Thursday, February 20, 2014

Riske Business: Adam and JB Unlock 2001: A Space Odyssey

This week, JB and I cover seldom-discussed facets of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, including how newbies should approach their first viewing, our fundamental disagreements about the ending and the existence of space dolphins.

Adam: JB, you and I are huge fans of the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was not always the case for me. It took a second viewing for the movie to cast its spell and has since become one of my favorites. In that first viewing, I knew what I was watching was special but had difficulty getting comfortable with its unique pacing. What was your first experience watching 2001 like?

JB: I honestly cannot remember the first time I saw 2001. I'm pretty sure that it had to be on home video. Remember, I am part of that sad generation of film lovers who did not have every film ever made at our disposal.

Adam: That’s not my fault.

JB: If the movie did not show up on Channels 2, 5, 7, 9, or 11 and did not show up at the Varsity Theater in Evanston or the Parkway downtown (two late, lamented reparatory theaters), you did not see it. So I would read about movies I could not see. I am certain that I read The Making of Kubrick's 2001 before I saw the actual film. I still remember the cover of that little paperback, which I believe I received as a birthday present after I made a specific request of my folks. Yes! Here it is.
Although I found it difficult reading at 14, I made it through and so I was able to be a smartass and wisenheimer for the rest of my life whenever the topic of this film was raised. I knew its secrets.

I do remember the most impressive screening: in 70mm and a special restored print at an Ebertfest. The sound was so loud during the climactic "stargate" sequence I thought the roof of the Virginia Theater would blow off. That screening changed the way I saw, remembered and interpret the film. Yowsa!

And this leads to my question for you, dear Adam. Do you think the manner in which you see this film specifically influences what you get out of it? (i.e. How can film lovers in their right minds watch this on a laptop?). I wish everyone can see this film in 70mm on a big screen. As last February's aborted Music Box screening demonstrates, that ain't always going to happen.

Adam: Well, I agree that a 70mm screening is ideal for 2001 (and I was lucky enough to see it once that way in 2013 at a non-aborted screening at the Music Box). I have also seen it in a theater on three other occasions (in both 35mm and DLP) and found the experiences quite spectacular each time. But I honestly don't think you HAVE to see 2001 on the big screen to get a great deal out of the movie.

I became familiar with (and began to love) 2001 watching it on DVD and uninterrupted showings on PBS when I was a senior in high school. That was back in the box TV era, yo. I didn't even need HDTV! Although the movie is a visual and auditory landmark, it is as much a movie that plays in your head as it is a movie that plays out on the screen. What I mean is, unlike many other movies, it taps into my imagination and sense of wonder. Stanley Kubrick, I'm sure deliberately, gives you a great deal of time to consider what is on the screen and to trail off a bit, bringing your own interpretations to the movie and making it a deeply personal experience. I think 2001 is a miracle movie and may have actually been made by G-D. How could a person make this movie? It's unbelievable!

JB: While I agree with you in theory, (people can have a wonderful experience viewing 2001 any which way because it is that great a film) I must humbly suggest that Kubrick originally intended 2001 to be seen on an expansive, curved Cinerama screen, huge, with a superior sound system, and author's preference goes a long way in my book.

I still remember Douglass Pratt, editor of The DVD/Laserdisc Newsletter, going on and on in the introduction to one of his books, talking about impediments to watching a film. He was suggesting that the closer the screening was to matching the author's ideal, the fewer "distractions" there would be to understanding and enjoying the film.

Adam: Sometimes you just gotta do it in the car. We can’t all exist in the utopia Douglass Pratt calls his life.

JB: I also remember the first time I bought a really big TV, a 70" boxy, black rear projection set, which coincidentally resembled the monolith in Kubrick's film. My wife hated it; it took up too much space in the room. She claimed that wherever you were in the room and whatever you were looking at, that damn television would eventually and inevitably suck your attention to it, that you would have no choice but to stare at it. The first movie I watched on that big, big screen was the laserdisc of 2001.

Adam: So, JB, would you suggest to someone who has not seen 2001 to not watch it on a television and wait to see it in a theater? Luckily, it's a rep theater favorite and shows up more often than other classic movies but I can't imagine suggesting to someone who wants to watch 2001 to wait to watch 2001.

JB: Clearly, I am the stubborn, argumentative curmudgeon of this website; I am going to suggest that someone who has never seen 2001 should wait to see 2001 the right way before they see 2001. So there. Kubrick's art… is the best art… of all the art.

Adam: Well, one of us is right. Switching gears, what themes or personal observations have you taken away from 2001?

JB: Hmmmmmmm. Let me see...

1. The proof of Kubrick's genius lies in how many moments have become cultural touchstones: the famous match cut where the bone becomes the spaceship, the ineffable marriage of the spinning space station to the Strauss waltz, the face of the starchild at the end of the film, so beautiful and scary at the same time.

2. Humans are tiny, inconsequential things in the big picture. Kubrick's canvas is so wide, and his reach is so long, that he relegates human beings to mere pawns in a celestial chess match. The film is humbling in the best way possible.

3. I am proud to have attended the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, birthplace of the HAL 9000 computer.

4. Dr. Floyd's tele-conversation with his wife and daughter ("a bush baby!") is where filmmaker John Landis got the "See You Next Wednesday" refrain/in-joke that he uses in every one of his films. Strange.
5. HAL being "dismantled" is one of the most memorable death scenes in movie history.

6. At times, the philosophical content and pace of the film invite us all to meditate on larger issues. I wish more films did that.

These are the ones that come to mind first, Adam. What do you think?


1. The movie's ambition is what impresses me most about it. It's a huge home run cut and could have gone terribly wrong but didn't. Think about it: in under 2-1/2 hours, Kubrick dares to have an opinion and open a conversation about existence. Compare that to Transformers and it's shameful how little many movies try to tackle in their running time.

2. I find the star baby to be one of the most comforting images I can recall in a movie. I think it was in an interview with Arthur C. Clarke who said a star baby represents all of the people who have lived and died. Once you die you become a star, and since Bowman (the astronaut played by Keir Dullea) just recently passed away in his human form, he is a newborn star, thus a star baby. I think that is such a beautiful notion. Maybe it's because I'm an outer space nut, but I find that to be more appealing than the idea that we are reincarnated or nothing happens after we die.

3. The movie is certainly suspenseful. For example, the sequence where Poole (the astronaut played by Gary Lockwood) is marooned in space and Bowman has to retrieve him, or when HAL is eavesdropping on the two astronauts as they're plotting in the pod to shut him down. The entire HAL section of the movie on its own would rank 2001 as a superior thriller.

4. The ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ sequence is arguably the greatest special effects sequence ever committed to film. I swear there's one shot where I see a giant space dolphin. It's the craziest thing!
JB: I can only ascribe your dolphin hallucinations to the quantity and type of drugs you ingested before the screening. The whole sequence just looks abstract to me.

Adam: Other things I noticed (while sober) are:

King Tut and a Nike Swoosh:
Frog Man:

Ralph Fiennes:
Cmdr. Peter Quincy Taggart: “Never Give up. Never Surrender”
JB: Just a quick response to your finding the "star baby" a "comforting" image. I am not making this up. According to either the original short story or Arthur C. Clarke's original screenplay (I can't remember which) at the conclusion of the film, the star child..

Adam: Star baby. Go on.

JB: on his way back to earth with nuclear weapons to "clear the field" and start our next step of evolution. Remember, whenever the monolith appears and one of us touch it, it signals to the aliens that we have reached the next stage (create weapons, travel to the moon, travel to Jupiter) in our development. So the next stage in our development is to have star child blow everything up and start over. I do not find this comforting. I am not making this up.

Adam: That’s Prometheus. You just equated the end of 2001 to Prometheus. I can’t remember where I heard my interpretation of the "star baby." I’ve looked everywhere and can’t figure out where I got that from, but I assure you I heard that once and it stuck with me. I’ve heard your interpretation before in an interview Arthur C. Clarke did with Roger Ebert, but I believe he said in that interview that Kubrick did away with that ending because it would be too similar to his own Dr. Strangelove. As 2001 currently stands, I don’t see the movie’s intent being nihilistic enough for that conclusion to be of the piece. I find the movie mostly hopeful. If I’m being defiantly ignorant, I can live it in this case. Furthermore, I think star baby would be an F-Head. He wouldn’t try to kill us. He would probably be a lot like Sol Ott.

JB, my friend, your next question: why do you think HAL makes such a good villain?
JB: HAL is the perfect villain because he is the quintessence of passive-aggression, the one human quality I find most frustrating and impossible to fight. HAL is not really there, so you cannot physically confront him. His comforting voice is the height of irony, considering that he has murdered the astronauts in hyper-sleep and wants to kill Bowman and Poole as well. He is like the cinematic equivalent of the IRS.

Adam: I don’t fear the IRS because I’m not a criminal, on Earth or in outer space. Not saying you are, but I think you’re being passive aggressive against the IRS.

JB: What would draw young whipper-snappers like yourself to such an old, odd, and obtuse film?

Adam: If I am speaking for the younger generation, I think the thing that would draw them to 2001 would be that it's an experience comparable to, say, Gravity. This is the type of movie that I think could get a boost similar to Star Wars in the '90s if they put it out in IMAX 3D.

JB: I would pay a lot to see a pristine print of 2001 in IMAX.

Adam: This might be the wrong answer, but I also think if you gave them weed it would probably turn into one of their favorite movies. Test it out in Colorado is what I’m saying.

On the whole, do you think the movie has any flaws?

JB: Yes, at times it is overly obtuse for no clear purpose. Kubrick gives the audience so much credit that they can figure it out (or that there was no one meaning -- it's simply something to be EXPERIENCED) that he sometimes makes things needlessly complicated.

Of course, I'm just remembering my first viewing. The many appearances of the monolith certainly nudge us in a specific direction, don't you think?

Adam: Yes, I would agree that the monoliths are signifiers representing major developments #PatternsBoom. They are almost narrative flags if you, as a viewer, have trailed off too much.

I want to get your opinion on something. I have never watched 2010 because I don't want answers to the open-ended aspects of 2001. Would you recommend I watch it? Does 2010 enrich the 2001 experience or detract from it by revealing some of the mysteries?

JB: Clarke's book is better, but the film is entertaining. I do not think it will retrospectively shit on your previous 2001 experiences.

Adam: If you had to pick one sequence/moment from 2001 that is your favorite, what would it be? While not my favorite, I still geek out that the movie has an overture and an intermission. It’s so great for setting the mood and making the movie feel that much more of an event.

JB: Every sequence is so damn good that it is hard to pick just one. I would probably say the scene where Dave is dismantling HAL ("Stop, Dave, Stop.") and HAL starts to sing "Daisy." Wow. Also, we learn in that scene that HAL was programmed at the University of Illinois, my alma mater. Go Illini!

Adam: Where would you rank 2001 in Kubrick's filmography from your favorites to least favorites?

JB: I think I am alone in the way in which I rank Kubrick's movies, but here goes:

1. Lolita
2. Dr. Strangelove
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
4. The Shining
5. The Killing
6. Paths of Glory
7. Full Metal Jacket
8. A Clockwork Orange
9. Spartacus
10. Barry Lyndon
11. Fear and Desire/Killer's Kiss
12. Eyes Wide Shut

I actively hate Eyes Wide Shut.

Adam: That looks too fun to pass up. Here are my rankings. I have not seen Fear and Desire or Killer’s Kiss. I at least appreciate every movie on this list.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Paths of Glory
3. Dr. Strangelove
4. The Shining
5. The Killing
6. A Clockwork Orange
7. Barry Lyndon
8. Full Metal Jacket
9. Spartacus
10. Eyes Wide Shut
11. Lolita

JB: Last questions for you: what draws you to 2001? What specifically do you like about it?

Adam: A filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick -- and especially a movie such as 2001 --  is atypical of what I'm usually drawn to. I normally respond much more to a movie that is trying to provoke me emotionally rather than intellectually.

So in the case of 2001, I would have to say:

1. It taps into my curiosity and (this is going to sound douchey, sorry) do-it-yourself spirituality. I'm not a religious person, but I am a person that is in awe of the universe and I love considering the big questions about existence.

2. I admire that the movie doesn't have answers, but rather poses a topic and lets you ruminate on it.

3. The movie makes me feel smart and deep but not in a way that strikes me as pretentious or heavy-handed.

4. 2001 is a great world-weary mood movie, and I am a big fan of the good old ennui.

5. I'm a little weird and 2001 is a weird, weird movie. 

I relish being in amazement of things whether it's big dinosaurs, outer space etc. and 2001 is a movie for people similar to me.

One reason Gravity doesn't appeal to me is because I cannot fathom wanting to try to get back to Earth when facing imminent death in space. I would milk that shit for all it's worth. You get to die in space! That's amazing. I would go crazy with the rocket boosters and float around like Clooney checking out Earth from views hardly anyone has ever seen. When that can't last, you just have to take off your helmet and boom! You're dead immediately. Not so bad in my opinion. There are lots of worse ways to go. And then you become a star baby!


  1. 2001 is the film that Prometheus desperately wants to be, but cannot hope to match. It doesn't help that 2001 is genuinely awe-inspiring, while Prometheus comes up with faux "big questions" that don't actually lead anywhere (aspects that I call "Lindelofs").

    I love, love, love HAL. HAL is a perfect villain because he is us. We played God and made HAL in our own image, which is to say just as neurotic and paranoid as we are. HAL's breakdown is another of the film's signs that humanity needs to evolve further.

    When I was a kid, the "Dawn of Man" sequence was just something to get through before the cool space stuff. Now it's one of my favorite parts of the movie. So much of what is to come is prefaced in the actions of these pre-humans (in particular the tribalism that is later shown in the paranoia between the Soviets and Americans). The sequence also shows how revelation can be both awesome and terrifying - we learn to use tools, and the first thing we do with them is kill. 2001 is to my mind one of Kubrick's most optimistic films, because it does offer hope that there is something better and fantastic out there.

    Great post, guys! I suppose I am alone in thinking The Shining is Kubrick's best film?

    1. Thanks Steve! I was the same way originally with the "Dawn of Man" section of the movie - it was the major hinderance for me to really getting into the movie at first. It's pretty perplexing if you don't know what you're in for, but YES it's really great once you have some familiarity with it.

      I love The Shining. I put 2001, Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove above it for more gut-level reasons than anything. I wouldn't disagree with your choice if you think it's his best.

    2. Steve, you're not alone in thinking The Shining is his best. I do as well.

  2. Let me offer this (and this is not my notion, I do recall reading this a while ago and it was an eye-opener): the reason that the flung long-bone (a weapon) becomes a satellite is that the satellite is a weapon. During the period of film development of 2001 one of the greatest fears was the lofting of nuclear devices into low-earth orbit, able to rain down on any nation at any moment without worrying about your bombers getting shot down (the major delivery system until the late '60s). This notion, to my knowledge, never lead anywhere -- it turns out ground-based ICBMs are easier to deploy and service than orbiting bombs.

    The "clearing of the way" by the being at the very end of the book (and, by induction, the movie) is the harmless detonation or inactivation of the orbiting nuclear bombs/femur bones, thus permitting humans a future that would have been denied to them had the US and the Chinese (lucky guess?) gone on to their inevitable war.

    1. Wow! Super interesting. I never considered the weapon parallel from that jump cut of the bone to the satellite. Thanks for sharing fellow Adam :-)

    2. Hey, Adams' for Peace!

      Above, if you convert "late 80's" to "mid-70s", it corresponds more closely to the truth.

  3. Last time I saw this movie was over a decade ago, but I remember being really impressed with a scene where the astronaut (Dave? ) is outside the shuttle and all you can hear is his breathing as it changes pace. I recall just being in awe of the effectiveness of creating atmosphere (no pun intended) and tension.

    1. Yep, that sequence is the best. If someone watches the HAL section of the movie and it not on edge then they may be unthrillable.

      161 more days till Guardians of the Galaxy!!!!

  4. Terrific column gentlemen.

    There was a time when there was no movie in the universe that I hated more than 2001. It made me feel incredibly stupid, and I couldn't understand how anybody could harvest a single coherent thought out of it. Repeat viewings (including a great experience seeing it on the big screen) have made me change my tune, but I still think that it's a movie that I would not understand if the Internet never existed. That is to say that without the luxury of being able to look up various interpretations, I would still have no idea what the monoliths, star baby, or all those crazy lights meant. My first viewing pre-dated my understanding the notion that some films (ie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) are more of an experience than a story, and that has also helped in my developing affection for 2001. I've always loved the death of HAL because that was the only thing that made sense to me the first time around, and I found it really chilling.

    I'm glad that 2001 exists, and I agree that it's one of the best sci-fi films ever made simply because I get something new out of it every time I see it. I'd probably rank Strangelove and Shining ahead of it personally, but I totally agree with you Adam when you wonder how any one person could make this movie.

    I LOVE it when F This Movie! goes back and discusses the classics. Thank you for a concise and interesting interpretation of a movie I never stop having questions about.

    1. Thanks Myke! The death of HAL is such a terrific sequence. I love how methodical it is. If 2001 were made today, that sequence would probably be someone furiously typing on a keyboard or something. In Kubrick's movie, it's so slow and and interesting visually - with every drive Bowman is ejecting, he's removing HAL's "soul" piece by piece.

  5. Sorry Adam, JB's right - I AM the Star Baby and I'm comin at ya with nukes-a-blazin'. No, actually I like Adam Stein's explanation above - though I completely missed any suggestion that the Star Baby had any real future plans (I haven't read the book), I feel like that theory makes more sense (for the movie) than the idea that it was going to wipe us out.

    2001 was one of the first Kubrick movies I watched (after The Shining and Full Metal Jacket) and I've only seen it twice (never on the big screen - sorry, JB, don't hit me!) and reading this is definitely giving me the urge to revisit it. I think Kubrick's movies are best examined in the context of his other work, and I know I've grown to appreciate The Shining in particular as I've become more familiar with his oeuvre (I haven't seen Barry Lyndon or Lolita) - in the past couple years I THINK he's become my favourite director.

    I'm with JB on my favourite scene being HAL's "death" - WOW, indeed - but I like Adam's answers as to why he's drawn to it. I'd say ditto to all that except the part about being a little weird - I'm not weird AT ALL.

    As for 2010 it's not all that good but I actually watched it before 2001 when I was like 10 because CHIEF BRODY is in it but it hasn't had any impact on my enjoyment or interpretation of 2001.

    1. Just try to nuke us Sol! I'll stop you on my space dolphin. They can kill sharks you know even Jaws' bent on "the revenge".

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  7. I really like "2010". It is not as good/classic of a film as "2001", but I actually think it is a better science fiction adventure. (certainly more "entertaining" for me at least) In my opinion 2001 plays as more of an art film; and while it is a natural inclination to compare the two, I believe they have very different objectives as films. Personally, I also think that 2010 adds to the mythos established by 2001 and enhances my enjoyment.

    If you wan to talk about killing the spirit and mystery of 2001, that would be the book "3001". No idea why Clarke did what he did there.

    1. 2010 contains what is either a hell of a retcon, or Heywood Floyd is just a big fat liar. In 2001, when Bowman finishes disconnecting HAL, a video of Floyd plays where he clearly indicates that information about the Jupiter mission was provided to HAL that was withheld from the rest of the crew. In 2010, when Chandra reveals that this deception was the cause of HAL's breakdown, Floyd (now played by Roy Schieder) insists that he did not know about it. In the context of 2010 we're clearly supposed to think this is true (especially since Floyd is the film's main protagonist), but it is clearly contradicted by 2001. I've seen reviews of the film that assert the person in the video is merely some random mission controller, but it is clearly Floyd.

    2. Okay, I really need to edit these better before I post them. Clearly I really like the word "clearly."

    3. Always noticed that as well. I honestly thought Floyd was lying. (Within context of the film) The character does tell a few more half-truths elsewhere in the film. Heywood Floyd while a mostly likable guy does seem to be a C.Y.A type of dude and a manipulator. Maybe I am reading too much into what was really a script issue. I have never read the books 2001 or 2010 so I don't know how any of this fits their arc. I have read 2061 and 3001 however.

  8. Great column! I've been waiting a while for something on 2001.

    I read an interesting theory ( I don't remember where) that stated that HAL didn't malfunction, he merely did what he was programmed to do. The HAL system had never failed before, all failures were caused by human error. His primary mission was to reach Jupiter and find the monolith. Had Bowman and Poole not plotted to shut HAL down, he may not have turned into a villain. He did what he had to do to try and achieve his objective.

    As for my favorite sequence: After Dave travels through the stargate and ends up in the surreal 18th century room. It was so damn strange. I was lucky enough to have my first viewing of this last year at the Music Box in 70mm. I'll never forget it.

    1. Thanks Luke! Sorry it took so long. It's a tough movie to tackle in some ways. In fact, JB and I have been writing this off and on for 2 months. When he countered my star baby theory, I was dismayed for days (and I had to go to a Chanukkah party).

      The HAL theory you write about is interesting but I think, for me, is one I don't want to have be true. It might make the most sense plot-wise but then it turns that sequence into the evil corporation behind the curtain and I'm not sure that's what Kubrick or Clarke are intending. I always read that sequence as HAL making a mistake (because nothing is infallible) and how people and technology have to co-exist. The creators of HAL made him to be "perfect" but by putting that human characteristic of perfection into technology they created something that was just as prideful and ashamed when it failed as a human might be. Technology in its HAL state wouldn't exist without the people that created "him".

      That last sequence is a favorite of mine as well. It also has a moment that creeps me out like few others - it's when astronaut Dave looks out and sees old man Dave who then stares right back at him. It is so freaky.

  9. Adam, remember how last week Patrick mentioned on the podcast that "Back To The Future 2 & 3" don't affect his enjoyment of the original and perfect "Back To The Future" even though they each have their good moments? That's "2010" basically, an above-average sequel (as "BTTF 2 & 3" are) that doesn't come close to the heights of "2001" but enhances, rather than shits on, your appreciation for what the original set to do and achieved. Shoot, just the fact Peter Hyams had the balls to push and go for a sequel to "2001" and managed to get it made (in 1984!) merits seeing it. That and Roy Scheider was still in awesome mofo mode. :-)

    "2001: A Space Odyssey" is my #2 favorite movie of all time. I've seen it countless times in theaters (thrice in 70 mm) and home video. It is one of the reasons I bought a TV that's 2:35:1 (great for Carpenter movies and anamorphic stuff, lousy for everything else), one of two movies ("Dr. Strangelove" is the other) that cemented Kubrick as an uber-God of cinema and, despite its ties with Clark's written versions, something that works purely as an expressive piece of cinema. Godard advanced the 'montage is cinema' theory, and in "2001" that technique is put forth to mix pictures/sounds that don't necessarily go with one another (classical music instead of the nothingness of space?, a cut from a bone to a satellite?, an astronaut aging/dying/born again within minutes?, etc.) but, as Kubrick stages/scores/unfolds them, they achieve a crescendo of emotional (makes me cry every time I see it), intellectual and formative satisfaction the likes of which very few movies can provide.

    God, I got to go watch it again right now, goodbye.

  10. If anyone ever wanted to understand the excesses and pompous, preach pretentions of the Baby Boomer generation, just watch 2001-A Space Odyssey.