It’s possible that 2001 was always destined for a mixture of love and hate from its audience. It is based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction author who is among the most highly praised — by literary critics, by genre fans, and by other sci-fi writers. And it is directed by Stanley Kubrick, a man who had directed several highly popular and critically acclaimed films, and would go on to direct more. Both men are undisputed geniuses in their fields. But both are also, just in indisputably, creators whose work can be challenging. Clarke was generally far on the side of “hard sci-fi” — that subgenre that deals only with the theoretically possible and which tends to be highly technical — and was very much a fan of the deeper questions and thoughts that could be provoked by science fiction. Kubrick was just as interested in challenging notions, and wasn’t wholly tied to what people would normally term sanity.
Coming from that pedigree, it’s small wonder that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a challenging film, but one which is still worthwhile.
Not bad for the descendants of a bunch of apes.
The film essentially has four parts to it. The first part delves deep into prehistory — the “Dawn of Man”, though the creatures shown aren’t even of the race of Man yet. A strange black obelisk shows up one day, and the apes begin fighting over it, killing each other, and learning to consume meat. They also start showing signs of culture, such as drumming. After a while with the apes, the film then jumps ahead to (its version of) the year 2001. Scientist Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) has been called up to the moon to organize an investigation. What they are investigating is, of course, a black monolith they’ve discovered on the moon’s surface. They know it’s prehistoric. They know it’s not natural. And they know it’s sending a signal.
This begins the third and most famous segment, with astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) piloting a spacecraft out on a mission towards Jupiter with the assistance of the highly advanced artificial intelligence HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). The second segment mostly serves to set this scene up, and it’s here where most of the audience will truly find themselves engaged in the story, rather than just mildly curious. HAL makes a miscalculation — an unheard of event with the 9000 series — and the astronauts begin to worry whether they can rely on HAL. The sequence shows that it’s possible to be thrilling without having guns blazing, as Dave tries to determine what to do about their problem. The acting, particularly between Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain’s vocal performance, strongly sells the urgency and tension of the situation. It’s small wonder that it’s become one of the most iconic sequences in science fiction.
And then there is the fourth segment, which is somewhat infamous. Describing the plot of this segment is virtually impossible, as it is mostly lacking in such. Instead, it’s a series of various visual effects and surreal oddities, running non-stop one after the other for approximately 25 minutes. It is as if Kubrick noticed he had some film left over and said to his crew “Hey, let me describe this acid dream I had the other night….” It is apt to test the patience of even the most forgiving viewer, and the sad part is that it’s largely unnecessary. Even if one takes the position that its limited plot elements provide closure to the previous segment it could have been cut considerably shorter… and the previous segment would have a solid sense of closure without it. To be frank, I could feel my good will toward the film eroding well before I reached the halfway point of this sequence, as it is not only aimless and non-sensical, it is also simply unpleasant to experience for a significant portion.
There are ways to make random light and sound shows entertaining, but this is more like an ersatz migraine.
As a result, although all of 2001 is a masterwork of cinematography, it’s difficult to treat the film as being great in its entirety. The first and final segments are likely to make most viewers impatient, and do little to reward the viewers who hold out. They certainly don’t add enough to warrant the extended lengths of time they take. An abbreviated version with just enough of those segments to capture their feel would probably be just as moving. But the central segments work exceptionally well, and any fan of science fiction or of films should certainly give 2001 a watch.
Just be aware that it’s not one to go into lightly.