This week marks the 45th anniversary of the theatrical release of Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not so much a review as an anecdote of my experience with the film and how I grew to appreciate it as the greatest science fiction film ever made.
I first saw 2001 as a kid and found it boring as hell. I had grown up on action-oriented science fiction like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek (yes, compared to 2001, Trek is quite action-oriented), so I was not prepared at that age for science fiction presented as a cerebral art film.
Consequently, these were some of the questions that ran through my juvenile brain: Where are the lasers and light sabers? Where are the spaceship dogfights and massive explosions? What does a space odyssey have to do with a bunch of apes running around in the desert? When are these astronauts actually going to do something other than jogging around to classical music? Okay, now there’s just some old dude sitting in a room eating dinner—that’s it, I’m out. And so I returned to Star Wars and its ilk, leaving 2001 in the dust, never to be seen or thought of again.
Then one day, as a young adult, I was flipping through channels and stumbled onto the movie just as the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite sequence was beginning.
I was mesmerized. This was not the 2001 I remembered as a kid. This was stunning. I watched it all the way through to the end and, instead of being bored by the old man eating dinner, I was intrigued. I knew I had to watch the entire film so I rented it on VHS (kids, if you don’t know what that stands for, ask your parents).
It was a mind-blowing experience. Every scene that had once seemed boring I now found incredibly compelling. Things that had previously been unintelligible now made sense. However, as anyone who has watched the movie can attest, there was still much I didn’t understand. As with the best of art, much was left open to interpretation, so after the movie was finished I went online and gobbled up every piece of information I could find, reading various takes on the material that helped me to develop my own interpretation with repeated viewings. More than almost any other film, 2001 lends itself to multiple viewings—and multiple interpretations. Every time I watch it I get something new out of it.
That being said, those who can’t sit through a movie unless something is exploding every five minutes may not find much to like. 2001 is not your traditional three-act, plot driven-film. It is more of a visual tone poem, a brilliant work of art that challenges the mind and rewards viewers willing to probe its depths, in much the same way as poetry. It embodies everything to which the greatest science fiction should aspire.
It’s also beautiful to look at—and we’re talking about a film made in 1968, before the revolutionary advancements in optical and computer effects ushered in by movies like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. That 2001 still looks so amazing is a testament to Kubrick’s talent as a filmmaker and the skills of his effects crew.
I could spend all day going deeper into the film, discussing the ways in which the movie predicted future technology that we now enjoy, the meaning of the monoliths, what actually happened to Dave after he went through the stargate, and how, despite being cast as the “bad guy,” the computer HAL is actually the most tragic (and human) character in the film, but I don’t want this post to get overlong. Besides, critics and film historians far more talented than me have already discussed these things in much greater depth.
I mainly just wanted to convey my love for this film and encourage you to watch (or re-watch) it—on as large of a screen as possible. If you give it the chance, if you let it grab hold and pull you in, you will see why, 45 years later, it is still considered by many to be the greatest science fiction film ever made.