Lines of cars pack the Kansas City, Missouri drive-in theater as the stars shine bright over ahead. The audience sips drinks and munches on popcorn as their car speakers crackle with an ominous soundtrack of high-pitched synths and strings. Their eyes are entranced on the screen showcasing a technicolor whirlwind of stars and warped landscapes.
It’s 1968 and those in attendance, including Clark English instructor Kathryn Scrivener, are getting ready to watch “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Sitting in the dark with strangers watching this movie on a big screen, wow,” she said.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, who co-wrote the script with Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi film follows a group of astronauts as they embark on a mission to Jupiter to investigate an extraterrestrial black monolith which they hope will uncover secrets of the universe. The mission runs into a snag when the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, turns on the astronauts.
In the 50 years since “2001” debuted it’s become a cinematic landmark, garnering near-universal praise as one of the best and most influential sci-fi films of all time. But the reaction the film received in 1968 was much more contested.
Reviews at the time were polarized. While critics praised the film for its groundbreaking special effects they also found the film dull because of its length and slow pace. But audience reactions were much different.
“The critics hated it, we loved it,” Scrivener said.
According to Scrivener, who also teaches a class on pop culture, political and racial tensions were engulfing America during the year “2001” was released due to the Vietnam war and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it was due to this turmoil that audiences were drawn to “2001” and the space-traveling future it presented.
“For a lot of us the end was right there,” Scrivener said. “‘2001’ left us with the feeling that progress was still possible.”
Audiences keep coming back to “2001,” trying to peel back the layers to find out what the film means to them.
Michael Pankrast, a philosophy instructor, said the film shares themes with the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche.
“Nietzsche saw two primary forces in the universe,” Pankrast said. “Dionysian, which is raw instinct and the other force is Apollonian which is reason and puts a restraint on those inner wilder urges.”
In “2001,” Pankrast said, the Dionysian force is most evident in the “Dawn of Man” sequence at beginning of the film which depicts primitive humans. As for the Apollonian force, that’s depicted in the future when all the scientists are well-spoken and civil.
This Nietzschean view is shared by English instructor Dr. Julian Nelson.
“It’s probably the most boring film I’ve ever seen,” Nelson said. “But’s it the most thoughtful one I’ve seen also.”
Nelson said he also finds the film intriguing for its commentary on surveillance through the computer HAL 9000, which he described as “the all seeing eye,” and for its realistic view of the future saying “2001,” along with “Blade Runner,” set the “gold standard for science-fiction.”
Despite the praise the film has gotten over the last 50 years and the endless analysis people have given the film there are still those who share the viewpoints of critics. In today’s fast-paced world filled with big action blockbusters, with non-stop action and straightforward narratives, it’s understandable why some people look at “2001” and call the film “boring” or “confusing.”
“I think a lot of people are disappointed when they first see it because they don’t understand it,” Scrivener said. “That’s the point.”
Even the film’s co-writer Clarke famously said “If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.”
And that’s why “2001: A Space Odyssey” continues to captivate and inspire. It demands your attention and makes you find your own meaning in it. It’s a film you owe to yourself to watch at least once in your lifetime. And probably a few more times after that.