Is 2001 "a major disappointment"?

[Stanley Kauffmann thought so. This review is from THE NEW REPUBLIC, and 
is titled "Lost in the Stars."]

STANLEY KUBRICK'S 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY took five years and $10 million 
to make, and it's easy to see where the time and the money have gone. 
It's less easy to understand how, for five years, Kubrick managed to 
concentrate on his ingenuity and ignore his talent. In the first 30 
seconds, this film gets off on the wrong foot and, although there are 
plenty of clever effects and some amusing spots, it never recovers. 
Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is a major 

Part of the trouble is sheer distention. A short story by Arthur C. 
Clarke, "The Sentinel," has been amplified and padded to make it bear 
the weight of this three-hour film. (Including intermission.) It 
cannot. "The Sentinel," as I remember, tells of a group of astronauts 
who reach the moon and discover a slab, clearly an artifact, that emits 
radio waves when they approach it. They assume it is a kind of DEW 
marker, set up by beings from a farther planet to signal them that men 
are at last able to travel this far from earth; and the astronauts sit 
down to await the beings who will respond to the signal. A neat little 
open-ended thriller.

The screenplay by Kubrick and Clarke begins with a prologue four 
million years ago in which, among other things, one of those slabs is 
set up on Earth. Then, with another set of characters, of course, it 
jumnps to the year 2001. Pan Am is running a regular service to the 
Moon with a way stop at an orbiting space station, and on the Moon a 
similar slab has been discovered, which the U.S. is keeping secret from 
the Russians. (We are never told why.) Then we get the third part, with 
still another set of characters: a huge spaceship is sent to Jupiter to 
find the source or target of the slab's radio waves.

On this Jupiter trip there are only two astronauts. Conscious ones, 
that is. Three others -- as in PLANET OF THE APES -- are in suspended 
animation under glass. Kubrick had to fill in this lengthy trip with 
some sort of action, so he devised a conflict between the two men and 
the giant computer on the ship. It is not exactly fresh science fiction 
to endow a machine with a personality and voice, but Kubrick wrings the 
last drop out of this conflict because something has to happen during 
the voyage. None of this man-versus-machine rivalry has anything to do 
with the main story, but it goes on so long that by the time we return 
to the main story, the ending feels appended. It states one of Clarke's 
favorite themes -- that, compared with life elsewhere, man is only a 
child; but this theme, presumably the point of the whole long picture, 
is sloughed off.

2001 tells us, perhaps, what space travel will be like, but it does so 
with almost none of the wit of DR. STRANGELOVE or LOLITA and with 
little of the visual acuity of PATHS OF GLORY or SPARTACUS. What is 
most shocking is that Kubrick's sense of narrative is so feeble. Take 
the very opening (embarrassingly labeled "The Dawn of Man"). Great 
Cinerama landscapes of desert are plunked down in front of us, each 
shot held too long, with no sense of rhythm or relation. Then we see an 
elaborate, extremely, slow charade enacted by two groups of ape-men, 
fighting over a waterhole. Not interwoven with this but clumsily 
inserted is the discovery of one of those black slabs by some of the 
ape-men. Then one ape-man learns that he can use a bone as a weapon; 
pulverizes an enemy, tosses the weapon triumphantly in the air . . . 
and it dissolves into a spaceship 33 years from now. Already we are 
painfully aware that this is not the Kubrick we knew. The sharp edge, 
the selective intelligence, the personal mark of his best work seem 
swamped in a Superproduction aimed at hardticket theaters. This 
prologue is just a tedious basketful of mixed materials dumped in our 
laps for future reference. What's worse, we don't need it. Nothing in 
the rest of the film depends on it.

Without that heavy and homiletic prologue, we would at least open with 
the best moments of the film -- real Kubrick. We are in space -- 
immense blue and ghastly lunar light -- and the first time we see it, 
it's exciting to think that men are there. A spaceship is about to dock 
in a spaceport that rotates as it orbits the earth. All these vast 
motions in space are accompanied by THE BLUE DANUBE, loud and 
stereophonic on the soundtrack. As the waltz continues, we go inside 
the space-ship. It is like a superjet cabin, with a discreet electric 
sign announcing Weightless Condition with the gentility of a seat belt 
sign. To prove the condition, a balipoint pen floats in the air next to 
a dozing passenger, a U.S. envoy. In comes a hostess wearing Pan Am 
Grip Shoes to keep her from floating -- and also wearing that same 
hostess smile that hasn't changed since 1968. When the ship docks and 
we enter the spaceport, there is a Howard Johnson, a Hilton, and so on. 
For a minute our hopes are up. Kubrick has created the future with 
fantastic realism, we think, but he is not content with that, he is 
going to do something with it.

Not so. Very quickly we see that the gadgets are there for themselves, 
not for use in an artwork. We sense this as the envoy makes an utterly 
inane phone call back to earth just to show off the mechanism. We sense 
it further through the poor dialogue and acting, which make the story 
only a trite setting for a series of exhibits from Expo '01. There is a 
scene between the envoy and some Russians that would disgrace late-
night TV. There is a scene with the envoy and some U.S. officials in 
secret conference that is even worse. I kept hoping that the director 
of the War Room sequence in DR. STRANGELOVE was putting me on; but he 
wasn't. He was so in love with his gadgets and special effects, so 
impatient to get to them, that he seems to have cared very little about 
what his actors said and did. There are only 43 minutes of dialogue in 
this long film, which wouldn't matter in itself except that those 43 
minutes are pretty thoroughly banal.

He contrives some startling effects. For instance, on the Jupiter trip, 
one of the astronauts (Keir Dullea) returns to the ship from a small 
auxiliary capsule used for making exterior repairs on the craft. He 
doesn't have his helmet with him and has to blow himself in through an 
airlock. (A scene suggested by another Clarke story, "Take A Deep 
Breath.") Kubrick doesn't cut away: he blows Dullea right at the 
camera. The detail work throughout is painstaking. For instance, we 
frequently see the astronauts at their controls reading an instrument 
panel that contains about a dozen small screens. On each of those 
screens flows a series of equations, diagrams, and signals. I suppose 
that each of those smaller screens needed a separate roll of film, 
projected from behind. Multiply the number of small instrument-panel 
screens by the number of scenes in which we see instrument panels, and 
you get the number of small films of mathematical symbols that had to 
be prepared. And that is only one incidental part of the mechanical 

But all for what? To make a film that is so dull, it even dulls our 
interest in the technical ingenuity for the sake of which Kubrick has 
allowed it to become dull. He is so infatuated with technology -- of 
film and of the future -- that it has numbed his formerly keen feeling 
for attention-span. The first few moments that we watch an astronaut 
jogging around the capsule for exercise -- really around the tubular 
interior, up one side, across the top, and down the other side to the 
floor -- it's amusing. An earlier Kubrick would have stopped while it 
was still amusing. The same is true of an episode with the repair 
capsule, which could easily have been condensed -- and which is 
subsequently repeated without even much condensation of the first 
episode. High marks for Kubrick the special-effects man; but where was 
Kubrick the director?

His film has one special effect which certainly he did not intend. He 
has clarified for me why I dislike the idea of space exploration. A few 
weeks ago Louis J. Halle wrote in this journal that he favors space 
exploration because

     Life, as we know it within the terms of our Earthly prison,  
     makes no ultimate sense that we can discover; but I cannot,   
     myself, escape the conviction that, in terms of a larger  
     knowledge than is accessible to us today, it does make such    

I disbelieve in this sophomoric definition of "sense," but anyway 
Halle's argument disproves itself. Man's knowledge of his world has 
been increasing, but life has, in Halle's terms, made less and less 
sense. Why should further expansion of physical knowledge make life 
more sensible? Still it is not on philosophic ground that I dislike 
space exploration, nor even on the valid practical ground that the 
money and the skills are more urgently needed on Earth. (I was 
delighted to read recently that U.S. space appropriations are 
diminishing and that there seems to be no further space program after 
we land men on the moon, if we do, in a year or so.) Kubrick dramatizes 
a more physical and personal objection for me.

Space, as he shows us, is thrillingly immense, but, as he also shows 
us, men out there are imprisoned, have less space than on Earth. The 
largest expanse in which men can look and live like men is his 
spaceport, which is rather like spending many billions and many years 
so that we can travel millions of miles to a celestial Kennedy Airport. 
Everywhere outside the spaceport, men are constricted and dehumanized. 
They cannot move without cumbersome suits and helmets. They have to 
hibernate in glass coffins. The food they eat is processed into 
sanitized swill. Admittedly, the interior of Kubrick's spaceship is not 
greatly different from that of a jetliner, but at least planes go from 
one human environment to another. No argument that I have read for the 
existence of life elsewhere has maintained that other planets would be 
suitable for men. Imagine zooming millions of miles -- all those 
tiresome enclosed days, even weeks -- in order to live inside a space 

Kubrick makes the paradox graphic. Space only seems large. For human 
beings, it is confining. That is why, despite the size of the starry 
firmament, the idea of space travel gives me claustrophobia.

                                                      (J.A., pp. 223-6)

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