Sighing. I am literally sighing right now as I type this. This is what I always do whenever I think about a groundbreaking movie that for no good reason at all, has been fobbed off as “overrated.” The Godfather (1972) is one of those films. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why some people hate this movie. The pacing is as slow as molasses. A lot of it makes no sense in the way your stoner friend doesn’t make sense after he’s had a few hits and is trying to explain to you how mixing bubble gum, spam and belly button lint is going to cure world hunger and cancer at the same time. Of the parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey that do make sense, the movie feels intellectually pretentious.
So, call the movie boring, if you will. Call the movie pretentious. Call it nonsensical. Call it a pseudo-intellectual wank fest, an egotistical, self indulgent exercise in cinematic techniques. But do not, for the love of all that is holy, call it overrated. If we were going to go solely by story, then yes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is overrated. However, in every other respect, the movie is not only not overrated, it’s probably the most important and influential film of the 20th century. To understand why, we have to go back a little and talk briefly about the sorry state of sci-fi in the 1960s.
State of Sci-Fi Before 2001: A Space Odyssey
In the 1960s, much had happened in the world of science and technology. Because of this, people were more sophisticated about things than they had been 30, 40 years before. However, as advanced as the 1960s were, movie and TV sci-fis were still using dated visual cliches. These included cigar-shaped rocket ships, flying saucers, metallic jumpsuits, clunky robots, ray guns and slutty space babes in exotic costumes.
Even as late as 1968 when we were a year away from landing on the moon, TV shows and movies were still going by this cheesy aesthetic. Not to pick on Lost in Space, Star Trek or Barbarella but they were prime examples of how sci-fi in the 1960s couldn’t move forward.
Now, why on earth could no one get past these visual cliches at the time even though, like I said, people were becoming more sophisticated in the 1960s and should’ve had a less goofy image of what outer space and future technology would look like?
Part of the reason is that there was still this prevailing belief that the future would be so vastly different from our own that everyone and everything would look crazy. So, to make a convincing portrayal of the future, you had to have everything in a sci-fi look as goofy and outlandish as possible. Otherwise, the audience wouldn’t buy it. It would say, “How can this be the future? Everyone still looks like us, and dresses like us. Everyone should have green hair and be flying around in jet packs and bubble helmets.”
Another reason why 1960s sci-fi was stuck in the past is that for the longest time, things like space travel, robot technology, etc. were purely speculative. There was very little for people to go on to help them imagine what these things might be like in the future, so they had to rely on the imagination of illustrators and designers. These artists, who designed sets and costumes for B movies, drew for comic books or illustrated the covers of pulp sci-fi novels, then went on to create those dated visual cliches we all know and love.
By the 1960s, sci-fi was in a position to start ditching those cliches in favor of more realism because we were closer to the future of space travel than we ever had been before. We not only had real life rocket ships, we were better informed about the realities of outer space and had even begun taking photos of Earth from space.
On top of that, there was a huge futurist movement in the world of art, design and architecture that developed an aesthetic that was far more beautiful and stylish alternative to Flash Gordon sets and comic books. Why couldn’t TV and movie sci-fi start borrowing futuristic elements from art and design instead?
The problem is that B movie, comic book and pulp novel sci-fi imagery had been cemented in the public’s consciousness for so long that that no one could imagine sci-fi movies or TV shows looking any other way. So, until something came along to shake things up and reinvent the look of sci-fi, TV and movie shows were doomed to remain stuck in the visual cliches of the past.
Enter 2001: A Space Odyssey
1968 was an interesting year for sci-fi because it saw not one, but three highly anticipated movies: Planet of the Apes, Barbarella and 2001: A Space Odyssey. While all three didn’t fail to disappoint (Barbarella became a cult hit and Planet of the Apes a sci-fi classic in its own right), it was 2001 that completely blew everyone away and achieved status as landmark film.
But why? Well, first of all, it set a new standard in special effects, one that pioneers like George Lucas and James Cameron would later build upon and perfect. Secondly, it was a beautifully shot film, filled with unforgettable images and sequences, such as the star child and dawn of man opening scene.
But this was the least of 2001’s accomplishments. What made 2001: A Space Odyssey a landmark film is that it became the first sci-fi movie to make a completely clean break from B movie camp, comic books and pulp novels, and create a new visual convention for how sci-fi would look from that moment on. Let’s take a look at specifically what the movie did that had future sci-fi filmmakers and TV producers finally dropping pointy-ended rocket ships, green aliens, bubble helmets and comic book colors for the last time.
Modern Looking Space Craft and Modules
The first radical departure that 2001 took in terms of visuals was spacecraft and vehicle design. The ships and modules weren’t of the corny metallic flying saucer or cigar shape variety that was so prevalent in the 1950s. They were white, sleek and elegantly designed. What’s more, although the designs were still fanciful, they looked more rooted in reality, like they could very well have come out of NASA or any other real life space program. The Orion III was so realistic, it almost looks like an early prototype of the Space Shuttle.
Prior to 2001, sci-fis always depicted outer space as desolate, devoid of people or structures. 2001 was the first film to envision a future in which outer space wasn’t an empty expanse, but a place populated with people living and working on board space stations.
Outer Space Realism
The depiction of outer space in 2001 was another major break from previous sci-fi. Earth from space was shown realistically for the first time–not as a painted wooden globe with surface lighting but as a glowing ball giving off reflected light. Other firsts include: the realistic depiction of gravity (or lack thereof) and its effect on movement; a more down to earth depiction of astronaut life on board a space ship (including exercise and moments of humdrum); astronaut activities, such as space walks; and, most important and significantly of all, the lack of sound.
Stylish Art Direction
Another radical departure in 2001 in terms of sci-fi was its art direction. Previously, sci-fi was mired in the cartoony look of comic books, B movie serials and pulp novels. Sets were bright and colorful, and tended to be more fanciful than stylish. Even Fantastic Voyage (1966), the movie that was supposed to set a new bar in terms of sophisticated sci-fi, fell victim to this look; try as it might, it just couldn’t resist having the so many of its scenes awash in acid colors and the backdrops looking like something that came off the cover of a sci-fi pulp cover.
Stylistically, 2001 went in the completely opposite direction. Instead of looking to the usual suspects for visual inspiration, it ignored pulp sci-fi, B movies and comic books altogether and borrowed heavily from the Op Art movement, as well as the work of 1960s futurists who were creating stylish designs in the world of architecture, fashion, furniture design, interior design and industrial design. What resulted was an entirely new look for sci-fi, one that emphasized sleekness, clean lines and geometric patterns. Particularly emphasized was the color white, which was used as the dominant color scheme in many sets throughout the film. If bright color was used, it was mostly used as an accent or as part of a monochromatic color scheme, as seen in the screenshots below.
Birth of “Modern Futurism”
A third thing that was radically different in 2001 from previous sci-fi was wardrobe and costume design. Instead of everyone decked out in weird clothing with bizarre accents and metallic fabric, everyone looked and dressed modern. The flight attendants were dressed in the styles of the 1960s, and the men at the briefing in the beginning of the movie were wearing suits. In the famous jogging scene, Frank Poole wore a plain black tee shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, something that you can imagine ISS astronauts wearing today.
Slick Interfaces and Consoles
Another major break that 2001: A Space Odyssey made from previous sci-fi were its interfaces and consoles. Instead of working on chunky consoles covered in big, ugly plastic and metal knobs, buttons and dials, the astronauts of 2001 worked on sleekly designed consoles made up of colorful computer screens and elegant buttons. To modern eyes, this may not seem like such a big deal but remember–in 1968, computer screens and sleek consoles of this type did not exist.
AI as Computer
The most significant thing in 2001: A Space Odyssey that marked a clean break from sci-fi is HAL. Previously, AI was usually portrayed in robot form and given a silly robotic voice. (For example, Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space.) HAL was not only a super computer, he had a normal human speaking voice and was represented by a simple red light.
The Logic Behind Kubrick’s Ingenious Creative Choices
What accounts for these groundbreaking creative decisions on the part of Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey? He could’ve still used the visual sci-fi tropes of the past but didn’t. Why?
It’s so easy to just write it all off as “genius.” But since this blog is called “Films, Deconstructed,” I would rather pick Kubrick’s brain. And besides, for someone who’s interested in film making, the best way to learn from a genius like Kubrick is to try to figure out why he did what he did.
So, what was the logic behind Kubrick’s creative choices? First, he realized that you didn’t have to make everyone walk around with rainbow-colored hair and metallic jumpsuits to make futuristic sci-fi believable. You could have everyone and everything still look like the present as long as you made the technology in your movie believably futuristic.
It makes sense when you think about it. There were no such things as satellite, touch tone phones, television, computers or any of the sort in 1928. There were in 1968. Yet even though the technology of 1968 was light years away from what people had decades before, people in 1968 didn’t look “crazy” compared to how everyone dressed in the 1920s. They were still wearing pants, suits and dresses and more or less styling their hair the same way. So why, in a movie that takes place in a future where there is space travel, human-voiced computer AI and space stations should the characters in 2001 be made to look like George and Judy Jetson? It wasn’t needed. Just by virtue of having all of this futuristic technology was enough to convince audiences that 2001 was taking place in the future.
Another reason why Kubrick did what he did in 2001 was that he realized that he didn’t have to keep turning to pop culture to help him convey what space flight and computer technology might look like. By 1966, there were enough real life photos, footage and articles about the space program, advances in computer technology and outer space to use as the basis for his movie.
Not only did he have real life to rely on, he also had the art, architecture and design world to draw inspiration from. After WWII, futurism became all the rage again, and many of the best architects and designers of this time period started designing structures, cars, clothing and furniture based on what they imagined the future could look like. Instead of coming up with the cheesy, fantasy-based ideas that so often showed up in pop culture, they imagined a future in which everything was sleek, minimalist, ergonomic and above all, stylish. Although not all of their ideas came to pass, many of their designs made it into the mainstream, particularly in the world of architecture and furniture. By the mid-1960s, many iconic futuristic buildings had been built (such as the Seattle Space Needle), and so-called space age furniture was seen as the epitome of hip.
Stanley Kubrick, in deciding the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey, probably questioned the wisdom of taking a page out of the comic book, pulp novel and B movie world when he there was a treasure trove of futurist designs and architecture all around him. It was a smart move. Because he looked to the art, architecture and design world instead of the usual suspects, he created a movie that was not only stylish but looked like nothing that anyone had seen before in sci-fi.
2001’s Legacy and Rightful Status as Celebrated Landmark Film
2001: A Space Odyssey has become an iconic landmark film for a reason. This was the watershed film that not only upped the bar in terms of special effects, but single-handedly updated the look of sci-fi and became the visual template that every single sci-fi movie and TV show since then has based its look on, from the sets and blocking of shots, to its “modern futurism” aesthetic.
Literally. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the movie that said, “This is how your consoles should look. This is how your space ships should look. This is how your outer space shots should look and be blocked. This is how you design space ship and space station interiors. And it’s okay, you don’t have to have everyone looking like they just escaped from the set of Barbarella. You can have people wear jeans and tee shirts and style their hair like everyone does now.”
If you think that’s an understatement, all you have to do is study the most popular sci-fis that have been released since 1968, and you’ll see its influences again and again and again:
2001: A Space Odyssey was such a game changer in terms of the look and feel of sci-fi that even an iconic sci-fi IP in its own right had to drop its equally iconic uniforms, lighting and interiors in favor of 2001-style interiors when it started going to the big screen. I’m talking about, of course, Star Trek. The movie’s impact was so heavily felt that Star Trek: The Motion Picture cloned the look and feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the minute visual effect of lights reflecting off Spock’s helmet.
In a nutshell, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s importance as a landmark movie and far-reaching influence in shaping the look and feel of sci-fi cannot be overstated. Every single movie and TV show sci-fi to date owes a tremendous debt to this film. Every single one. If it weren’t for 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of the following:
Would’ve looked more like this:
So, if you hear anyone–and I mean anyone–call 2001: A Space Odyssey overrated, just know that this is the talk of an ignoramus. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not overrated. If anything, it’s underrated now because so many people today insist in calling it overrated.
Great Article! still I would say Space Odyssey is overrated af
The article makes me want to consider Space Odyssey even more overrated, because it devalues much of the fantastic Science Fiction of the 1960s as pulpy silly looking movies not to be taken seriously. I’m not saying that science fiction should be colorful all the time, and I do prefer the ascetic of Space Odyssey, but I also like the science fiction movies of the 50s and 60s.
If I think Space Odyssey is overrated, and that is a valid opinion. It is slow, boring, way off the mark concerning the future, and the fantasy visual sequence is embarrassing. Opposite opinions can be valid, not universally, but for each of us, because we value different things. Trying to browbeat me into a different opinion and labelling me an ignoramus if I disagree with you is not establishing fact. It is trying to make your opinion prevail. What is more it makes you look arrogant and foolish.
No one tried to browbeat you. It’s not being “browbeaten” to have it explained in detail why it’s wrong to believe that something is overrated.
As for the whole “opinion” angle, your statement that something is slow, boring and way off the mark concerning the future is an opinion and therefore valid, because that is an expression of a feeling that you had watching the film.
Right? If you found the movie boring, no one can argue with you about that any more than anyone can argue about you disliking chocolate ice cream.
But the statement that the movie is “overrated” is not an opinion. It’s a judgment/conclusion, and judgment/conclusions can be debated, and they can be wrong. It’s the difference between saying, “I don’t like chocolate ice cream,” and “Chocolate ice cream is the worst ever,” or, “Chocolate ice cream is overrated.”
2001 is a masterpiece, not a blockbuster. A blockbuster is a film that has almost 100% approval. A masterpiece could have a lower approval since it is pure art: art cannot be liked by everyone… Kubrick did not made films for everyone’s taste, he made great films to be loved by open-minded people: people who are willing to jeopardize their fun in order to watch things in different perspectives. People love films that they can understand, films that are according to their level of reasoning and sensibility, Kubrick’s work is on another level and only can be understood completely by the genius.
The pretentiousness of this comment. There’s masterpieces that have more approval than even the best blockbusters around 99%. 2001 is great ascetically and is a masterpiece of production value, but it uses ambiguity as a crutch and conveys themes not through character, but through events. Kubrick is one of, if not the best director ever, as he is able to convey so much through most of his movies, and that makes it effective because its pretty easy to understand. If your movie can only be understood by Intellectuals (elitists) then it is not very successful.
Just watched 2001 and really loved your article–I could see it’s flaws but also was knocked out by the visuals and the brilliant use of ambiguity. Thank you for writing this article– in the last few weeks I have had to contend with people telling me that Hitchcock, The Beatles and Shakespeare (!) are overrated. I’m all for iconoclastic ideas but it seems to be trendy to diss everything.
Great post. I just finished watching and needed someone to talk sense to me. I can appreciate the art and the leap forward in how (sci-fi) movies were made, but the plot and pacing were difficult to overcome. The scene where the pod encounters the obelisk felt like one of those Family Guy scenes that go on painfully long just to prove a point.
Obrigado pelo artigo e também aprecio a arte que o filme nos traz. Ainda sim afirmo que é superestimado pois é um filme lento, chato e super espaçado. Tive de procurar pra tentar entender, o que acho péssimo, gosto de enredos que eu consigo compreender e sem ter que fechar meus olhos por causa de luzes lsd piscando. Sinto que esse filme só pode ser entendido por gente ‘intelectual’ ou pagando de intelectual. Não me transmitiu nada, não dá pra entender nada, filme chato pra caramba k