2001: A Space Odyssey 50 years later on 70mm still transcendent

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Courtesy Warner Bros.

For all the writing I’ve done on the science fiction masterpiece that is Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey (see the “redux” version of my MA thesis), I’ve never written a review of the movie. Having seen the film in its new 70mm release (an “unrestored” version supervised by Christopher Nolan) on the the big screen of the Coral Gables Art Cinema, I feel as though I have seen it again for the first time. In addition, this was not the first time I’ve seen the film on 70mm. A couple of years ago, the same theater hosted a screening featuring an archival print that I was honored to introduce.

One of the first things I noticed about the new print was a level of detail that surpassed the worn archival print. Of course, the amount of detail offered by the widescreen is phenomenal and sitting in the front row helps, but the subtleties in the light revealed new and — it’s important to note — natural textures of everything from the landscapes during the “Dawn of Man” sequence to the space ships that follow it. Never have I seen this level of detail so pronounced in this movie. With all of the straining by the movie industry to make digital the current definitive format, it takes celluloid film to reveal the deeper details of this movie unparalleled to what you will find on streaming services or home video (although the upcoming 4K version is yet to be seen).

Courtesy Warner Bros.

The other element one will notice that is superior in this new 70mm print versus the archival print is its sound quality. There are two instances that are particularly harsh on the ears during the movie. The first happens on the moon, when Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) joins a team of astronauts in examining a black monolith uncovered below the moon’s surface. A piercing sound shakes up the astronauts after taking a photograph with the object. The next happens when the film’s only clear nemesis, the AI on board a spacecraft headed on a secret mission to Jupiter, called HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain), attempts to take over the ship by killing the hibernating astronauts. As their vital signs are disconnected, alarms go off. In this unrestored version, the sounds are no less ear-splitting, but they lack the wavering harshness that rattled the speakers and at some point compelled me to plug my ears during the archival screening.

Beyond these technical achievements are the pleasures of this masterpiece in science fiction cinema. It will always demand a patient viewer. The pace of the two-and-a-half-hour film is decidedly slow. But this is by design, as Kubrick wants to invite contemplation by the viewer. The dialogue-free opening sequence involving pre-hominid creatures learning how to survive in a hostile desert climate is the most straightforward of sequences. Two warring tribes fight for dominance over a watering hole, and one gains the upper hand only after the monolith appears to them, seeming to provide the knowledge of how to use a bone as a tool for hunting and a weapon to vanquish the leader of the other tribe.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

It’s all presented through wordless action, associative editing and sonics that include everything from screams and howls by the ape-human creatures and classical music pieces, including “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” by György Ligeti and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. Cause and effect, not to mention a bold cut in editing associating an airborne bone with a satellite orbiting earth, reveal the story that was very explicitly laid out in the book Arthur C. Clarke wrote, as he co-penned the script with Kubrick.

When Kubrick made this film he sought to create something akin to a divine experience, part of that is treating dialogue as inessential to telling the story. It’s the film’s musical sequences, including presenting Dr. Floyd’s trip to the moon to the soundtrack of “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II, that transmit more powerful feelings than language itself. In fact, language is a joke, as seen when Floyd is confronted with a long list of instructions before he can use the spacecraft’s zero gravity toilet. When HAL pleads for his life to Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), it elicited laughter from the audience. It’s not uncommon for those familiar with the movie to laugh at this sequence, and it speaks to the computer’s futile efforts to harness language to save itself from being disconnected.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

It’s the wordless sequences that inspired the silence of reverence from the audience. Above all, the film is often heralded for the special effects that make up its final sequence, introduced by the inter-titles of “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” Often reduced to being described as the “Stargate sequence” (again, the limits of language to force some sort of straight narrative and linear purpose to something that is supposed to be “beyond infinite”), this and Bowman’s fate in a quasi-romantic era room, as he seems to rapidly age in a series of associative cuts, reveals the director’s impressionistic approach to reveal an experience beyond language. As revealed in a recently unearthed archival interview, Kubrick explains, Bowman has ended up in a sort of zoological holding area to be observed by unseeable aliens. I quoted him via one of my sources in my paper as contemplating alien life as something that transcends humanity’s ability to understand it in any earthly sense. “They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods,” he says of alien life that has mastered space travel, “and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation.”

This movie is as powerful as it is because it accomplishes that sense of the incomprehensible, which is only made more sensational in the film’s intended 70mm format. It gives the audience a sense of space to contemplate and experience something beyond language. Here we are, 50 years on, and the film still has the same effect as it did during a time before man set foot on the moon. Even if we are wiser to the Kubrick’s intentions, 2001: A Space Odyssey still works as it was intended. It’s an accomplishment that continues to influence filmmakers and marvel audiences and will forever be a classic as long as we can play it in the format it was originally created for: 70mm.

Hans Morgenstern

2001: A Space Odyssey runs 164 minutes and is rated G. This 70mm roadshow presentation includes a 15-minute intermission. It continues its run exclusively in South Florida at the Coral Gables Art Cinema through Thursday. On Wednesday, at 7 p.m., join this writer with Miami Herald writer and former film critic Rene Rodriguez alongside Dr. Jorge Perez-Gallego, curator of Astronomy and Exhibition Developer at Frost Science Museum, for a panel discussion moderated by Gables Cinema Associate Director Javier Chavez called 50 Years of 2001: A Space Odyssey at Books & Books, located across the street from the Coral Gables Art Cinema. If you cannot attend the event in person, a live stream will be available via the Gables Art Cinema’s Facebook page the night of the event. 

(Copyright 2018 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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