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Million Dollar Movie

2001: Thus Yawned Zarathustra

Before you freak out, let me assure you that I’m not saying 2001: A Space Odyssey is a bad movie. I’m not saying it’s not well-made, beautifully crafted, and culturally significant. I’m not saying it doesn’t have interesting, thoughtful things to say about human consciousness and technology and the nature of intelligent life.

I’m just saying I don’t like it.

I tried, I really did. I watched it in high school, and was ashamed to find myself bored. I watched it on the big screen in college, as a film major, and fell asleep. I watched it later in college – this time with the help of substances my friend was sure would help me “get it” – and fell asleep much faster. After loving Dr. Strangelove and Lolita I watched it one more time, just to make sure, because I felt my failure to embrace or even tolerate 2001 was one of my greatest failings as a film major.

I still don’t like it.

Partly this is just personal preference – the movies I love most tend to have involving, well-drawn characters and great dialogue, and even Stanley Kubrick’s most ardent admirers surely can’t claim that for this movie. I’m not especially visual, so while I can love and appreciate great cinematography or camerawork when I see it, movies like this (or for example, Solaris) which are almost entirely about their images just don’t tend to grab me, through no fault of their own.

But my issues with 2001 run deeper: I can think of very, very few films that take themselves this seriously. And there’s nothing wrong with being serious about art, but in my view 2001 crosses the line into pompous pretension early on and never makes it back. Any movie that begins with the chyron “THE DAWN OF MAN,” and is not a Mel Brooks comedy, is unlikely to hit the mark for me.

Can I remind you that this movie leads off with fifteen minutes of people in monkey suits hopping around and screeching. Fifteen minutes. God forgive me, but rewatching it today on YouTube in preparation for this post, all I could think of was the Star Wars Holiday Special and its opening 20 minutes, which are nearly entirely in Wookie, sans subtitles.

The part of 2001 that I like is, not coincidentally, the part that has an actual plot (albeit glacially paced) and even just the faintest pulse of a sense of humor: the HAL sequence. Even that opens with more than five minutes of dialogue-free space ballet, a slow scene of empty cryptic dialogue… and then four more minutes of space ballet. Viewers who have managed to stay awake to this point are then rewarded with the wry, tense, thoughtful movie that 2001 could’ve been if someone sober had been able to get through to Kubrick’s strange, fevered brain. By far the movie’s best scenes – genuinely great ones – are Dave’s battle to disconnect HAL, and I’m sure it’s no accident that HAL itself is by far the movie’s most compelling and textured character. The computer has one of the best death scenes on film – “Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this… I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently… Dave… stop…”:

Just a fantastic, brilliant sequence, and there’s a reason it’s still referenced all the time, in casual conversation, in philosophy, in politics, in ads. How many times have I done a dopey robot-voice imitation and told someone, “I can’t do that, Dave”? (Answer: many many times).

… And then we go back to the space ballet and, with barely a pause, ten minutes of a trippy self-satisfied laser show featuring sperm shapes that I guess is supposed to symbolize eternity or wormholes of the meaning of life – I don’t mind not knowing but the problem is that, by the end of it, I do not care. According to my mom, who was in college at the time, when this movie was released in Boston her local movie theater rated it S, for stoned; well, I tried that and it’s still ten minutes of a trippy self-satisfied laser show, the only difference being that now you’re watching it with Cheetos and a weird tingly feeling on one side of your scalp.

In the movie’s infamous conclusion, Dave’s space pod has landed in an odd house, and he’s aged a lot, and he sees himself as an even older man, and then an even older man, and then the black monolith is there and then he dies and then suddenly he’s a fetus, or maybe an alien baby or something, it’s a little hard to be sure, and the soundtrack reminds us that what we just saw was really, really important.

What does it all mean? I’ll tell you what it means: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Go ahead and tell me I’m a philistine, you’re probably right. I’ll even concede that 2001 may well be a masterpiece of some kind…but only if you promise not to make me watch it again.


1 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 22, 2010 12:02 pm

thank you Emma! This is the embodiment of everything I've felt about this movie since I saw it for the first time.

is it a "great" movie? yes...but its maybe the most unlikable "great" movie ever made

2 monkeypants   ~  Jun 22, 2010 12:05 pm

I've always really, really, really liked 2001...until you get to the incomprehensible last act. The first two-third are, in my opinion, just about everything a thoughtful sci-fi movie should be. The last bit keeps it out of my top five or ten or whatever.

But I still like it overall.

3 bags   ~  Jun 22, 2010 12:30 pm

so my brilliant and insightful addition to this thread is as follows:

i haven't heard the word "chyron" in about 8 years. awesome.

4 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jun 22, 2010 1:10 pm

Emma, I think you'll fine more people agree with you than disagree. I've never actually made it through the whole thing despite several attempts. I think I've seen it all, I always get to the end of the movie, but there's much involuntary napping along the way.

5 Jersey   ~  Jun 22, 2010 1:14 pm

If you thought 2001 was boring, wait til you see Barry Lyndon.

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jun 22, 2010 1:15 pm

I don't have enough sympathy for 2001 to muster up a worthy counter, but I do like it. And the value of not being like everything else, a fresh take on a genre or topic, excuses a lot of sins for me.

And HAL is a terrifying and inspired creation. Even if you don't go for the movie, HAL's worth your time.

7 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jun 22, 2010 1:51 pm

[5] Yeah, I haven't tried that yet, though I've been kind of debating it for more than a decade now.

8 The Hawk   ~  Jun 22, 2010 2:15 pm

I like 2001 quite a bit, [2] especially the last part (which I don't think is incomprehensible. The Star Wars Holiday special? Now that's incomprehensible). [5] I also like Barry Lyndon, which I've seen at least twice. I don't mind the pace of these films, though I do mind Ryan O'Neal a bit.

9 rbj   ~  Jun 22, 2010 3:11 pm

[5] Oh yeah. Boring Lyndon bored me when it came out -- and it had fighting and nekkid breasts.

I do enjoy 2001, though the ending is weak. The key to it is watching it in the theater. It needs the big screen.

10 vockins   ~  Jun 22, 2010 3:37 pm

Incredible film.

It is most certainly not a movie about characters. If you want a movie about characters, there are hundreds of thousands of options.

11 Emma Span   ~  Jun 22, 2010 3:46 pm

[5] [7] Don't do it, Cliff - you're a father now - you have so much to live for!

12 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jun 22, 2010 3:52 pm

[9] I believe that, though I used to nod off at the Film Forum a lot: small, hot rooms with poor ventilation, and I used to go after work a lot.

13 Ken Arneson   ~  Jun 22, 2010 4:13 pm

I think the problem with 2001, to some extent, is that it is, in a way, dated. A lot of the 'wow' factor with the film is in how realistic the special effects were compared to anything that came before it that you didn't mind these long sequences. But now that sort of thing is so common now it's taken for granted. Heck, it was common just 10 years after 2001 came out--the first Star Trek movie failed primarily because it assumed that, as in 2001, the simple awe-inspiring beauty of outer space was sufficient to keep you entertained for long stretches. Filmmakers now know that doesn't work anymore (if it ever did)...a film like Avatar creates an entire realistic planet but barely lets the action slow down for even a second to look around.

14 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jun 22, 2010 4:55 pm

[13] Good point. The worst effects in the whole film are the awful ape suits. The space stuff holds up pretty well, visually, but they couldn't make a realistic ape. Go figure.

15 Emma Span   ~  Jun 22, 2010 5:04 pm

Meanwhile, Bob Timmerman points out via Twitter that Kubrick was a huge Yankees fan, and had taped games sent to him in England. And according to a colleague in this article - http://bit.ly/8YFP1b:

"...the filmmaker began using baseball analogies. Mr. Kubrick, who was born in the Bronx, was a fervent fan of the Yankees.

''He always used baseball terms with me,'' Mr. Senior said. ''He said: 'Forget what you're watching. It's time to go to bat on the movie.'...

...''To say he was reclusive is not true,'' Mr. Senior said. ''He didn't want a photo spread about himself in Hello magazine, but he was aware of everything going on and especially with what was going on with his beloved New York Yankees."
Who knew?

16 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 22, 2010 6:05 pm

15) He used to live in the same building on 86th street as IB Singer and my high school therapist, Miriam Kerster, a Jew from Toronto who was friends with Shwerner, Chaney, Goodman.

He was all-schoolyard. Didn't know about the Yankees but it makes sense him coming from the Bronx.

17 The Hawk   ~  Jun 22, 2010 6:46 pm

I didn't think they were supposed to be apes, but ape-like, missing link-type beasts. I guess it depends on what you mean by "ape" ...

18 cult of basebaal   ~  Jun 22, 2010 8:12 pm

[17] From IMDB:

Originally, Stanley Kubrick had Stuart Freeborn create a primitive but more human-like makeup for the actors playing early man, but he couldn't find a way to photograph them in full length without getting an X-rating from the MPAA, since they had to be naked. So Kubrick went with the hairy monkey model instead. With the exception of two baby chimpanzees, all were played by humans in costume.

Also, from IMDB:

Rock band Pink Floyd was at one point approached to perform music for the film. However they turned it down due to other commitments. Yet they retain a connection with the film: much like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and "Dark Side of the Moon", it is said that Pink Floyd's song "Echoes" from the album "Meddle" can be perfectly synchronized with the "Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite" segment of the film. See links section for details.

It works quite well, though it's not quite as synchronized as the DSotM/Wizard of Oz pairing ...

19 cult of basebaal   ~  Jun 22, 2010 8:18 pm

Plenty of good stuff in the IMDB trivia section:


20 cult of basebaal   ~  Jun 22, 2010 8:37 pm

Overall, 2001 isn't my favorite Kubrick film (that would be the nearly untouchable Dr. Strangelove) but it remains one my favorite movie going experiences.

Seeing it at the Cineramadome was truly revelatory, seeing it on the big screen really requires seeing it on a BIG SCREEN and there really isn't any better than the 'Dome.

Words really fail me in trying to impart just how gorgeous and powerful 2001 still remains, some 40+ years after it was shot and released, which of course, is strong evidence in favor of that movie's high placement in film-making history.

21 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Jun 22, 2010 8:51 pm

I love 2001, and Kubrick in general. I recall ferocious arguments in college as to his worth as a director (strangely, as Emma mentioned, Doritos and the munchies were involved..). I always felt if Kubrick were European, he would be more highly regarded within the film-as-art crowd.

22 The Mick536   ~  Jun 23, 2010 4:29 pm

I appreciate hearing the reactions of the Banter crowd regarding 2001.It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I have not seen it in 10 years, but I will based on the comments. Without putting my foot in my mouth or dating myself, just let me say that a lot of your reactions come from the fact that some of you were not 20 in 1968. What a year. I am not going to lecture about the 60's, heaven forbid, since I still don't understand them and won't try until someone explains the View Nam war to me.

I was in Philly for the summer when it came out, either finishing my junior year at Penn following my graduation. We would go to the theatre, get high, and sit up close,like in the first row. I must have seen it 10, 15, 20 times. Who knows, maybe 30 or even 100. The music, the colors, Arthur Clark. Still don't trust HAL. And what is a monolith.

23 matt b   ~  Jun 23, 2010 9:20 pm

I am staunchly in the pro-2001 camp. It never bores me - not the apes, not the trippy light show, none of it. I always find my mind engaged, either just by the poetry of the images or the ideas at work.
I don't generally like movies *like* 2001, but I love 2001, so go figure. I think you gotta be Kubrick to pull something that audacious off.
There's also a lot of visual wit in the film - the ads, the zero-gravity toilet, the blue danube waltz as the phallic space craft approaches and enters the space station, et al.
It's not a film for everyone, and that's just fine by me.

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