The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
For decades, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has stood as a kind of primal mystery, a glimpse at forces beyond comprehension. Within film history, it serves, more or less, the same function that the vast alien monoliths serve in the movie itself. Here it was: This colossal monument to ambiguity, dropped into the middle of a late-’60s culture that must’ve found it baffling and terrifying. But those audiences reached out to touch 2001 anyway, and suddenly, all kinds of vast advancements sparked off. Special effects became headier, slicker, more immersive. Motion picture storytelling branched off into unexplored new dimensions. Mainstream film dove headlong into the psychedelic.
As someone who was born years after the release of 2001, I’ve never known a world where the film wasn’t part of the canon, its images and references woven deeply into mass culture. But my first 2001 experience was still a headfuck. I was maybe 10 when my dad took me to a screening, and I remember spending that time bored and enthralled and terrified and puzzled, wondering when that spaceman was going to hurry up and fight that computer. (I’d read some books about movie monsters, and HAL 9000 always showed up in them.) When I walked out of that theater, I was utterly baffled, at a total loss to explain what I’d just seen. Did the spaceman turn into a baby? My dad did not have a satisfying explanation. Nobody did.
Kubrick actually did have an explanation. In a 1980 interview with the Japanese filmmaker Jun’ichi Yaoi, Kubrick came out and explained the ending of 2001, as best he could. Kubrick claims that he doesn’t like explaining it: “When you just say the ideas, they sound foolish.” And then he says the ideas anyway, in shockingly forthright language. The astronaut Dave Bowman, Kubrick explains, is “taken in by godlike entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form.” He’s kept on display in a cosmic zoo, surrounded with vaguely French architecture because the beings think that he might find that stuff pretty. Bowman loses all sense of time. He ages, dies, and is transformed into “some kind of super-being.” The beings then send him back to Earth. From there, it’s anyone’s guess what happens. “It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology,” Kubrick says. “And that’s what we were trying to suggest.”
That explanation isn’t much more satisfying than whatever my dad sputtered. Kubrick, even at his plainest and most literal, couldn’t describe the events of that ending without sort of vaguely gesturing at them. That’s because 2001 isn’t a straightforward story. It’s something else: a wild grab at transcendence. Within a climate of roadshow musicals and war epics and slapstick farces, here was this abstract art piece, this meticulous and cold-blooded stare into the abyss, and it was presented as a blockbuster movie. It succeeded on those terms, too.
The mere existence of 2001 was an incredible flex. By the mid-’60s, Stanley Kubrick, not quite 40, had done just about everything you could do within movies. He’d made B-movies. He’d made prestige movies. He’d made at least one blockbuster: Spartacus, the highest-grossing movie of 1960. (Kubrick disowned it, naturally.) He’d abandoned the Hollywood system and set up shop in London. He’d racked up Oscar nominations and boy-genius plaudits with Dr. Strangelove, his apocalyptically dark 1964 comedy. Within any kind of established film-culture system, there was nothing left for Kubrick to do. So he did something that hadn’t been done.
Kubrick, fascinated by the idea of space travel, reached out to the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, whose 1951 short story “The Sentinel” had laid out the basic idea of what would become 2001. Kubrick had the idea that he and Clarke should write a novel together, and that they should also make a film out of that novel. They spent years developing it, getting all the scientific details as accurate as they possibly could, consulting experts and crafting a total vision. (Carl Sagan advised them not to show any actual aliens on screen.) It was a rough relationship, and Kubrick and Clarke pissed each other off constantly. The story didn’t finally take shape until Kubrick made the actual movie. And you could argue that the finished product isn’t really a story at all. (Pauline Kael, who hated the movie, didn’t even think it was a finished product.)
2001: A Space Odyssey was a chaotic and sometimes dangerous shoot. The film went years past deadline and millions over budget. (Admirably, MGM let Kubrick film in London and never gave him notes—the kind of hands-off big-budget treatment that very few directors have ever been granted.) Kubrick kept the set so brightly lit that bulbs were always exploding, showering glass everywhere. A stuntman threatened to kick Kubrick’s ass after almost falling from the cable that suspended him. A leopard nearly mauled one of the mimes who Kubrick had hired to play cavemen. A falling wrench came close to decapitating a visiting MIT professor. Kubrick brought in Spartacus composer Alex North to score the movie, refused to let him see any of the footage, and then scrapped the score anyway, using preexisting classical compositions instead. (He didn’t clear those compositions with the actual composers, either. Gyorgi Ligeti sued.)
And yet none of that comes through on screen. When you watch 2001, everything seems perfectly controlled. The film unfolds with a slowness that feels confrontational. From the opening moments—ominous and formless music playing over a dark screen, into a futuristic-propaganda version of the MGM logo—everything looks alien. Spacecraft drift across the screen with an agonizing slowness. Vast stretches go by with no dialogue. As it ends, the movie lurches into pure abstraction, into physical experience.
There are no convincing human characters anywhere in 2001. The cavemen at movie’s opening are more ape than man. (The makeup remains incredible more than 50 years later; those things never look like mimes in costume.) When the movie abruptly and fluidly jumps into the future, the people in charge are blank bureaucratic functionaries, chortling over a discovery that should inspire religious awe, attempting to pose for a photo of a terrifying extraterrestrial obelisk like it’s a 50-pound trout. The astronauts on the mission to Jupiter are remote mannequins—planar faces, lacquered hair, no visible emotions whatsoever. (It’s telling that almost none of the actors in this massively successful and influential film ever did a single other thing of any note.)
The most fully realized character in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a glowing red light on a wall. Characters speak of HAL 9000, the malevolent on-board computer, as if he’s a person. They discuss his “integrity and self-confidence.” They’re right. HAL is more of a person than any of them. He speaks of himself as a person, too: “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” HAL is also a victim of his own hubris, attempting to annihilate all the humans on board and failing to get rid of the one guy who can kill him. And when HAL does die, it’s the only emotional scene in a profoundly, glaringly unemotional movie. HAL begs for his life, describes the feeling of death (“Dave, my mind is going, I can feel it”), and sings his own requiem.
In his eerily modulated, weirdly emotional speaking tone, HAL feels like an uncanny-valley ancestor to our own real-life artificial intelligence. (When you ask Siri to open the pod bay doors, she says, “Without your space helmet, you’re going to find this rather… breathtaking.” Siri is fucking with us.) And that’s not the only future prognostication that 2001 gets right. There are in-flight TV screens, tablets outfitted with FaceTime, video games, pieces of hyper-modern furniture, corporate branding in places where corporate branding should not be.
In making 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick wasn’t attempting to compete with other movies. He was trying to compete with actual science. At one point, he tried to take out an insurance policy, just in case humanity made contact with alien races before he finished making the movie and thus rendered the film obsolete. Kubrick was also rushing to get 2001 out into the world before American astronauts landed on the moon. He succeeded. 2001 came out just over a year before the moon landing. The crew of the Apollo 8 went to see 2001 together in Houston a few months before they orbited the moon and returned to Earth.
So much money and care went into making 2001, and all of it was in service of a bugged-out art film with no clear story arc, no recognizably human performances, and an ending that seemed designed to short-circuit viewers’ brains. Like many of the other blockbusters that came before it, 2001 worked as grand spectacle. But it also worked as a rebuke of those previous spectacles. John Huston’s The Bible: In The Beginning…, the biggest hit of 1966, had grappled with similar questions about the infinite, and it had done it in similarly formless and episodic style. But The Bible looked like a movie. And even if Huston himself wasn’t religious, The Bible was clearly a religious work. 2001, on the other hand, was actively antagonistic to literal religion. It was a whole different creation myth.
As you might imagine, nobody had any idea whether a movie like that would resonate. At the film’s New York premiere, Arthur C. Clarke left in tears at the intermission, crushed by how many people had already walked out or talked through it. Plenty of influential critics detested the movie, though at least a few others hailed it as a masterpiece. 2001 wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. (That year, the musical Oliver! won.) 2001 only won one Oscar, for Best Visual Effects. (Kubrick, credited with designing the movie’s special effects, was the sole winner of that Oscar. It’s the only Oscar he ever won.) 2001 was a tremendous financial gamble for a struggling studio. And yet people came.
2001 wasn’t an immediate hit like The Odd Couple, 1968’s second-highest grosser. (That’s a strange picture in its own right: a Neil Simon adaptation that never even bothers to present itself as anything other than a stage play, a screwball farce that opens with multiple suicide attempts.) But 2001 lingered. In conceptualizing the realm of “beyond the infinite,” Kubrick and Clarke had drawn on scientific research about hallucinogens, though they hadn’t tried any themselves. And 2001 found its place within the emerging drug culture of the era. John Lennon claimed that he went to see 2001 every week. David Bowie wrote “Space Oddity,” his breakout hit, after taking in 2001 while high. Within a few months of its release, MGM was marketing 2001 as “the ultimate trip.” This was not false advertising.
Like The Graduate—another movie where a blank-faced hero enters an airless environment while his breathing echoes in our ears—2001 rewrote the rules of what a hit movie could be. Both films also resonated in an unsteady, turbulent era. Benjamin Braddock, the hero of The Graduate, wasn’t a rebel, and yet he might’ve at least had some passing familiarity with rock ’n’ roll, or with the drugs that surrounded it. The 2001 characters were total stiffs; Dave Bowman and Frank Poole and Heywood Floyd would’ve been more uncomfortable at the Monterey Pop Festival than on the surface of the moon. And yet Kubrick still used those characters to push a moviegoing populous into the unknown.
The timing had something to do with it. Two weeks before 2001 opened, Lyndon Johnson, facing a growing public backlash over the Vietnam War, announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection. A day after 2001 premiered, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. In an insane and destabilized time, maybe 2001 offered some strange and beguiling sense of hope. Maybe, in a world that was tearing itself apart, the infinite held a certain appeal.
And yet 2001 has continued to resonate well beyond its original cultural moment. Consider the way Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, the film’s adapted theme music, has been passed down. Five years after 2001 hit theaters, the Brazilian musician Deodato took an instrumental funk version of Zarathustra to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. And for decades, Ric Flair, probably the greatest professional wrestler of all time, walked to the ring as Zarathustra boomed over arena speakers. (These days, his daughter Charlotte enters to a dubstep remix of Zarathustra.) It’s a piece of music that has come to convey a sort of mystical awe—a shorthand for transcendence.
In Saturday Night Fever, a movie that came out nearly a decade after 2001, Tony Manero, a working-class Brooklyn Italian kid, spends his weekend evenings at a local disco called 2001 Odyssey. Tony isn’t some mythical hero; he’s a smartass kid with no particular future and no real skills beyond dancing and looking good. And yet 2001 Odyssey, chintzy as it may be, gives Manero the closest thing to a transcendent experience that he might ever get. We take our transcendence where we can find it.
The contender: In my action-movie column, I’ve already written about Bullitt, another of 1968’s hits and a movie that I love deeply. But Bullitt isn’t my favorite of 1968’s blockbusters. Instead, that distinction goes to Rosemary’s Baby, the first American movie from actual monster Roman Polanski. Like 2001, Rosemary’s Baby is a cinematic freakout of the highest order, wild and absurd and knowingly ambiguous. Mia Farrow’s Rosemary spends the movie’s first half glowing with happiness and the second descending into deep, primal fear, convinced that things are going unspeakably wrong around her. And it all builds up to one of the all-time great final scenes, a set piece so absurd and appalling that it basically turns into comedy.
Next time: Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid uses the framework of the Western, the most American of myths, as a vehicle for a shaggy-dog buddy-comedy adventure, a showcase for some true and distilled movie-star charisma.