When I heard that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was being brought back into theatres for its fiftieth anniversary — in IMAX, no less — I knew that I had to see it. And it’s not exactly for the reasons that you might think going into it. Whereas the collective whole of the cinematic community agrees that 2001 is an unimpeachable masterpiece — one of, if not THE, definitive movie masterpiece — I’ve always been a bit lukewarm on the whole production.
The first (and last) time I saw 2001 was well over a decade ago. I had the house to myself and an entire afternoon to kill. I’d already devoured a great many Kubrick classics — my favorites being A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) — and had been holding 2001, by reputation the best of Kubrick’s storied career, for just such a special occasion. Sight & Sound magazine had named it the seventh best movie ever made in their then-most recent poll. It frequently topped lists of the best science fiction movies of all time. I was already familiar with the psychotic HAL-9000 and all of his most unsettling moments. The film’s reach was monolithic, and I was prepared for the ride of my life.
Only, that’s not what I sat down and watched on that hot August afternoon — not really. Expecting a mind-blowing space odyssey — a doomed expedition to the furthest reaches of our solar system featuring a killer computer slaughtering hapless astronauts — I got some slow-moving jazz about pre-historic monkeys, a series of board meetings about some kind of black domino on the moon and finally some confusing business about an old guy in a creepy white room and a cosmic baby in orbit around the Earth.
Needless to say, I didn’t care for the movie when I first saw it. I did love parts of the movie — the breathtaking visuals, rapturous score and anything involving dear old HAL — but the movie on the whole I could really take or leave. Than I earned my degree in, among other things, cinema studies, where I somehow managed to avoid rewatching the movie over the course of four years (although it was certainly talked up, same as it always was, by all of my professors). And even as I watched, rewatched and forced others to watch basically every other Kubrick movie there was, 2001 gathered dust on a shelf in the back of my mind.
After a few years had come and gone, however, my mind started to occasionally turn back to 2001. It was unquestionably the kind of movie whose inescapable reputation set it up to fail for newcomers who had only ever heard of it being one of, if not THE, best movies ever made. I had been further led to believe that the movie was all about HAL, when he was only ever about a quarter of the larger movie. And, clearly, the min-bending narrative was worth more than the brief consideration I gave it all those years ago.
So I lept at the chance for a proper rewatch of the movie (something I had been planning for an extremely long time). I got my center-row tickets to the biggest screen in town, plopped down in a posh leather seat and buckled in for a three-hour tour that I was now thoroughly prepared for. I knew to expect a slow-burning monkey war in the beginning, a well-measured exploration of bureaucratic red-tape surrounding a newly uncovered lunar artifact, an (relatively speaking) abbreviated showdown between man and machine and a wibbly-wobbly ending that would invariably leave me with more questions than answers. And I was blown the Heck away by it all.
Maybe it was my reigned-in expectations. Maybe it was the full theatrical treatment for the astounding visual effects. Maybe it was that I was sharing the experience with my lovely wife. Or maybe it’s that I was simply more receptive to the movie than I had been in high school.
Whatever the reason, the end-product thoroughly won me over: dragged me over, kicking and screaming, to the side of the movie’s ravenous fandom. And while many of the film’s over-extended sequences ultimately overstayed their welcome (the lunar lander scene and even the famous star gate sequence), the could be excused for their breathtaking visuals and beautifully synchronized score. Taken on its own terms, the film’s narrative — stretching from the dawn of man to the far-flung dawn of something else entirely — made perfect sense. Its voiceless depiction of mankind in the 21st century were marvelous to behold (even a full half-century after their 1968 debut). Its evening-spanning runtime seemed a perfectly measured length for the scope and scale of what it was trying to accomplish.
I can’t say that I have anything new to say on the subject of 2001. Fifty years later, there seems to be little new ground left to cover on the subject. But my experience has reminded me that some films deserve a second chance, that sometimes a positive reputation does far more harm than good and that the right kind of cinema will age timelessly through the years, even as movies themselves become more technologically sophisticated.