How To Enjoy “2001: A Space Odyssey”

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with my Art Appreciation: Film Studies class a few days ago. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had since then.

First off, the film everyone gets all reverential about is actually kind of funny in parts. The “Dawn of Man” segment is full of actors in ape suits. Even those students who could suspend their disbelief were laughing because primates screaming at each other are funny.

See?

HAL’s attempt to calm down Dave Bowman also brought laughs from the class. The sequence follows on the heels of HAL killing Frank Poole and refusing to open the pod bay doors for Dave. The audience can tell that HAL is telling Dave what he thinks Dave wants to hear. I heard one person say something about Siri during this scene.

HAL: “I feel much better now…"
HAL: “I feel much better now…”
"...I really do."
“…I really do.”
"Look, Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this…"
“Look, Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this…”
"I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly..."
“I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly…”
"...take a stress pill, and think things over."
“…take a stress pill, and think things over.”

But even though the class laughed from time to time, I could tell that some of my students were frustrated by the film. I know the feeling. After an initial phase of rapturous love for the film which focused on HAL and the Jupiter Mission, I decided that it was overly long and more than a little pretentious.

It seems I am in good company. In her 1968 review of the film, Renata Adler wrote:

The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.

I still agree with this assessment. The psychedelic sequence toward the end of the film, what Adler calls a “voyage, either through Dullea’s eye or through the slab and over the surface of Jupiter-Earth,” is long enough to be boring. But it is a Tarkovskian kind of boring, where the images last long enough that viewer is forced to actually look at the film in the process of watching it.

During this most recent viewing, I found myself actually looking at the film, thinking about the way it works, and applying the critical tools I’ve gained over the years. As a result, I’ve come back around to singing Kubrick’s praises. Not only that, but I have some tips for getting the most out of 2001. If you are considering rewatching the film, teaching it to a class, or watching it for the first time…

Here are four things to help you enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey

1. Remember that it’s the story of humankind, not the story of HAL.

I loved HAL so much when I was a teen that I searched the Internet for WAVs of Douglas Rain’s voice, so I could replace Windows’ system sounds with “I’m afraid I can’t do that” and “This conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye.”

Focusing on HAL meant that I spent the first part of the film waiting for him to show up and tolerated the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment until Bowman got to the inter-dimensional bedroom at the end.

2001 starts with apes and ends with Star Child floating above the Earth for a reason. We can argue about that reason, but it’s safe to say that those bookends tell us about whose story we’re watching.

2. Remember that 2001 is actually four stories (or at least one story with four distinct segments [or maybe three segments]).

Each story shows the viewer a step in the process of human evolution.

“The Dawn of Man” shows us appearance of the monolith on Earth, and hints at its role in the development of intelligence.

The untitled second section, shows us the discovery of TMA-1, the monolith buried on the Moon. This discovery prompts humans to travel to Jupiter, the location of another monolith.

“Jupiter Mission” is the story of Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, and HAL. There is no monolith sighting in this section, which makes me want to say that it is a bridge between the story of TMA-1 and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” but all the same, the murderous HAL shows us the limits of the tool-making intelligence bestowed on the pre-humans in “The Dawn of Man.”

This leads us to the events of “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” where Dave Bowman contacts the Jupiter monolith and is reborn as the Star Child.

Thinking of the film as composed of four stories encourages the viewer to see the similarities between the sections. For example, in addition to monoliths and primate tools (bones, spacecraft, computers), the act of eating figures prominently in all of these stories and ties them together.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Floyd Eating2001 A Space Odyssey - Eating Sandwiches 2001 A Space Odyssey - Poole Eating 2001 A Space Odyssey - Bowman Eating

3. Everything is in the film for a reason.

It is Kubrick after all. Take the sound of Bowman and Poole breathing inside their space suits for instance:

2001 A Space Odyssey - Poole Breathing

It gets old quickly, but not only does it give us the subjective sense of being inside the suits, it also provides a counterpoint for when Poole’s air hose is disconnected:

2001 A Space Odyssey - Poole EVA Breathing
Breathing, breathing, breathing…
2001 A Space Odyssey - Poole No Oxygen
Dead silence.

This does not mean that Stanley Kubrick can do no wrong. There is practically no reason to show us the stewardess walk all the way around the Velcro walkway.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Stewardess Walking on Space Age Velcro

I get the fact that he is trying to give the viewer the sense of being on an actual voyage in space, but in an already long movie with plenty of other shots of people in space, shots need to serve more than one role. We’ve already seen the grippy shoes in close-up by this point.

You have to admit that the shot sure does look nice, though.

4. Watch for Kubrick’s distinctive cinematographic style

Kubrick often stages symmetrical scenes built around a central vanishing point:

2001 A Space Odyssey - Symmetrical Cinematography

2001 A Space Odyssey - Symmetrical Cinematography Jupiter

Once I realized Kubrick’s tendency to use one-point perspective, I couldn’t un-see it. Part of the fun of watching the film this time around was identifying the shots using one-point perspective and trying to figure out why they were shot that way.

Well, that’s all I’ve got right now. I know that I’ll be ruminating on 2001: A Space Odyssey in the future, so this isn’t the last post on the topic.

Lastly, I know that people have strong opinions on this film. Feel free to weigh-in below.

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8 thoughts on “How To Enjoy “2001: A Space Odyssey”

  1. Nice essay. I remember the first time I saw this film, I wasn’t a fan of it at all. It wasn’t until a few more viewings later on in life that I really began to see more out of it (and ultimately come to love it).

    1. Some movies require an understanding of the filmmaker’s art in order for the viewer to enjoy them. At least this has been my experience. Either that, or the willingness to explore the film instead of just watching it.

  2. I’ll read the full text later, but from the glimpse I have to add that I’m aching to write a comparison of 2001:SO and Stalker as two journeys into the depth of truth while one is into our world and the other quite the opposite

  3. Ernest W. Adams

    You also have to remember that people’s expectations about pacing are very different now from what they were in 1968. Old episodes of Mission:Impossible look decidedly slow now, and were considered to be going at a breakneck pace when they were aired.

    In addition, Kubrick wanted to set his vision of space travel apart from zippy cigar-shaped sci-fi rockets that get to the moon in a few minutes.

  4. I was only 9 or 10 when this came out, but the trailers and attention it got sparked my interest. I never saw it until I was in my mid-teens and fortunately in a theater (pre-VCR years)
    I had also read the novel adaptation prior to seeing the film. The book fills in so much that simply was implied, albeit at times too subtly in the film.
    I loved it. I saw it several times and still watch it at least once a year. Always finding new neuances and themes.
    At 54 now, I only recently realized how much the monolith appears in the movie. I mean in almost every scene. Not as the black slab, but in the architecture of objects.
    Windows, panels, furniture. As if it is primal memory from mans first encounter with it. Look at Frank Poole’s food tray and each section of it. Hell look at HAL himself. His red eye surrounded by a monolith like face plate.
    Having read the book I knew that Bowman tried to land on the Jupiter slab and “fell: through the star gate.
    Kubrick chose to pan up from the slab and begin the joury “in mid space” thus depriving most viewers of the connection.
    The line “My god. It’s full of stars” was also eliminated. Another clue as to what happened
    Interestingly 2010 the film opens with this line.
    I’ve not watched 2010 in a while. It wasn’t as compelling. I think 2001 stands alone and Clarke did not need to revisit. I read the series and found it all but forgettable. Perhaps if Kubrick had directed it, it would not have felt like a “sequel” but a continuation. Still, un-needed.

    1. I remember being quite disappointed with 2010 when I first saw it; Peter Hyams’ style paled in comparison with Kubrick’s. But I’ve grown to appreciate it. Dave’s projection showing up in the ship and on Earth gets to me more and more the older I get. And I love that first line: “My God, it’s full of stars.”

      I could imagine doing a personal cut of 2001 with a cut to black at the end with that line over it. Sacrilege, I know, but I’m feeling iconoclastic.

      Thanks for the substantive comment!

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