When Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" made its premiere in Los Angeles in 1968, reactions were mixed.
The director was in the audience, having traveled from his adopted home in England by ocean liner and train, editing his film throughout the journey. (New York-born Kubrick had as much trouble flying in airplanes as he did observing production deadlines.)
But Kubrick's presence had little effect on the audience in Tinseltown, some of whom left before it was over.
Rock Hudson was among the walkouts, demanding to know what the movie was about as he headed for the lobby.
Several important critics shared Hudson's dim view of Kubrick's space show. Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, made reference to the director's "Erector Set approach to movie making."
"Is a work of art possible if pseudo-science and the technology of movie making become more important to the 'artist' than man?" she wrote. "This is central to the failure of '2001.' It's a monumentally unimaginative movie: Kubrick, with his $750,000 centrifuge, and in love with gigantic hardware and control panels, is the Belasco of science-fiction."
Writing in the New York Times, Renata Adler called it "a very complicated, languid movie. . . . 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."
Roger Ebert, who attended the Los Angeles premiere at the Pantages Theater and observed Hudson's exit, wrote: "To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made."
The question of what Kubrick's "Space Odyssey" constitutes in terms of film history and cultural history presents itself anew at the dawn of 2001, a circumstance that is both an amusingly obvious and highly auspicious time to re-screen the picture and ponder its impact.
So the tape was popped into the VCR (unfortunately, no substitute for the big screen), and it looked like this:
Visually arresting? Still unparalleled in parts.
The ultimate music video? Probably unrivaled.
Self-indulgent? It's Kubrick, right?
Downright boring? In spots.
A movie? Not quite.
The film may rank No. 22 on the American Film Institute's list of the country's greatest movies, and it may have spawned articles in magazines from Popular Mechanics to Life, and it may have the most rabid cult following imaginable. But 33 years after Kubrick let it go, "2001" still comes off as a very advanced planetarium show. In essence, "2001" is everything it is and never was: a celluloid spectacle of magnificent ambition and vague intellectual underpinnings.
There is no question that Kubrick, working with special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, reinvented the technological limits of filmmaking and the standards by which all space and sci-fi films to come would be judged. The film's influence and legacy are secure and apparent in science-fiction and effects-heavy films such as "Star Wars" and its sequels, the "Star Trek" series, "Alien," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Planet of the Apes," "Dune," "Armageddon," and even last year's "Space Cowboys."
Images That Have Lasted
"2001" also featured a number of iconic images that took immediate hold of the collective consciousness of moviegoers: The bone tossed skyward by an ape and transformed by editing wizardry into a space ship; the close-up of astronaut Dave (Keir Dullea) in his space helmet, the lights of the spaceship reflecting around his wide, planet-Earth-blue eyes; the flight attendant walking up the wall on her way to serving dinner; the motionless, unblinking red eye of HAL the computer; the flat, shiny black slab of super-intelligence; a space station opening like a chrysanthemum to allow a spaceship inside; a tiny embryo loosed in space, floating in its own bubble.
But while Kubrick expertly combined visual imagery with Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube" waltz and Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (and unwittingly launched the latter into the Top 40), Kubrick left the bulk of the character, plot and narrative development to his audience's imagination.
Kubrick was too deliberate about every detail of filmmaking to have done this carelessly. The question is whether the director--who was unquestionably a master of spectacle, composition and pictorial detail--had a facility for dramatizing or dealing with human relationships on celluloid. Kubrick's best films pivot on men and technology ("Dr. Strangelove," "2001") or men incapable of relationships ("A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining"). "Spartacus" is an exception, in which Kubrick had all elements--big battle scenes and human drama--in play. When he tried to focus on the relationship of an uneasily married couple in his last film, "Eyes Wide Shut," the results were as sterile and unconvincing as his earlier "Barry Lyndon."