Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is referenced in Life Itself: On pages 88 & 395 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that the film’s infamous, evil A.I. robot was built at his alma mater, writing “Chills ran down my spine when I first heard the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey announce that it had been born in the computer lab at the University of Illinois in Urbana.” He also mentions on page 153 that 2001 was one of the biggest “event” films of his early, formative years as a professional film critic.
What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Kubrick’s universe, and the space ships he constructed to explore it, are simply out of scale with human concerns. The ships are perfect, impersonal machines which venture from one planet to another, and if men are tucked away somewhere inside them, then they get there too. But the achievement belongs to the machine. And Kubrick’s actors seem to sense this; they are lifelike but without emotion, like figures in a wax museum. Yet the machines are necessary because man himself is so helpless in the face of the universe.” -from his 1968 review for the Chicago Sun Times
“The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, ‘2001’ is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.” -from his 1997 review for his “Great Movies” series
“Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” – Ancient proverb
The arthouse space opera 2001: A Space Odyssey is madman auteur Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus. Or, wait, maybe that’s The Shining. Or maybe Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick boasts too many crowning achievements to definitively rank any particular one as king beast, but 2001 certainly inspires that kind of lofty thinking, just in mere acknowledgement of its grand scale ambition. It’s a film that attempts to encapsulate the totality of time– past, present, and future– and does a fairly successful job of it. Its iconic scenes of space epic obfuscation have in time become so seminal that they now almost feel cliché, considering the one million and ten times they’ve been referenced & parodied in later, lesser works. This film is an unimaginable technical achievement for 1968, however, and I’m still scratching my head over the practicality of how some of it was accomplished through practical effects. Because each scene in the film is so overly-familiar to the public lexicon at this point, it’s near impossible to tell if I’ve actually watched it from front to end before. I do distinctly remember falling asleep to it once or twice in high school at the very least. As majestic & awe-inspiring as any particular achievement in 2001 can be, the film is also a slow, plodding, dialogue-light downstream drift that dares you at nearly every turn to lose focus & nod off. This is more or less the definition of challenging cinema. It takes a determined effort to stay on board for the journey, but the destination’s rewards are bountiful.
The funny thing for me on this most recent watch was that the movie I always think of as being 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie where a crew of astronauts are murdered by an evil A.I. named HAL 9000, is just one segment of many in the film’s cinematic patchwork. 2001 functions almost like a horror anthology, with each of its four separate segments providing only a small window into its larger narrative. Each section of the film is dominated by the throughline talisman of the monolith, but they each stand as rigidly divided works of art, just in the same way Kubrick allows nearly every shot of the film to hang in the air like an isolated, precious object worth examination. 2001 is an art gallery just as much as it is a narrative motion picture.
In the first segment the film takes poetic license with evolution & the Dawn of Man and depicts the all-important monolith teaching humanity’s primate ancestors how to use tools, a development that immediately leads to the world’s first coldblooded murder. In the second segment a second monolith is discovered by astronauts on the moon and its effect is largely shrouded in mystery, other than the signal it projects that points to Jupiter. As this film was released just one year before the real moonlanding (an event some eccentrics believe Kubrick himself had a part in “faking”), the mysterious terror of this piece points to modern anxiety about what comes next on the frontier of scientific discovery. The third segment answers that question loud & clear, proposing that our near future will be dominated by pompous A.I. robots with murderous intent. The closing segment, beautifully titled “Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite” is a somewhat-open-to-interpretation trip though religious transcendence, a gateway into the next step in our evolution. The lucky astronaut who endures that final chapter’s monolith as a test subject emerges on the other end as some sort of unknowable space fetus. The future of humanity is left open-ended here, but given that all previous monoliths in the film were directly followed by murder, the outlook is just as chilling as it is majestic.
Much like how the monoliths transformed the state of humanity at several points throughout the film, 2001 transformed the state of sci-fi adventure media. Long gone are the days of Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers, although they would later return with 2001-esque special effects in George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise. The HAL 9000 segment of 2001 functions somewhat like a genre film if you squint at it the right way, but the other 3/4s of the picture are so gloriously obscured & open-ended that Kubrick’s version of a space adventure is a much stranger, more artful beast than the examples that preceded it. There is a clear narrative progression here in the evolution of humanity, but the source, nature, and purpose of that evolution is so immense & mysterious that the “odyssey” of the title is more figurative than it is literal. I’m sure Arthur C. Clarke’s novelized version of this story (which he wrote for the film as a collaborator) is much clearer than what’s onscreen, but I feel like any concrete, extraterrestrial explanation of what transpires would cheapen the movie’s poetry. The aliens in this film may as well be an all-knowing god or The Will of the Universe, considering the immensity of what’s onscreen. I left the film with few solid answers and took delight in that ambiguity.
Not everyone feels that way. Ebert noted in his “Great Movies” review of the film that there were several walkouts during the 1968 Los Angeles premiere he attended. Most notably among the miffed was an especially exasperated Rock Hudson, who was visibly livid that the couldn’t pin down the film’s exact plot. Indeed, 2001 feels determined at every turn to spurn its audience, like an ornery mechanical bull in a dive bar (except one bucking in spectacular slow motion). This is a film that will either bore or terrorize you depending on how game you are for its journey. As much as I loved it as an immersive cinematic experience I’ll even admit that a couple dialogueless shots where the soundtrack was dominated by heavy breathing & mechanical whirs tested my patience a great deal. I’d even go as far as to say it got on my nerves. That’s not to say this is humorless, highbrow work without a touch of pedestrian entertainment value, though. I think the shock of starting the film among the unevolved primates was something of a sly joke, maybe even serving as Kubrick’s way of poking fun at human folly & hubris. Hal 9000, however creepy, is subtly funny in its own cold, biting way, even downright bitchy in intonations of phrases like “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, Frank.” There’s even an honest-to-God, outright gag in the film where a character perplexedly reads a long list of instructions for a zero gravity toilet.
Of course, humor & genre thrills are not likely to be anyone’s biggest takeaway from 2001. For those who can stay on board for its demanding runtime, glacial pace, and deliberate obfuscation, the film delivers a perfectly crafted, near-flawless glimpse into the unknown, which is a rare treat for any kind of art, much less a cinematic space adventure. The violence on display here ranges from blind rage to cold calculation, but never for a minute feels exploitative. The visual effects & smooth, spinning camerawork are dizzying achievements of technical prowess, but feel more purposeful than showy. An old-fashioned overture & intermission feel entirely earned given the scope of the film’s ambition. I’m not sure if 2001 is Kubrick delivering a passionate work of narrative art so much as a perfectly calibrated machine that begs to be gawked at as it functions with divine precision. Either way, it’s a real beaut.
Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)
Brandon’s Rating: (4.5/5, 90%)
Next Lesson: Cool Hand Luke (1967)