Assoc. Fiction Editor
A visual tapestry and musical opera, but devoid of interesting characters or a mature story structure.
This is a film that fits into every director’s, film student’s, and every critic’s education of the film medium. It is a prerequisite on the syllabus of every curriculum for movie makers. 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of the most influential works of science-fiction and cinema to come out of the Cold War period, yet it would be entirely wrong to call it a movie. In fact, it is a terrible movie — but it is a remarkable film.
Because every film studies wonk and their mother has an opinion on the film, I will be brief and remain true to the purpose of reviewing it, not lavishing over it. That is to say, I don’t give a flying hoodah what the “deeper meaning” or “wider vision” of 2001: A Space Odyssey is interpreted to be by bandwagon film critics who are too afraid to feel like they’re missing out on the punchline to be honest and objective about the Clarke’s and Kubrick’s failings.
A movie is not meant to be something that has to be discussed afterwards. A movie is not something that requires the viewer to read the book, or take a class on, later to understand. A movie is not something that forces people to sit through 85 minutes of dead air, offering no explanation, and is entirely devoid of any scintilla, any semblance, of a storyline, character arc, or plot.
Containing horror elements, “2001” fits closely enough into the Halloween line-up of reviews, as (#5), if not only because of its inspiration on other horror genre motion pictures.
Quite frankly, 2001: A Space Odyssey is boring as hell. And it is a horrible movie. To give an illustration of how empty the film “2001” is, the original script had about 17,000 words in it. Most of this is description of the sci-fi elements and screen directions. In the end, the film had about 5,000 words of dialogue in it, total. That comes down to about 20 minutes of speech. . . The movie is 139 minutes long.
The film’s defenders are quick to claim that its emptiness and barren quality are an allegory for the emptiness of space. They never seen to stop for a moment however, perhaps in one of the film’s 30-minute long stretches of drawn out ‘alternate’ content, to consider why the film needs such a defence. People do not like it. Quite plainly, it is a bad movie. Defining why it is bad, using words like “allegory,” “metaphor,” and “artistic vision” doesn’t change the fact that it is unwatchable, it just explains how a production crew could look at 5 minutes of black screen in a major motion picture and think to themselves, “The audience will understand why they spent 5 minutes of their life looking at a dead screen. Because it says something about what it means to watch, blah, blah, blah.”
This movie is a film critic’s movie. It gives people plenty to analyse. And it has exceptional cinematography. For a film maker, it’s easy to see why the writers and directors did what they did, and how good it turned out — especially for an audience in the heat of the Cold War-era Space Race, who had quite literally never seen anything like it before. The long, operatic sequences probably mean a great deal to people who were born in the 1950’s and for them 2001: A Space Odyssey was Kubrick putting the last half-century on the silver screen, in colour film, for the first time.
Cinematically, it is exceptional at what it is and what it wants to do. But as a movie — and just a movie — it is quite poor. The entire plot of the film is that all-powerful aliens have been observing life on Earth since before life humanity came into existence, and during the Space Age people discover one of their relics, which leads to the capture of one human being in Jupiter’s orbit, who is killed and reborn as an alien himself. . . That’s it.
What the hell that has to do with the elementary notions of a beginning, middle, and end — a rising conflict, a climax, and a resolution — is anyone’s guess. There is no plot to speak of. Kubrick himself said the picture was more of an exploration of different concepts than a straight forward story. When I watch a film, I’m kind of looking for a storyline; That’s the whole point. A movie is not an art gallery of stills and frames juxtaposed together through editing, it is a cohesive and contained world onto itself: A story.
A movie is a casual experience, not a class requirement or a way to coerce the viewer into writing some kind of thesis. A viewer needs a reason to watch a film, and not because other people watch it or because it’s a cultural phenomenon. In this way, 2001: A Space Odyssey is no different than a trashy boyband, since they both have merits to justify their fame, but only get continued fame and discussion as a previous result of existing acclaim. But that is not enough to idolise a failed film. Reading Stanley Kubrick’s name on the playbill is not enough. Staring at Heather Downham’s ass is not enough.
This film does not deserve to use the title “Odyssey” at all, not more than some cheap gladiator flic would, because the Odyssey had a clear progression of characters, and themes, and resolutions which Homer was capable of creating over a long oracle tradition, and which Clarke and Kubrick fumble to represent on-screen. They should have stuck to long, narrative fiction, because whatever “2001” is trying to be — and even it doesn’t know — this doesn’t work as a movie. The film is polished on the surface, but entirely experimental, and therefore superficial, but above all boring, dull, and dragging on too long.
And nothing in that plot is ground-breaking or new at all. The visuals might be first-of-their-kind on big-budget films, but the ideas of aliens, aliens linked with the Cold War, and computers being evil are old and hackneyed ones. Anyone deluded enough to unwavering call the directors ahead of their time need only to look at the abysmal depiction of women in the film: Pink-wearing, skin-tight, ass-in-the air stewardesses and receptionists, completely subservient to male control and design. Perhaps the film is making a statement that Russian women are liberated and American women are oppressed, yet even the female Soviet scientists do not speak for themselves, but elect the singular male doctor to ask the difficult questions of Floyd instead.
Consider Star Trek, which was released 10 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and draws heavily from it, yet Star Trek is also capable of making social commentary. Unfortunately, Star Trek as well, for all its preachings about ascending beyond economic struggles and societal biases, still echoes them. Star Trek shifts the focus from societal bias of the system to implicit bias of the individual, which is a human trait that follows the theme into the future, creating the conflict of the franchise, yet the franchise also has a serious problem with the depiction of women all the way from the Original Series, through the Picard saga, and into the later sequels and spin-offs like Voyager, and current reboots. There’s a major difference between being a liberated woman who still has needs, and being an intergalactic sex toy. Most of my friends are sex-crazed lunatics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t choose to be, and it doesn’t mean they view themselves as second to men or their actions to benefit men generally at all, just as a man chasing several women is hardly doing it for their benefit.
The social commentary is absent in “2001.” The purpose of this might be to make the point by ‘feeling’ rather than telling, but the problem of gently nudging people in a pompous way to feel something instead of sincerely telling them directly is that people will interpret things as they want, and are very resistant to change. If a viewer thinks that lying to Russians because their foreigners is okay to do, then watching Kubrick make a passive aggressive statement about how duplicity can backfire is not going to change their minds — it will only embolden those who disagree with him more, and for those who already agree with him he’s just preaching to the choir. And if someone did take away the wrong message, who’s to say it’s the wrong message anyway, if it’s all “open to interpretation,” ie. an evasion by the writers from making their true feelings known.
And as a small note, the Russian dialogue in the film is horrible. The actors have poor pronunciation, the words they are speaking are incorrect, and the grammatical structure was erroneous. Clarke, Kubrick, and MGM had $10 Million Dollars, and the time to film 30-minutes of people running around in ape suits fighting pig puppets, but they couldn’t do a simple grammar check? They couldn’t cast a single Russian actor?! The four Russians are played by: Leonard Rossiter, French-English, British; Margaret Tyzack, German-English, British; Maya Koumani, Greek-English, British; Krystyna Marr, Polish-German, American.
These tropes were used in different ways, such as not seeing an alien until the very end, and after being pioneered by Kubrick became easy fodder for space movies and the science fiction genre to copy, but don’t actually have any deeper substance. It is a well known fact that Stanley Kubrick did not like the Cold War, so people going into drawn out arguments for why the first 25 minutes of the film was literally thrown away just to make some esoteric statement about how backward and barbaric the Cold War was, are really just gluttons for punishing themselves and inflicting that bias on others.
A fourth (25%) of the runtime of a 2-hour long movie, the first 25 minutes, is completely unwatchable, AND, frustratingly so, it has absolutely nothing to do with the remaining 115 minutes of the film. How in the hell the editors did not cut this garbage out of the movie for its major release debut is incomprehensible. Pulling this kind of raw poor taste is exactly the kind of thing that gives a bad name to ‘artistic freedom.’
The only semblance of a plot is the part everyone thinks about when they think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the deep space voyage with the supercomputer HAL-9000, pronounced initially as “H.-A.-L.-Niner-Zero-Zero-Zero,” then later, obviously just as “Hal Nine Thousand.”
This minor sequence in the movie saves the film, as far as popular culture and the average person are concerned. HAL-9000 is a perfect and incorruptible machine, tasked with guiding the mission to Jupiter, along with a two-man crew, and payload of three cryo-sleep scientists.
Immediately to the audience, it seems like a stupid idea. Why would anyone go to a gas planet like Jupiter? Why would the AI be put in charge of everything? Why is half the crew in hibernation? All these questions added together make a catastrophe inevitable. HAL mentions as much to one of the crew members himself, asking him if he, too, thought the mission was “odd.” It is explained later that the reason for all these difficulties are the result of a specific miscalculation by the American command structure back on Earth.
HAL tells the crew that communications will fail in 72 hours, but he does not know why, and he never gives an explanation for why he knows this in the film. The crew check that nothing is wrong, and phone NASA (or its fictional equivalent), and NASA tells them HAL is malfunctioning. It is possible that NASA is lying to the crew, or it is possible that HAL got something wrong.
Because HAL was designed to be a perfect robot, this possible malfunction worries the crew, who conspire in secrecy to destroy HAL and take control of the ship. HAL, in true machine fashion, wastes no time in shooting one of the crew out into space, and as his crewmate goes to retrieve the body, HAL kills the rest of the crew and locks him out.
At this point, HAL appears to be acting irrationally and emotionally like a human would. After the last surviving crew member kills HAL, he finds out that the reason HAL killed the crew is because he was programmed by the Americans that under no circumstances whatsoever is he to be shut off.
So what appeared to be self-preservation was actually just the mechanical process of fulfilling his commands. What makes HAL a complex character is that his human caretakers take care of and are taken care of by him. HAL is in total control of the ship, but only because the humans told him to be, as the crew waste their days away drawing sketches, and playing chess, and watching videos. The audience is left to wonder if decommissioning HAL is any different from killing a servant who has gotten sick and is therefore no longer of any use.
When HAL discovers the crew’s plot to take over the ship, HAL is aware that the crew want to ensure they make it to Jupiter and fear HAL would get in the way of that. HAL, however, is also aware that the USAA or NASA or whatever wanted HAL to give the crew a secret message about the aliens after reaching Jupiter. HAL is put in a difficult position, because he believes it is important to get the crew to Jupiter to deliver the message to them, but it is also important to keep the message from them and stay in absolute control of the ship until they get there.
HAL at this point has a logic break and malfunctions, killing the crew, and thereby inadvertently destroying the mission he was acting to protect. When Bowman resets HAL’s memory banks, HAL admits to Bowman that he knows he malfunctioned in killing the crew, and tells him that he/it is afraid to die. This leaves the audience to interpret whether HAL is lying to stop himself getting shut off, so he can compete the mission himself with no crew, or if HAL genuinely broke down and malfunctioned when he murdered the hibernating crew members because he was afraid that the crew would destroy him after the found out what he had done.
There is also something to be said about the fact that Bowman risked his life to retrieve Poole’s dead body, but after it becomes an impediment that threatens his own life, he throws it back out into dead space. It is in this moment that Bowman becomes a dead man himself, since HAL has killed everyone else and damaged the ship for human habitation, making a return trip impossible even if HAL is defeated.
HAL is known to lie to the crew, but it could be influenced by self-preservation and dilemmas, causing something called confusion. But then again, HAL is programmed to lie, so to HAL lying would be a form of truth, because it was told that doing the wrong thing was the right thing, for a greater purpose. And yet, again, HAL cruelly murders the crew when he could have left them frozen, even if it was necessary for it to kill Poole and Bowman, which is as much malfunctional as it is emotional.
HAL-9000 is the strong point of the entire movie. But that being said, HAL does not have a character arch, since HAL never changes over the entire course of the film. The crew only learns about HAL’s motives after they kill him, and despite HAL acting irrationally and inexplicably several times, the movie gives a superficial explanation that HAL has human-interface protocols built-in to sound more palatable to users, nullifying the question of HAL’s possible growth.
HAL did everything it did because humans told it to. Not once did HAL contravene the human directive in it’s own interest. The tragedy of the HAL character is a misinterpretation and accident of logical data. Additionally, the single most important point of HAL’s character — that it doesn’t make mistakes — is severely undercut when HAL makes three mistakes: incorrectly predicting the communicator would break when it didn’t, killing the crew thus undermining the mission, and ultimately being unable to stop itself being erased by Bowman. Part of that discrepancy has to come down to poor writing.
The idea of HAL is great writing. HAL is not a human character, and it’s the robot’s distinct lack of humanity that makes it the most human character of the film.
Bowman, Poole, and Floyd are not characters. They believe nothing, they say nothing, they do nothing. The audience feels nothing for them. When HAL threw Poole out of the spaceship, careening into space, I burst out laughing because of how absurd the image of him getting comically, cosmically tossed out of the veritable window was. When Bowman sees this, he doesn’t even react, but robotically and emotionlessly asks HAL what went wrong, and HAL lies to him by telling him it doesn’t have enough information to know.
After the HAL storyline ends, Bowman receives a transmission that reveals to him that HAL was given a message to lock down the crew and control the ship because the U.S. Government wanted to keep the aliens a secret, even from their own crew who ultimately died because of the mistake. The original script has Bowman re-establish contact with America (I say “America” and not “Earth” because the film makes clear that the U.S. is not cooperating with other countries), and NASA sends him the message. That is cut in the final film, with Bowman just discovering the message, either because HAL gave it to Bowman as a final act of protecting the mission, or much more likely that HAL being deleted removed a barrier from accessing the message. This further makes the point of why HAL could not allow the crew to ‘unplug’ it, since guarding the message was HAL’s personal mission.
The HAL chapter is marred with long pauses, like waiting literal minutes for the stupid space popcorn balls to turn around and move back and forth, or watching Bowman stare silently into a screen. Many people like the music, but the music usage is paradoxical. Since space is silent, to use ballads of music is just as much a choice as to use dialogue — music is no more “pure” or “non-human” than speech is — and watching entire scores of music play out of a static backdrop would be interesting at the live orchestra, but this is a stereo recording underplaying a film, so it hardly has the same effect. This is a limit, and choice to pursue that limit, which was weak on the part of the writers. A soundtrack is not supposed to take centre stage; people can buy the CD later, but they want to see the movie now.
The movie makes the decision to skip over the rest of the journey to Jupiter, cut out all the dialogue and character exploration between Bowman and NASA, and jumps right to the end of the movie — a twenty-minute-long session of meaningless strobe lights.
All the storyline and extra HAL content that could have been included, and they made the decision to, again, burn the whole film continuity down as a middle finger to the audience and the producers — to balk conventional ‘expectation.’ It is a horrible choice. The writers said they wanted to create something alien and never imagined before about what a different world would be like. They said they had some difficulty translating the idea: And they decided on rainbow lights and lava lamps. Twenty. Straight. Uninterrupted. Minutes of it.
This is made even more BS that the directors put a title card right in the middle of the HAL sequence, in front of this, called “Intermission.” Is this what audiences were returning for? One unhappy movie-goers said, “People call this movie genius: There are 5 minutes of black screen in the film. No music. No picture. Just an empty frame of dead air. How genius can that be? Is my turned-off television screen also a genius of cinema? Is a blank piece of paper now some artistic statement? The last half hour of the movie is flashing light in people’s faces for 30 minutes, with no dialogue. A complete bore and an insult. One of the most overrated films in history.”
Skipping over about an hour of rubbish in the film, it starts to become compelling. There probably exists a fan edit out there somewhere that recut the film, trimming it down to 45 minutes. The monkey scene — “Dawn of Man” — could be 2 minutes. (As a side point, it shoud be pointed out that humans are not descended from chimpanzees, but that chimpanzees and humans share a common origin, much like whales and elephants do.) The space stewardesses fumbling to walk and carrying lunch trays can go. Floyd’s daughter plays no role whatsoever. Floyd can meet the Soviets, talk about the virus, then give the Moon presentation about the virus being a cover story, and then they go to the alien artifact, and then it cuts to HAL-9000. After HAL dies, there is a 60-second sequence of ‘light gates’ to convey the ship was abducted, and then the screen fades to black. The End. What happens? Who knows. Not much different from the original.
I’ve read some of the commentary on this film, such as by Roger Ebert (or Robert Egert, or whatever his name is) and the always come off as snobs and pricks, even suggesting audiences should requires some minimum score on an entrance exam to see the movie in theatres. That is exactly the problem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, snobbery. The snobbish idea that it means something more when it needs to, and that it doesn’t when it doesn’t need to. There is a reason people find it “annoying. . . confusing. . . infuriating. . . frustrating. . . crazy. . . unwatchable.” These are not people who hate movies or Kubrick, these are the same people who like the HAL story and the Moon voyage parts. But a movie, even about aliens, cannot be alien itself. The movie is supposed to be the viewer’s friend, and guide the viewer through the experience of the alien and the unknown. Alienating the audience is counterproductive in every measure.
Everyone — every single person you ask — calls 2001: A Space Odyssey a work of “art.” Art. Not movie, art. Not entertaining, art. Not good work, but good art. Well, just what the hell is art? I don’t want obstinate art, I want a good film. I’ve seen films that are artistic and compelling. I’ve seen films that are interesting but shallow. A Bruce Lee movie doesn’t have much in the way of plot, but you get to see Bruce Lee do some real-life kung fu and amazing stunts, and it’s still fun. But “2001” more subtle and ‘lava-lampy,’ so much so it is impossible to get lost into the experience without becoming aware of yourself at certain moments and wanting to either turn the show off, or just suffer through it because everyone else seemed to. Film critics might get paid to watch 10 minutes of dead air, but the directors don’t have the right to waste people’s time. At the end of the day, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t really intellectual at all; Anyone who’s actually interested in learning something or seeing something new would be better off going to the bookshop or a city gallery, this is still just a movie, and no one can claim they are smart for just sitting there and passively consuming a piece of popular media, not even haughty sci-fi fans. There is a difference between watching a science-fiction movie and being a real scientist!
Film snobs and fusty critics who rewatch the damn thing 10-times don’t get to just designate the whole package as good. Maybe the reason such contrarians like the film is just because so many people don’t, and they feel cultured or superior for pretending they’re ‘in on’ the experience. The movie has some high points and innovative structures, but fails as a cohesive unit. It’s a meticulously crafted bomb. Anyone studying the film has to focus on the camera angles, the underlying themes, and the audience reception more than the plot — because there is no plot.
This is a film which, if you like esoteric and avant-garde, you can watch this film and then spend the rest of your time reading the book and the script notes and the celebratory review articles and the academic theses and watching the director and cast interviews, to actually understand what the hell is going on. That is certainly its own kind of experience, but it is not a movie experience. That is to say, it’s not fun.
If you want to watch a good movie, skip over everything except the HAL arch, watch a 3-minute synopsis on what you missed over the other 90 minutes, and then move on with your life doing more important things, or watching better movies. Even Kubrick’s other movies are drawn-out and slow, but at least they have established characters and a point, as well as a clandestine “moral of the story” under the surface. If that seems like to much of a hassle, just give 2001: A Space Odyssey a hard pass; it’s not worth seeing. This is one of those trailblazing films where the innumerable imitators actually picked up the gauntlet, evolved the themes, and did it better.