions used on the soundtrack. Music is critical to every aspect of the movie's success - even when the story has been told. The "Blue Danube Waltz" plays over the end credits, which last about four minutes. However, the piece is more than eight minutes in length, so the director allows it to continue after the credits have concluded. This gives audience members an opportunity to mull over what they have just seen before returning to the bustle of everyday life.

From time-to-time, Kubrick worked with "name" actors (Peter Sellers in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Jack Nicholson in The Shining), but the entire cast of 2001 is comprised of lesser-known performers. The reason is that this is not a character-based story. It's about experiences and ideas. The actors do competent jobs, but there are no true standouts. Douglas Rain, who provides the voice of HAL, is in many ways the most memorable, since his words and tone humanize the machine, transforming it into a tragic figure. HAL is the villain, but we can't help feeling a surge of sorrow for him, and his redemption in 2010 is welcome. Of the human performers, the one with the most screen time is Keir Dullea, whose Dave Bowman represents the focus of the third and fourth segments. Dullea's performance is non-emotive and mechanical, and it's interesting to note that HAL often seems more "human" than Dave. Following 2001, Dullea was offered a lot of work, much of it on television, but nothing high-profile. Similar statements can be made about Gary Lockwood (who is most recognizable for the starring role in the TV series, "The Lieutenant", which predated 2001 by five years) and William Sylvester (whose best roles were behind him).

2001 needs to be experienced to be appreciated. It loses something on a TV screen; even the best home video setup can't replicate what it's like to see the movie in a theater. 2001 does not build bonds between the viewers and the characters or set up a straightforward, linear storyline. Instead, it challenges the audience and inspires wonder. Proponents argue that this is Kubrick's best film; regardless of whether or not that is true, there's no doubting that this movie represents the product of a great director at the height of his powers. 32 years after its release, 2001 has lost none of the qualities that make it an acknowledged masterwork.

2001: A Space Odyssey (United Kingdom/United States, 1968)

Ranked #14 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:19
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1