Meanings: The Search for Meaning in 2001


Shortly after 2001’s release, several major camps had formed around its interpretation.  One was made up of the fans of Kubrick, who saw 2001 as a clever satire on the arrogance of humanity, a theme which was also apparent in other Kubrick films such as Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange.  Another consisted of those who followed Arthur Clarke’s novel as the definitive text for understanding 2001.  A third group argued that it was impossible to interpret the film, since it was first and foremost an experience and thus beyond criticism.  In the early 1970s, different books were published about 2001 that came from very different perspectives.  It has been speculated by some that Kubrick masterminded the publication of at the first three of these works in an attempt to help audiences who had difficulty understanding the film without help.[69

The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, which came out in 1970, was edited together by Jerome Agel, who is best known for his collaborations with Marshall McLuhan on The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village.  This paperback collection is clearly intended for the youthful fans of the film; Agel’s name appears at the beginning of the book accompanied by the inscription, “Sun in Gemini, Moon in Aries, Cancer Rising”.  Produced with the assistance of Kubrick, Clarke, and other members of the production staff, it contains published articles, reviews, and interviews, excerpts and random facts, a ninety-six-page photo insert, and an extensive collection of letters written to Kubrick about the film.  Writer Don Daniels refered to Agel’s book as the “Holy Writ” of the 2001 cult but complained about how this “anti-anthology” replaces coherence with accumulation.[70] The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, despite its title, contains far fewer details about the actual production of the film as it does about the way it was “made” in the eyes of the public and the critics. 

Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs, published a year later for more critical audiences, examines the entire body of Kubrick’s work and is based extensively on interviews that the critic had with the director, a longtime friend of his.  The chapter dealing with 2001 focuses on the film’s visual appeal, satire, and the moral ambiguity of the final scenes.  It refers to some of the differences between the film and the book, specifically the role of the early monolith as a teaching device and the orbiting nuclear bombs, as items that were discarded by Kubrick in later drafts of the script.  Alexander’s book quotes Kubrick saying that the banal dialogue of Dr. Floyd and the other space scientists in the film is what he believed “the way the people concerned would talk.”[71]    

The Lost Worlds of 2001 was published in 1972 by Arthur C. Clarke. It contains stories about his collaboration developing the novel and screenplay with Kubrick, as well as many leftover “chapters” from the early versions of his novel.  Although Clarke begins the book by saying that he is concerned not with the development of the film, but that that of the novel, “regarded as an independent and self-contained work”, much of the work deals with the frustration that he suffered because of the constant rewrites demanded by Kubrick.  Some of the unused material Clarke includes involves an extra-terrestrial named “Clindar” who studies and teaches the early ape-men, the Earth-based training of the Discovery astronauts, and alternate versions of the story’s Star Gate sequence.  Most of the book is in such fragmented form that it contains little that would prove enlightening to any but the most ardent fans of Clarke’s novel.[72]  

After the mid-70s, the amount of literature published about 2001 slowed to a trickle.  One author, writing in 1978, cited the film’s cult appeal as a cause for this “de facto moratorium on 2001 criticism.”  Because even the most enlightened commentators found themselves unable to verbalize the powerful experience the film provided, he argued that many had taken the position that it was “ultimately, for some reason, an uninterpretable film.”[73]

Influence on Other Films

2001’s impact on other science fiction films did not become apparent for several years, but was quite profound.  Other films about space travel released during the late 1960s paled in comparison to 2001.  Robert Altman’s Countdown, a story about the race to land an astronaut on the Moon, became irrelevant within a year of its release and John Sturges’ Academy Award-winning Marooned, released in 1969, also soon faded from the public memory.  To some, like French critic Michel Ciment, it seemed as though, “Kubrick has conceived a film which in one stroke has made the whole science fiction cinema obsolete.”[74

Before 2001, the genre of science fiction cinema had been characterized by poorly written, low-budget “B” grade features with titles like Radar Men From the Moon and Teenagers from Outer Space.  A very small number of  “A” level features, like Forbidden Planet and The War of the Worlds stood out from the rest, but before the mid-1960s, most studios had been reluctant to spend large amounts of time and money on what they considered to be “Buck Rogers” adventures for children.

After the July 1969 Apollo moon landing public interest in the space program began to wane.  America had beaten the Soviets to the moon and fulfilled John F. Kennedy’s goal.  As the Vietnam War drained more resources from the American economy and American’s became more interested in spending money on matters closer to home, interest in the space program waned.  Science fiction movies became less interested in scientific extrapolation, and more interested in down-to-earth stories, like The Planet of the Apes and its sequels, which were largely commentaries on the environment and the use of nuclear weapons.  Other films, like THX-1138, Soylent Green, and Logan’s Run, depicted bleak, dystopian futures.  In addition, Hollywood simply couldn’t afford to make the kind of financial gambles that they had been able to do in the mid-1960s.  It wasn’t until 1977, when Columbia Pictures invested a large portion of their assets into Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind that the idea of alien encounters was again portrayed in a serious context by a big-budget science fiction movie.  The financial success of that film and Star Wars, however, firmly established the “sci-fi blockbuster” as a Hollywood staple. Although most science fiction movies made since the late Seventies have been “popcorn” action films, some notable exceptions, like Alien, Blade Runner, and Contact have proved that that big-budget “serious” science fiction can still be commercially successful.


During the 1980s, 2001 was available almost exclusively on home video or television.  As multiplex theaters grew in popularity, only a small handful of Cinerama theaters remained.  The number of films shot entirely in 70mm after 1972 dwindled to near zero.  Although some theaters occasionally rented prints for special showings, the number of people who got to experience 2001 in a theatrical setting was very small.  Before 1988, all versions of the film on home video and laserdisc were in the cropped “pan and scan” format.  Having been filmed in widescreen format with a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, this meant that most viewers were missing up to 40% of the picture on their TV screens.  Although the Voyager Company released a letterboxed laserdisc version in 1988, it was not until 1993 that Turner Entertainment (who had purchased the rights to most of MGM’s pre-1970 titles) released the definitive letterboxed version of the film on laserdisc and videocassette for its 25th anniversary.  Most people who have seen 2001 in a theater agree, however, that even the highest-resolution letterboxed video presentation, however, does not even come close to replicating the experience of seeing the film in its original Super Panavision format.  As one fan of the film said, “It doesn't come across on a television screen at all.  I've seen it a few times since 1968 in a theatre, and many times on TV, but even on HBO with letterboxing and no commercials, it's still just a shadow of what it is in the proper theater setup.”[75]

In the 1980s and early 1990s, 2001 was marketed to videophiles in the hope that they would purchase laserdisc players.  George Feltenstein, the MGM/UA senior vice-president, said in a Variety article about the 25th anniversary laserdisc release, “Anyone who goes into a video story to purchase 2001 probably has some technological interest.  They are a prime opportunity to become laserdisc owners.”[762001 was released on DVD in August 1998.

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