A Space Idiocy: '2001' Revisited

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2001

What a widiculous movie!

Over time, has any film veered more toward kitsch than Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" of 1968? Now, seen in the actual 2001, it's less a visionary masterpiece than a crackpot Looney Tune, pretentious, abysmally slow, amateurishly acted and, above all, wrong.

Earth to Stanley Kubrick: Gee, Stanley, up there in movie god heaven, you know what, Pan Am didn't get the space shuttle franchise and zoom us up to the orbiting wagon-wheel stations in sleek ships complete with stewardesses in super beehive hats and Velcro slippers so the zero grav wouldn't set them afloat. Here's who got the franchise: nobody. Stanley, read my lips: Commercial space flight is dead, unless you're a zany dot-com millionaire.

And, Stanley, guess what else: You know, aliens probably didn't plant electronic devices on earth 4 million years ago that emitted a beam that tickled our clumsy ape brains into mutating toward cognition, self-awareness and irony. But that's really what the movie ever so earnestly argues, and what was an amusing trope in a minor Arthur C. Clarke short story seems portentous misanthropy when blown out to epic length.

Or maybe it's just that I wasn't high this time when I watched it.

At any event, Kubrick's film, thankfully only reprinted and not reinflated with any kind of "director's cut," is on view on the Uptown's giant curvy screen, and kids, don't try this at home. Sit in the second half of the house, not the first, elsewise the action will bend through your peripheral vision and give you a bellyache.

The movie is an annoyance wrapped inside of an enigma as constructed by a cosmic ego that had been praised so much he believed it. "Dr. Strangelove" was his great film, and "Paths of Glory," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Full Metal Jacket" his near-great ones. The rest were overblown, self-indulgent and silly, but "2001" has to be the stupidest.

The monkey stuff is okay, if you buy the premise, which I don't, and if you like seeing people in hair suits jump around going uck-uck and, yes, that wondrous moment when a million years of human history is summed up in the nanosecond transfiguration of a thrown bone into a spacecraft. The second stage of the story – in which stiffs who would never act professionally again pretend to deal with the emergency of the discovery of a new sentinel on the moon – is endlessly dreary, with its obsession for showing what were then spectacular special effects and today seem only cheesy. Kubrick overdosed on people walking upside down, which isn't that interesting after the first two steps. At least when Fred Astaire went upside down, he danced.

The third part is by far the best: Heroic if underacted astronauts Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood deal with a rebelliously neurotic computer. It has actual narrative gripping power, instead of inert spectacle.

The final part remains visually stunning if intellectually vaporous. Evidently astronaut Dullea finds, beyond a Jovian moon, a stargate, by which he short-circuits the universe and discovers an unknowable and superior alien life form. So, er, Stanley, are you sure you want to stand on this one? The space beings, having listened to too much German music by too many composers who had themselves read too much Nietzsche, send him back to Earth, born again, as a planet-size embryo. What's he going to do when he reaches 15th and K: drip amniotic fluid on everyone? If he's that big, how's he going to get into Morton's?

Oh, kids, go ahead and see it, if for no other reason to learn how silly your parents were at your age.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (G, 139 minutes) At the Uptown.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company