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There Will Be 2001

This is somewhat late to the party, but three years later I still haven’t seen this argument made anywhere else, so here goes.

Many critics have noted that Daniel Day-Lewis‘s performance in There Will Be Blood (2007) drew heavily from his fellow Irishman John Huston‘s turn in Chinatown (1974). See, for instance, here, here, here, and here. Or just compare for yourself:

…But that is only one level of mimicry. Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature itself is loosely based, structurally, on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Now, I’m not claiming that Anderson consciously aped Kubrick’s masterpiece. And I don’t want to suggest that the films share identical or even similar plots (although there are some points of comparison). Rather, it is the manner in which There Will Be Blood presents its respective story that it borrows from 2001.

1. The Dawn of Daniel Plainview

2001 opens with a lengthy dialogue-free section, “The Dawn of Man,” during which we witness a tribe of timid, herbivorous apes encounter a large black monolith. This encounter pushes the apes forward in their evolution, prompting them toward tool use and hunting. (My reading of this section is that encountering the very unnatural monolith in the middle of nature reveals to the apes the concept of artificiality.)

There Will Be Blood similarly opens (albeit in 1902) with a lengthy dialogue-free section, during which we watch the film’s protagonist, Daniel Plainview, discover the technology that will fuel the entirety of the film (in this case, Oil!).

The prologues of both films feature numerous shots of the sun rising and setting over arid, barren landscapes, and haunting, drone-based music:

2001: György Ligeti: Requiem (“Kyrie” section)

TWBB: Johnny Greenwood: Popcorn Superhet Receiver (excerpts):

On this point, at least one critic has noted:

[T]he starkly ominous orchestral score, by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, […] at no point seems conventionally to gel with the action: Blood is as daringly counter-intuitive as Stanley Kubrick was in his use of composers such as Penderecki in The Shining. Indeed, having made several Altman-esque works, Anderson has now made one that in some ways feels as close to a posthumous Kubrick epic as is imaginable. “We’re all children of Kubrick, aren’t we?” Anderson admits over the phone. “Is there anything you can do that he hasn’t done?”

Another critic made this connection, regarding the respective scores, more explicitly:

[ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY:] Paul, you have a dedication at the end of this movie to one of your heroes, Robert Altman. But this is one of your least Altmanesque films. A lot of it is one character out in the desert, with long silences suddenly giving way to screeching strings. It reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Stanley Kubrick had the silence of space and then suddenly ”The Blue Danube” or one of the more dissonant pieces he used.

ANDERSON: Well, it’s so hard to do anything that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to what Stanley Kubrick did with music in movies. Inevitably, you’re going to end up doing something that he’s probably already done before. It can all seem like we’re falling behind whatever he came up with. ”Singin’ in the Rain” in Clockwork Orange — that was the first time I became so aware of music in movies. So no matter how hard you try to do something new, you’re always following behind. The whole opening 20 minutes was meant to be silent. I always had a dream about trying to make a movie that had no dialogue in it, that was just music and pictures. I still haven’t done it yet, but I tried to get close in the beginning.

(Anderson met Kubrick on the set of Eyes Wide Shut, introduced by their mutual acquaintance Tom Cruise. And for another comparison of Anderson’s work with Kubrick’s, check out this analysis of some of the inspirations behind Punch-Drunk Love.)

2. Sunday Magnetic Anomaly One

2001 then jumps millennia ahead (the largest time elision in cinema), to show us how humans have developed into a space-faring people. Dr. Heywood Floyd leads a team of scientists out onto the surface of the moon, where another black monolith has been excavated. The monolith emits a piercing tone, deafening the team.

There Will Be Blood similarly jumps ahead (albeit only nine years) into a dialogue-based section. Daniel Plainview and his adopted son H.W. travel about buying up land so they can begin oil drilling (excavation). Plainvew’s empire starts to grow. Toward the end of this section, an accidental explosion deafens H.W.

3. Drilling Mission

2001 next picks up 18 months later. We join doctors David Bowman and Frank Poole en route to Jupiter, accompanied by other scientists (in suspended hibernation) and the sophisticated HAL 9000 computer. HAL, reasoning that his human companions are incapable of accomplishing their mission, murders all but Dave, who in turn disconnects HAL.

There Will Be Blood resumes at some indeterminate time after the drilling accident. Plainview encounters his half-brother, Henry, and much of this section involves the growing tensions between him, Plainview, and H.W. Plainview (after sending H.W. away) eventually discovers that Henry is an impostor, and murders him.

4. Milkshake and Beyond the Infinite

2001: Arriving alone at Jupiter, Dave travels through the Star Gate, eventually ending up in an ornately decorated bedroom. There he ages rapidly, becoming a decrepit old man. Lying on his deathbed, he encounters another black monolith, which allows him to reborn as the Star-Child.

There Will Be Blood jumps from 1911–2 to 1927. Daniel Plainview is now an alcoholic old man, living a solitary life in an ornate mansion. (As in 2001, a jarring effect is achieved by the drastic change in time and location.) This section of the film presents two main plot points: Plainview discredits and disowns H.W., sending him away; he then settles a personal score with his longtime nemesis, the preacher Eli Sunday, whom he murders with a bowling pin.

Again, I don’t know whether Paul Thomas Anderson thought consciously about Kubrick while adapting Upton Sinclair’s source novel to the screen, but I think the influence is clearly there.

I would also argue that the comparison enriches Anderson’s film, and not only because it shows off his awareness of great cinema. (I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I like There Will Be Blood well enough, and think that it benefits from less overtly imitating other films the way that Anderson’s previous films tended to.) And it’s smart to steal overarching structures. Anderson surely faced many challenges in only partially and loosely adapting Sinclair’s massive epic. It makes sense that he would base his film on a different, reliable structure.

Furthermore, whereas 2001 is focused on humanity’s millennia-long improvement (not for nothing is Thus Spake Zarathustra repeatedly invoked)—celebrating how the development of advanced technology may prove our species’ eventual salvation—There Will Be Blood takes a much smaller, more pessimistic approach. Daniel Plainview is the antithesis of 2001‘s naive but earnest scientists—HAL made flesh, perhaps (but lacking in even HAL’s humanity). Like Milton’s Lucifer, who desperately mines the earth in his struggle against Heaven, the advancement of technology enables Plainview only to cheat, murder, and despoil the landscape. As he confesses to Henry:

I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. […] There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.

(It’s no coincidence that Anderson was compelled to adapt Oil! in the midst of the Iraq War. And he was sadly very right to have his protagonist bellow in triumph, at the very end of the film: “I am the Third Revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen!”)

There Will Be Blood, then, held in this plain view, becomes a dull, darkening mirror to 2001‘s ennobling, burning star core.

(Happy re-viewing!)

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

21 thoughts on “There Will Be 2001

  1. Curious. His whole career is a series of homages. Scorsese and Altman, now Kubrick.

    It doesn’t seem to me that Anderson is very political at all. Whether or not the Iraq War was going on, I don’t think he gave two or three shits about what was going on over there in terms of his own choice of material.

    I guess I have to like Anderson but I don’t adore him. No matter what I always say the last ten minutes of the film was a major miscalculation. Day-Lewis had already sufficiently put down the priest (not that the priest was ever really a threat, which points to the actor, but more so the material). I don’t think Anderson has mastered the art of drama, he would have seen that there was no tension left in the last act, and to be fair, little left after the false brother leaves, which I see as the apex of the film, a true delight. The brother should have hung out longer and maybe duped him more.

    I think as writers and directors, we have to study the great works and ask, “Is there tension?” There’s extreme amounts of it at the end of 2001 because nobody knows what’s going on. The questions were already answered in There Will be when it went forward into the mansion sequence. There’s no mystery to how the man acts, killing someone he has already killed much more effectively and metaphorically an hour before.

    1. To clarify, I don’t know, nor do I care, whether Anderson gives two or three or ten or even no shits about Iraq, or anything political.

      But making a film about the oil industry in 2007 is a political statement, even if Anderson didn’t consciously intend to make one. (He may have been just influenced by the Zeitgeist.) I don’t see how it can’t be. Of course, what that political statement is remains for critics and audiences to debate.

      There were distressingly few Hollywood films about the Middle East and/or oil made between 2000 and 2008. Anderson made one of them. That’s notable.

      As for whether it’s any good or not—? I also don’t really care. I have my opinions along those lines, of course, but here, I just wanted to point out the structural similarity between TWBB and 2001, which I thought obvious, but which hasn’t been pointed out anywhere (to my knowledge). Maybe that congruency will make some people like it more. Maybe some people will like it less?

      When I first saw the film, the only part I really liked was the final ten minutes. I kind of slept through the rest of it, and thought it pretty and well-crafted enough, but severely underdeveloped, lacking any real tension.

      I have a slightly more charitable view toward the whole film these days, I suppose. I think it’s Anderson’s best film—it’s the only one he’s made that I like at all—but he still has a long way to go.

  2. What about all the Iraq war movies that bombed at the box office? Don’t those count? I just don’t think the film is about our obsession with oil, in the same way MASH was not about Korea but Vietnam. Now is the time for our obsession with oil movie.

    The film’s theme, one man against all, seemed to be what he was after, a la Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

    1. > What about all the Iraq war movies that bombed
      > at the box office?

      Were there many of those? The only fiction films I know of that are in any way about the Iraq War, explicitly or obliquely, between 2003 and 2007, are these:

      Saving Jessica Lynch (TV) (2003, Peter Markle)
      Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan)
      300 (2006, Zack Snyder)
      Home of the Brave (2006, Irwin Winkler)
      Southland Tales (2006, Richard Kelly)
      Grace Is Gone (2007, James C. Strouse)
      In the Valley of Elah (2007, Paul Haggis)
      Redacted (2007, Brian De Palma)
      The Kingdom (2007, Peter Berg)

      Most of them are about US soldiers and how they dealt with the conflict. Syriana, Southland Tales, and Redacted are the only three on this list that are (to my knowledge) explicitly critical of the US invasion.

      Since 2008 there have been many more movies about the Iraq War—Brothers, Stop-Loss, The Hurt Locker, The Men Who Stare at Goats—but again they mostly deal (sympathetically) with US troops. Very few, if any, are about oil.

      > I just don’t think the film is about our obsession with oil

      Well, that’s fine, but meanwhile it’s an objective fact that the film is explicitly about the oil industry. How much so, or to what regard, is of course open for debate. (Personally, I don’t think it paints Daniel Plainview, the film’s central oilman, in all that positive a light.)

      Mind you, I’m not calling Anderson some wild prophet or anything. I just think it’s notable that he’s one of the few Hollywood directors to have made a film about the oil industry in the entire first decade of the 2000s. Quick challenge: name another one. Syriana‘s the only one I can think of. And a quick check of the IMDb on the keyword “oil” doesn’t turn up all that much:


      It has always been the time for a movie about the US’s obsession with oil. Indeed, the best time for such a film would have been 1950! But few directors have ever been willing to confront that issue, especially before now, when it can finally be spoken about openly.

      And Taxi Driver is a movie very much about the Vietnam War, in addition to whatever else Paul Schrader was fantasizing about. Bickle’s a vet.

        1. Oh, yeah, Jarhead (2005). Thanks! (I’m making a list.) And I haven’t forgotten Three Kings, which has always been the outlier—but it came out in 1999, and is about the Gulf War, not the Iraq War. Although David O. Russell certainly looks more and more prophetic every day! (There were even fewer Gulf War movies than there have been Iraq War movies.)

          As for documentaries—we’re talking about fiction films! And all of those documentaries—The End of Suburbia (2004), A Crude Awakening (2006), Collapse (2009)—have been relatively recent. I suppose it’s nice to have them now, but where were they thirty years ago? The US started running out of oil in the 1970s; it was obvious then to many (but not enough) that an oil-dependent way of life would eventually be unsustainable.

          Incidentally, regarding Collapse, I find the Peak Oil argument convincing, but I think Michael Ruppert is crazy. I wish he’d shut up about the subject, honestly, as he does more damage than good. (Did you know that Dick Cheney planned the September 11 attacks in order to solidify US hegemony in the Middle East?)

  3. Oh – you forgot the raising of the arm with the bone/bowling pin connection!

    Also, the ending with the ironic sign-off “I’m finished,” followed by a flourish of music, reminds me of the end of Eyes Wide Shut, “Fuck,” she says. But not so ironic.

    1. And just looking at the Chinatown scene again – oh, to die. What a marvel of staging, actors hitting their mark. And to shoot to at the end of the magic hour, that deep blue sky. All the while Gittes thinks he has him, but he has nothing.

    1. DDL obviously modeled his performance on Huston’s.

      Now imagine if he’d done the same thing for Lincoln! “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Seward, I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything. You will procure me those votes!”

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