People either love or hate this film, with very few falling into the lukewarm category. I personally love it. I was blown away when I saw it when it first came out 50 years ago and watched it again a few days ago, perhaps for the third or maybe the fourth time, It as always risky to watch a film or read a book that one loved a long time ago when one was much younger because of concerns as to how well it would stand up. I watched it this time with a more critical eye and found that it stands up incredibly well and is as engrossing as ever. I enjoyed it so much that the next day I watched it all over again, this time with a commentary by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood who play the laconic astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, who discuss what it was like working with legendary director Stanley Kubrick and how some of the effects were produced. They say that he was meticulous in his preparation for filming but gave very little direction on how they should play the scenes.
This film is in four acts. The first is the dawn of humankind that lasts for 20 minutes before one of the most famous jump cuts in film history, going four million years into the future, straight into the space age. The next act lasts 35 minutes and deals with the trip of space administrator Heywood Floyd to the space station, followed by his trip to the moon base and the discovery of the monolith there. Then begins the central third act of the mission to Jupiter lasting 65 minutes and the interactions between the two astronauts and the computer HAL. This is where most of the dramatic tension is centered. The last act lasting 20 minutes begins of course with the psychedelic trip by astronaut Bowman through some space-time warp followed by the emergence of the star child. The last part is where many people (myself included) were utterly mystified by what it all meant.
What struck me on the latest viewing is how well the special effects held up. There was nothing at all cheesy about it, even though this made was well-before the advent of CGI technology. The only thing that might be done differently today is that the computer would not be as huge. (The other thing is that the Pan Am flight that Floyd takes to the space station has comfortable reclining seats and plenty of legroom and he is the only passenger, something that seems unthinkable now.)
The film is very much a mood piece that depends on visual storytelling with very little dialogue. In that sense, it resembles recent films like Phantom Thread and Roma. So why do I like 2001 so much and dislike the other two? Although I am not particularly a science fiction fan, I am a science nerd. But that is not everything. I think the fact is that in 2001 you always get a sense of a story progressing that was deep and meaningful that transcended the characters. There was a mystery to be uncovered and we were taken along.
I suspect that every reader has seen this film but here’s the trailer anyway, as a nostalgia trip.