Pauline Kael on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Pauline Kael’s infamous review of '2001: A Space Odyssey', where she referred to the movie as “trash masquerading as art” and “monumentally unimaginative.”
2001: A Space Odyssey

by Pauline Kael

The new tribalism in the age of the media is not necessarily the enemy of commercialism; it is a direct outgrowth of commercialism and its ally, perhaps even its instrument. If a movie has enough clout, reviewers and columnists who were bored are likely to give it another chance, until on the second or third viewing, they discover that it affects them “viscerally” — and a big expensive movie is likely to do just that. 2001 is said to have caught on with youth (which can make it happen); and it’s said that the movie will stone you — which is meant to be a recommendation. Despite a few dissident voices — I’ve heard it said, for example, that 2001 “gives you a bad trip because the visuals don’t go with the music” — the promotion has been remarkably effective with students. “The tribes” tune in so fast that college students thousands of miles apart “have heard” what a great trip 2001 is before it has even reached their city.

Using movies to go on a trip has about as much connection with the art of the film as using one of those Doris Day-Rock Hudson jobs for ideas on how to redecorate your home — an earlier way of stoning yourself. But it is relevant to an understanding of movies to try to separate out, for purposes of discussion at least, how we may personally use a film — to learn how to dress or how to speak more elegantly or how to make a grand entrance or even what kind of coffee maker we wish to purchase, or to take off from the movie into a romantic fantasy or a trip — from what makes it a good movie or a poor one, because, of course, we can use poor films as easily as good ones, perhaps more easily for such non-aesthetic purposes as shopping guides or aids to tripping.


2001 is a movie that might have been made by the hero of Blow-Up, and it’s fun to think about Kubrick really doing every dumb thing he wanted to do, building enormous science fiction sets and equipment, never even bothering to figure out what he was going to do with them. Fellini, too, had gotten carried away with the Erector Set approach to movie-making, but his big science-fiction construction, exposed to view at the end of , was abandoned. Kubrick never really made his movie either but he doesn’t seem to know it. Some people like the American International Pictures stuff because it’s rather idiotic and maybe some people love 2001 just because Kubrick did all that stupid stuff, acted out a kind of super sci-fi nut’s fantasy. In some ways it’s the biggest amateur movie of them all, complete even to the amateur-movie obligatory scene—the director’s little daughter (in curls) telling daddy what kind of present she wants.

There was a little pre-title sequence in You Only Live Twice with an astronaut out in space that was in a looser, more free style than 2001—a daring little moment that I think was more fun than all of 2001. It had an element of the unexpected, of the shock of finding death in space lyrical. Kubrick is carried away by the idea. The secondary title of Dr. Strangelove, which we took to be satiric, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, was not, it now appears, altogether satiric for Kubrick. 2001 celebrates the invention of tools of death, as an evolutionary route to a higher order of non-human life. Kubrick literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb; he’s become his own butt—the Herman Kahn of extraterrestrial games theory. 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. It says man is just a tiny nothing on the stairway to paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway. There’s an intelligence out there in space controlling your destiny from ape to angel, so just follow the slab. Drop up.

It’s a bad, bad sign when a movie director begins to think of himself as a myth-maker, and this limp myth of a grand plan that justifies slaughter and ends with resurrection has been around before. Kubrick’s story line—accounting for evolution by an extraterrestrial intelligence—is probably the most gloriously redundant plot of all time. And although his intentions may have been different, 2001 celebrates the end of man; those beautiful mushroom clouds at the end of Strangelove were no accident. In 2001, A Space Odyssey, death and life are all the same: no point is made in the movie of Gary Lockwood’s death—the moment isn’t even defined—and the hero doesn’t discover that the hibernating scientists have become corpses. That’s unimportant in a movie about the beauties of resurrection. Trip off to join the cosmic intelligence and come back a better mind. And as the trip in the movie is the usual psychedelic light shows the audience doesn’t even have to worry about getting to Jupiter. They can go to heaven in Cinerama.

It isn’t accidental that we don’t care if the characters live or die; if Kubrick has made his people so uninteresting, it is partly because characters and individual fates just aren’t big enough for certain kinds of big movie directors. Big movie directors become generals in the arts; and they want subjects to match their new importance. Kubrick has announced that his next project is Napoleon—which, for a movie director, is the equivalent of Joan of Arc for an actress. Lester’s “savage” comments about affluence and malaise, Kubrick’s inspirational banality about how we will become as gods through machinery, are big-shot show-business deep thinking. This isn’t a new show-business phenomenon; it belongs to the genius tradition of the theatre. Big entrepreneurs, producers, and directors who stage big spectacular shows, even designers of large sets have traditionally begun to play the role of visionaries and thinkers and men with answers. They get too big for art. Is a work of art possible if pseudoscience and the technology of movie-making become more important to the “artist” than man? This is central to the failure of 2001. It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie: Kubrick, with his $750,000 centrifuge, and in love with gigantic hardware and control panels, is the Belasco of science fiction. The special effects—though straight from the drawing board—are good and big and awesomely, expensively detailed. There’s a little more that’s good in the movie, when Kubrick doesn’t take himself too seriously—like the comic moment when the gliding space vehicles begin their Johann Strauss walk; that is to say, when the director shows a bit of a sense of proportion about what he’s doing, and sees things momentarily as comic when the movie doesn’t take itself with such idiot solemnity. The light-show trip is of no great distinction; compared to the work of experimental filmmakers like Jordan Belson, it’s third-rate. If big film directors are to get credit for doing badly what others have been doing brilliantly for years with no money, just because they’ve put it on a big screen, then businessmen are greater than poets and theft is art.

This review is part of Pauline Kael’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies”, originally published in Harper’s, February 1969

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Further Reading:

Tom Breihan, 2001: A Space Odyssey pushed blockbuster cinema to a new plane of star-child brilliance – by The A.V. Club

The Stanley Kubrick Archive Page



31 thoughts on “Pauline Kael on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’”

  1. Nate Mathan

    You know when you say someone “didn’t get it”?
    Her dumbass review is the very definition of someone who didn’t get it. This movie should not be review as if it was Gone With The Wind. It’s not a love story or ahistorical drama. It’s a profound emotional experience. It’s a hope for mankind. It says “we are not alone”, not “i love you”, like every other silly movie. This movie is IMPORTANT.
    This movie affected me and changed my life (I took a job with NASA- not entirely because of the movie, but it helped). Other engineers I know feel the same way.
    It’s fitting that she died in… 2001.
    Lady, you are not ready to become a Starchild.

    1. Bill Yockey

      I for one was fascinated. I never saw anything like it. Kubrick intended for it to be an experience and boy, was it ever.

    2. thia inconnu

      Accusing someone of not getting it is the go-to talking point of people who can’t conceive of someone disagreeing with them.


        The irony of your post: You don’t get it that she does not get it and are guilty of doing the exact thing you excoriate.

        Funny stuff and thanks for being so human.

      2. michael montano

        No not isn’t. For her to say-“ 2001 celebrates the invention of tools of death, as an evolutionary route to a higher order of non-human life.“ is an idiotic reading of this film. It’s similar to saying Jackson pollack was just a dripper of paint. She didn’t get it and was more influenced by kids saying the film got them “high”

    3. Alan Peters

      Yes, I know what it means when you say someone didn’t “get it”; it means they didn’t have the same reaction to something you did, and for some weird reason you find that upsetting, and even threatening.

    4. Are the “other engineers [you] know” as bad at the English language as you are?
      Your post is a self-defeating self-embarrassment, invalidating its own point — which appears to be that you actually are a Starchild.
      I guess they’re illiterate but like totally, you know, special, man — just like you … right?

  2. This woman is an idiot. She should go back to watching Michael Bay films to suit her short attention span.

    1. thia inconnu

      She wasn’t a Michael Bay fan and had a fine attention span; it’s a really sad look – ignorantly smearing one of the most important film critics of all time because people having different opinions offends you.

      1. You mean like Pauline did when her opinion didn’t match that of Kubrick’s and how she smeared him?

  3. Ahahah you people disregard the fact of actually having a personal opinion on things to the point of believing that 2001 is perfect and can’t be unliked or criticized. Just appreciate what you truly like and let a critic that doesn’t praise movies just because everyone else does and has her own point of view.

  4. Brian McAlinden

    Kael never reviewed movies for what they were. She reviewed films for what she wanted them to be.

  5. It’s perfectly fine to have a different point of view. It’s even ok if that POV reflects a disrespect, belittling, and dismissing of the artist being critiqued. Everything is just an interesting POV. And no work of art in history has ever been universally loved or praised. She didn’t “get it.” That’s fine. So much so, she destroys it. Again, that’s fine.

    Yet, the past 50 years has shown that the opposite POV is not only also valid, but the effect the film has had on the people who do get it is more profound than her dismissal of it.

    For anyone who creates art, this must never be ignored. Allow the critics their say and continue to create. History tends to have the last say on who’s POV has more merit.

    1. thia inconnu

      It’s irrelevant how many people liked it, appeal to popularity are fallacious. She did get it, there’s not much to get, as there always never is whenever that argument is used. What are you talking about, no one said she alone should be the authority on whether Kubrick gets to make more movies.

  6. The lady gets it better than all of these Kubrick zealots and apologists coming at her throat.

    I used to adore this film as a teenager, taken in by the mystique. Later on I came to see it as a satire. After finding out about Kubrick’s obsession with the idea that the extraterrestrials are really looking after us, the whole intention behind making this film now seems as literal as it can get. The joke is on the snobs who think they “got it” and who think they are better for it.

  7. 2001 is the greatest science fiction film of all time. Before him, this type of film was considered only as a diversion for children in the matinee (although the science fiction literature already had great authors like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke). Kubrick changed that and made an extraordinary film. For thirty-five years I’ve seen him, and always being overwhelmed by discovering new details and sensations. You have every right not to like the movie, but that will not change the fact that it is an unforgettable masterpiece!

  8. Critics is always acceptable, always. Nonetheless, as a person who watched 2001 several times, this lady really didn’t get any of it.

    There is no glorification of any weapon in the movie. An ape discovering a tool that becomes his weapon, is not glorification, but sheer fact that she simply couldn’t acknowledge. To dumb it down the way she intended to, is merely a disclosure of her own personal contempt. The arguments presented in her article are personal and antagonized. But on top of everything they are emotional, rather than logical.
    I wouldn’t give her poor review too much weight. I was hoping to read something that might give me new insights and perspective, and all I read was endless paragraphs of someone whom is completely oblivion to the movie, to its filmmaker, and to the philosophy behind this film.

  9. steve sudnik

    So…why do we care what this person thinks ( if that is what you call it) about a movie?

  10. Having recently wasted some cash on a Blu-ray of this film, I can heartily agree with Pauline Kael’s excoriation. Over-long, self-important, dull in long stretches, talky and with nothing of interest to say, it’s a celebration of technology in and of itself. People are of no importance, there is little tension or resolution, just self-admiration. Kubrick appears to have thought that, with sufficient attention to detail in set design and cinematography, a good script becomes irrelevant. No, Stanley, it doesn’t. Compared to, say, Bergman or even Woody Allen, Kubrick was a minnow in a tank filled with whales. His films rejected the value of ordinary, dirty, failing, disgusting humanity in favour of Big Ideas and Clean New Technology: the chief failing of so many SF writers and film-makers.

    1. Well, that’s just your opinion. If you had any arguments to make -as Kael did- you would have pointed them out instead of writing a hate letter. Anyone can write this nonsense. For example:
      ‘2001’ is a catastrophe. A complete pseudointellectual disaster -as if it was directed by Michael Bay after reading a few lines by Nietzsche. And of course, Bay towers over Kubrick. Why not?

  11. SK created a haunting, mystical, epic film about mankind- where we come from- where we are going, why we are here…its a life changing experience. itsclassic till the end of time, PK isnt as smart as she might thinl she is. its ok not to get it or not to be inspired- but herrevie was petty rude and ignorant- i dont need to hear about cillege students and acid trips-

  12. Stephen Spence

    Pauline Kael was a great movie critic, but her review of “2001” is a failure. A couple of lines show how far off she is: “In 2001, A Space Odyssey, death and life are all the same: no point is made in the movie of Gary Lockwood’s death—the moment isn’t even defined—and the hero doesn’t discover that the hibernating scientists have become corpses.” She’s saying Gary Lockwood’s death “isn’t even defined.” Defined? I don’t even know what she means? Lockwood is killed by Hal the Computer by locking him out of the spaceship. And he goes drifting off, dead from lack of oxygen, into infinity. What needs to be defined? She says the movie promotes the idea that “death and life are all the same”; more nonsensical pronouncements. What does the “hero” discovering that the hibernators are dead have to do any requirements of the script?
    “2001” is a wonderful, imaginative, fascinating, beautifully envisioned adventure, possibly the best ever made.

  13. This is the first Pauline Kael review I have ever read. She must have had somewhere to go or something else to do that day. Obviously, she didn’t come to be engrossed in a masterpiece. This is a movie you just have to let happen and unfold around you. You must absorb it and all its subtleties.

    2001 is my all-time favorite movie. It is an experience. Something to be savored and marveled at for its exquisite beauty, timing, music and imagery. Such a well-thought-out and accurate depiction of space (and time) has never been imagined so vividly–until 2001 came into the theatres.

    The dismantling of Hal, for example, is fascinating. The sets are extremely realistic. The transition from past to future should grab you and throw you back in your chair in anticipation of what is to come.

    After my seventh viewing, there is a scene of deep space where two meteors fly by. Upon closer inspection, you will notice that one is gold and the other silver. Such attention to detail boggles the mind.

    This movie is slow and thought-provoking and must be enjoyed on that level. Stanley Kubrik is a genius with the ability to put his vision on the screen. I for one am very happy that he did.

  14. Everyone who’s saying, “Why are you objecting to someone disagreeing with you?”- we’re not. More than that, I like it when I read challenging reviews that I disagree with.
    The problem is that she says things that simply are not so- things that make you wonder whether she even saw the film. The problem isn’t having the wrong opinion- it’s having terrible backing for that opinion. Saying that it’s a “monumentally unimaginative movie” is ridiculous and indefensible- and shows that she, as a critic, doesn’t deserve her reputation.
    She was wrong about (pretty much) every major filmmaker in her professional career- Kubrick, Fellini, Bergman, Malick, Cassavetes, Antonioni, Woody Allen, Alain Resnais, Sidney Lumet… the list goes on. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem, assuming her reviews were considered and interesting- in other words, if she had any observations of worth to offer. She didn’t. Renata Adler’s famous takedown and Alex Sheremet’s more recent one tell you all you need to know about her “criticism”.
    I think we can see that her reputation is already fading somewhat when compared to, say, Roger Ebert. Partly, that’s that all his reviews are online whilst hers aren’t, but it’s also simply that the more time passes, the less plausible her positions become. Eventually, she’ll be a footnote in history, whilst the reputations of, say, Ray Carney, Dan Schneider, Philip Lopate, Andrew Sarris (who gave a much more interesting critique of “2001” than she did) and a host of others will live on.

  15. I agree with Pauline Kael completely. 2001 is a boring movie that takes itself way to seriously; It’s slow and dower and depressing. 2001 is one of the most over-rated movies ever made (right up there with Blade Runner and Raging Bull). After the first viewing, nobody watches 2001 again, unless they’re forcing it on one of their naïve friends.

  16. Kael is always interesting because she revealed more about herself than about the films she reviewed. I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of her: “Robert Warshow … in his book The Immediate Experience wrote, ‘A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.’ Pauline Kael was that honest. She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.” (btw if you haven’t read the great, gone-too-soon Warshow, do so.) I think she misses the sense of doom and sadness coursing through 2001’s veins, the powerlessness and grandeur of the human experience, the grace and cumbersome weight of human endeavor, and the opportunity to observe it all from a distance—an incredibly great distance, “Jupiter and beyond.” Or maybe she doesn’t; I mean, that’s my immediate experience of the film. Not that all opinions are created and remain equal (“Well, I’m entitled to my opinion” is the last faint petulant parting complaint of a small child), but that true criticism is a conversation, not a proclamation. She may have felt differently from me about many movies, but when I read her I always have something to add, and wished she were there to hear it and fire back, on and on.

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