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(Credit: MGM)

Film

Pauline Kael's criticism of Stanley Kubrick movie '2001: A Space Odyssey'

@Russellisation

Many cinephiles can agree that the American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick is one of the finest directors of all time, with his 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey considered his magnum-opus within his glittering filmography. Beloved by the likes of Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve and Gaspar Noé, the insane visuals of his influential sci-fi would go on to shape the genre in the 21st century. 

A revolutionary work that was way ahead of its time, 2001 remains a cinematic enigma that examines technology, evolution and human identity, keeping audiences guessing ever since its release in 1968. 

As his most complicated piece of cinema, purveyors of film around the world have long been eager to unlock the film’s truth, even if Kubrick himself doesn’t subscribe to one single interpretation. Speaking in an interview with Playboy magazine, the filmmaker stated: “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue”.

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Whilst the movie has many thousands of supporters, it was also not without fault, with the central enigma of the film proving too nonsensical for the infamously tough view of the American film critic Pauline Kael.

Calling the film “monumentally unimaginative,” in her 1969 essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, it’s fair to say that Kael was very critical of the classic science fiction movie. Probing into the filmmaker’s bulging ego, the critic explained, “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”. Picking apart the filmmaker’s storyline that works to explain human evolution by way of extraterrestrial intelligence, Kael calls it “probably the most gloriously redundant plot of all time”. 

Critical of the film for its lack of central drive and base meaning, Kael calls the film a “celebration of cop-out,” in that it’s not prepared to properly answer its own hypothesis, resorting to empty imagery instead.

As Kael explains, “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”. 

Known as one of the most influential movie critics of all time, it’s clear that the words of Pauline Kael got through to a few fans of Kubrick too, with directors Quentin Tarantino and David O.Russell revealing how her words cut the film wide open in an interview.

“She pointed out this huge fraudulent aspect of the story that you had just glided right by,” the Pulp Fiction director Tarantino commented, adding, “she just destroyed the movie for you, because she pointed out something that was obviously there”. Meanwhile, O.Russell agreed with Kael, noting, “I agreed with her position on 2001, it’s all subjective, that’s the best opinion you can have about movies, it’s all subjective. 

Take a glimpse into Kael’s position on the film, below, with Tarantino and O.Russell also providing their view.