Fandom Time Machine: Seeing ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in 1968


1968. I was 23. A lifelong movie buff, the first time ever I ordered a ticket in advance to see a film the very first day it would be shown. The film was 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The ticket cost $6, came in the mail and was gold.  It was for the only showing on the first day, in the evening. The theater, the Loew’s Capital, was in mid-town Manhattan near Times Square. While not a Cinerama theater, it was a deluxe mainstream theater. 2001 was a Cinerama film. Cinerama was an early IMAX, with its own theaters. Its screens were taller and considerably wider than normal. Showing the first Cinerama films required three projectors!

This is an old movie poster that depicts an astronaut in the center of the frame, floating inside a spaceship.

The Hype

There was a lot of hype leading up to the April 4, 1968 Manhattan premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It came out two days earlier in Washington, but there was no word yet about audience reaction there. The director of Dr. Strangelove had a new film, after a four year wait! Everyone who loved movies anticipated something different.

Here is the 1968 context for an adult science fiction movie: mainstream science fiction films only blossomed in the 1950’s. Before that, science fiction cinema was largely limited to Flash Gordon serials. But interest in outer space strengthened after World War II. Destination Moon, about the first journey to you-can-guess, was a hit. More science fiction films followed, but slowly. They were expensive.

This iconic movie poster for Forbidden Planet shows an illustration of a robot holding a damsel in distress.
An iconic movie poster for Forbidden Planet. Notice the reference to Cinemascope on the top right.

After a successful reissue of King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! appeared. Next, Forbidden Planet, arguably the first major studio science fiction film set in outer space appeared. And then This Island Earth, which is the abandoned sci-fi film of the Fifties.  Mystery Science Fiction Theater 3000 ridiculed it. It never made it to Blu-ray. Even the film version of the stage musical The Phantom of the Opera is on Blu-ray! Could Blu-ray sink lower than that?

Those early science fiction features were big hits but not big enough. Studios backed off and for years fans were fed low budget films by Roger Corman, all of which had something to offer. We waited a long time for something major, much less adult. By adult, I mean grown up.

The Kubrick Factor

This brings us back to 2001. It was major studio, expensive, but it was also Kubrick.  It would be different. But it was also science fiction and all of us in the first audience assumed it would be a different take on the same thing.  Spaceships?  Sure!  Bug-eyed monsters? Of course! Ray guns? Do you have to ask? Yet I knew, especially after Dr. Strangelove, that 2001 would not be what I expected.

Within a dark interior of the spaceship, two astronauts face each other, looking concerned.
In this scene from 2001, HAL has made a mistake. The two astronauts realize this and decide to deactivate him. Now HAL wants to destroy the two astronauts aboard.

The film was projected with an intermission, which started when the two astronauts talk about giving HAL a lobotomy right in front of him. Then the film paused and much of the audience headed for the lobby. Whether talking or getting a drink or going to the washroom, almost everyone was annoyed, even angry.

The movie had finally developed some plot by the intermission—what would happen with HAL? But first, there were those apes. Apes? And finally he gets to the spaceships, but any time a person shows up the film gets even more boring. Could the dialogue be flatter? It was slow and humorless, beautiful but a lot of missed opportunities.  The effects were spectacular but so what?

The lobby consensus was that there is a sort of normal movie here but that it was buried deeper than a monolith. A lot of people returned to the film shaking their heads. After intermission, the movie did not pick up for those people.

This black and white photograph depicts movie-goers on the sidewalk outside a Cinerama theater. The Cinerama logo is plainly visible on the front of the building above the multiple entrances.

A Polarizing Experience

I did not agree with any of that.

I had no idea what I was seeing but knew it was very different. No ray guns or bug-eyed monsters? Finally! Don’t get me wrong, I love the dragons on Game of Thrones. Flat? But it was a flat world by the time people built spaceships—apes became people and we conquered the environment, but at a cost. And by intermission, the machinery people built to conquer that environment looked ready to fight back!

That was cool.

Equally cool was that 2001 was pure cinema. The dialogue was reduced to a minimum and what existed was brief and perfunctory. Long sequences had no dialogue nor was it missed. Far more than any other film at the time, or pretty much including silent films, 2001 spoke a new cinematic language. Even Hitchcock never maintained such lengthy non-dialogue scenes.

I went back into the theater excited while many in the rest of the audience muttered and hoped for ray guns.

Polarizing for Audiences and Critics

The second half did not disappoint me. In fact, it doubled down! I admit I was thrown by the dining and bedroom transformation sequences in a film otherwise profoundly literal. But when I walked out of that theater and into the Manhattan night, all the downtown colors were a lot more colorful! The world looked different and movies would never look quite the same.

A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The reaction of the rest of the audience was matched by the critics, almost all whom panned the film as too slow and cerebral. Only the critics from Time and The Christian Science Monitor appreciated what they had seen.  2001 was plummeting to earth and normally, that woulda been that. The movie would have run a few months, playing in different theaters across the country. This was a time when individual film prints were couriered to theaters, so a general release took months. Then it would hit the second run houses. You have to be kind of old to remember second run movie houses. After a while, they were called revival houses. Then they were rebuilt and called apartment blocks.

When it Changed

Before 2001 could die, as the slow distribution fanned out the Summer of Love happened. People were ready for a trippy experience. Also, the film became available in actual Cinerama theaters. It was shot for Cinerama. A Cinerama screen was the largest of its day. It was similar to the widescreen format we have today but wider. You can tell this from the DVD Blu-ray of 2001. On a curved screen, no less.

This black and white photograph depicts the interior of a Cinerama movie theater with the curved screen. The lights are on, and there is no one in the audience.

What was it like?

Ideally, you sat in the second or third row from the front. The screen completely filled your vision. Not just top and bottom, but to the sides. The screen was all you saw.

The 2001 experience really began with the first spaceship sequence, the docking with the space station. Coming after twenty minutes of prehistoric apes, and relatively crowded images, it was a jolt! Suddenly you saw something impossible but it looked totally real. As that space station got closer and closer, it knocked you out of your seat.

Not to mention the super trippy light sequence at the end.

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2016

The Cinerama experience from the first rows remains unduplicated today. Not even virtual reality goggles would match it. It was all movie, all the time. Most Cinerama films were normal films projected bigger. And of all the Cinerama films, 2001 is the runaway best, largely because it dropped dialogue and an emphasis on plot.

A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.

Today’s audience has no idea what seeing 2001 back then was like, and why. People have no idea what 2001 was really all about. They have never seen it on a big screen, especially the Cinerama version. For years the only big screen prints had a green tinge. In the DVD and then Blu-ray versions, you could finally see people in the windows of the space ships!

The detail returned, but not the epic scope.

For the real 2001 experience, here is what you have to do: You need a large TV, a flat screen. It has to be at least 42 inches. Sit in front of it. Three feet away, so the tv image fills your field of vision. It would be great to have the Cinerama curved screen but my attempts to bend my flatscreen did not end well, so you will have to settle.

Watch the film, filling everything you see (and don’t move for two and a half hours), and you will know time travel is possible.

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