'2001: A Space Odyssey'
What can be said about one of the most wondrous films ever made? How about that one hated it the first time he saw it? Screened on VHS on a 20″ Trinitron, the only thing I knew about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was that the people behind ‘Star Wars’ were obsessed with it.
I’d learn later that the likes of Stuart Freeborn (Yoda creature builder), Colin Cantwell (original model/concept designer prior to McQuarrie) and Douglas Trumbull (photographic effects), as well as numerous other production and technical personnel, connected these works on fundamental levels. Still, the differences in scope and ambition on both films remains different, and my young brain couldn’t understand why the hell there were so many monkeys in the damn thing.
I’ve seen the film dozens of times since (including a screening timed to New Years, with the intermission hitting at 11:55pm on December 31, 2000), and many times on the 70mm print that was assembled in the 1990s. For the 50th anniversary, Warner Bros. is treating audiences to a so-called “unrestored” version that promises to bring audiences closer to the 1968 release. Thanks to the star power of Christopher Nolan, who paved the way with his ‘Dunkirk’ rollout, a circuit of 70mm projectors is ready to accommodate.
The premiere of this project took place at the luminous Debussy Theatre in Cannes, complete with black tie red carpet and plenty of hoopla. It’s a worthy celebration of the film (Kubrick was shunned by the festival), and the theater was packed with viewers eager for such an occasion.
For the more technically minded, however, the experience was both wonderful and frustrating. Nolan has a tendency to be evangelical about analog presentations, eschewing technical arguments in favor of notions of “emotion.” He has talked at length about how this is to be the closest to the original presentation as possible.
Of course, that’s not exactly the case. The print was struck, by Nolan’s own admission, from a negative made from a 1990s era interpositive. This then gets printed to an internegative, and that’s used to print (on contemporary stock) the new theatrical release. The print I saw had inherent flaws beyond the usual dust and blips, including a noticeable vertical scratch through some scenes. Audio dropouts occurred during reel changes, and the color density changed constantly, particularly during the front projection sequences in the Dawn of Man section.
Other sequences, particularly those in space, were sublime. Black levels were blissfully dark, with pinprick stars and the texture of the pod, ships or moonscape rendered stunningly. Above all, it embodied the scope of Kubrick’s work, meant as always to be seen on the biggest screen possible. From front row center at one of the world’s great cinemas, it was an unforgettable delight.
The sound in the room was particularly impressive, with the 6-track audio providing full spectrum immersion. The silences were something to behold. The anticipation of the audience watching in rapt attention as the coldness of space prevented any noise, only to have the whoosh and hum of the station return suddenly. ‘2001’ could still be considered a masterpiece even if you closed your eyes and simply listened to the whole thing, such is its craft.
I confirmed with Warner executives that the 4k HDR version assembled from scans of the original camera negative will come to retailer shelves this fall, and there will not be a theatrical run for that presentation. This is unfortunate; a newly struck print from these new scans could, if treated well, provide an even more representative version of the original presentation. The state of film archiving is always in flux, of course, but a newly struck 70mm print from this digital master would likely serve even more supremely the vision that Kubrick and his collaborators had (though, I’ll go on a limb, he’d be absolutely aghast at the decision to screen a compromised print in favor of the latest in laser projection, given his unyielding perfectionism and fascination with technology).
It’s unfortunate that the waters are being muddied again about the supposed divide between analog and digital regarding the emotional connection to cinema. Take a look at Sony’s work on the 4k DCP for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to see how such masterpieces can be treated with the utmost respect for the source while ensuring the immortality of their images.
Still, if this release gets the film out to more viewers who have only seen ‘2001’ at home, it’s already a success. This is a journey that should be taken by any cinephile as many times as possible. While one can certainly wish for a more technically literate audience unswayed by Nolan’s “unrestored” arguments that in some ways diminish the digital work that’s to be released, we can all agree that this is a motion picture well worth getting off the couch for, a marvel of moviemaking best experienced in the biggest cinema you can find near you.
This review is filed from the Cannes Film Festival, where Christopher Nolan premiered the new “unrestored” 70mm print of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. This version of the film will receive an American theatrical re-release starting May 18th, 2018 in selected theaters.