Is “2001” the best science fiction film ever?


Email to Al Sullivan


An argument over the relative merits of Artificial Intelligence by Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick led to the inevitable question as to whether or not Kubrick’s work merits the title of “good” science fiction.

His adaptation of Clock Work Orange and the creation of 2001 from an Arthur C. Clark short story became central elements in the argument in his favor.

My friend – who is without doubt among one of the most knowledgeable people I know in Science Fiction – often goes too far in my mind in selling Science Fiction as an art form, calling in original material from an eras well before modern science fiction existed and the genre was known as fancy, utopian or speculative fiction.

This is a defensive reaction by a true lover of science fiction, a veteran of those days when science fiction was considered second rate or worse in the matter of literature. The literati turned up their noses to fiction that speculated about future technology. By reaction, true believers tried to justify the validity of their art by seeking out classic references that sometimes stretched the boundaries of believability – even seeing Homer’s Odyssey as science fiction.

Modern science fiction supposedly began with one book -- Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – from which the form evolved into a variety of other subsets. For the most part, people like Steven Spielberg has stayed loyal to this root material, although schools of science fiction now vary as much as all other literature combined often reflecting other types of literature from the most soap opera-like to the most crafted literary efforts.

Movies, however, remained mired in the muck of b-rating until Kubrick’s making of 2001 when many science fiction fans gloated over the fact that we now had a film of merit that we could point to and claim as “great art.”

I never thought of 2001 as “great art” nor did many of those I associated when the film came out in the late 1960s (just in time for man’s landing on the moon). For us, it was an excuse to get high and see the most vivid light show ever presented on the silver screen, a rush so powerful that we sat through the massive boring segments of the movie show after show knowing that it had one significant movement of excitement to which we could look forward.

For me, Kubrick’s 2001 was an overblown pompous adaptation of a miserable short story by a depressing science fiction writer whose unbearable vision of humanity made Frankenstein seem cheerful by contrast.

Although my friend claimed “2001” was the best science fiction movie ever made, I rarely used “best” to describe any film, book, poem or whatever, because too much depends upon personal taste.

But qualifying “2001” as good science fiction or not is possible.

While by my criteria “2001” is one of the most beautiful pieces of film literature ever created, I balk at calling it good science fiction – just as I balk at calling anything written by Arthur C. Clark good science fiction.

This may be because of my own hopeful prejudices regarding the eventual successful adaptation of human kind – a point of view Clark does not share. Kubrick’s film remains loyal to Clark’s concept that there is little or no hope for humanity until humanity becomes something other than human.

This, too me, is the essence of religious faith not science fiction, although to give Clark and Kubrick their due, “2001” does supply us with an element of successful science fiction that has since become an icon of the genre: Hal the Frankenstein computer seeking to and in part successfully slaying his master.

But the other part, the most miserable element of film and movie to me, is the need to evolve to some god-like character.

I suppose I have a very narrow definition for science fiction: the social, psychological or moral impact on mankind by a technology or encounters with space.

Clark, for all his innovations in fiction, does not answer the question. He side steps it by substituting religious conversion for man’s ability to deal with or not deal with the situation. Clark has also been a propagandist for a narrow, distorted vision of humanity not a legitimate explorer of future possibilities.

The film – by supporting Clark’s hypnosis – subscribes to the belief that humanity cannot “learn” to adapt or can work out its own problems by logic and mutual cooperation, but must become like gods in order to be saved from our own basic instincts. This smacks too much of the Bible’s Revelations for my taste, and as with all those Bible toting fanatics that have taken over the U.S. Government as of late, instead of making the world a better place in which to live by making certain that our brothers and sister are free from pain and persecution, they praise God and wait for a miracle in the shape of rapture to remove them from their basic responsibilities as human beings.

The Kubrick/Clark film is posturing a religious dogma that man is unable to cope with his own creation.

This is not to say that science fiction should be hopeful or positive about the future. Frankenstein certainly wasn’t, nor was Brunner’s The Sheep Look up. Yet both works are great science fiction between they do not rely on rapture to alter the basic question and require men to work out their own problems and solve or not solve the impact of their creations.

Spielberg in Close Encounters owes a great debt to “2001” in this regard – hitting us with religious imagery that is less obvious but no less powerful than Clark/Kubrick -- although his use of symbolic form is much more concrete, allowing the viewer (namely me) access to the film by association with the character and a relatively strong story line.

“2001” -- in seeking to become some elevated space opera – alienates me (as it does many ordinary folks like me) with pompous vagueness it uses in the pretence of giving us high art. This, of course, is not quite fair, since Kubrick has chosen a path of symbolic representation over narrative. In creating what amounts to a long visual poem, Kubrick may have been incapable of creating on multiple levels that included common people the way Shakespeare was capable of. This is in shark contrast to the original works by Clark that completely lacks poetry at all. When Clark’s still more miserable “2010” was made, we learned that strong narrative was not the answer either.

“2001” may well be a great film – a matter that better minds than mine believe – but I believe most of the so called B-movies of the 1950s outshine it when it comes to setting the standard for science fiction. As for best science fiction movie ever, “2001” would not even make my top ten whereas films like Forbidden Planet, Close Encounters, Star Wars – not to mention the often forgotten 12 Monkeys – would.


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