2001: A Space Odyssey

The American Film Institute recently ranked the top ten films in each of ten genres. All such ‘best of’ rankings are, of course, just for fun and meant to provoke vigorous debate about films that did not make the cut as well as the unworthy ones that did. They are not meant to be taken more seriously than that. I was puzzled, however, as to why comedies were not included as a separate genre, the closest category being the vaguer ‘romantic comedies.’ The omission of musicals as a genre was also puzzling. Maybe those lists will come out later.

I had only two major objections. I was shocked that Walt Disney’s Jungle Book did not even make it into the list of best animations, even though to my mind it is easily the best of that genre, and one of my favorite films in any genre. That favorite of film critics Pulp Fiction of course made the list in the gangster category, although I hated the film, with its gratuitous violence and racially offensive language. I vowed never to see a Quentin Tarantino film again after that.

It turns out that I have seen a lot of the top 100 films (63), a sign of a happily wasted life. I recall one year when I was about 16 when I kept a log of the all the films I had seen that calendar year. I counted over one hundred, or on average one every three days, all in the movie theater. I was able to do this because the theater was walking distance from my home and the manager was a friend of my father and gave us a pass to see films free. Since my parents did not stop me from this indulgence as long as I was keeping up with my schoolwork, I saw almost every film that was shown. I have to admit that I saw a whole lot of lousy films. Time seems much more precious to me now and so I am much more choosy about what films I watch.

I have seen all ten of the top animations listed by the AFI. The other genres that I have seen most of were westerns (8), mystery (8), and courtroom dramas (7), while the least was fantasy (4).

I have seen all of the #1 ranked films except for The Searchers in the western category, which I plan to see soon, and City Lights in the romantic comedy category. I have always been a fan of good westerns, many of which had strong stories and characters and promoted values of honor and justice.

While one can quibble with the top rankings in each genre, the one film whose #1 will be unquestioned is 2001: A Space Odyssey in the science fiction category.

I recall seeing it in a wide-screen theater when it was first released in 1968 and it stunned me with its brilliance. My impression of it was so vivid that I did not want to see it again on the small screen using videotape or DVD. Instead I waited and waited for it to be re-released on the big screen, to capture again the awe of space that it inspired. There had been rumors of this being done in 2001 but that did not occur. I then thought that it might happen this year on its 40th anniversary but when that did not seem likely to happen, decided to give up and watch the DVD.

There is always danger in re-watching a film that one has fond memories of from the distant past, the fear that one will be disappointed. 2001 is not one of those films. Watching it again, even on a small screen, was a wonderfully rewarding experience. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke combined to make one of the truly great films of all time, something that lifted science fiction films from cliché-ridden, quasi-horror, gimmicky films with cartoon-like aliens creatures into a true work of art.

What impressed me is how well the film stood up 40 years later. Not only did the science still remain credible, the special effects were also wonderful, which is amazing when you consider that Kubrick did not have the benefit of computer graphics, and all the visual effects had to be captured directly on film.

The film may not appeal to modern filmgoers, jaded by the action fantasies of films like Star Wars. In 2001, the plot is simple and there is no frantic action, no explosions, no shoot outs with laser guns, no light sabers, no love story, no sex, not even human conflict. 2001 played down these traditional film staples. In fact, all the actors seemed to be deliberately underplaying their roles, leaving the enigmatic computer HAL 9000 that runs the spaceship as the most interesting character. And yet, all these things that sound like negatives actually combine to make the film utterly engrossing.

Although 2001 grabbed the imagination of two young boys George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as to the tremendous possibilities of science fiction film making, their own films in this genre went off in different, and in my view, inferior directions.

2001 is a highly visual film, almost ballet-like with its minimal dialogue. The first half-hour is totally word-free, leading up to one of the most memorable visual transitions in the history of filmmaking. The last half-hour is also wordless. Kubrick does not rush scenes or have frequent jump cuts, exploiting the seemingly slow pacing and the ambient sounds of breathing to capture the silence and immensity of space. The attention to detail of how things work in space (how people can walk when weightless, how to simulate weak gravity on a spaceship, how to eat and drink, the difficulty of using toilets, etc.) gives the film a scientific credibility and timelessness that will ensure that it remains the top film for the next hundred years.

The film was not well received when it first came out. Its measured pacing bored some who were used to the action clichés of the older films in this genre and the famous enigmatic ending confused the general public as to what was going on. But science fiction fans had hours of fun debating what it all meant.

I also recently watched another science fiction film that I had never heard of previously, and that was Colossus: The Forbin Project which also deals with a computer that decides to take control, this time on Earth. The film was interesting mainly because of its probing, like 2001, of what might result if a computer becomes a truly intelligent, self-aware, self-learning device, and raises the notion of the nature of consciousness and whether computers will be able to create it. The excellent website Machines Like Us probes just these issues and its editor was the one who tipped me off to the existence of this film.

Watching Colossus so soon after the re-watching of 2001 was perhaps a mistake. Although the ideas the former film explored were intriguing, the quality of the filmmaking was nowhere close to that of the latter. The execution of the idea needed the genius of a Kubrick to really do it justice.

If you have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you have missed a treat. It is a landmark in filmmaking.

POST SCRIPT: How to avoid discussing the election


  1. Tom Maley says

    One genre the AFI missed is Prison films. Two classics in this category are “Cool Hand Luke” and “Shawshank Redemption”. Another enjoyable film was Burt Lancaster in “Birdman of Alcatraz.” The first two have been always enjoyable to watch over and over.

  2. Michael Sternberg says

    Hello Mano,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on “2001” -- simply a landmark film. Its only aspect that hasn’t aged well is the appearance of PanAm. There are some political undertones as well, but the way Russia is going, they may not have been so far off after all.

    Now, I do not agree with your assessment of “Pulp Fiction”, especially the charge of racism, which is wholly unfounded. It may have the “N-word”, but surely this is minor compared to the many positive interracial relationships we see: First, we follow the thugs Jules and Vincent (played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) working together, as it were, and Mia (Uma Thurman) is married to Marsellus (Ving Rhames), who is black. Likewise the former gang-member Jimmie “Oak is nice” (Tarantino) is married to Bonnie the nurse (black, only seen briefly). Marvin, the unfortunate accident victim, is also black, living with white acquaintances. As an aside, less to do with race, it is Jules who decides to leave “the life” behind and realizes he has to become a better person.

    Second, there is actually very little violence on screen -- what happens is mostly left to the imagination. That perhaps is what adds to its brilliance. I have to be clear that I do not enjoy gratuitous violence either, but this being a gangster movie, it is to be expected as part of the genre. The movie is good on many other levels, such as its dialog, pacing, and non-linear narrative, unconventional and at the time revolutionary.

    Third, the movie also has Julia Sweeney in it, if marginally. 😉

    With best regards,

  3. Kathy says

    FYI … Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art Wed. Aug. 6 and Fri. Aug. 8 at 7 pm both nights…Worth seeing in a theater rather than on your tv screen.

  4. Jim Nauer says

    Is is worth a road trip? (IMO, yes, but I’m a little weird that way…)

    The Wexner Center in Columbus is showing a 70mm print of 2001 on July 11. I’m not sure which version--IMDB shows 70mm DTS (digital sound) prints struck in 2001, but I’m pretty sure there were also new prints struck in the original 70mm magnetic sound format for the 25th anniversary in 1993.

    Details at http://www.wexarts.org/fv/?eventid=3047

  5. says


    I would have definitely made the trip to Columbus to see the film except that I have to travel to Philadelphia that weekend. That is really disappointing. I hope I get another chance.

  6. says


    I always get a lot of grief when I say I hated Pulp Fiction! Actually, I did not think the film was racist. I was careful to say that what I disliked was the racially offensive language. It seemed to me that Tarantino, for some reason, inserted the N-word over and over for no purpose other than to merely shock. After awhile, I simply got disgusted.

    The film also seemed to enjoy wallowing in violence, whether off-screen or on, again for its own sake. I have seen other violent films (The Godfather, The History of Violence) and though I squirmed or even looked away at times, I did not feel that the scenes were there to assault the viewer, which is the impression I got with Pulp Fiction.

  7. says


    I agree with you about all three films that you list. They were all very good. I had not thought of prison films as a separate genre but you have a point. If you can have courtroom dramas, why not prison?

  8. Anonymous says

    That’s too bad you didn’t see 2001 one the big screen in 2001. My dad took me to DC back in 2001 to see it in a movie theater. It truly was one of my most memorable movie theater experiences.

    They had the volume cranked because I think the dialog is quiet compared to the rest of the sound in the film and I couldn’t believe how loud it got when the monolith let out that ringing sound on the moon. I had to cover my ears. Any longer my heart would have stopped!

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