Favourite Films- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I’ve been wondering where to start with my ‘Favourite Films’ series of posts and the answer was staring me in the face, as this month is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental movie, so here we go-

2001paperbThere isn’t really much new that I can say about this extraordinary film, a film that exists as a piece of culture almost beyond cinema itself, a film whose impact resounds even today, some fifty years later. Where to begin? Well, I’m one of the Star Wars generation, too young to have seen the film when it first came out in 1968 (oh what it must have been like for those first audiences) but old enough to have been around when the film was still part of the then-recent cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. I’d read the book by Arthur C Clarke, seen some images from the film. I read the Marvel comics 2001: A Space Odyssey by Jack Kirby, one of the strangest, weirdest comic book series anyone might ever see, certainly at the time. It all added to the strange mystique surrounding the film. It was something enigmatic, something I’d heard and read about but never seen. Of course, little did I realise it would remain just as enigmatic even after I had seen it, only maybe even more so.

So yes, eventually the stars aligned and I saw it, on its first UK network screening, which was, I think, sometime around Christmas 1979 or 1980, I’m not certain which it was. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think. Which was as true of audiences back in 1968 or indeed in  2018- the first time you see 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Its only on the second viewing, or the third or  fifth that you really ‘get’ it. Or maybe you don’t really ‘get’ it  even after the fiftieth time. Maybe you’re not supposed to ‘get’ it. Arthur C Clarke said “if you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered.” There, in a nutshell, is the magic and fascination of the film and why it still remains the very antithesis of traditional cinema, and particularly current cinema which feels the need to force feed audiences everything. Most every film these days feels the need to explain, rationalise, feed endings or tease new beginnings/sequels.

I read a comment back when BR2049 came out last year, about the ending where K and Deckard reach  Dr. Ana Stelline’s office, and they stand in the snow and Deckard asks K why he has done what he did, what Deckard is to K. Following a pause, K just smiles and tells Deckard to go see his daughter, and they part. What was interesting is that this really pissed off the guy writing the comment. “Why doesn’t K say something?!” railed the guy. “Its stupid! I want K to tell us why!” To me, this is the genius of the film. Attentive viewers will know why K did what he did, and what Deckard meant to him, what Deckard represented. We don’t need it spelled out for us. Well, some of us don’t.

Which is the deepest heart of 2001. Its never got the slightest intention of explaining anything or everything. In a way, it rather does, but it leaves it up to the viewer to extrapolate meaning or sense from the film. So anyway, when school resumed after that Christmas holiday, members of my form came over to me (as the class resident sci-fi geek and film nut) and asked me what the hell 2001 was on about. I remember shrugging my shoulders and giving some general summary of the plot and what I thought but didn’t feel entirely sure myself. 2001 wasn’t Star Wars. 2001 was something else.

So began a fascination that followed for all the near-forty years since.

2001vhsI re-watched some of 2001 in art school, particularly the effects shots. Even back then, the film seemed particularly slow (God only knows what it seems like to new viewers coming to it now). I remember how control of the image, fast-forwarding and rewinding the VHS tape still refused to reveal the films secrets to me. I remember that the film was one of the first catalogue films sold on VHS in the very earliest days of affordable sell-through, and it was of course an inevitable Christmas present to me. Of course it was pan-and-scan version that mutilated the framing and the image quality was typically poor of VHS, colours blooming and dropouts etc. Well, it was long before DVD and even Blu-ray, and no doubt a 4K UHD is due eventually.

2001abelAll the books. I have read so many books about 2001. There’s still books coming out about it, fifty years later, and surely in another fifty years time there will be more.

The first and probably best was ‘The Making of Kubrick’s 2001‘ edited by Jerome Agel. Its a paperback published in 1970 which is utterly brilliant in its approach. Its basically a compilation of quotes and reviews and articles surrounding the film from its genesis and the months immediately following its release, complete with a 96-page insert of b&w stills and behind-the-scenes images explaining some of the technical aspects of the production. It includes Arthur C Clarke’s original story The Sentinel which formed the basic foundation of the plot, sections from the MAd magazine parody, the instructions from a model kit of the Orion Pan Am clipper. Letters to Kubrick from confused/angry/ecstatic viewers. Its a brilliant book, and I only wish someone had done something similar for Blade Runner.

The funny thing about 2001 is that it was never about prediction. Even the rosiest predictions from the mid-sixties with the manned moon landings planned and NASA’s huge budget at the time couldn’t really have led to the films visions becoming reality by the year 2001. But as the years and decades passed everyone was making the comparison of fiction vs reality.  Probably pissed Kubrick off no end, and how unkind and yet almost fitting, that Kubrick himself didn’t live to see the real 2001? So in a weird way, passing the real year 2001 was something rather liberating for the film, far as I’m concerned. Yes, the film is partly a fascinating glimpse of what the future looked like from the optimistic and thrilling vantage point of the 1960s, when everything was possible. And yes, it also looks rather quaint and retro-’60s, now, from our 21st Century perspective. But it’s really only reinforced the mythological intent of the film all the more clearly. As such it feels all the more powerful and allows fresh insights. Its cinema as art. Its Pure Cinema. Its a timeless masterpiece.

Or its breathtakingly self-indulgent, boring, slow, frustrating, stupid.: the film still maintains the ability to thoroughly piss people off. I’m not going to suggest that those people are wrong and that I’m right about it being a masterpiece. Oh, go on then.

Marking 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of my favourite films is almost redundant and almost as boring and predictable as had I started this series of posts with Blade Runner. But the fiftieth anniversary of this film clearly is apt excuse to start with this particular film. How many films that are made today will still be so hotly talked about/praised/hated in fifty years time as this one? How many films have really measured up in the years since? When Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar came out a few years back, so many people were comparing it favourably to Kubrick’s 2001 that it drove me nuts. People thought Interstellar was groundbreaking and intelligent and thought-provoking, but it’s nowhere near the same league as 2001, no matter its ambitions. No sci-fi film director has really come close to what Kubrick achieved in 1968. No-one has pushed the envelope, challenged how people ‘see’ sci-fi or that genre as a whole, or what it might be capable of.  It is one of my saddest observations that for all the technological breakthroughs we have seen from CGI etc, that no-one has carried it through to some new Odyssey for our own age.

Stanley Kubrick said “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written a the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001” There’s not many films that could possibly ever be compared with the Mona Lisa, as a piece of art of such magnitude, but 2001 surely can. A film for the ages then, and yes, one of my very favourite films.




3 thoughts on “Favourite Films- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    I wanted to comment on the for a while, though it’s taken me this long as a] I didn’t want to write it on my phone and end up with the usual mess of typos, and b] I was wondering how to structure it properly. So I’ve decided to reply to you point by point as though it were a conversation rather than an essay.

    I’m pretty much the same generation: I remember ‘knowing of’ 2001 in the same way as you. It was always mentioned in books about SF films like ‘Sci-Fi Now’ by Alan Frank [did you ever have that one?] And the stills looked so much more interesting and radical than the crusty, dated old stills from earlier pre-2001 SF. My Dad saw it when it was released and it must have blown his mind, because he always spoke of it in hushed tones. And he always complained that he used to have the soundtrack album but lent it to someone and never got it back.
    Yeah, ‘2001’ was always just ‘there’ in the background.

    My first viewing was radically different to yours, though. In early 1980 in the middle of the SF boom, MGM decided to cash in and did a little UK re-release [I’m dating this to 1980 from the fact that there was a trailer for ‘The Elephant Man attached]. Luckily it ended upon the biggest screen in town, and my parents took me along to see it one weekday evening. They must have been keen as they would have needed to get a babysitter in for my younger sister.

    It was stunning. I was awestruck. But the most interesting thing of all was that I had no idea whatsoever that the Stargate sequence was going to happen. After all the clinical imagery of spaceships and astronauts and apes that I’d seen in books and magazines, there was suddenly this mesmerising torrent of abstraction. I may even have turned to my mother and asked if this was still the same film.

    There’d never been any stills released of the Stargate sequence, of course. And as I’d never read the novel [I’d tried a couple of years earlier, but the Dawn Of Man section as too boring for 7-year-old me] I never knew the plot until I saw the movie.

    And the funny thing is, I had no problem with what the film was about. I clicked from the very first viewing that the bare bones of the plot were as clear as day: Monoliths help mankind evolve first from apes to men, and then from men to the next stage. I remember trying to describe it to classmates the next day, and saying it was weird and unlike any other SF film I’d ever seen. Someone said ‘what, like Star Trek The Motion Picture?’ – which I think nicely sums up how strange that film was at the time.

    I remember the TV screening you mention – it must have been Christmas 1980: that was the one where the BBC showed it lwidescreen but added stars over the letterbox strips, which looked terrible and attracted the ire of John Brosnan in one of his It’s Only A Movie articles.

    I think that was the last I saw of it until it was screened on BBC 2 in a properly letterboxed version, [with this rapturous intro by Terence Davies – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0ofYtkP6aQ%5D which I taped, and which became a sacred object for the next ten years until I bought my first DVD of it from the US in 1999.

    I watched that tape a lot – at that point the film did seem slow. But I think that’s partly to do with watching it on a small screen – the imagery doesn’t involve you as much. Also, I was probably impatient to get the the mind-blowing stuff at the end. Nowadays, though – as an editor myself – I don’t think the film has an ounce of fat on it. It moves at a sedate pace, but there’s no excess at all.

    I did get to see it on a big screen quite a few times after that: in 1990 and 1991 the fairly new multiplex in Preston used to do director’s chair screenings on Tuesday evenings, and I got to see a lot of great movies on the big screen for the first time there – or the first time in ages: ‘Jaws’, ‘The Cook, The Thief…’, ‘Once Upon A Time In America’… and ‘2001’. I persuaded my Dad to drive me to see that, though it must have become considerably less mind-blowing for him this time around as he fell asleep.

    And moving down to London in 1991, it was on at repertory cinemas all the time – often at the end of all-nighter triple-bills of the ‘Alien’ trilogy [as it was then]. The print they used to show had been around for a long long time, and was very dirty and battered. At the end of the penultimate film reel is the message Dave hears immediately after he deactivates HAL; each time I went to see it a few frames more had disappeared off the end of the reel, leaving the line ‘its origin and purpose unknown’ more clipped every time.

    In fact, I saw it so many many times over the 1990s and 2000s that it’s always been ever-present for me. It never slipped into the background.

    I’ll probably see it again when the Christopher Nolan Presents 70mm print makes it way over here [though I’d prefer a 4K Digital Print, to be honest: film projection is not kind to a film as bright and white as 2001, in the same way vinyl is not kind to ambient or classical music. Just because it was shot on film doesn’t make that the optimum viewing experience]. And I’ve seen newer film prints that contain flaws and errors that are to expensive to correct: unsteadiness, colour timing problems etc.

    The BFI did nice remastered digital prints a couple of years ago, though they made a fatal error in retaining the fake intermission in the middle the same as the Blu-ray does. That meant that at the NFT the ‘chattering classes’ audience went out to have a wee and queue up at the bar for more drinks, only to stumble in ten minutes into second part of the film, clambering over people in the dark with glasses of wine and pints in their hands; it wasn’t a proper intermission at all – just five minutes of Ligeti. The film’s only just over two hours long, and the intermission serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever. If audiences can sit through 140-odd minutes of Star Wars, or 150 minutes of Avengers 3 without imploding, they should be able to manage it here.

    An odd thing I noticed a couple of years back: I saw it at the BFI’s SF season in winter 2014, and the notes for it were written by Geoff Andrew, who’s head of programming there. Years back when he was the film editor at Time Out magazine, he was quite sniffy about ‘2001’: his review in their film guide called the ending ‘psychedelic pap’. But in his notes for the screening, he was much more generous, praising the film as an all-round masterpiece.

    It’s interesting that so many people seem to have a hankering for another film of its power and seriousness that they’ll look for it in the most unpromising places: I find the comparisons between ‘2001’ and ‘Interstellar’ or ‘Gravity’ completely spurious. ‘Interstellar’, in particular, had its effective moments, but it could not keep its mouth shut. Literally, with Matt Damon yammering away making the subtext of his scenes explicit; and the absolute lack of mystery in the end with a robot clearly explaining what’s going on in the tesseract. It’s as though Nolan is so proud of having an interesting concept on the go that he can’t help telling you about it rather than just showing. And ‘Gravity’ – well, I like it, but it’s just a big action film and as subtle as a sledgehammer.

    Did you read any of Clarke’s sequels? I read them all, sad to say. I didn’t like ‘2010’ much as a book, and the other two were pure garbage. How do you find the film of ‘2010’? I have to say, as utterly redundant and small as it is, I do like that film a lot. On its own terms, it works extremely well: much like ‘Outland’ in that respect. He was a master of the redundant-but-effective SF movie, was Hyams.

    I never knew that Making Of… book even existed: I’m keeping an eye out for a copy in decent condition that I won’t need to remortgage the house for.

    The new one is very interesting indeed. The chapter on the reception and subsequent trimming down is fascinating, and there are some stilld from deleted scenes. And did you ever read Michel Chion’s book on it? He’s very good – his book on David Lynch is also excellent.

    So yeah – definitely one of my favourites as well. I’ve already pre-ordered my 4K UHD disc from the US, though it’s been pushed back to Autumn now.

    Thanks for the article, that was a good read.

    1. Oh wow, yeah- ‘Sci Fi Now’, I’d completely forgotten about that one. Must be up in the loft in a box somewhere. I used to love those books that summarised sci-fi movies/decades/trends. Especially in the days before home video when those books and pictures were the only way to experience films outside of incredibly rare tv showings.

      I’m so envious of you first seeing 2001 in a cinema. I’ve only ever seen it once in a cinematic environment and that was a few years back in a live performance at the Symphony Hall in Brum- the live orchestra gave it a strange powerful hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling but the screen was a little lacking. Funny thing was, there were quite a few empty seats after the intermission, which struck me as odd because surely the audience knew what they were paying for? I’ll never figure people out.

      Yes I remember videotaping that airing of 2001 with the Terence Davies gushing intro. I always used to play that intro before the film whenever I watched it. This was a guy who ‘got’ the film, and having him introduce it each time was like having a mate in the room with me.

      Regards 2010- I remember hating it with a vengeance when i first saw it. It was such a mainstream movie it felt like a Hollywood sell-out, and the tv CRT monitors on the Discovery (as opposed to Kubrick’s flat screens) pissed me off no end. Really, I was furious about those bloody tv screens. Kubrick goes to all that trouble and these fools just use bog-standard CRT screens. To some degree I’ve made my peace with the film over the years (God knows there have been far worse space movies) but it always felt so uninspired. Hyams was a bit of a hack in my eyes. He ripped off Alien with Outland and the ‘look’ of 2010 owed much to borrowing Blade Runner’s Syd Mead and the EEG effects crew.

      I did read those Arthur C Clarke sequels (what was he thinking?) but so long ago I can hardly recall anything about them. Maybe Arthur needed the money, bless him. Makes me wonder if PKD would have written a sequel to DADOES had he lived to see Blade Runner- I suppose they have the right to do whatever they want. But those 2001 sequels lacked the magic of all those Kubrick/Clarke debates. Besides, why try to explain or rationalise such a cinematic, subjective experience? Pointless.

      That UHD 4K edition of 2001 does sound like a must. Really, a new telly is getting increasingly pressing and harder to resist. I read a review of the Blade Runner 4K the other week and it looks spectacular, and had me nervously eyeing my bank balance. With the temp move to Birmingham for my office rebuild stretching over three months now I’m earning a fortune in overtime so a reward may be in the offing…

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