Review: Steven Soderbergh’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

By  · Published on January 15th, 2015


In 1642, Rembrandt revolutionized military company portraits with “The Night Watch.” It’s a gorgeous, sprawling masterwork that combines skill, scope and subject. It’s also difficult to overstate or understand its cultural impact, although the fact that it’s essentially the national painting of The Netherlands offers a solid starting point. The revolution part came from the addition of motion to a genre of portraits that typically displayed men of action standing perfectly still. They were very popular at the time – militia groups would pay to have them made (if you paid enough, your face might even be recognizable), but Rembrandt elevated the form with what is rightfully heralded as one of the greatest paintings ever created.

What does it have to do with 2001: A Space Odyssey? Besides the elevation of popular art, massive scope and peerless skill, Steven Soderbergh just name-checked it while delivering his cut of Stanley Kubrick’s space voyage in a blog post titled, “The Return of W. De Rijk.”

In 1975, de Rijk dug a knife into the canvas of “The Night Watch,” requiring years of restoration work to fix it. Now, Soderbergh has also cut a masterpiece, and you can watch it with the speakers turned way up.

I had a problem watching this version of 2001, but it’s not because I consider the original (or any film) to be sacred, untouchable ground. My problem was that my gut instinct was to make a list of all the major changes that Soderbergh made. That post is undoubtedly something the internet wants – a list that would garner at least double the pageviews that this will – and I sincerely set out to write it, which is awful because it’s more like bookkeeping than movie appreciation. But that’s my confession. Instead of talking about 2001 with fresh eyes because another master filmmaker cut a version that’s significantly shorter (at one hour and fifty minutes), my initial response was to treat it like a souvenir keychain from a hotel room. This is what aspiring to traffic can do to you.

So I can tell you that the opening blankness in Soderbergh’s version includes a shot of HAL and several shots of the eyeball (which changes light filters between blinks). I can tell you there are no opening title cards, and that it generally moves at a much faster clip (which you could have guessed for yourself by the runtime). I can also tell you that Soderbergh keeps “Thus Spake Zarathustra” drumming over the discovery of the bone weapon, maintaining that great percussive mirror.

After that, things get a little hazy because something magical happened: the movie took over.

I stopped paying attention to the television screen where I had Kubrick’s and Ray Lovejoy’s cut playing, I stopped marking down cosmetic differences and became fixated instead by the computer screen where Soderbergh’s cut was playing.

Every so often I’d look up to see an interesting juxtaposition (people shaking hands in an interstellar Hilton while two astronauts bathed in blood-red light land on the moon; Dave showing us sketches through a fish eye lens while the pod rotates like a white eye in space; the words “Explosive Bolts” as Dave’s face twists into rage while arguing with HAL), but the new cut had my focus.

Judging from the first half, Soderbergh’s goal might have been to cut out as much of the human element as possible. Even though it’s quicker, it also features close to zero dialogue up front. We don’t get to meet Dr. Floyd through business meetings or video conferences with a little girl, and the effect is one where we have to fill in even more blanks. It’s not exactly a provocation, but it does seem to be a rebuttal to the idea that 2001 is a dull, slow bore. A challenge to make it even more alienating from the outset. Soderbergh has removed just about everything that might be considered frivolous or expository, and the result is a segment that’s stripped of any kind of meaning beyond raw symbolism. The imagery is still euphoric, but the section has been simmered down to a random man flying through space to experience a single moment of terror, standing in front of a gigantic black slab on the moon after eating a chicken-esque sandwich.

If it’s possible, the segment ends up being even more suggestive, even more ephemeral. By the time HAL raises his concerns about the trip – mentioning the rumors of something being dug up on the moon – you start to wonder if we needed the opening series at all. I also actually sympathized with HAL because no one seems concerned the way he is. In that sense, Soderbergh’s version is more sleekly modern and more structurally ineffable. By not allowing us into the scenario during the moon mission, the movie becomes more mysterious and hypnotizing – the images asked to do even more heavy lifting until we meet HAL. By the time he becomes the villain, he appears more misunderstood than malfunctioning.

The foundation of Soderbergh’s 2001 also made me wonder what a truly modern version of the story might look like – say, from Brett Ratner or Michael Bay. It would probably open with a group of astronauts marching down into an excavation pit on the moon to find an impenetrable black tower that drives a man crazy. His helmet would explode. The moon base would explode. Start title sequence. Cue bombastic rap rock.

We actually tried this a few years back, asking The Sleepy Skunk to create a trailer for 2001 that would be more in the marketing spirit of today:

Soderbergh’s take is definitely not this hyped up, sugar rush version. If anything, his cut adds to the film’s wide-open, sometimes confusing wonderment.

The gutting of the second sequence is the most important element of this version, and it resonates throughout the rest of the cut. The big question with any slow-burner is whether the slow stuff is vital to the larger impact of later scenes. I’ve always assumed so, because otherwise it means I’ve wasted a lot of time working up to an experience that would have been just as powerful without all the leisurely silence. Obviously a lot depends on the user. 2001 was too much of a slog my first time around, but I lost my mind to it in college, and 9 minutes of cows wandering around at the start of Satantango (and the rest of it) is still absurdly egregious.

The tightening of the “Dawn of Man” sequence suggests that Kubrick could have gotten away with a similar tightening, but the reduction of the moon trip makes a loud, clear argument that movies sometimes need to be calculatedly slow in order to land the punch harder. They can languish for good reason. (Plus, the lack of dialogue forces the eye even more to loiter on the visuals, which means being even more impressed by the impeccable framing.)

What altering the moon sequence does most is to make 2001 even less about going from Point A to Point B. In our conversation about it for the Sight & Sound Top 50 series, Landon remarked that “films like 2001 convince me that storytelling isn’t necessarily what filmmaking does best,” and that echoed throughout watching Soderbergh’s version, as if the director were trying to pare down even further an experience in order to directly prove that sentiment.

The what-the-fuckery becomes denser when the reason for the Jupiter mission is obscured. We’re essentially given no direction beyond the knowledge that some people and a computer are flying to a different planet. It’s an invitation to spend time in a stunning, dangerous environment that looks clinical and harmonious at first glance. If we’re looking for connective tissue, we’re not given any guarantee that it will ever emerge.

If you play them simultaneously, Soderbergh’s cut ends just around the time Dave is risking his life in the airlock to reboot HAL in the Kubrick/Lovejoy cut – meaning that one version flies through an entire story before the other gets to the biggest plot point. This was almost definitely accidental. Soderbergh mentions that he’s avoided “touching” 2001 for as long as he has because he needed a purpose beyond merely “trimming and re-scoring.” If that goal was to get it down below two hours, he could have left more in, but it’s also not easy to imagine that he was looking to line his version up with the original in any meaningful way.

Judging purely from the outside, I’d guess that one of his aims was to stretch the question of how opaque a story like this can get before it collapses. He enhances the confusion of why we’re seeing what we’re seeing by removing early explanations, so we’re left wondering even more profoundly about the monolith – not just its symbolism, but its active ability and the effect it has on humans within the plot. It shows up to irritate apes, it drives an astronaut crazy, and when we see it in the finale, it remains unmoving, uncaring and soulless (which makes HAL seem like he loves warm hugs by comparison).

One final note of trivia: a random effect of cutting down everything else is that the Stargate sequence feels even more massive. Maybe because it goes from 7% of the movie to nearly 10%? Hard to say what it is exactly. It could also be because I haven’t seen 2001 in a few years, but I remember the sequence being a meal, not a buffet. In Soderbergh’s version, the slit scan and negative color explosion felt like I’d been drowning and someone handed me a 20-pound glow stick. It’s magnificent.

As is the overall experience of watching Soderbergh’s 2001. It’s still epic, engrossing and maddening even when it’s 30 minutes shorter than The Avengers.

It’s really fantastic that Soderbergh evoked de Rijk when offering this up, too, because both men cut into a masterpiece without destroying it. That fact is even more poetic considering that, centuries before de Rijk, a large portion of “The Night Watch” was purposefully trimmed in order to make it fit into a different viewing space – an act that changed the focus of the artwork completely.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.