"2001" under fire

Early reviewers of film found it boring, frustrating

By Tracy McCormick

      The 1968 premiere of "2001: A Space Odyssey" prompted more than few venomous reviews. Although most film critics praised director Stanley Kubrick for creating an impressive, finely detailed visual spectacle, for many those were the last kind words.
      The 141-minute film, only 47 minutes of which are dialogue, struck many critics as tedious. While Judith Crist generously suggested that if "2001" were "cut in half it would be a pithy and potent film," Joseph Morgenstern wrote in Newsweek that Kubrick's attempt to replicate the boredom of space travel made for boring viewing.
      The opening, dialogue-free "The Dawn of Man" sequence was a favorite target of critics. Stanley Kauffmann called it "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." Variety, which was in the minority when it criticized the ape makeup in the prologue as "amateurish," said "2001" didn't begin to generate any suspense until after the halfway mark.
      But for many, the source of the tedium was also the target of many critics' praise -- Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail. Kauffmann, who praised the film's "mechanical fireworks," said Kubrick's infatuation with technology "numbed his formerly keen feeling for attention span."
      The New York Times' Renata Adler, otherwise a cheerleader for the film's special effects, called the final product "somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring" and said that its attention to detail was "a kind of reveling in its own IQ." Adler was also among those critics who criticized what they saw as the film's meandering, murky thematic concerns.
      Crist called the film a space monster movie where the monsters were replaced with mechanics, and evaluated the ending by saying, "winding up with an 'enigma' doesn't cut the mustard -- self-indulgence is spread thickly across the screen."
      The ending, where Bowman undergoes a transformation from old man to baby, was a particular sticky point for critics, including the usually irascible Pauline Kael.
      Writing for Harpers, Kael said, "The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world to a consoling vision of a graceful world of space, controlled by superior godlike minds, where the hero is reborn as an angelic baby. It has the dreamy somewhere-over-the-rainbow appeal of a new vision of heaven. "2001" is a celebration of cop-out."
      John D. Kirwan also criticized the film's ambiguous ending, writing in the National Review that "the conquest of the universe would seem to be enough of a theme without emptying mystical chamberpots on it."
      Other critics were as frustrated by all the questions they felt Kubrick left unanswered as they were confused by the trippy ending. Robert Hatch wrote in The Nation that he wanted to know who on the ship was responsible for programming Hal's homicidal tendencies.
      The mysterious slabs, though, were the biggest source of irritation for critics, including Adler who said that the slabs and the ending bedroom sequence "are simply left there like a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology."
      But for other critics, like Cyberfest master of ceremonies Roger Ebert who gave the film four stars, the slabs didn't prove so troublesome. They are "just road markers, I suppose, each one pointing to a destination so awesome that the traveler cannot imagine it without being transfigured," Ebert wrote.
      On the issue of understanding, the critics themselves were the problem, said F. Anthony Macklin, who wrote about critical reaction to "2001" a year after its release. Critics like Kael and Kauffmann didn't understand Kubrick's quiet brand of satire, Macklin said.
      Kauffmann, he said, "circles around the satire sniffing it but never recognizing it for what it is," and Kael simply "can't discern any viewpoint but her own." The film's repetitiousness is Kubrick's attempt to make sure audiences "get" the satire and the astronauts' inept language is Kubrick's calculated way of "exposing the dullness," Macklin said.
      However, some critics, like Kirwan, who compared the performances of Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood with dust settling on a poached egg, were bothered by what they saw as wooden acting and a curious lack of sympathetic characters.
      Hollis Alpert's review in Saturday Review echoed the sentiments of several critics who called Hal the most human character in the film. "If people are going to behave like automatons," Albert wrote, "what happens to them isn't going to matter much, even if they become privy to metaphysical secrets."