Hollywood Flashback: In 1968, '2001: A Space Odyssey' Confounded Critics

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Ahead of Christopher Nolan's presentation of the film May 13 at the Salle Debussy in Cannes, THR takes a look back at the film's debut, which was met with mixed reviews.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey never made it to Cannes in 1968, which might have been a good thing. First, because it would have premiered the year a national strike in France shut down the fest and only 11 of 28 films in competition were able to screen. Second, given the Cannes tradition of audience booing, it might not have received the best reception. It certainly didn’t when it first played in America. Star Keir Dullea says that during the New York premiere, 250 people walked out; in L.A., Rock Hudson not only left early but “was heard to mutter, ‘What is this bullshit?’”

The film received mixed reviews, with many New York-based critics especially harsh. (Kubrick called them “dogmatically atheistic and materialistic and earthbound.”) However, The Hollywood Reporter gave it a full-page rave. THR was especially impressed by the special effects, which it said were “a projection as unreal and as convincing as the awesome realities of present-day NASA and Jet Propulsion Lab programs.”

The movie THR reviewed was the original 162-minute, 70mm Super Panavision version that Kubrick edited to 140 minutes after the poor reception at the premieres. “Nothing important was cut,” says Dullea. “No scenes were cut; they were just made shorter.”

It is this version that played in theaters and that Christopher Nolan will present May 13 at the Salle Debussy in Cannes. Warner Bros., which now owns the film, is calling this an “unrestored” version, as no digital enhancements have been done. Considering all the difficulties MGM had making and marketing the space epic, having it screen under the WB banner might have some 1960s MGM execs spinning in their graves. But their patience paid off: The $10.5 million production ($75 million today) brought in $56.7 million domestically ($406 million now).

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 8 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival. Click here to download.