2001: a space odyssey

i’m trying to catch up on films regarded as some of the absolute greatest films ever, as determined by a group of people allegedly qualified to determine the absolute greatest films ever.  one of those is stanley kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey.

i just watched 2001 again yesterday, and i’m browsing through certain segments right now. i don’t get it. one of the criteria of a “great film” is that it should stand the test of time. another criteria is that a film should be able to stand by itself, without the benefit of the supporting information if/when it is a film made from a book.

if this film were released today, it wouldn’t get much attention. before viewing and writing this, i was going to first read some of the thoughts of all the film experts who have written rather extensively about it, but i decided to save that until afterwards because i wanted to be in their same situation when they first saw and wrote about it. they had no bank to draw from, and i didn’t want one either.

seems to me that a large part of the hoopla about 2001 were the technological aspects. take that out of the film, and i don’t see much of a story. two and a half hours of wonderful visuals, but within that, what’s the story?

a monolith appears at significant points in history. the first time, it marks and/or affects a change in evolution when one of the “apes” learns to use a bone as a weapon. it is a “dawning” or the birth of a new era.

a monolith appears again, found after 4 million years, this time on the moon, but it was likely placed there at the same time as the previous one. when a group of scientists attempt to take a picture in front of it – a rather touristy move – the giant domino emits a painful sound, which is also a transmission aimed at jupiter where another monolith will be found.

meanwhile, what is supposed to be the world’s greatest computer, built in urbana, illinois, might have a glitch. the astronauts are faced with the dilemma (spelled “dilemna” when i was a kid) of pulling its plug or trusting HAL9000 to continue their secretive mission with a goal of which they’re still unaware. the computer realizes what they’re considering and kills one of the astronauts while he’s on a repair mission. then HAL kills the other astronauts still in hibernation.

there were questions about the mission’s secrecy, which astronaut bowman learns after disabling HAL and then realizes that their mission to jupiter was all about a third, and much more massive monolith found there.

when bowman arrives at the jupiter monolith, he’s entralled by a laser light show so amazing that it likely killed him, and then we get to see his fleeting moments of imaginary and hallucinatory brainwaves that would have played well with most any led zepplin song. the film ends with a shot of what may or may not be earth being studied by what appears to be a giant fetus, still in its amniotic sac, and it could be a way of expressing that earth, like the fetus, or “man,” like the fetus, is only at the beginning, despite the many “dawns” man, life, and the earth have experienced.

whew. having said all that, i’ll go back to my original point – it’s just the technology that is thrilling. it ain’t much of a story. the spacewalks, the flight stewards dealing with zero gravity, the shots of the moon and other stellar bodies, that’s what it’s all about. and as far as my previous question – standing the test of time – i’d say the technology does that, although inconsistently. for example, zero gravity: sometimes it’s present, sometimes not, on the same ship. on the flight to the moon, the lead investigator, dr. floyd, is eating a liquid form of peas and carrots, likely because it saves space and weight on the ship. however, on a much smaller ship with a greater need to save space, they’re eating ham sandwiches. on the trip to jupiter, during which there must be hibernation to deal with life support, they’re also eating semi-solid foods which is also inconsistent.

when i watch a film or read a book, i ask questions. and if i can come up with a question that seems vital, then the story better answer it. and if they don’t answer it, they better have a good reason. and if they don’t have a good reason, then the story suffers in my eyes. the single most dramatic moment of 2001 is when bowman asks the computer to open the doors to the ship so he can return after retrieving the body of the astronaut that may have been murdered by that same computer. after several questions, the computer tells bowman that he’s not going to continue the conversation. bowman then manages to board the ship, but now the computer wants to talk. my question is this: why didn’t bowman ask the computer why he murdered – or IF he murdered – the other astronaut? why doesn’t he just ask, “hey, what’s going on?” instead, bowman ignores everything the computer is saying and disables him without any questions. that’s completely illogical because it was a great opportunity to find out what happened and how to prevent it in the future.

the first appearance of the monolith showed a shift in intelligence. the “ape” might have used that bone as a tool but instead used it as a weapon. good for him, bad for others. when the computer kills the astronaut, it again shows intelligence being used as a weapon, but there was no “good” alternative other than for the computer to explain to bowman what and why he had done what it did. it’s possible the only right answer is that man programmed the computer, so somewhere in the programming was the instinct for violence.

i’m not saying this isn’t all an important message, but i am saying that it doesn’t take 2 1/2 hours to tell that story unless you’re trying to overwhelm the audience with technology. i’d rather have gotten that message through an essay or a short story. I know there was a novel, and the novel always explains more than the film due to time constraints. however, it wasn’t a situation like “lord of the rings” or “harry potter,” in which the film had the benefit of assuming that a large number of viewers had already read the book, thus allowing the director to take liberties with the script because the audience’s book knowledge will fill in the blanks. in this case, the book and film were written simultaneously (according to wikipedia) so that advantage did not exist. after reading about the novel, i can now know that the hallucinatory stuff near jupiter was supposed to be astronaut bowman getting a glimpse of other worlds because the monolith is actually a portal to other parts of the universe. great – but there’s no way to get that from the film. and i’ve thus read more about the novel that, as usual, poses significant points that have been left out of the film, and that also greatly detracts from anything that is on a list of greatest ever.

regardless, when it comes to film technology and story telling, i’d have to rank star wars ahead of 2001.

28 thoughts on “2001: a space odyssey

  1. My two cents: I do believe the key to your disappointment is in the context of the time in which you are coming from. You, dear hunk of a man, are from a futuristic time looking back at the technology AND MINDSET from 44 yrs ago. We’re lightspeed ahead of 2001 – unless you talk about the psychological aspects of being in space?? I don’t know but I don’t know how anyone can truly judge a product from the past because you are too knowledgable, educated, and experienced (modern) and those things can’t be forgotten so the reviews from that time must be anachronistic – no? This looking back from current times always bothered me a bit in history, especially in anthropology. Ceremonial artifacts, images used in art were fragments of cultures, yet full ideas were put forth as if they were accurate. I’m off track but context – context – context is my point. I would actually agree with what you were saying overall but you were speaking about the reviewing of ityou that The movie is too outdated – now Star Wars – I love Hans Solo!!

  2. But Star Wars is not science fiction, it is fantasy in a faux high tech setting.

    What makes 2001 Science Fiction is that it predicts a future. The future is a logically constructed world based on rational technology. The fantastical object (The Monolith) is what the people are trying to understand. When they understand its purpose, they have solved the puzzle of the story.

    Yes, it is mostly eye candy, but if you analyze it, many of the inconsistencies that you mention have a logical explanation, although you may have to watch it more than once to understand.

    for example.
    A rotating ship generates force pushing outward that is used for artificial gravity. This is like spinning a weight on a string. The center of such a ship has no gravity. This is where shuttles would dock because it’s easier to get in and out.

    The 2 and a half hours is because of the slower pace of films then. (You should see solaris 😉

    May I suggest another classic



  3. The Movie was made for science fiction fans who either had already read the book or would soon after; and there are around three sequels that were written and another movie based on the first sequel: 2010.

    Also the moon has gravity so eating ham sandwiches in the shuttle heading towards the monolith is quite plausible.

  4. My dad took me to see this when I was about 6 years old. Needless to say I didn’t understand it. I watched it again for the first time since, maybe in 2001 and I admit I was disappointed. The book didn’t grab me as much as I wanted it to, either. Same for the sequels.

  5. Good review with retrospect. I recall being totally bored with it, but other thinking it was awesome! But maybe you provided the rationale that I never consider … the technology.

    And yes … good to see you back in the saddle.

  6. I remember not understanding the hype. I am a high octane movie goer and demand to be taken for a ride. There was no thrill for me there… Give me Lord of the Rings or Star Wars any day!

  7. I always enjoy your reviews, Rich, and this one too. I saw the movie when it came out, and had a lot of difficulty understanding it. I asked friends who had seen it with me, and got quite a few answers… but it didn’t seem like a riveting story to me… and it seemed much more ‘fantasy’ than what I’d grown to expect from SF. I thought there might be some discussion of the meaning of life, or what man might expect from exploring the outer reaches of space. But I found the movie much too long, and using shots of space, and exposure to technology to make up for a weak story.

  8. Ok story but not one I ever wanted to see a second time. -shrug- By contrast we are still revisiting the very first Alien movie because the psychology is still so gripping.

  9. Saw it when it first came out and was old enough to be interested in the ‘message’. Some of it was interesting and the movie was fairly well done, especially the immediate response to boosts of intelligence or the response of machines with ’emotion’. But overall never could watch this one more than once, I knew people who watched it over and over.

    I think you review was dead on.

  10. I agree with most of the folks above. When I first saw this movie it provide a glimpse of what the future could be. I didn’t believe man could possible traveling to space frequently as the shuttles did/do. Or even be as close to mars as we are. I don’t remember the story, only the allure of the future.

  11. Welcome back…and….I saw this movie only once a long time ago and it was so trippy I never bothered to analyze it much beyond a “well that was interesting”. But I did interpret the events much the same as you did prior to your research. All I can say is….probably experiencing it with some sort of hallucinogenic influence is about the only way it would make any kind of sense or leave a lasting impression. But I’d rather watch an Isaac Asimov film over this any day of the week…..

  12. I like 2001 for the reasons you mentioned. No one had ever presented space quite this way before, so I think of Star Wars as the child of 2001.

    I have to say that I love the depth of space, the loneliness and distances, and the dangers of technology that come through in this movie.

  13. You’re so funny Rich! Had me smiling and giggling the whole way through. I studied film in college and one of my professors wrote a book in which this was selected as one of the “must see” films. I agree about the book. I can’t decide whether I hate it or love it. I’ll get back to you on that. And what’s the deal with the Victorian room? Why is it so Victorian?

    Coming from a musical perspective though, I’ll say the score is fantastic!

    • oh yes, the score is brilliant. as for the victorian room, i thought it might be part of dave’s hallucination, but i’ve read enough to learn that it was not a hallucination, but you can’t know that without reading the book. sheesh.

  14. Hi Richard,

    Your comment on Roger Ebert’s blog about the Embassy statement brought me here again, I read this when it was posted, but didn’t feel like arguing the details. Somehow, I’m more in the mood today.

    Star Wars is a lot more fun than 2001, but is it a greater movie?

    Star Wars took a pile of clichés and gave them a new spin. The visual grittiness of the Star Wars universe definitively was something new, adding believability to what is essentially an absurd story. The Star destroyer in the opening sequence is also a great visual trip. Harrison Ford managed to give Han Solo a depth that goes beyond the original script, and the scene where Luke stares into the double sunset is a visual gem.
    A five years old can follow the Star Wars story. Mine could!
    Millions of words of post rationalization have been written, but Star Wars technology is absurd on all levels, except story level, of course.

    But 2001; isn’t it more of a film for adults? Do you really need to have everything spelled out for you? Perhaps on Friday evening, yes, ( I know I do) but all of the time?
    If you are looking at a film seriously, rather like a painting in a museum vs a photography in the local news paper, don’t you use a different set of evaluation criteria?
    And with this more critical point of view, 2001 is the better movie, the richer movie.
    The Waltz between the shuttle and the spinning station is a beautiful moment, and not just 5 seconds, but many minutes long. The turning off of Hal I also a powerful scene as well, as the computer regresses towards cyber childhood; and it is all the more powerful because Bowman doesn’t say a word. And Hal’s voice always stays even and calm, even as he panics.
    And the turning centrifuge, haven’t these images stayed fresh, even avec after 40 years?

    The only real technical flaw in the Discovery is the lack of radiators, and that was a decision by Kubrick, because he feared the viewers would not understand the ship. Borman needed only 220 kg of food for a one year trip (trust me on this, better yet, see this Wiki: http://www.btewiki.org/index.php?title=Life_Support). The rest is entirely possible.

    (If it seems like I’m skipping the beginning and the end, it’s because I am; never liked them, doesn’t mean they’re no good)

    So, a gripping story in an absurd universe, or a strange poem, in an almost real world?
    On a Friday evening I’ll go for the story, but in my soul, I know the poem is better.

    Ok; that should deserve at least a one liner!

    Best regards,

    Michel Lamontagne

    • it deserves way more than a one liner. i’m happy that you felt compelled to explain all of that, and i will do my best – very soon – to answer. thanks again very much, and i hope you’re enjoying roger’s blog as much as i am. and maybe randy.

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