“Are you not entertained?”
— Maximus Decimus Meridius
Apparently, my esteemed colleague’s answer to that is, no, she was not. I pose the question, “So what?” Like Commodus, I will put it to the masses: Are we discussing whether 2001: A Space Odyssey was entertaining, or whether it was good?
I posit that those are not really the same thing. Are there movies you will watch over and over, but deep down, you know are really bad? Of course there are. We all have those. If I had to pick my “desert island” movie, it would be Raiders of the Lost Ark. But is that the best movie I have ever seen? Not by a longshot.
It appears that my opponent’s principal arguments are that 2k1:ASO is a) slow and b) noisy, to which I respond: Well, a) yes, and b) yes. But is that such a bad thing? That depends. I’m afraid that this is going to rapidly deteriorate into the age old “cinema as art” vs. “cinema as entertainment” discussion, so let’s just consider both, starting with art. Is 2001 entertaining? I certainly thought so – more on that in a minute. Is 2001 capital-G good? I claim that it is.
The first sign of a good movie: does it remain in my thoughts for more than a few hours after I see it? This is one of a handful of films that I continue to try to interpret. It is far more than just a simple allegory about maturity. I won’t subject my audience (today, anyway) to an extended essay on representation of man’s place in the universe. Clearly, Kubrick dug Nietzsche. But the layers of symbolism, encompassing philosophy, religion, evolution, and psychology, separate this film from almost anything else in the genre.
The unfortunate thing about my opponent’s reference to “vulgar sci-fi roots” is that there is a modicum of truth to that description. I completely agree with the assessment that being a very good film and being a sci-fi film are not automatically mutually exclusive. It just appears that way because the truly thought provoking picture in this genre is becoming increasingly rare. We seem to be overwhelmed with CGI-fest thrill rides, superhero movies written barely above the level of the comic books upon which they are based, and Michael Bay beating me over the head with the simple and the obvious. Most sci-fi films go to great lengths to tell us the whole story, often in excessive detail via painfully contrived dialog. One of the great things about this masterpiece is that we, the viewers, are left to our own devices. That is the real beauty of this film; it is left open to vastly different interpretations.
Another thing that Kubrick did with this film, which was rare for the time and has become increasingly so, is strive for scientific accuracy. For example, many find the silence annoying, but guess what? Space is silent. Sound does not travel in a vacuum. We would never actually hear the Death Star explode, and a dude floating around in a space suit is going to hear his own breathing, and not a whole helluva lot else.
Additionally, this film was years ahead of its time in several areas. Despite my opponent’s admission of their remarkableness, I feel the need to mention once again the visual effects and set design, which are spectacular. They hold up today, while films that are a quarter-century newer are beginning to appear dated. HAL might be the first use of a computer as a character, rather than a prop, with awareness, goals, and something approaching feelings. HAL begat WOPR, SKYNET, and Dr. Theopolis from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. (Actually, Theopolis was more than just inspired by HAL; it was such an obvious ripoff that Kubrick and Clarke could’ve pulled Glen A. Larson off set, drug him into the alley, and delivered a Sons of Anarchy-style beatdown, and no court in the land would’ve convicted.)
Along with being good, 2001 is hugely important. By my humble estimation, there were seven key turning points for science fiction entertainment in the 20th century, and this is among them. (One of these days, I will cough up the other six, but here is a quick spoiler: Lea Thompson is in zero of them). It is important because it created the genre of the big-budget sci-fi blockbuster. Prior to this film, sci-fi films were typically scratched together on a shoestring budget. Special effects were an afterthought. “Blockbuster” meant Ben Hur or DeMille and a cast of thousands. The idea of spending time and resources on science fiction was virtually unheard of. Without this film, Luke Skywalker stays on Tatooine and becomes a creepy, aging, lonely farmer, Neo takes the blue pill and returns to work the next morning, Ellen Ripley works as a forklift operator at an assembly plant in Indiana, and John Connor manages an IHOP right up until the moment he is vaporized by the nukes. None of the beloved films we cut our sci-fi teeth on ever happen without Kubrick and 2001.
So finally, is it entertaining? While my opponent offered a resounding “no”, I must counter with an emphatic “yes”. Clearly this is going to be one of our “agree to disagree’ situations. Admittedly, the cadence of the movie is not for everyone. But while some find it annoying, I see it as refreshing. I appreciate the opportunity to enjoy the cinematography, the set design, the almost anal-retentive attention to detail before being whisked onto the next scene. I appreciate the ability to consider a movie while I am watching it, rather than just stringing together a series of visceral reactions. The short version is this: I like the film for many of the reasons others, including my counterpart in this debate, dislike it. It is just so damned different. (I do agree that the intermission was a little strange.)
By the way, WTF is a Theremin?