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2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
1968
Written by Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick and directed by Stanley Kubrick
141 Minutes
Rated G

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film held in high critical esteem, so when writing this review I need to recognize and respect the importance of this sacred cow before I punch its head in with a mechanical bolt and turn it into cold cuts. There's some delicacy and academic responsibility involved when you're writing a review that basically says this immortal classic isn't actually very good. It's not the same as just saying Casablanca sucks (and it does suck), because 2001 is a much more thoughtful film made by a much more important filmmaker.

I need to make clear that I can handle a very slow burn. Films like Ring, Kairo, and Tomie can require feats of endurance to work through, but they will reward the attentive and astute viewer. There's a difference between slow and dull, and 2001 falls on the wrong side.

Kubrick is a masterful director with a fatal flaw: egocentricity. While there can be no doubt that he possesses marvelous technical skill and is capable of incredible precision, he ultimately winds up defeating himself with well-executed, terrible decisions, and they're usually planted squarely in his plotting. He seems to become so enraptured with the beautiful compositions and exquisite construction of his work that he nearly forgets he has to make a cohesive, interesting film. The Shining is a good horror film with an empty head. Eyes Wide Shut has a powerful message lost in a needlessly convoluted film. Full Metal Jacket has tonal issues and shifts gears in a way that I don't personally think it ever really recovers from. And 2001 lacks unity, and drifts where it should flow.

Most people remember 2001 for HAL 9000, but HAL's portion of the film is actually a remarkably small component of an overall running time that is dull at worst and outright nonsensical at best. Worse still, the scene falls apart under scrutiny. Kubrick has masterfully assembled the scenes on the ship and the effects hold up to this day, but the characters in it are interchangeable ciphers, and HAL's dialogue is painfully simple. There's drama brought to the proceedings, but the core story is barely fit for The Outer Limits.

The rest of the film is relentlessly dull, with the best of it coming in fairly early with the discovery of violence. It's a very high concept that the remainder fails to live up to, as the other vignettes – if you could charitably call them such – have far less insight to offer. The focus on the story would be engaging in the hands of another director, but Kubrick is disinterested in it and the shooting and sound design reflect that. These are deliberate decisions that ultimately fail the material. When we finally get to the end sequences, which surely must have been more interesting when the film came out and LSD was still legal, Kubrick loses his grip on the film. The scenes don't flow at all, imagery can seem utterly random, and the film's final arrival at the star child feels random even though it isn't. It's clear something is being communicated by the filmmaker, but his language fails him.

What led to the ultimate and final undoing of the film for me, personally, was Kubrick himself. If IMDb is to be believed, when interviewed about 2001 and what the scenes and monoliths (disappointment sets in when we discover there's actually more than one) meant, he claims to explain the film in the most literal sense. In the process, he destroys the individual interpretations he also claims he intended to encourage. If a film is to mean something unique to everyone, why would you, as the film's author, explain what is actually happening? It's a jump I couldn't make and it's a profound disappointment. I read the monolith as the persisting hand of God, and discovering what he actually intended from it sapped any remaining intellectual enjoyment I had from the film and left me with the bitter taste of the filmmaker's profound artistic pretension. Just because you're a master of your craft doesn't mean you can never fuck up royally.

I think the intellectual failure of Kubrick's exploration of spirituality and the universe in 2001 serves as an excellent counterpoint to the lesser known but vastly superior Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film, along with another of Tarkovsky's works, Sacrifice, handles ideas of creation and God in a less pretentiously epic and more thoughtful, introspective way.

Ultimately, I don't think 2001 is a particularly good film, though my professors and most critics would disagree with me. Kubrick is the film's greatest asset and greatest detriment. His direction is precise, meticulous, and oftentimes wrong-headed. And for me, the interview was the final nail in the coffin, the confirmation that what actually occurs in the film is far less interesting than how we might imagine it. This is a chasm I can't bridge, your mileage may vary. Other filmmakers of this kind of abstract work have been smartly elusive about their films, with Lynch being delightfully cagey about the true meaning of Mulholland Drive and producing a fantastic Lego film for the more adventurous viewer to build meanings out of.

I'm no fan of Kubrick and his film 2001. There's better work more deserving of praise out there, and none of it rings with the pretentiously epic overtones of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.