The first time I watched this film, I was twelve, deep in the grips of the Star Trek-ian love that would soon lead me to embrace the Space Opera subgenre as a beloved playground. I had long been a lover of Fantasy, both in literature and on film, but serious sci-fi was a brave new world little explored by the nascent geek I then was. Sure, childhood favorites like The Last Starfighter and Flight of the Navigator — and, of course, Star Wars – had kept me riveted for multiple viewings, and repeats of old TV shows like Doctor Who and the original Battlestar Galactica continued to broaden my understanding of the genre, but it was with this initial viewing of 2001 that I made a discovery I could not until then have imagined: science fiction can be boring.
(I hated it.)
I watched it again at sixteen, at the suggestion of a pretentious boyfriend who was sure that it was terribly hip and cool of us, as if anyone could be said to have been hip and cool in the 90s, which none of us were, except perhaps for Luke Perry.
(Still hated it.)
I watched it again at twenty, compelled to do so by a film school-attending friend who wouldn’t shut up about the compelling allegory of child growing to adulthood or some such, and okay, sure, I got it. I just didn’t care.
(Still hated it.)
My most recent brush with this try-try-again lunacy, before today, was a couple of years ago when a revival theater was playing 2001 in a late night screening, and I went along under protest, but assured by all that I would surely appreciate the grandeur and beauty of this idiocy if only I could see it in its intended form. Liars!
(Still hated it.)
Which brings us to my latest viewing, which I endured with much the same grace as a truculent teenager receiving a lecture on proper bedroom cleanliness. I groaned. Rolled my eyes. Occasionally flung pillows and stamped my foot furiously, more at myself than anything for deciding to take on this nonsense. I spent an hour and a half so, so bored I spent the time jointly watching the movie, searching eBay for vintage Trixie Belden books and playing Words with Friends—after about half an hour I decided to get up and bake some muffins, all the while still watching, still suffering. Then came the part with Dave (Keir Dullea) and Frank (Gary Lockwood), and the malfunctioning HAL 9000 computer against which they were forced to plot, and I got all interested in the movie for about three minutes… until suddenly I was confronted again with an inexplicably extended black screen, a sound analogous with an orchestra tuning up, and then a bunch of heavy breathing that seemed to last an eternity. I got interested in the movie one more time after that. One. Only the death of HAL, quite heartbreaking in his childlike humanity, managed to rouse me from my apathy for a moment… but even that was utterly spoiled by needless, grating reiteration. “I’m afraid… My mind is going… I’m afraid… My mind is going… I’m afraid…” GEEZ, STOP WHINING, HAL!
My inescapable conclusion: 2001: A Space Odyssey is a terrible, TERRIBLE film.
But let me go back to the beginning, so that we might further explore why.
From the very outset, this movie makes it clear that it is not going to be some jaw-dropping thrill-ride. The first chapter, helpfully entitled “The Dawn of Man”, is just tedious, all lengthy silences, drawn-out establishing shots, inordinately long transitions and cacophonous ape-like creatures being attacked by predators, puzzling over the presence of what is, essentially, a big rock, and then going all Ape Fight Club once they learn to use bones as tools/weapons. Indeed, that whole part of the movie is probably the most irritating quarter hour of any sci-fi film ever, and in this I am including the bit in Contact when Jodie Foster is communing with the aliens and you just want to smack her upside the head and demand that she stop staring meaningfully at the camera and just say something already. Indeed, in this I am including all of Contact. I mean, dude, at least give us a David Attenborough narration: “The Dawn of Man rises over the savannah…”
Then, miraculously, Man has dawned and now we’re in space, and there are space executives videoconferencing with precious, if dim, young moppets and engaging in banal chitchat that is way more portentous than they make it seem. There are odd happenings at a distant outpost and a secret discovery on the moon and lots of 60s fashion, including one woman’s hat that makes her look like the little toadstool from Mario Kart.
“18 Months Later” and the first manned mission to Jupiter is put in jeopardy by the shenanigans of the onboard artificial intelligence, the aforementioned HAL 9000, who has serious reservations about their objective and who takes self-preservation to aggressively homicidal heights. But it turns out that HAL’s conflict could well have arisen from his awareness that the trip to Jupiter’s purpose was not mere exploration, but to discover what might be the origin or design of the “40-million year old monolith” that is hanging out there, and is apparently in communication with its brethren on the moon. HAL is shut down, and the only surviving crewmember, Dave (you know, the “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that” Dave), ends up being reborn as a giant space baby after a bizarrely quiet stay at Versailles, crossed with the White Lodge from Twin Peaks—thanks once again to those meddlesome alien rocks.
(I still hated it.)
Oh, in its time, I can see where this movie’s effects would have made it something of a revelation, and there can be no denying that the set design is remarkable, clean and timeless while simultaneously sinister and futuristic. Released a year before Apollo 11’s lander successfully made it to the moon, and long before IBM’s Big Blue took on a chess Grand Master and won, this must have come at audiences as wondrous and prescient, and certainly the effects are so well done as to hold up almost impeccably even now. But mere innovation does not great entertainment make; otherwise Episode I, that pinnacle of groundbreaking CGI awesomeness, would be held in far greater esteem. Director Stanley Kubrick was clearly in love with his ship models and his camera angles and his costume designs, so he spends a lot of time lovingly dwelling upon even the most inane of their functions; when gravity is reversed aboard ship, it does so SLOWLY, when Dave’s capsule spins around, it does so SLOWLY, and Heaven forbid we should miss a scintillating second of his drawn-out EVA to check on an allegedly malfunctioning ship part.
Also, the repetitive nature of much of the film’s sound effects is annoying, in that “shut the hell up!” kind of way one might react to a neighbor’s car alarm endlessly protesting in the dead of night. There’s ape screeching, heavy breathing, beeping, whirring, and then SILENCE, unnecessarily long and signifying nothing. And for all the dialogue the movie interjects in between all of this, it might as well be the script for a 30-second commercial. For all that The Artist has been acclaimed as the first major silent movie of the modern era (aside, of course, from Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie), I would contend that 2001 pretty much belongs in that category, as well.
In many ways, 2001 is just an extended, slightly avant garde film clip for assorted classical music offerings, from “Zarathustra” to “The Blue Danube” – there are some beautiful compositions in this film, which have sadly become so synonymous with it that many people believe they were actually composed for it. But in reflecting on the soundtrack, I think I have finally figured out why I find the film not only dull but entirely distasteful, and also why it has always, without fail, left me with a pounding headache. The discordance! The dissonance! An entirely inhumane need to inflict upon us a score as ugly as the works by assorted Strausses are mellifluous and inspiring. As though the ape screeching and the beeping and breathing weren’t bad enough, there are these long “musical” interludes in which the notes are constantly at odds; it’s upsetting, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard irksome, like an argument carried out by instruments all fighting over which can make the most irritating noise. Indeed, much of the last fifteen minutes of the movie is just an iridescent Laser Floyd-esque extravaganza accompanied by the sound of a middle school band room on the first day of practice. And someone in there plays the Theremin. Badly.
There is a whole other level upon which I object to this movie, too. Of course there is! If it was just that it was slow and dull and discordant and… I mentioned, dull, right? Then I would not have watched it again after that first disastrous viewing, and that would have been that. But 2001 has somehow garnered for itself a place of cinematic greatness – it ranked at #15 on the AFI Top 100 in 2007 – and is constantly held up by cinephiles as something rare and wonderful, a treasure that transcends its vulgar sci-fi roots to become a masterpiece of clever parable. Now, I have a big problem with the idea, often perpetuated by mainstream movie critics, that if a science fiction movie is capital-G Good then it must therefore not actually be science fiction. We saw this happen, most recently, with Inception – it was sci-fi, but it was more than sci-fi, because it was thought-provoking and intelligent and witty and paradigm-shifting, featuring gorgeous set pieces and a stunning virtual world—as though science fiction is not inherently all these things, and more.
But a movie can be all of these things and not Good, too. 2001 is an unabashedly sci-fi flick, but it is a bad sci-fi flick, and not remotely in a fun way; it’s a genius notion executed horribly, as my enjoyment of the book Arthur C. Clarke later penned of his and Kubrick’s screenplay must surely prove.
True, I must admit that for me, the film version of 2001 was probably my first inkling that in science fiction could be found philosophy and metaphor and alternative history as much as there could all the spaceships and robots and rayguns, and I will concede it remarkable that this point was made so effectively as far back as 1968. However, Planet of the Apes also came out in 1968, and does that job far more ably; I just happened to see 2001 first.
So, yeah. I’ve given it as much of the benefit of the doubt as I can here, but still… I hate it.
And once again it has left me with the most dreadful headache.
READ THE OPPOSING ARGUMENT
STILL A CLASSIC
by Chris Nagy