What Made '2001, A Space Odyssey' Such An Influential Film

Apr 4, 2018
Originally published on April 5, 2018 10:50 am
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Fifty years ago this week, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" opened to mixed reviews and hundreds of audience walkouts at its premiere. That weekend, though, the general public weighed in with lines around the block. By the end of 1968, the 2 1/2-hour science fiction epic ended up being the year's biggest box office hit. Critic Bob Mondello saw "2001" when it first came out and remembers what made it one of the most argued over and most influential blockbusters ever made.

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BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I was sure I was 12 when I saw "2001," but in 1968, I would have been 19. The film must've just made me feel like a kid.

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MONDELLO: I saw it where it premiered, D.C.'s Uptown Theater, on a curved Cinerama screen. I remember being surprised that this outer space movie started with apes in a desert and a monolith that seemed to give one ape an idea. He picked up a bone, used it as a club, his arm and the bone filling up a screen that stretched 90 feet wide.

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MONDELLO: How could you not be in awe? Later, after using the bone as a weapon against other apes, he threw it in the air in triumph, and a Stanley Kubrick jump cut replaced it with a spaceship, and - well, there's a reason this music still does it for me, does it for millions who saw the original film in what they were then calling single-camera Cinerama.

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MONDELLO: What followed was equally awe-inspiring in an era when personal computers didn't exist, most phones still had rotary dials and humans hadn't yet walked on the moon. Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke imagined a startlingly prescient future with something remarkably like iPads and interplanetary Skype...

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WILLIAM SYLVESTER: (As Haywood Floyd) Hello.

VIVIAN KUBRICK: (As Squirt) Hello.

SYLVESTER: (As Haywood Floyd) How are you, Squirt?

KUBRICK: (As Squirt) All right.

SYLVESTER: (As Haywood Floyd) What are you doing?

KUBRICK: (As Squirt) Playing.

MONDELLO: ...Also some things that didn't come to pass - a whole moon colony reached by way of a rotating space station with a Hilton hotel. Unlike previous sci-fi films - say, "The Day The Earth Stood Still" - "2001" went to elaborate lengths to explain the physics of space travel. Kubrick was determined to make what he called the first science fiction film that isn't considered trash.

So he showed how explosions don't make noise in a vacuum, how docking a spaceship would require slow speeds and delicate maneuvering - no little green aliens, no space cowboys, just reality as NASA knew it created with then-revolutionary special effects but treated as unremarkable, as was the talking HAL 9000 computer that would help the astronauts during their odyssey.

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DOUGLAS RAIN: (As HAL 9000) The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information.

MONDELLO: Yeah, well, there's always a first time. The initials H-A-L preceded by one letter the computer company initials IBM. HAL was advanced in other ways, too. But the thing that captured the audience's imagination back then more even than a chatty computer decades before Siri and Alexa was that unnervingly, HAL had a mind of his own.

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KEIR DULLEA: (As Dave Bowman) Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that. This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

MONDELLO: I remember the chill of realizing HAL's unblinking red eye could read lips. The audience learns that in a sequence that's nonverbal, a shot from HAL's point of view that zeroes in on the astronauts mouths because Kubrick wanted to tell the story not with words but with majestic, peripheral-vision-filling images. To screenwriter Clarke's immense annoyance, the director got rid of explanatory voiceovers, kept dialogue mostly inconsequential, spelled nothing out, especially in a trippy light show finale that promised a rebirth for humankind.

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MONDELLO: Because "2001" amounts to a portrait of human evolution past and future, this not spelling anything out seemed problematic to a lot of very smart critics. For Andrew Sarris, the film was a thoroughly uninteresting failure. Pauline Kael called it trash masquerading as art.

Kubrick, chastened by walkouts at the premiere, cut 19 minutes from the film and fled to a rented house on Long Island. And then young people started showing up - lots of young people. That, I suppose, is where I came in, soaking up the images of the first blockbuster arthouse film I'd ever seen, a filmed utopia essentially upbeat about the future at a time when the present seemed grim. "Space Odyssey" opened two days before Martin Luther King was shot, weeks before widespread protests about the Vietnam War.

Today, we are also in troubled times, and most films about the future are dystopias - portraits of a planet destroyed like "Blade Runner" or "WALL-E." Kubrick pictured a rosier future, one that appealed to my generation even as it puzzled our parents. They awarded the musical "Oliver!" the top Oscar that year. "2001: A Space Odyssey" wasn't even nominated for best picture. But history has been kinder - memory, too. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER PERFORMANCE OF STRAUSS' "AN DER SCHONEN BLAUEN DONAU, OP. 314") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.