Speaking as a true blue, dyed in the wool science fiction nerd, it may be heretical for me to claim that Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey is overrated. It may even seem paradoxical or quibbling that a movie that is the source of undisputedly powerful pop cultural iconography could possibly be thought of as overrated. But here’s the thing: cinema is not just a form of art; it is just as importantly a source of entertainment. If your audience is not engaged with what you present through what’s seen and experienced on screen, you’re failing both the film and your viewers. And with 2001, Kubrick seemingly set out to make a film detached from humanity and emotion, and succeeded so well that he was left with a boring, antiseptic movie with great special effects.

Historically, science fiction in any form doesn’t generally get a lot of critical respect, though the recent spate of thoughtful sci-fi films like 2009’s Moon and this year’s Another Earth may hopefully be reversing that. But while film franchises like Star Wars and, to a lesser extent, Star Trek, tend to be dismissed as movies full of colorful explosions, lasers and minimal story, 2001 has an even greater flaw. It’s a movie filled with technical achievements and conceptual leaps, but no real plot or engagement with its audience. It’s like a tray filled with pristine surgical instruments; functionally perfect, technologically innovative and coldly beautiful, but not engaging. And I don’t believe I’m missing the point here. The director may have fully intended to emphasize the essential alien quality of outer space by creating characters without backgrounds or meaningful dialogue, by favoring scientific accuracy over cinematic potential or emotional resonance. But when those same qualities leave a viewer bored with the spectacle of the Discovery One noiselessly floating through the infinite gulf, that kind of conceptual trickery has backfired. Rather than leaving a viewer with a profound sense of the smallness of man in space, it simply leaves them bored with the movie itself. It’s a fine line to walk, and one that 2001 stumbles upon far too often.

Yes, it’s great in concept for the two primary human characters to be so literally distanced from earth that they figuratively become distanced from humanity, losing personality and emotion. But in execution, that means we have interminable scenes of Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) serving as functions of a machine, rather than as people we care about or even characters with motivation. Great on paper, but simply dull in practice. The lack of care or interest in actual humanity is pervasive to the extent that the scene in which Poole drifts to his slow, icy death in space is notable in that it signifies the malfunction of HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain), the ship’s computer and not for the death of a human being. Similarly, eschewing a describable narrative for an oblique, ambiguous series of four sequences largely linked by a series of highly recognizable images may be artistically ambitious, but it’s alienating to audiences above all. No black monoliths or Strauss scores can change that.

Artistic ambition is something that should be praised and Kubrick doubtless did the science fiction community at large a great favor by classing up the genre’s image for all the critics and acid-filled hippies who came to see the star gate sequence in 1968. But the overarching concerns of 2001 are not so much the themes of the unknowable universe and the indefinable nature of evolution and violence, but how to most accurately present sensations of boredom and bewilderment. It’s certainly not how to present them to audiences to make them interested or even intrigued, but far more in how to calibrate its chilly, self-satisfied perfectionism. As Kubrick was well known for his professional tenacity and obsession with the minutiae of filmmaking, it’s not particularly surprising that his fascination with ensuring scientific accuracy ends up making {2001} a movie engrossing for theoreticians and technicians, but not for the people watching it. For the audience, it’s not a movie you watch, it’s one you just get through.

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30 Comments

  1. Nick

    July 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Your right. you are a heretic. burn baby burn.

    🙂

    Reply

    • Anonymous

      August 21, 2019 at 12:50 am

      Worst film of all time!

      Reply

      • aa

        June 10, 2020 at 5:29 am

        You may think it’s a bad film. Ok.
        But if you really mean that it is the worst film of all time, you are a fool.

        Reply

  2. oscar

    March 3, 2013 at 5:58 am

    You finally got it! The movie was not intended to entretain or merely to be watched but literally “get through” and for that reason the very frame of the original movie as seen AT THE MOVIE THEATRES watching the screen had the same proportions of the monolith!

    Director never cared about the future of the film to be seen on video tapes or DVDs. It was to be an experience. He wanted the audience to feel astronauts actually became boring machines while HAL (IBM) turn into humanized entity. Only when Dave Bowman (Saggitarius) became very angry he became human again.

    Other movie with the same purpose is Memento which is better understood if you watch it BACKWARDS after pressing ‘rewind’ with the remote control of the DVD.

    Reply

    • Fahad

      April 14, 2017 at 9:18 pm

      Indeed, Memento is better in ‘rewind’, just as 2001 is better in ‘fast forward’.

      Reply

  3. Ellie

    June 13, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Kubrick made 2001 with the intention of creating the ultimate science fiction movie, yes it was something to be experienced and yes on a 70mm projection in a cinema it probably was something to behold. However, isn’t cinema supposed to be an experience? He wanted the audience to think for themselves, make their own minds up about what was happening.

    The astronauts didn’t become boring machines at all, the machine malfunctioned and tried to kill them, succeeding in one case. HAL malfunctioned because he was forced to lie when Bowman asked him about the true purpose of their mission, he was programmed to sound humanised so the astronauts could relate to him, he wasn’t becoming human himself. If anything its a nod to the idea that humans cannot control something they don’t understand fully. When did Bowman become angry? This confused me, he is reborn at the end of the film but my interpretation of this is that he is reborn as a master of the universe, the universe belongs to him as he is born into it at the hands of the higher beings that trapped him in the astrolgical zoo of the hotel room?

    Reply

  4. Martin

    September 19, 2013 at 11:09 am

    He wanted this and he wanted that and he and and….. He FAILED to entertain.

    Reply

    • Anonymous

      August 21, 2019 at 12:54 am

      Soooo glad I don’t ‘get’ Stanley Kubrick!

      Reply

  5. Curtis

    September 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Saw Paul Allen’s personal print here in Seattle at the Cinerama last night. Absolutely glorious experience. Yeah, it’s slow – newsflash, we’re in SPACE. In an overwhelming theater such as the Cinerama – with it’s giant, curved Cinerama Screen – the slowness works. In all but the most ostentatious of home theater rooms – it wouldn’t. Cinema, as an art form, is supposed to do more than entertain. Like all great art, a good film should prompt questions about the filmmaker’s intent and message. It should prompt disagreement as well. I’m not really a believer in an Alien Race planting blank dominoes around the universe to help less advanced life forms evolve. But the story about man and his struggle to control his inventions is certainly worth exploring. I, for one, am not convinced that HAL malfunctioned – it seemed to me that the error was, in fact, a calculated trap designed to eliminate the pesky humans. Wonder if HAL’s sister SIRI has similar designs on us all?

    Reply

    • dingoegret

      December 26, 2015 at 10:14 pm

      boooorrrring. no wonder you liked the movie.

      Reply

  6. Batman

    November 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I would say that 2001 not only failed to entertain. But it also failed at having a plot and complex characters.

    Reply

  7. Anthony

    April 8, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Um….no.

    Reply

  8. Chris L.

    May 15, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    2001: A Space Odyssey: crap floating through space set to classical music. BEST SCI-FI MOVIE EVER.
    Star Trek: The Motion Picture: crap floating through space set to a forgettable score: WORST SCI-FI MOVIE EVER.
    At least ST:TMP had, you know, characters and not just setpieces.

    Reply

    • Anonymous

      October 17, 2019 at 2:26 am

      “Forgettable score”? I don’t think “Klingon Battle” is forgettable.

      Reply

    • aa

      June 10, 2020 at 5:32 am

      Have you ever considered that MAYBE it isn’t a bad film and you just didn’t like it? Just asking.

      Reply

  9. Bruce

    September 18, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Space Odyssey was a movie of it’s time. It’s biggest problem was the book was written in conjunction with the movie so there was rewrite after rewrite. I seen the movie in the mid seventies and I must admit I loved the special effects that were done in real time using camera tricks and editing, no CGI at the time, and the “innocence” of the actors. I thought their performances were quaint, a little over acted but on a whole as a terror/ mystery movie is was at the top of the heap for it’s time. I have to say the ending just confused the hell out of me as it did to most people, then I read the book. It all makes sense but you have to read the book. The book continues on from where the film finished and it all falls into place. 2001 is probably best explained as an art film that relys on the audience to have read the book first. A respectful answer to Chris L. There was a sound track written for the movie but when Kubrick was watching the rushes he set music to it that he had in his record collection because the music written for the film wasn’t ready. He thought that the classical music he was using gave the film the feel he was trying to achieve and never used the music that was specially written for the movie. I’m just grateful he didn’t use “Flight of the Valkyries”. That was best left for Platoon.

    Reply

  10. Hydro

    November 6, 2015 at 7:49 am

    I totally agree with this assessment. I’m also a huge sci-fi fan, and I hadn’t seen this movie since I was a kid. I remembered it being extremely boring and incomprehensible, but figured I had been too young to really grasp it. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The slow pace, flat unrelatable actors, and confusing plot make it more of a snooty art film than an entertaining movie. Yes, it’s true you can sort of glean some meaning out of all the seemingly random junk in the movie, but the giant space baby at the end just made me laugh out loud. Somebody please explain to me how that’s “deep” and not just a silly cop-out ending after what felt like hours of a bizarre acid-trip scene. Maybe back in the 60sand 70s when everyone was out of their gourd on various drugs this could be seen as a great movie, but compared to where science fiction has gone since it just feel like a boring failed attempt to be the best (and artsiest) sci-fi ever. People who still hail this as the best science fiction has to offer need to remember movies are about telling a story in an entertaining way, not just being obscure to try and seem intelligent.

    Reply

  11. Tom

    September 22, 2017 at 12:08 am

    THere is no need to argue carefully about what is wrong with the film. It is just crap. Full stop.

    Reply

  12. Adam

    October 8, 2017 at 8:39 am

    I agree. I didn’t watch the movie until my mid-30s after having heard about it for so many years. I was left bored and scratching my head, thinking I must have missed something.
    Then I read the book… And realized that Kubricks film was a mediocre/poor adaptation of a solid sci-fi book. Arthur C. Clarke is a well-regarded and prolific sci-fi author, and the book makes complete & total sense, no internet searching necessary to figure it out.

    Then I go online after watching the movie and see all these posts hailing Kubrick as a mysterious genius with the ability to weave a tale masterfully, leaving all but the most sophisticated audience dumbfounded and bewildered.

    …Or he just took a well-written and organized book from a recognized author and managed to make it convoluted and inconclusive. I laugh to myself as I read all these theories about “The Monolith,” how it has to do with the movie screen, another workof genius! Or it’s a prop taken straight out of the book, clearly explained as a device used to monitor & facilitate evolution around the universe.

    I guess I don’t blame people though, because just about anyone can name a Kubrick film, but who can name a book by Arthur C Clarke? And I’m no sci-fi snob, I just happen to like some of his books.

    I’m just glad to see that I’m not the only one who was incredibly disappointed and underwhelmed by this movie. No offense at all to those who like it, entertainment is subjective.

    Reply

  13. Chris

    January 24, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Well, I tried it for the second time in maybe twenty years, and still…. doesn’t do anything for me either.

    Although I can actually understand why the film was so hyped; the images and technological advancements were quite unprecedented for the time being then.
    And indeed, the vast emptiness between us as viewers and the characters is quite boring; and let’s make that a euphemism…

    Reply

  14. Dwayne Downing

    November 30, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    First time seeing it. Apes… what? Tapirs… cool I wonder if I will see dinosaurs? Pan am to space station… wow and cool! Hal9000 double cool! Stargate… trippy. Room at the end… what the hell? Totally missed the planet sized fetus. (Black and White 14 inch Viking TV)

    Next time seeing it… in color. Apes…yeah yeah.. get to HAL and the discovery… oh yeah… psace station was cool. I should read the book cuzco what the hell IS going on at the end anyway. “We’ve got lots of telephones already?” What kind of movie line is that? (My family has one. Only rich people have two telephones).

    Vhs days arrive. We start renting a VCR and have 24hr movie marathons. 2001 is an an immediate choice. Having read the book I know moonwatcher is the apes name. More things start to fall in place. More dialogue seems to suddenly become significant, if only because it says next to nothing. I start noticing how (unlike EVERY other sci fi film I have ever seen) space travel is portrayed as boring… like taking a business trip on an airline for the umpteenth time. That realization makes me realize there is A LOT going on in the seemingly empty movie.

    Multiple viewings later (including super 8mm!) I finally get to see the IMAX release. So much detail to absorb. Moonwatcher smashing the bones is now a highlight of the film for me. Dave coming unglued looking at the room at then end is another.

    All the criscisms here are true. This is not a film that will please everyone… it is not Star Wars. It will not pack em in like Back to the Future. It was not the film the “changed everything” as the re-release slogan implies. It exists outside the concept of a film. It is a Hollywood funded existential art film / blockbuster. Sure, there were and have been weirder films since, but not with 2001’s budget and attention to detail. There are now better looking special effects, but they are all hooked to ‘people pleasing’ story lines. For a while 2001 was my favorite sci fi movie. When Bladerunner came out I changed my mind. Over the years though I have seen 2001 again and again… to the point I think I am done with it.. but it still draws me in. Some parts are boring now… but somehow something new comes up every time. Maybe it takes me back to my youth… when the world had more possibilities than it does now. One thing is for sure… we are never going to see anything like this again. Bladerunner 2049 has the same spirit, but still has kickboxing… just in case.

    I won’t convince anyone here who hates the film, but you won’t convince me I have been duped. Kubrick pulled out all the stops on this film… and like any performer, he opened himself up for ridicule and criticism when he made it. I

    Reply

  15. Rj

    June 25, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    2001 isn’t just over rated, it isn’t good period. The whole story could have been told in 90 min. Kubrick made many classics (Dr Strangelove, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange etc etc) but this movie isn’t one of them.
    Bad pacing, placing visuals above story and above all over-long.

    Reply

  16. Ross

    October 23, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    “cinema is not just a form of art; it is just as importantly a source of entertainment. If your audience is not engaged with what you present through what’s seen and experienced on screen, you’re failing both the film and your viewers…” Here’s the other thing about art and entertainment…you don’t speak for me. I don’t care whether people get this film, or don’t. And i would never try to change anyone’s opinion of it

    Reply

  17. VJ Hatten

    March 28, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    I stood in line to see this movie, and, nearing the age of 70, I still find it boring and ridiculous as ever.

    Reply

  18. Mac

    April 10, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    You didn’t like the film? Too bad. Who cares? Go watch “Friends.”

    Reply

  19. A Ignacio

    May 3, 2020 at 5:01 am

    Agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m currently slogging through it (and I LIVE for meaningful – i.e. not conflict driven – SciFi) and honestly in this movie I don’t even care to know what happens and not excited to see what’s next. Can’t believe they sacrificed ANYTHING HAPPENING when it would only have added to the beauty and instead filled it with silent pauses and no explanation. Some of the shots are trippy and more immersive than current scifi makes me feel. Him running laps around that loop with the camera twist brought it more to reality in my mind than anything else I’ve ever seen. And their chill nonchalance (which just comes across as self conscious pauses for the audience) make it seem real that this sci-fi life is their reality. But, man.. there’s nothing else. Don’t care about the drama, or the mystery, or the computer. And, largest issue for me, is the sensory overload of the noise. The screeching, screaming, drawn-out-FAR-TOO-LONG monolith singing is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s good but it’s TOO MUCH. I’m highly sensitive anyway, but this is like being forced to listen to nails on a chalkboard and not being able to rub your teeth with your tongue to relieve the discomfort. Visually stunning, but agree with you that this is about all it offers. You could watch it on silent and get more out of it.

    Reply

  20. BJ

    August 4, 2020 at 11:31 am

    This review is overrrated, has no plot, and no enagement with its audience. Quite frankly it’s the dullest form of clickbait bullshit. If a film is considered one of the greatest of all time, and you don’t understand why, maybe the problem is you and not the film? Whether this article is written out of ignorance or lazy sensationalism, it is equally embarrassing.

    Reply

  21. Michael Sharpe

    August 25, 2020 at 10:09 pm

    Stopped reading when you mentioned Star Wars (an epic space opera) in an article about science fiction films / franchises. Sigh.

    Reply

  22. Lee

    September 6, 2020 at 2:27 pm

    You completely missed the point of the movie which is an allegorical tale about the awakening of our minds through the medium of cinema. It’s not a sci-fi film at all, I think you mixed it up with Clarke’s book. They were independent entities. Almost every scene in the movie is literally filled with signs telling the viewer they are seeing the cinema

    Reply

  23. NateGuy

    September 9, 2020 at 12:45 pm

    2001 changed my life.
    I was an engineering student when it came out. Partly because of watching it, I decided to work in the space program. I worked with NASA on the Space Shuttle.
    I understand that some people are not moved by the movie. But I, and many other engineers i know were deeply moved. We wanted to help humanity explore the stars. And I did.
    In 1968 people walked out of the theater asking the same question: What did the ending mean? I daresay that few people talked about much else that night.
    I can’t talk someone into feeling what I felt after watching the movie. For the rest of my life – and I’m over 70 now – I think about 2001. I’m glad I helped humanity to go into space. If you, or anyone, didn’t feel what I felt – and I can’t describe it – you didn’t. But I did feel it on a profound subconscious level.
    I guess for you, this movie didn’t open your pod bay doors.

    Reply

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