Possibly the greatest film ever made that doesn’t make sense.
The Film: A group of pre-humans at the “dawn of man” lose their favorite watering hole to a rival gang. The losers sulk and hide in the rocks, but wake up in the shadow of a sleek, black monolith that appears literally overnight and that (coincidentally?) heralds a major discovery. Realizing a bone can also be used as a weapon, one wily ape leads the group in a violent raid and reclaims the watering hole. Presumably, they get to mating.
With one cut, we jump to our near future. (Well, sort of. Today, it’s actually like a decade into our future past. Stay with me.) Mankind has colonized the moon and a government official arrives at the base to lock down a situation with the mining team. The miners show him what they’ve uncovered in the lunar dust: a black monolith. When the sun hits it, the thing sends a signal into space.
18 months pass; it’s 2001. Two Jupiter-bound astronauts decide that the advanced AI running their ship, HAL, is getting glitchy. They consider shutting it down but, much like the tragic Johnny 5 case of 1986, HAL is alive (or at least self-aware). HAL murders the crew in self-defense, but can’t finish off scientist Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). Dave shuts HAL down just as the ship encounters a monolith waiting in space. Dave is transported via acid trip to a space bedroom where he lives, ages, and dies in the span of a few minutes or several decades or both. He’s reborn as a gigantic star child and returns to Earth, seemingly to bring a new understanding of life, the universe, and Douglas Adams. Or maybe he doesn’t. The end.
The Production: Stanley Kubrick usually treated his writers like overrated word monkeys, but his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke seems like one of the few times where the stars aligned (sorry). They were a smart match, both famous for having a chilled intellectual and technical style. Really, the only surprise is that it took these kids so long to get together.
Dr. Strangelove had been a financial disappointment and Kubrick sought a radical change with his next film, settling on the idea of exploring hard science-fiction with an adaptation of Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.” Let’s just say they got along. The pair exchanged ideas and epiphanies and gradually developed the story into a larger tale about evolution and advanced intelligence. They decided to present the same story in each of their respective mediums. Clarke wrote the novel and Kubrick began production on the film, then titled Journey Beyond the Stars.
Kubrick was obsessed with authenticity; even today, most scientists agree that the film pretty much nails its depiction of space travel. Kubrick had to spend millions of dollars and two full years in post-production to make that happen, but still the film (now renamed 2001: A Space Odyssey to give it a sense of grandeur) hit theatres on April 2, 1968 to harsh reviews. As usual, Kubrick took hits for ignoring the human characters in favor of visuals and special effects. On the other hand, young people (possibly lured by the tagline “The Ultimate Trip” and the psychedelic star gate sequence near the finale) turned the film into a cash bonanza, despite its almost total lack of explanation or sense.
Best Moment: It’s become a cliché to think of HAL 9000 as the most expressive and interesting character in 2001, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I don’t think there’s a better place to find proof than in HAL’s famous death scene.
Of course, it’s a tribute to the power of the writing and Douglas Rain’s voice performance that we consider this a “death” at all. HAL may be developing sentience, but it’s a stretch to consider it alive. But even if he it is alive, if we go that far, then it’s a mass murderer and it deserves what it gets. And yet there’s a comment on that page from a person who shed tears as a child for HAL, but not Bambi’s mom. It’s no Turing Test, but if a faceless computer can top Disney and his nightmare factory in the field of traumatizing children, then we should all prepare to accept our robot overlords. Viva mechanica.
Lasting Impact: Uh, yeah. To say that 2001 changed everything is maybe underselling it. One of the most influential films in American history. Full stop.
Overall: I’ve had an up and down history with 2001 over the years. I’m one of the lucky few — fewer all the time — to first experience the film as it was intended to be seen, in gorgeous 70mm. I knew before I left the monkeys that this would be one of my favorite films of all time, but then Kubrick threw a heavy bucket of ice water on my lap in the form of a giant space baby. If we’re clear about nothing else, let’s be crystal about one thing: I hated the giant space baby.
Why? Simply put, I was confounded. I was beaten. I couldn’t describe what the hell I had just seen in any terms that made sense. A friend brushed my complaints aside by explaining that everything makes sense if you just read the book. I countered that a movie should stand on its own terms, not as a companion piece and, besides, the movie came out before the book. How was a fresh audience in 1968 supposed to unpack that mess?
I’ve since come around, which you probably guessed by the big number 2 next to the title. It took years, but I finally realized that 2001 is a dare. The challenge, the “ultimate trip”, is to forget the big lie that great movies have to make sense and to realize that sometimes it’s just about how a movie makes you feel. Kubrick goes to great lengths to provide atmosphere through image and music, not plot. He wants you to feel the story, maybe even intuit the story. 2001 is from a relic age, before studio executives decided our movies had to be spoon-fed to us like pureed peas. 2001 will give you nothing that you don’t work to take.
I could spend paragraphs talking about my personal theories about the story (I know because in a previous draft, I did), but 2001 isn’t about what it’s about. It’s designed as an experience, and it begs to be watched. Just try to do it on a movie screen if you can. Even on a high-definition TV, the screen just isn’t big enough to hold the universe.
So, if I’ve got nothing but praise for this film, why only number 2? Because 2001, as perfect as it is, only changed the movies. With his number one film, Kubrick may have helped to change the world. And he did it with a movie like nothing else he ever made.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire