Posted September 16, 2010 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space Odyssey
2001 A Space Odyssey

Twenty years ago, I was standing online at an IMAX theater in San Antonio, Texas. The cinema was offering a one-night-only screening of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in its original 70mm format.  A local couple was standing behind me and asked if I was familiar with the film. I said that I had already seen it, and asked if they were also familiar. They said they never saw it, but I noticed there was a strange apprehensive expression on their faces.

A word of advice, I said to them. “Don’t expect STAR WARS and the film’s ending makes no sense”.

After the screening, I ran into the couple in the lobby.  They thanked me profusely for my advice, it helped them appreciate what they just sat through.

But what is the audience sitting through when it visits Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly bizarre epic?  Technically, it is a science fiction film except that it breaks all of the rules of science fiction by what it presents (the sound-free vastness of the galaxy, spaceships gliding in balletic serenity instead of zooming in supersonic ferocity, etc.) and what it doesn’t present (the technology-gone-awry comes from a quiet computer malfunction instead of a derange robot, the beings that created the monolith are never seen, etc.). 

Unlike STAR TREK, Kubrick’s concept of space doesn’t represent the final frontier. Instead, it is an extension of the worst of the contemporary world: corporate America’s tacky marketing (pay heed to the subtle placement of conglomerate logos in the space station), U.S. military paranoia (the secrecy around the discover of the lunar monolith) and the ubiquity of television (the BBC 12 broadcast to the Jupiter-bound spaceship).

However, there was at least one thing that was too fantastic to conceive: Kubrick’s vision of 2001 included a Kremlin-fueled space rivalry, confirming fears that the U.S.S.R. would always be around to challenge American know-how!

And still, the enigma of the film’s storyline remains the film’s most prominent feature it is a mystery formed by the deliberate deletion of background material from the Arthur C. Clarke novelization and the need to wrap production in a hurry due to a cut-off in MGM funding.  With more money and more time, who knows what Kubrick would have pulled off?  Fortunately, everything fell into place here, even if the pieces wound up where they weren’t originally expected.

I keep thinking back to that poor Texas couple puzzling in the darkness of the theater, viewing the last-minute arrival of a giant floating fetus hovering in the heavens while Also sprach Zarathustra blares on the soundtrack. Perhaps the beauty of 2001 is appreciating that some of the best stories are the ones that are half-told the provocation away from passive observance to determined interpretation is often as dazzling and frightening as the film’s psychedelic trip through the intergalactic portal.  2001 really doesn’t end it keeps going with the viewer long after the closing credits wrap.  And that is, truly, the greatest cinematic gift imaginable.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.