Starting 2014 by seeing “2001” — a classic from 1968

By Caitlin Kelly

There are films you see once and never forget, their images locked inside your head for decades to come.

If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” it’s unlikely you’ll forget it.

It opens with a blank screen and long minutes of music. The first word of dialogue is 20 minutes into the film.

It’s unlike anything I’ve seen since, and I watch a lot of movies.

Close up of satellite model used in 2001 a Spa...
Close up of satellite model used in 2001 a Space Odyssey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who’ve yet to see it — and it was recently playing at IFC in Manhattan — it’s a science-fiction film of almost three hours, shot on sound stages in England at a total cost of $10.5 million — a staggering sum in those days. It also arrived in theaters 16 months late, premiering in D.C. on April 2, 1968.

I love this film, but it’s definitely an acquired taste: little dialogue, extremely slow pace, focused mostly on visuals and music.

The "centrifuge" set used for filmin...
The “centrifuge” set used for filming scenes depicting interior of the spaceship Discovery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s fascinating to see what — in the mid 1960s — a filmed notion of 2001 might look like: space stations (yes); “picture phones” (Skype, yes); liquid and mashed-up foods eaten through straws (hello, juicing!)

2001: A Space Odyssey "Picture Phone"
2001: A Space Odyssey “Picture Phone” (Photo credit: Dallas1200am)

And to see what didn’t last — the sleek Concorde jet (gone) with the Pan Am livery (gone) ferrying passengers to the space station.

The sleek white interiors and stunning Djinn chairs in hot pink wool still look gorgeous. The flight attendants, with their bulbous white helmets, are both elegant and weird. But the guys still wear suits and carry briefcases.

My favorite part of the film is the final one, long minutes of astonishing beauty — yellow and magenta and turquoise and orange shapes and landscapes, (the Hebrides and Monument Valley), flashing past us, re-colored, at dizzying speed. You have no idea where you are or what you’re seeing. but you’re dazzled.

The "Star Gate" sequence, one of man...
The “Star Gate” sequence, one of many ground-breaking visual effects. It was primarily for these that Stanley Kubrick won his only personal Academy Award. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s interesting to see how dated the film is in some ways — the final scenes feel like an extended psychedelic drug trip (very 60s) — yet how timeless the themes and questions are: Where does human intelligence come from? Are we alone in the universe? What would it be like to travel to Jupiter (and beyond) and what would we find there?

Elements of the film will be familiar to viewers of the television series “Lost” — like earlier scientists offering counsel via pre-recorded video and to fans of the “Alien” films, whose every voyage ends up (as here) actually being a secret mission, with technology that kills off all the crew but one, leaving us to cheer on a lonely, terrified explorer left unaided to face unknown dangers in the deepest reaches of space.

Does it get much scarier than that?

Over the years, the film has grossed $56.9 million in North America and $190 million worldwide.

I’d see it again — even though the young guy beside me snored for the first half, then left at intermission. (Some movies in the 60s had intermission.)

Have you seen it?

Loved it? Hated it?

30 thoughts on “Starting 2014 by seeing “2001” — a classic from 1968

  1. I’ve seen it and I hated it. You can understand why: there’s barely a plot and I’m very plot-oriented. Besides which, all the characters except HAL are so one-dimensional they require little characterization. Still, it is an incredible film, and it did set the tone for several sci-fi films to come. Got to give it props for that.

    1. I expect that — yes, here it comes — people your age will not like it much, if at all. The pace, compared to recent films, is reaaaaaaaallllllly slow. I was very struck by the lengthy scenes when I saw it this time, much more so than on several previous viewings. I still love the visuals.

  2. i saw it when it first came option and was blown away, not understanding all of it at that point in my life. i need to see it again, with new eyes and see how it plays.great suggestion )

  3. I’ve seen it several times. It is a classic. I like it because it’s different. I must admit, however, that I didn’t quite get the ending the first time. 😉

  4. Hi Caitlin, long time no comment! I have been reading but stupidly busy after becoming a father last October about which I gushed unapologetically on my blog. Time has suddenly become very expensive indeed.

    I rewatched ‘2001’ about 6 months ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The cinematography and editing were still so impressive. Some scenes aged less well than others but anything that was germane to the overall thrust of the narrative retained its potency. I found HAL chilling again and like you, luxuriated in the extended ‘time travel/realm crossing’ sequence in the latter part of the film.

    There can be a sterile and voyeuristic aspect to some of Kubrick’s films but I was enthralled by ‘2001’ and it stayed with me for weeks afterwards, emotionally and intellectually.

    Happy New Year!

  5. Excellent movie; have to watch it again soon. I remember, as I watched it the first time, the feeling of neurons making new connections inside my head. As classic as classics get, by that definition: “a classic is a work that hasn’t finished saying what it’s meant to say” (my paraphrasing, and darned if I can’t remember who said it; sorry).

  6. art

    Got it, I need to stop watching cartoons while hungover…. will get the movie…I guess I am going to have to get a DDV player or something……thanks for the rec…

  7. I confess I only, finally, saw 2001 for the first time a year ago… all the way through, that is. I’d tried a few times before and kept falling asleep. I fell asleep this last time too, but my husband woke me because I was determined to get through it! I basically missed the boat on it. Too much time and too many references have past for me to truly appreciate it (unfortunately). I did enjoy the stuff with Hal, which was the main reason I wanted to watch it in the first place.

  8. I loved 2001. I loved 2010. I loved Space 1999. I loved Flash Gordon. I loved Dune. I loved Star Blazers. In the 80’s I loved space stuff. Ok…I’m digressing.

    2001 is a film classic. Yes it is slow, but it is like any required reading for a literature class. It has elements that are now referred to in our culture. HAL, Dave, the apes and the obelisk, are alluded to in so places in books, other films, pop culture. I don’t love 2001 because it was an amazing on the edge of your seat thriller. I love it for the tiny glimpses Kubrick was trying to give us into our future.

    I have some friends who get together to watch Laurence of Arabia every year. One year I was lucky enough to be invited to a “Larry of the Sands” night. Here again…a movie I have tried to get through and couldn’t. But with the help of the party atmosphere, and that the subject was now part of a curriculum I taught, I was much more interested. Tragic tragic story…and now look at the Middle East. Another slow but beautiful movie that all should watch.

  9. Watched it a year ago and was mesmerized. The pace is “slow” only if you are unused to careful watching and I found it hypnotic rather than tedious. After all these years I still don’t really know what it “means” but I just let the experience wash over me. I consider it one of the top 5 greatest movies ever (along with that other Kubrick classic, “Dr. Strangelove.”)

      1. I think “great” movies need to be epic and so interesting you can watch them multiple times, so my other top 3 would be Tom Jones, ET and Ran (the Kurusawa version of King Lear). I keep a separate list of “favorite” movies that are less awe-inspiring, including His Girl Friday, Manhattan, To Have and to Have Not, Notorious, and On the Waterfront.

  10. I’ve seen it several times. Each time a take away something different. You are right that one needs to be prepared for a long viewing. Also an open mind is useful. 🙂 As always, Kubrick loves to toy with the audience.

  11. Just read a great piece in Vanity Fair, adding to your perspectives.
    I was rather baffled the first time I saw it, but as a classical music fan, was captivated by the score. In fact, I’m thinking it works more along the lines of a silent movie or a ballet than as a word-driven drama.

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