The greatest movie mind-blower of them all turns 50 this year — a wildly imaginative, influential, psychedelic riddle.
I know what you’re thinking. What about its algorithms?
I checked Rotten Tomatoes, and “2001: A Space Odyssey” sits with an 89 percent audience score. From critics, it has a comfortable 92 percent “Fresh” rating. That’s a mere eight percentage points behind “Paddington 2.” Sweet.
But Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has been an official classic for decades. That tends to skew the vote.
How would audiences rank “2001” on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb if the film were unleashed as a new thing today? Even in 1968 critics argued over its slow pace, its violation of storytelling conventions, its baffling ending.
Given the recent low audience scores for arty horror movies such as “Hereditary” and “Annihilation,” and the online tantrums thrown by “Star Wars” true believers who can’t abide variations on formula (the faithful deliberately tanked online ratings for “The Last Jedi” and “Solo”), I wonder how the perversity of “2001” would go over now.
The internet-era urge to “solve” enigmatic movies might also work against Kubrick’s masterpiece. What’s the deal on that black slab? Who begins a movie with 20 minutes of monkeys? Why the giant baby?
“2001” is getting extra attention during its half-centenary year, including a national rerelease this Friday. It’s a good opportunity to ask: Are we living up to this film’s legacy, when we reduce film culture to aggregate scores and weekly box-office numbers and tests of the filmmakers’ ideological purity?
“2001” resists all that. Kubrick said he wanted to create a film that operated like a great piece of music; the movie would noodle its way into our subconscious, without a story getting in the way. Nobody asks what a symphony “means.” You can’t understand the lyrics to “Louie, Louie” or REM’s first album, but they’re still sublime.
Maybe that’s why so many people (filmmakers especially) love this perplexing movie: it burrows into your brain. I’ve seen it on the giant screen at the Cinerama, but I’ve had equally exciting viewings of it on TV, and in a grainy 16-millimeter print at the University of Washington.
For that matter, the first time I saw “2001” was in the Mad magazine parody of it (“201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy,” in case you forgot), and I loved it that way, too. Like a monolith left outside for a thousand years, this film can withstand a lot.
Spinning off from an Arthur C. Clarke short story and zooming from pre-history to space travel in a single cut, Kubrick gave us a skeptical view of human evolution, or lack thereof. With the HAL 9000 computer, Kubrick and Clarke foresaw the dilemmas of artificial intelligence. The film’s depiction of bureaucratic blather and product placement in space remains highly amusing, and it contains the greatest death scene in film history.
As for the rest of it, well… maybe “2001” encourages us to stop worrying about what a movie means, and instead think about what it means to us. Experiencing a great work of art — or, sometimes, a bad work of art — is a chance to open your mind and your senses to something new, something that might console, or inspire, or provide a fleeting glimpse of eternity.
“2001” practically demands you try it. Fifty years on, it’s not too late to give it a shot.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (4 stars)
A rerelease for the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi mind-blower, a film that earns its legendary status with its imaginative style and psychedelic imagery.
Opening: Pacific Place