All you ever wanted to know about 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a polarizing film. On the one hand, there are those like me who absolutely love it. The other pole does not consist of people who hate it, because there is nothing really objectionable in the film. Instead it consists of those who were utterly bored and baffled by it. Even those who loved it were baffled by it but did not let that reduce our enjoyment as we were swept along by the cosmic grandeur of this revolutionary science fiction film, the story it told, and the awesome special effects that blew us away even though (and perhaps because) they were done using models and film trickery in that pre-CGI age. They still hold up well in this CGI age.

As a huge fan of the film myself from the time I first saw it, I can’t get enough of seeing the film or reading about how it was made. A new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, And The Making Of A Masterpiece by Michael Benson has just come out and it has pretty much everything that aficionados of the film might want, starting with the backstories of the director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and how they met and the collaboration developed, as well as the intricacies of the filmmaking.

Kubrick was a visionary but at the same time what we might call a control freak, keeping a close eye on expenses and what he paid people and less than generous in assigning credit to the people who worked on the film. But the many creative people involved put up with it because they thought he was a genius, that the film he was making would be a masterpiece that they would be proud of being associated with, and because he pushed them to do things that they did not think they could do. When it came to providing the resources for them to push the boundaries of what could be done, Kubrick did not stint. But because of his relentless drive for greater perfection, the result was a film that was well over budget and missed deadline after deadline for release, much to the consternation of studio executives and shareholders who felt he might bankrupt the company MGM. It was only the unwavering confidence that the MGM president had in Kubrick, who had just produced the blockbuster hit Dr. Stranglove, that enabled him to withstand the pressures to cut corners.

The book goes into detail about how the film evolved even as it was being made and how the special effects were created. In the early stages, there was much more dialogue, including voice-over expository narration and a prelude of scientists talking about the nature of space exploration, to be included in order that viewers would better understand what was going on. But as time went on, words were steadily cut as Kubrick pursued the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim to its extreme, until only 25 minutes of dialogue remained. An initial plan to show at the end an encounter with the aliens ho created the famous monolith was shelved as any conception of what an alien looked like would be seen as anti-climactic. So we were left with just the monolith and the ornate French palace room as alien artifacts.

When it was finally screened, there was a curious reversal of the usual reactions to a new film. A film like this, very long, cerebral, no sex, violence, or even action, highly visual with little dialogue, is more likely to have appealed to highbrow critics and been disdained by mass audiences, especially young people. But on its opening, the film got panned by film critics and other film cognoscenti. The hostile reaction of catcalls, boos, and derisive laughter of the older audiences who attended the premiers brought Clarke to tears and made director Kubrick Stanley think his future in films was ruined.

But almost immediately, starting the very next day in fact, audiences, especially young people, embraced the film and started lining up to see it. Tom Hanks said he was blown away by it as a boy (as I was back then) and has since seen it over 200 times. John Lennon said he went to see it every week. It became a hit and ran for over a year in its initial release and keeps getting screened. This immediate enthusiastic reception by mass audiences caused some critics to reconsider their initial reaction and proclaim it to be the masterpiece of cinema that it is now widely recognized to be.

For those of you who are interested but perhaps cannot find the time to read the book, in a recent episode of the public radio show Studio 360, host Kurt Anderson examines the history of making of the film and its huge impact, using much of the material in Benson’s book and talking to some of the people who worked on it and are still around. The program is fascinating. The first of a two-part series can be heard below.

The second part will be broadcast in three weeks. I am looking forward to it.

Here’s the trailer for the film.


  1. starskeptic says

    A lot of kids got high just to go see it -- and the ‘Ultimate Trip’ ads recognized that….

  2. Mobius says

    I, too, enjoy 2001. And, like you, I was quite baffled seeing it the first time. I had not read the book, but did so soon after. Seeing the movie again, it made much more sense.

    And, for the time, the visuals were stunning.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I don’t hate the film, and I was never bored or baffled by it. But, while I admire the cinematic qualities, and think the choice of music was brilliant, I don’t rate it anywhere nearly as highly as many do. Given a choice of scifi films to re-watch, it would be very far down my list. There’s just really not much to it, in terms of story or character. And given a choice of Kubrick’s films, I’d put Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove well ahead.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    One for the “bored” column.
    Some time after I read the book, so put me down as doubly bored.

  5. mnb0 says

    And then there are those who refuse to be polarized, like me. I was very impressed by the special effects indeed, but found the story pretty boring -- not utterly, I had no problems sitting through it.
    However when we’d start talking Kubrick’s next one, A Clockwork Orange …. there is no movie I’ve seen more often, even if it’s not my nr.1 favourite. It swings from top-3 to top-5 and back. Everything you say to praise 2001 applies to ACO afaIc.

  6. mnb0 says

    Forgot: the opening scene of 2001 is very good. It also got excellently spoofed in History of the World part I.

  7. nekomancer945 says

    Perhaps more than the visuals and the story, it was the music that did it for me. I was 16 at the time. Of course, my musical then was for the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, and so on. But two albums came out that year, one for a movie, that transformed my musical sensitivities. 2001 showed me what classical music, both traditional, and not so traditional could do. Of course, Thus Sprake Zarathustra and Blue Danube, but Lux Aeternum and Atmosphere pointed directions I didn’t realize possible in classical music. It opened me up to electronica, “space”, unfortunately, named “new age”, experimental. Classic isn’t just the past it’s for the future. At the same time, another album came out, “Switched-On Bach” by Windy (then Walter) Carlos. Besides introducing me to Bach, it showed me that the beauties of classical can be expressed in new and amazing forms. 1968 was a good year for music for me!

  8. file thirteen says

    I never saw the movie at the cinema. I read the book, but that may have ruined the movie for me later because when I finally watched it on television, knowing the story, I became impatient with the slow pace and lack of dialogue and gave up on it. Maybe some day I’ll get another chance to watch it, hopefully with more patience.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    file thirteen @8: I’m old enough that I saw the film before the book came out. I had read the short story, but that was really just the bare bones of the story. The film is well worth seeing on a wide screen, if there’s a screening in your area.

  10. fentex says

    In those days I was building model rockets with my father and absolutely loved the film -- entirely for it’s realistic portrayal of the central mission.

    And I watched but had no real engagement or interest in anything after Bowman entered the Monolith -- at which point the film was hamstrung by the limits of technology and my disinterest in it’s then speculative shooting off.

    But I won’t re-watch it except for specific scenes -- because I got it the first time and can’t get it that way again and it’s otherwise not interesting.

  11. DonDueed says

    Not many remember that 2001 was shot in Cinerama, a very large-screen, wraparound format. I saw it with my parents in a Cinerama theater on its initial release, and was so fascinated that I went back alone and saw it again the next day.

    I certainly didn’t “get it” right away; I was a teenager and maybe a bit too literal-minded. A book came out shortly after the release — not Clarke’s but one titled The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 — which itself eschewed the linear narrative format. It included a selection of letters from viewers received by Kubrick. One of those was from a 13-year-old girl, which Kubrick described as the most insightful analysis he’d seen. Made me feel like a bit of a dope!

  12. Holms says

    But on its opening, the film got panned by film critics and other film cognoscenti.

    This immediate enthusiastic reception by mass audiences caused some critics to reconsider their initial reaction and proclaim it to be the masterpiece of cinema that it is now widely recognized to be.

    This says all you need to know about movie critics, especially those with a flattering view of themselves.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @12: The critics at the time were divided. Some really big ‘uns, like Kael, Ebert and Champlin, thought it a work of genius right off the bat. My own view has changed since seeing it as a teenager. There had certainly been nothing like it, in or out of scifi, and it was a sensory feast. But repeated viewings left me feeling much as John Simon did:

    a regrettable failure, although not a total one. This film is fascinating when it concentrates on apes or machines … and dreadful when it deals with the in-betweens: humans … 2001, for all its lively visual and mechanical spectacle, is a kind of space-Spartacus and, more pretentious still, a shaggy God story.

  14. lpetrich says

    I find it interesting to compare that movie and the present day.

    We are far behind the movie in spaceflight capability. Could it be much more difficult than anyone in the early 1960’s could have imagined?

    We are also far behind in artificial intelligence. But here, I think that it is generally accepted that it is much more difficult than what was imagined by its more optimistic proponents back then.

    We have a different model of computing. Instead of one big brain, we have lots and lots of interconnected ganglia: little brains. We also have a planetwide generalized data network that not many science-fictioneers anticipated: the Internet. The movie’s displays each showed one sort of thing at a time, while we now have windowed GUI displays, and those ones make several virtual displays inside of a real one.

    But all in all, it’s still very good, and some of the best hard science fiction in visual media.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano @15: Yeah, I got that horribly wrong. Kael was merciless.

    The thing about critics like Kael is that, even when one disagrees with them, it can be a pleasure to read someone who knows their subject so well.

  16. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#17,

    I agree about the value of good critics. They provide perspectives that can be valuable even if one disagrees with their conclusions.

  17. lpetrich says

    Grading Science Fiction for Realism — science fiction from the hard end of high-tech mundane fiction to the soft end of fantasy. Though hard vs. soft is often used for technological (nuts and bolts) vs. sociological science fiction. In this mundane-to-fantasy scale, “2001” is ultrahard, except for its ET’s, which were plausibly hard. Ultrahard meaning almost like (say) “The Martian”. Most visual-media SF is much softer, like “Star Trek” and especially “Star Wars”.

    That aside, I think that “2001” is the best portrayal of very advanced ET’s that I’ve ever seen. All we see of them are those black slabs, and they seem very powerful while being very enigmatic.

  18. blf says

    I vaguely (now) recall I’d read the book before seeing the movie, which I didn’t see until it was shown on States TV some years (less than ten?) later. I was both massively impressed by the movie whilst also being annoyed it obfuscated the final sequence — the “hallucinogenic” trip, ornate French room, and glimpse of the orbiting star-child — weren’t really deciphered / explained in the film. Later, I read why the film’s ending was so obfuscated; in short, the final scene in the book, the star-child destroying the orbiting nuclear weapons, was considered “too similar” to Kubrick’s previous film, Doctor Strangelove… (and some other considerations).

    Of the two films, I’m inclined to rank Strangelove higher than 2001, but both are easily in my shortlist of best(-ish) ever films. (Apparently, Strangelove is now being shown again in cinemas in the UK.)

  19. Rob Grigjanis says

    lpetrich @19: I certainly get the “enigmatic”, but “portrayal”? Here’s what we know:

    They turned us into killer apes, which presumably, I guess, gave us the intelligence to build space ships eventually?
    They buried a beacon on the Moon for us to uncover, pointing to Jupiter.
    They put a stargate in Jupiter orbit, which takes Bowman somewhere.
    They transformed Bowman into a Star Child on his deathbed.

    That’s it. The whole story. Whoever “they” are, they’re not engaging with us, or even guiding us. Just manipulating, to who the fuck knows what end. It ain’t sci-fi. It’s religion. Which is just carried further in 2010. Remember Bowman with his Hare Krishna smile, and the “something wonderful” BS, and the new Garden of Eden we still can’t go to?

    For portrayals of aliens, I’ll take Lem’s Solaris over that stuff any day. Total failure of communication, yes, but at least there is engagement.

  20. lpetrich says

    I think that superpowerful aliens manipulating us is a legitimate science-fiction scenario.

    As to science fiction and theology, I’ve found this: Transcendent Outsiders, Alien Gods , and Aspiring Humans: Literary Fantasy and Science Fiction as Contemporary Theological Speculation. Discussing:
    * Authoritarian gods -- Gort in “The Day The Earth Stood Still”
    * Friendly gods -- the aliens in “Contact”
    * Aspiring human beings -- Data in ST:TNG
    I add:
    * Aloof gods -- the aliens in “2001”, the elder gods in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories
    * Gods that emerge from humanity -- Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”
    * None at all -- everything more powerful than humanity is impersonal and nonsentient -- Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

    Aloof gods involve themselves with humanity very little, with little interest in either caring for us or punishing us.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    I think that superpowerful aliens manipulating us is a legitimate science-fiction scenario.

    Sure. But for a feature-length film, or novel, it should have more to it than the story I outlined in #21. At least, it should have humans interacting, not the blank-faced, unthinking, unfeeling (apparently) technocrats we meet in 2001. HAL is the most interesting character, but not that interesting; an AI that develops paranoia. Ho-hum.

    It is a beautiful film, but it’s an empty beauty. I’ve been trying to think of something comparable. I can’t. There are plenty of films whose main attraction is their look (The Duellists, Excalibur, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, Picnic at Hanging Rock, etc). But they are all interesting stories as well.

    Of course, at the end of the day, it comes down to taste. Maybe others see something I don’t see, like those who find Mozart interesting ;-). Maybe it’s simply my loss. So be it.

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