Does ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Deserve a Second Chance?

By  · Published on September 24th, 2012

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, Landon explains why 2001: A Space Odyssey is responsible for him being a movie lover and Cole talks about hating it the first time around but finding a lot to love on round two.

Landon: So far we’ve seen a man go insane and make a woman into his image, a man rise to the top at the expense of his soul, an elderly couple suffering from the loss of emotional connection with their children, rich socialites breaking hearts, and a couple losing one another only to find and lose and find one another again. So, after all this emotional turmoil, I have to ask: whose performance is your favorite in 2001?

Because I find the third ape and Keir Dullea to be a tie in terms of emotional powerhouses.

Cole: I’ve always related most to Discovery One.

But I’d love to see you break down the plot for 2001 like you did the other 5 “best films.”

Landon: That’s clearly a bit more difficult here, regardless of the fact that 2001 is the only film on this list so far that I can name a personal pantheon favorite due to the fact that it single-handedly made me a movie lover when I was 14.

But roughly I’d say it’s about a linear trajectory of human innovation and invention through science; the idea that we’re all moving forward.

Cole: Abstract enough to work, but wait. This made you into a movie lover? How did that happen?

Landon: The film showed in letterbox on PBS one night. I was flipping through the channels and saw the Star Gate sequence and watched it until the end. Then I spent the next few minutes trying to get my jaw off the floor.

Later I saw the whole thing, and it didn’t make any more sense at the time, but I didn’t care. I had never seen anything like it. It opened my eyes up to the possibilities of what cinema can do. So yes, 2001 forced me into loving movies. I had no choice. That bastard.

Cole: Just like a cult leader taking a new wife. I’m curious as to your relationship with movies before 2001 though. You liked them? Enjoyed them? But didn’t know they could be used for pure unadulterated insanity?

Landon: I always liked them, especially sci-fi. I was a Star Wars devotee at this time, I just mainly watched films as storytelling devices until 2001. I couldn’t put it in these terms at this time, but 2001 was transformative in showing the possibilities of film to accomplish things totally unique to its medium, especially outside traditional narrative.

Also, The Matrix came out about a month after this happened. So that helped too.

Cole: Practically the same movie.

I can imagine it was a bit like hearing a new language that’s made up of 60% words you already know. For me, 2001 was garbage when I saw it in high school. It was the easy emptiness that can trick people into thinking it’s brilliant.

Landon: I feel like these are the two experiences people most often have with 2001. There’s no middle ground How do you feel about the film now?

Cole: I place it on a tall, black altar.

I chalk it up to youth, but after seeing it again with adult eyes, everything just snapped into place. It also helped that I learned some patience through other movies. Oldboy was one of them – a slow burn that no one ever talks about being a slow burn.

Landon: Practically the same movie.

What snapped into place, exactly?

Cole: The “slowness” of it all disappeared. Isn’t that the crucial element of enjoying it? Whenever I hear people say they hate it, they usually follow up by saying, “It’s boring!”

Landon: Right. The “Blue Danube” sequence requires patience. It takes them forever to dock that damn ship. But once you give up thinking that it’s about getting from point A to point B, it becomes this enthralling and beautiful ballet in space.

It’s funny that we’ve spoken most about our personal viewing experience in relation to a deeply impersonal film. 2001 seems composed almost entirely through long shots.

Cole: Giving up on linear storytelling is the most difficult thing of all. It’s the promise that if you give 100% of yourself to watching, you’ll get something profound in return. That doesn’t always happen.

You’re right about it being impersonal though. It’s not ultimately about characters, but about curiosity. Which is how Kubrick tricks us all. We want to know what that monolith is, too.

Landon: The movie is deliberately paced, and that’s what sucks me in. But it’s also interesting that a movie which chronicles humanity’s innovation across millennia within less than two and a half hours is slowly paced.

This movie came out at a time when “meaning” in relation to Hollywood filmmaking wasn’t something that was typically debated or ambiguous, hence the walkouts and hate displayed towards it in 1968 that has characterized much of the reception since.

But one of the hardest things people have to come to terms with is the idea that the monolith has to mean anything at all distinct. 2001 is perhaps the closest studio filmmaking will come to embracing the avant-garde.

Besides Pootie Tang, of course.

Cole: Or that it has any meaning at all beyond what we place on it.

Landon: Exactly.

Cole: Of course, and while that’s a powerful idea historically, it’s difficult to inject that appreciation into watching the film itself.

The same goes for the special effects. I saw dinosaurs roaming around and jumping into kitchen cabinets when I was 9, so a bit of the natural wonder was stolen when I saw the Star Gate sequence.

Not that it’s not stunning, but the context for how it was made is outside of the runtime, so it’s outside of the initial experience. But now I yell at people for not appreciating Buster Keaton’s death-defying day job…so, we see how time affects our level of admiration.

Landon: Indeed. Trying to see 2001 as something that came out before Star Wars, when mainstream sci-fi was little more than a guy running around in an alien costume whose depth occasionally extended to a cold war allegory, is pretty difficult.

It’s also important to remember that this was during the height of the Apollo program. Kubrick was tapping into the collective American imagination about the possibilities of space travel, but without giving a literal trajectory of man’s collaboration with technology.

It imagines the past just as it imagines the future. And then there’s the whole LSD thing. I don’t think 2001 ever intended to be as “1968” as it ended up being.

Cole: How do you think 2001 would look if it were made today by a capable director? I’m thinking more Cuaron than Bay.

Landon: I agree, and like Cuaron, it would require somebody with a non-traditional approach to innovation in filmmaking. No matter what the end result was.

Do you feel this was the first “Stanley Kubrick film” proper in terms of the man with the reputation we know today? Sure there was Dr. Strangelove, which is brilliant, but is there something about 2001 that transcended Kubrick onto another plane of filmmaking?

Cole: It must have. We’ve been talking about our personal experience with 2001 because we just assume everyone has already seen it. It’s not like Tokyo Story or Sunrise – that needs a little cheerleading. It’s 2001. Try having the same conversation about Paths of Glory.

Landon: Which everyone should go see. Being a Kubrick completist is rather easy, considering his output.

Cole: Because it’s not that large and because all of it is excellent. Unless you were really hoping for an adaptation of “The Shining,” that is….

Landon: Well, that’s another example about how not-at-all concerned Kubrick was with traditional storytelling. 2001 has been established in the pantheon similarly to Citizen Kane, but it still challenges that supposed truism that good filmmaking = good characters + good story.

Films like 2001 convince me that storytelling isn’t necessarily what filmmaking does best. (And this is after watching several great stories on this list.)

But with the majority of films, leaps in logic and convenient motives are necessary to tell a story in a conventional running time. And for most good films, that works. But great cinema is rarely literary.

Cole: And, sadly, it gives hope to thousands of amateur filmmakers that they can make a movie without story or characters and have it be celebrated.

Landon: Haha, true. But we don’t have to watch the work of Neveldine/Taylor.

Cole: At least they have some energy. It’s the ones trying desperately to dock a space ship in 20 minutes that scare me. 2001 should come with a warning label: “To all aspiring filmmakers, just remember, you are not Kubrick. Enjoy Robert McKee’s screenwriting class.”

Landon: “Also, go watch Sunrise and The General. Just because you should.”

Cole: That’s an MPAA warning I can get behind.

Landon: That’s why 2001 is so singular. Yes, there are other slow films (by Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr) on the Sight and Sound list, and a couple that I think should be in the Top 10, but few mainstream movies have accomplished something so un-mainstream so well.

That others fail spectacularly only speaks to 2001’s accomplishment.

Cole: Especially for something that starts off looking like History of the World Part 1.

Landon: And came out the same year as Planet of the Apes.

Cole: Pretty much the same movie.

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