Now before I get dragged in front of a firing squad for blurting out such blasphemous remarks, allow me to explain.
The above statement has landed me in hot water on more than one occasion. Upon uttering such apparent sacrilege, I’ve encountered both universal derision and outrage. In one instance I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I’m a small-minded cretin with an appalling taste in movies … A bit harsh, I thought. After all, it’s only a film.
I’m not disputing the fact that Stanley Kubrick was an expert auteur. He was. I disagree, to some extent, with the reverence with which he is regarded, but I can’t deny his craftsmanship and his influence on the industry. Nor am I saying that 2001 is a bad film. It’s a veritable visual feast.
My main grievance with 2001 is the plot. Or rather, the lack thereof. There’s no denying Kubrick’s ability to spin a good yarn, it’s just unfortunate that here there’s no yarn for him to spin. The faintest hint of a story is crushed under the colossal weight of its own ambition. It’s quite understandable for a film that charts the evolution of man from our earliest ancestors to our future as a space-faring species, but such stifling ambition effectively snuffs out anything that could have held the film together.
With a plot spanning such a staggering length of time, there’s no opportunity for the traditional laws of storytelling to be upheld. There’s no real protagonist and the closest we get to an antagonist is the rogue artificial intelligence H.A.L. 9000, which appears only in the second act. Also absent is any kind of character progression, an integral part of any film.
Instead we’re faced with three acts that, although individually entertaining, have no discernible link between them. An inescapable truth that makes 2001 feel disjointed. More akin to a faux documentary that predicts the future of our species rather than a memorable, character-driven story. Fans will inevitably point to the ominous black monolith as a link between acts, which may be a valid point if it wasn’t so annoyingly ambiguous. All I can ascertain from it is that it’s some form of evolutionary aid, advancing species just by being present.
The iconic opening act is splendid. I can’t fault that at all. It’s a fascinating imagining of our gradual development from basic primates to tool-utilising problem-solvers. Admittedly, it seems a little dated by today’s standards, but it’s an interesting introduction all the same.
The middle third depicts humanity’s journey into space. Remarkably, for a film that was released before we even set foot on the moon, space travel is presented with unquestionable authenticity. For its time it was truly ground-breaking. There’s the faintest whiff of an interesting drama during this section. Unfortunately, it’s diluted by unfeasibly long shots of space stations dancing around each other. Pretty images, but they outstay their welcome and serve only to prolong an already lengthy film.
Which brings me to the third act. I’ve watched the film in its entirety a few times now, but the meaning of the third act still eludes me. I’ve been reliably informed on a number of occasions that the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name does a much better job of explaining it. That may be true, although I’ve never read the book so I can’t possibly have an opinion on that. My argument is that should a film have to rely on accompanying materials to aid in telling its story, then surely it is a fundamental failure as a film?
The final third of 2001 is a dizzying blur of colour, culminating in a baffling appearance of a planet-sized infant. Maybe there’s an obvious message there that I’m too dense to pick up. Maybe it’s just too much for my tiny mind to take in, especially after sitting through the bad trip that is the majority of the final act. It seems that, until it’s carefully explained to me in layman’s terms, I’ll never be able to grasp the significance of it, assuming there is any significance at all.
With that in mind, there is an overwhelming sense that Kubrick is toying with us. Almost everything he has done in his career has been met with critical acclaim. He was notoriously a perfectionist, which makes it all the more confusing that he is linked with such an imperfect film, unless it’s a sly dig at his more sycophantic fans. At times it feels as though he is taunting us for our failure to excavate hidden meanings from obscure imagery.
Withholding information can give the illusion of depth, but an illusion is still an illusion. I would rather have a story over-encumbered with hand-holding exposition than one with vital plot points inexplicably absent.
2001 may not be a film that I particularly like, it is, however, a film that I deeply respect. After all, it inspired future generations of excellent Sci-Fi filmmakers, which I am eternally grateful for. It’s just an acquired taste, a taste that I clearly haven’t acquired yet.
Occasionally enjoyable but infuriatingly obscure, 2001 is a good film, just not the masterpiece it is universally considered to be …
… But I could be wrong.