Stanley Kubrick's 1968 adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey is widely considered to be one of the best space opera's ever committed to film. It currently holds a 96% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has grossed over $1,270,900,000 worldwide, when adjusted for inflation. It pretty much single-handedly brought science fiction out of the realm of being a genre aimed at children and made it a legitimate literary and cinematic genre that a mature and well-educated audience could appreciate. 2001 made science fiction palatable to the masses. It stands apart as an artistic achievement and a fine example of expressionist film. However, as a narrative story, it just isn't even a little bit good. What follows are the reasons why, while 2001: A Space Odyssey may succeed in being artistic and cutting edge in a lot of respects, it fails miserably as a coherent and enjoyable movie experience.
Lack of Dialogue
2001 relies heavily on visuals and orchestral music, but it doesn't do much for telling a good story, which should be an essential element to a big budget motion picture. Many people decry Star Trek: The Motion Picture for having too many long, drawn out glory shots of the Enterprise, set against a magnificent score that only serves to slow the pace of the film and make you wonder when they are going to get on with it, and they are right to do so. However, 2001 really makes ST:TMP seem as fast paced as a Michael Bay explosionfest. Out of a two hour and nineteen minute run time, there is less than forty minutes of dialogue and actual storytelling in the film. The story that it does manage to tell (barely) is quite interesting and good, however, you have to sit through three times as much space porn to get to it. The film expects you to read entirely too much into it. It is entirely too open to interpretation. It basically says, here is the bare bones plot, now finish it yourself, and a movie should never, ever do that. Ever.
Reading the Book is Essential to Understanding the Film
If you've read the Arthur C. Clarke novel, it really is a great story. It really is maybe one of the best space operas to ever be put into the prose literature format. It's a great story of the dangers of becoming too reliant on technology, a message those of us living in the 21st Century obviously didn't get. The Kubrick film actually works as a companion piece to the novel, the problem is that movies shouldn't require you to know the source material in order to be able to understand the narrative or to enjoy the film. A good film, while the enjoyment of it could be deeper and more fulfilled by having a knowledge of the source material, should never make it a requirement that you be familiar with the source material, and that is exactly what 2001 requires of its audience. The film leaves many questions unanswered, and those answers can be found in the novel. I have been a huge fan of the Incredible Hulk since I was a small child. I have often struggled with anger issues and a "short fuse", so the Hulk spoke to me as a character. I related to him. I was so excited for the Hulk movie in 2003 that I couldn't wait for it to be released. I was so looking forward to this film that before it was released I bought and read the novelization by Peter David, who has had a long history with the character. When I finally went to see the film on opening day, I understood a lot of things the movie left out because I had read the book. However, I also found having to explain things to my then-girlfriend because she was lost, because the movie wasn't explaining anything. I don't know if these things were in the original script and had been cut, or if Peter David had filled in those gaps, but it had become clear to me that if you hadn't read the novelization prior to seeing the movie, the movie wasn't explaining the story properly. It left out too much, left too many questions unanswered, and the film adaptation of 2001 does the exact same thing. If you aren't already familiar with the story, you will be lost and you will have to fill in the gaps on your own.
It Gives Hipsters Even More Reason to Feel Self-Important
Usually when people like me try to have a logical and rational discussion about this film with someone who claims to love it, my criticism is usually met not with a rational reason on why they enjoy it or what they get out of it, but with people trying to tell me how unevolved I am and that I just must not be smart enough to understand it. Ok, at this point you are a pretentious douche bag and I am seriously wondering if you've even seen the movie or if you are just claiming to like it so you can feel like one of the "cultured" folks. Look, if you legitimately find enjoyment and satisfaction in this film, that's great, but tell me why. Explain to me what you're getting out of it that I'm not and I will explain to you why it fails on every storytelling level imaginable. We will eventually end up agreeing to disagree, and that's fine because film is a very subjective medium. But we will have had a wonderful and intelligent conversation, instead of the conversation we had where you try to pretend you have some sort of mutant film interpretation power and I walk away thinking you're a bigger moron than I originally thought before. Too many times when I've tried to have this conversation, people have said to me that they can't explain why they like it, they just do. You can't just say I liked it because I liked it and expect that to be a sufficient analysis. That isn't how it works and if you were as evolved as you pretend to be, you would understand that.
2001: A Space Odyssey is visually spectacular. Especially for the time of its release, the special effects held up well into the 1980s. In that respect, it was ahead of its time. The acting, what little of it there actually is, is quite good and the story it tries to tell is engaging. However, as a narrative it fails across the board. It is boring and it requires you to either fill in the gaps yourself or have a familiarity with the novel for it to make any damn sense at all. People would not tolerate this from a movie made to day (as evidenced by Ang Lee's Hulk film) so why in the world do they hold 2001 in such high esteem? I genuinely don't get it, and probably never will, and it isn't because I just don't understand the movie, it's because the movie fails at doing its job, telling me a coherent and entertaining story. As a space ballet, it works, but I'm not into the ballet, even when it's set in space. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a wonderfully engaging and thematic novel, and it really deserves to be remade well, though that would probably be seen as sacrilege to the pretentious hipsters who seem to love this movie but can't tell me why.