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.