2001: A Space Odyssey – the critics

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This is a review of the criticisms against Kubrick and his acclaimed film 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of these were made in the first few weeks the film was released, eg April and May 1968. I have added some of my own observations in relation to these. There are also positive reviews to balance things out. The film itself is now regarded a major influence in terms of cinematography and setting new trends in the field, and one that has impressed countless numbers of cinema-goers.

Fifty one years ago on this day Kubrick’s film was shown to the British public for the first time with a premiere at the Casino Cinerama in Soho. As pointed out before many (including important news sources and bloggers) got the date wildly wrong. The date is confirmed by news reports such as in this this from Variety in May 1968:

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Variety (7 May 1968) reporting on the 2001 London premiere of 1st May.

Although this is the 51st year since the film was first released, 2019 is a very important milestone in terms of space travel. Its fifty years since the first humans set foot on the moon, and of course 2001, by way of being released a year and three months before the first ever lunar landings, had heightened people’s expectations of space travel, further Kubrick was giving the world quite realistic images of the moon before anyone had managed to reach it.

Of course Kubrick’s vision of space is still something that has not been attained. Two Thousand and One has passed by, its now eighteen years behind us and space travel is still nowhere near what many visionaries were telling us it would be like.

In fact the 21st Century, often drawn up as a fantastic future where everyone had flying cars and travelled in space to distant planets and stars, happens to be a century where basically nothing has happened and we are still as stuck as ever on this planet of ours, our feet firmly on the ground whilst any sort of flight is still attained by way of winged aircraft etc. Its almost a joke.

We’ve clearly missed two thousand and ten too, and at this rate two thousand and sixty one too looks like being a joke – unless they do finally begin to undertake manned missions to Mars – although I think Jupiter and its moons will be left off a bit longer. Had the critics of 2001 known at the time that we would be nowhere near what the film envisaged, I am certain the reviews of Kubrick’s seminal work on space would have been quite different.

But of course the future is something that cant be predicted.

In terms of 2001 A Space Odyssey, there were lots of criticisms. Even famous people complained about the film. The most notable being Rock Hudson who walked out after shouting to the audience ‘will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’

Even its champions were stumped. “Somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring,” thought the New York Times; “Superb photography major asset to confusing, long-unfolding plot,” reckoned Newsday. Source: Guardian.

Back in 1968 the Guardian’s own reviewer didnt think too much of the film. He called it ‘an interstellar shaggy dog story.’

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An interstellar shaggy dog story! Source: Guardian

It probably gets even better…. this review by Lester del Rey is quite humorous in a way when one thinks about Bowman’s breathing and monstrous locomotives…

Nobody slept at the New York press preview of 2001, but only because the raucous and silly noise from the sound track screamed painfully into our ears. Space was a tumult of din and the hero breathed in his spacesuit like a monstrous locomotive at 60 gasps a minute. It was the only evidence of excitement in the place. Almost half the audience had left by intermission, and most of us who stayed did so from curiosity and to complete our reviews.
The pictorial part was superb. The colour photography was generally excellent, and the special effects and technical tricks were the best ever done. Even the acting was unusually good. With all that, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke should have given us the superlative movie promised by a barrage of publicity. If they had put Clarke’s Earthlight on the screen with equal genius, it would have been a great science-fiction movie. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Instead they gave us dullness and confusion.
The whole affair dragged. Every trick had to be stretched interminably and then repeated over and over again. Nothing was explained or given coherent flow, but everything was run on to boredom.

Here are some other gems of complaints that I have collected by way of Twitter, books, or conducting searches at the British Library.

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I love these! One asking for answers to the film, another for refunds. People must have somehow felt cheated. No doubt quite a few similar requests came the way of the cinema inquestion, or dropped onto MGM’s or Kubrick’s letter trays! However is known people were in fact clamouring, queuing up, to see the film, so everyone was not affected so negatively.

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The guy has a point. Sometimes AI is so much better than humans (not always though.) As many of the film’s observers noted, HAL seemed so much more human than the two astronauts, Bowman and Poole. It has been said Dullea and Lockwood were chosen for 2001 because they were two of the most expressionless actors to be found.

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Ouch! Arthur Schlesinger was a famous US historian and critic. Maybe he had a point, maybe it was his right-wing views that kicked in? The dullest film ever? Possibly but perhaps Dibble had a very dull mind anyway!

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Reading these comments one does wonder whether Judith Crist was right. Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, these were Kubrick’s successful ‘earth-bound’ films. Would they have been missed had 2001 not been made? We can only say 2001 was entirely contextually different to all these other films despite each one of the benefiting from the director’s famous skills.

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I had to laugh at this one. The implication that Dullea and Lockwood were powerless against Kubrick is quite off the mark. Lockwood himself says they tried to improvise where they could and with the full backing of Kubrick himself. Dullea says “[2001] is a director’s film, not a performer’s. The problems of the role were just as challenging as others, but it’s just not a showy role.” The fact is the actors were meant to portray humans as soulless, emotionless, in exactly the way Kubrick wanted. They were under no duress. Clearly this critic missed the whole point for HAL does not even get mentioned…

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Whoo! McLuhan, the 1960s guru who famously said ‘the medium is the message’ takes a dig at 2001. Most people acclaim the film in terms of its modernity, and the use of I-Pads, computers, other devices, and knowledge about space, many years before these even became facts. Yet McLuhan was slating the film for being old fashioned….

McLuhan was quite a visionary yet apt to go off at tangents. One strange fact however which I discovered was he published a poem by Walt Whitman that gives some overtones of what happens on 2001.

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Explorations was a magazine published by University of Toronto. The example above is from Explorations eight, re-printed in 1967.

In 1957 McLuhan exposited Walt Whitman’s poem in the Expositions magazine (a journal collated by McLuhan) and sections were republished in Explorations.

Was this a fore-telling of the criticism that would befall 2001: A Space Odyssey? Let the sun and moon go! (eg the Jupiter Mission in 2001 leaving these behind?) Let scenery take the applause..! (the special effects, great studio sets?) Let there be apathy under the stars! (the many who went to see the film and heaped criticism upon it?) You decide!

Ironically McLuhan himself was invited to a special press preview of the film with his wife Teri. After ten minutes McLuhan grumbled about the film and made attempts to leave. He was dissuaded by his wife. He regularly fell asleep during the film, in fact he snored loudly, and had to be constantly nudged by his wife.

And of course the assertion that 2001 belonged to the 19th Century is perhaps the only opinion known to have been held by McLuhan about the film.

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Powell has a point. In the context of the previous paragraphs, the Dawn of Man is sort of a loss-leader in terms of the entire context of 2001. There’s the oft told story the early audiences laughed when the apes came on screen.

As Rob Fleming says, 2001 was an expensive mistake. Perhaps he is right. There’s no way we can justify or deny this. 2001 is certainly a great film and used effects that were nigh on impossible to do without computers. The same was however done with Forbidden Planet. The technology of the time, even though limited, enabled a sense of visualisation that tricked the mind. Much like a magician playing tricks.

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Shaggy dog or shaggy god stories! Both these critics have similar views. Did Kubrick and Clarke not think it through? That depends. The problem with films (or any other human story or fact) is that concepts are not always easy to put over. Any sort of thing can be read/seen and observers will claim these just haven’t been thought through.

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Therese Kustra couldn’t understand any of it…

In many ways I can sympathise with Kustra. The first time I saw 2001, I was pretty well disappointed. In fact its only by way of reading the reviews, criticisms, and philosophies of the film that I understand it more and enjoy watching it.

Kubrick may have been at fault for making a concept quite difficult to understand. He began with every intention of ensuring on every step of the way the film goer would be fully informed as to what the whole film was about. He even had scientists at the beginning explaining different things and far more dialogue that would have shone a light on the proceedings.

What this means is the film had in fact started out as well detailed and Kubrick was laying out the road ahead so viewers could have some understand of the film. with But perhaps that was giving too much of the game away.

The problem was the reverse. No-one understood 2001. Many people walked out. Kubrick was worried at the negativity his film was receiving so he cut out a lot of what had been previously seen as essential to the film.

Just to wrap up, here’s a brief selection of critics’ stuff on 2001 which has been complied by I News.

Finally let’s have a couple of positive things about the film…

First off is this from Kansas City Film Critics’ Circle, who voted 2001 the best film in Kansas City for 1968.

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In support of the film. Source: Issuu

Indeed. People’s criticisms are often out of date, but so are their concepts.

Yes 2001 is fun – in a different sort of way. Its a light entertainment form of philosophy. Again the mind in question the film ultimately inspires has to have a particular make up or even a particular placement in time, and an open, extremely democratic, non-partisan outlook in order to appreciate the qualities of the film.

BTW this post was written for the 50th anniversary of the film which took place last year (that being 2018.) The post has has been updated slightly for publishing in 2019.

A total of eight 2001 A Space Odyssey posts were but I eventually considered the notion that my readers wouldn’t want a solid diet of 2001 posts lasting almost an entire month!

Ultimately just three posts were published. These were seen as the more important posts and the others kept as drafts. The anniversary’s come round again, this being the 51st (quite appropriate as we in the UK have been called the 51st state) thus the opportunity has been taken to publish some of these deferred posts.

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