2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Kubrick’s Seminal, Visionary Epic

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” may seem a bit tame by today’s sci-fi standards. Nonetheless, when it was initially released, in 1968, the movie caused an incredible culture shock.

This rather enigmatic film left some viewers in rapture, and others perplexed. More than anything else, “2001” was a conversation piece, a movie to talk about.

Its strong word of mouth, both good and bad, made it into an enormous hit for MGM. People went to see “2001,” or went to see it again, so that they could keep up with the ensuing arguments about the movie.

The great debate over what “2001” meant has continued for years. Controversy erupted over the meaning of the film’s metaphysical symbols. What did the black monolith represent What did the film try to say about evolution Such questions led to “Life”‘s infamous headline: “Perhaps the mysterious monolithic slab is really Moby Dick.”

At the same time, “2001” spawned cosmic dialogue about the future, encouraging Americans to imagine what their country would look like in the future. The movie gave no clear answers to the questions it raised. Instead, it was like a Rorschach test, with the reaction of each viewer telling more about himself or herself than about the film.

“2001” galvanized the press immediately upon its release. And the reactions were as varied as those of 2001’s general audience. Some critics called it the “ultimate trip,” while others, such as Pauline Kael, laughed the film off as “third-rate.” However, it’s important to note that “2001” was the first serious or intellectual film to become a hit without help from the critics. “2001” is, in fact, the exact point at which critics and audiences started to separate.

Many critics who originally blasted the film were encouraged by its immense popularity to reconsider their opinions. Three New York newspapers gave positive editorial pages to “2001,” after their critics had written unfavorably about the movie. The critics’ reconsideration–in some cases total reevaluation–encouraged more viewers to see the film, or see the film again.

Scholar Annette Michelson wrote a long, heady piece in Artforum, trying to explain the cultural shock the film had caused.

The “Saturday Evening Post” devoted an editorial page to “The Graduate” and “2001,” favoring “2001,” arguing that: “Far more than the theater, and far more than television, movies today provide the entertainment that interests people, impresses them, moves them, makes them think.

The “L.A. Times” ran an article by Walt Lee, a research physicist at Hughes Aircraft Company, evaluating 2001’s scientific credibility. At the end of 1968, many overseas TV networks and stations, including the BBC, ran trailers for 2001 as part of their year-end special news analyses.

Eventually, a book solely about the film was published, The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel. This volume includes major reviews, editorials, and feature articles on the film, letters to Kubrick, interviews with computer scientists and experts in the fields of anthropology, astronomy, biology, and engineering.

The film’s devout following, though, was with teenagers and hippies. Variety snootily called “2001,” “a film for groovin’ and understandin’,” after it was adopted by the counterculture. Appropriately, the film was most popular on the West Coast, where the hippies’ population was more concentrated. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle were all “2001” towns. The film’s popularity with young audiences was largely due to its final section, a psychedelic light show that takes up almost a half-hour of the nearly three-hour film. One Californian commented to “Saturday Evening Post”: “Half the acid heads in Los Angeles go to see it every other day. That last section sends them on a free trip.” While “2001” is certainly not responsible for the LSD fad that was hitting America at the time, the movie’s contents encouraged drug use in movie theaters. Theater managers were at their wits ends trying to halt the marihuana smoking in theater balconies.

Young moviegoers cultivated other new habits that theater managers were not acquainted with. While fans usually reserved seats for the show, these young viewers just showed up. And while usually fans did not like to sit in the front rows of the theaters, especially for Super-Panavision Cinerama engagements, fans of 2001 cherished those front row seats. The fans would in fact move from the back of the theater during the movie’s final part, to lie down flat on their backs at the front.

Repeat viewers became a trend with “2001.” Stuart Byron reported in “Variety,” that the film became “a new church, perhaps a new religion.” In Detroit, high school and college students would have competitions to see who could see the film the most times. They would give the count-up of how many times they had seen the film to the manager as the entered the venue. Some of them would come in only for the second half of the film. Detroit theater manager Russ Russo said: “It’s great that these kids have found a way to take a trip without LSD.”

The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures was right, giving the film an A-2 rating, noting that it was morally unobjectionable for adults and adolescents. The office’s report read: “Viewers who adhere to rigid categorical forms or who have never aspired to unorthodox speculation had better stay away, as should small children, who would likely be more confused and frightened than entertained. This film is for youth and imaginative adults, the curious and the adventurous.” “2001” was another warning to Hollywood that the youth market had arrived on a grand scale.

When the film went from Cinerama to 35mm engagements, there was a huge negative public reaction from the youth market. “Variety” reported that a New York City disc jockey “practically held a wake last month during pic’s final day at the Cinerama Theater.” Hollywood was learning its lesson.

“2001” garnered respect from other parts of society. In 1968, it was screened for the U.N. Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. By January of 1969, MGM had received a record 350 fan letters about the film, not only from teenagers and hippies. The letters were from celebrities, university professors, and technocrats, and most of them were highly emotional. Surprisingly, there were also many letters from extremely young people, 5 to 13 years old. About 75% of the letters singled out “2001” as the best movie ever made.

To this day, “2001” continues to be a film that enjoys the respect of the scientific community. In the summer of 1992, when Carl Sagan was included in a Premiere panel to select the ten best sci-fi films, Sagan commented of “2001”: “Its science is excellent, and decades later, it has never been approached, much less equaled.” In his “Author’s Note” to “2001”‘s sequel, “2010,” Arthur C. Clarke reveals that all of the Apollo 8 astronauts had seen the film before leaving for their mission, and were tempted to radio back the discovery of a large black monolith. When “2001” hit the overseas markets, there was sharp upsurge in business in conjunction with the Apollo 8 mission.

The Command Module for Apollo 13 was christened Odyssey, after the film’s title. Just before the Apollo 13 mission was aborted, the crew was listening to Richard Strauss’ “Zarathustra” theme, which has become forever associated with “2001.” During the Skylab mission, the crew realized that they could run around Skylab like mice on a wheel due to artificial gravity, as in the famous scene from “2001.” They videotaped themselves doing so, and transmitted the images to earth with the following note: “Stanley Kubrick should see this.”

Although scientists have embraced 2001, the movie’s most memorable character suggests the evil potential of science. HAL, the wicked computer who has much more personality than any of the human characters, became one of the New American Cinema’s greatest villains. But as the astronaut Bowman finally figures out how to disconnect HAL, and we experience HAL’s slow and painful demise, we cannot help but sympathize with the machine.

Debates over HAL continue to this day. In an article for “Computerworld,” entitled “HAL creeps from theater to reality,” Michael Alexander suggests that scientists are coming closer to creating an actual heuristically programmable algorithmic (HAL) computer. Due to new technologies, such as imaging, scanning, voice recognition, information storage and decision-making, Alexander believes HAL has become a reality.

The influence of “2001” on Hollywood sci-fi films has been incredible. “2001” was the first sci-fi to appeal to a new visually oriented audience. The film “Quest for Fire” borrows heavily from the first sequence of “2001,” “The Dawn of Man.”

Kubrick’s seminal film launched a whole sci-fi cycle: “2001” was followed by “Silent Running,” “Star Wars,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Star Trek,” “2010,” and “A.I: Artificial Intelligence,” a collaboration between Kubrick’s conception and Spielberg’s execution.

Commercial Appeal:

Released on April 4, 1968, the movie was the year’s second top-grosser.

Running time: 141 minutes