Classics on Blu-Ray: 2001 A Space Odyssey Review

In the second of an ongoing series about classic movies on Blu-Ray, Mike Sutton looks at Kubrick’s SF masterpiece.

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick had just received huge critical acclaim for Dr. Strangelove. Meanwhile, while living in Sri Lanka, Arthur C. Clarke had published his popular collection Profiles of the Future which consisted of a timetable of human achievements and inventions up to the year 2100. Kubrick, who had flirted with the genre in his most recent movie, wanted to make a proper science-fiction movie which would deal with the future of space exploration and the possibility of some sort of extra-terrestrial life. On the advice of a friend, he got in touch with Clarke and what followed has become perhaps the most famous science-fiction film of all. Note the term ‘science-fiction’. It’s not space opera, unlike Star Wars or Star Trek, and it’s not science-fantasy like Doctor Who. 2001: A Space Odyssey is hard science-fiction, in the tradition of literary SF, dealing with ideas rather than ray guns and space monsters. Some people think it’s the great SF movie ever made, others are left bored and confused. There’s certainly nothing else like it in American genre cinema and you’d have to look at something like Tarkovsky’s Solaris for a comparison from outside Hollywood.

The film is divided into four clear parts. The first part deals with “The Dawn of Man” and is set millions of years in the past. The second is set at the beginning of the 21st Century and concerns a trip to the moon during which Dr Heywood Floyd (Sylvester) visits an excavation which has discovered a long-buried alien artefact. The third part takes place eighteen months later on a trip to Jupiter when astronauts Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood) have to deal with a malfunctioning, megalomaniacal computer named HAL 9000. The final part follows on as Bowman finds out his secret orders, reaches Jupiter and goes ‘beyond the infinite’.

The link between all of these sections is the alien artefact, or perhaps alien technology – a large, black, rectangular monolith. One first appears on the vast African plains where ape men gather around it. Somehow, it affects one of the ape men. He develops the first tool from a piece of bone, learns to walk partially upright and commits the first murder, using the bone tool as a weapon. We then see the artefact on the moon where a similar monloith has been dug up, having been buried under the surface for over four million years. When the scientists, including Dr. Floyd, approach it, a loud, high-pitched drone is picked up by their receivers. The third part of the film deals obliquely with the monolith in the sense that HAL 9000 refers, suspiciously, to “something dup up on the moon”. Finally, the fourth part brings back the monolith to centre stage where it effects a final transformation on Dave Bowman. Exactly what the monolith is, how many of them there are and what it does are questions which Kubrick refuses to answer in the film – although Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, and subsequent sequels, offers ample interpretation for those who are interested. What seems clear to me is that it contains an alien intelligence which aids human evolution at pivotal times. The intervention is amoral and essentially disinterested – what humanity makes of the intervention is their own business. Much of this is a familiar theme in Clarke’s work. The film is based, notionally, on his story The Sentinel and Clarke’s marvellous novel Childhood’s End also deals with the concept of alien intervention in human development.

But while Clarke’s work is essentially, though not so much in the aforementioned novel, optimistic, 2001: A Space Odyssey comes across, at least for some of the time, as cold and pessimistic, even cynical. The introduction of tools to the ape-man leads inexorably to murder. Technological advance, in the shape of HAL-9000, leads to murder and madness. In the midst of all this scientific achievement, humanity seems to become increasingly artificial to the point where Dave Bowman – already slightly removed from us due to Keir Dullea’s reserved and unemotional performance – seems less human than HAL as he disconnects the troubled computer’s circuits. Communication between people, as evinced in the scenes where Heywood Floyd meets his Russian counterparts, has become banal and perfunctory. The famous match cut, in which the ape-man’s bone, hurtling back down to earth, becomes an elegantly floating spaceship, seems particularly suggestive in this regard. Millions of years of evolution, the ascent of man if you like, is reduced to one single image – yet in terms of human communication, have we really developed much beyond the apes? The film suggests not, I would propose, and this explains why our final development is not into some godlike super being but into a baby, buoyant above the earth in a spherical womb, bathing in an amniotic fluid of light. We have come a long way but we still have to grow up. We are still, in a universal sense at least, children – even if we are, by now, star-children. Yet, as some perceptive commentators have remarked, this final image, for all its sadness about the squandering of opportunity, is also optimistic because it is of a baby – and all babies grow up with myriad possibilities. Consequently, the film ends on a note of endless potential.

The philosophical side of 2001 is something which each viewer has to experience for themselves and each person’s interpretation is equally valid. It’s a very open text, which is one of the things which makes it so rewarding to watch on multiple occasions. However, what is obvious on a first viewing – and was obvious even to me as a thoroughly confused eight-year old seeing it at the cinema – is the scale of Kubrick’s technical achievement. It’s a monumental example of the director as pure organisational genius and without Kubrick’s determination, and his astute choice of craftsmen, the film might never have been finished. The film used stages at two British studios – Shepperton and MGM Borehamwood – and was photographed in Super Panavision 70, a system which used spherical lenses and 65MM film stock. This produces a beautiful widescreen image, projected at 2.2:1. The film was originally shown in 70MM Cinerama and still benefits from being seen in a well equipped cinema. Kubrick uses the full width of the format with unobtrusive skill and it makes one regret that he never shot in a widescreen process again. Indeed, if watched on television, the film is very different to when seen in the cinema. The ideas come into focus rather more clearly on the smaller screen. On the big screen, you’re too busy being dazzled by the visuals to notice the philosophy.

These visuals remain phenomenally effective. One should obviously pay homage to the great Geoffrey Unsworth for his lighting. But the special effects, which broke new ground, are the work of vast numbers of people, headed up by Kubrick himself and including such familiar names as Brian Johnson, Wally Veevers and Douglas Trumbull. The film used a pioneering front projection process and the spaceships were done using a finicky, slow and expensive matte process which remains a benchmark for model work, not least because you can’t see the matte lines whereas you can in many later SF movies. It’s hard to believe that this could look any better if CGI were used. Elsewhere, the visual design is more dated – 2001 is obviously a sexed-up version of the mid-1960s – but this has a charm of its own, particularly the fixtures and fittings such as the space toilet.

The sound design is equally notable and is perhaps most famous for the amount of classical music included. Three-quarters of the way through filming, Kubrick told his usual composer Alex North to stop composing music and used the temp-track of classical music as the final score. There is, notoriously, music from Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss and, notably in the closing sections, the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. This means that 2001 doesn’t sound like any other SF film – there’s no artificial ‘futuristic’ music and no bombastic original score. Some critics have complained that the recordings used are mediocre but those of us unfamiliar with the music may not notice this.

2001: A Space Odyssey has been influential on a whole generation of filmmakers and is one of those films which might seem a little intimidating to approach for the first time. It’s certainly a difficult film to understand in some ways but it offers such a visual feast – I haven’t even begun to mention some of the best bits, notably the ride through the stargate – that the best approach is simply to experience it and then come back and think about the ideas contained within. It’s also worth mentioning that the third section is quite exciting as HAL-9000 proves himself both a fearsome adversary and the most interesting and complex character in the film. Certainly, Douglas Rain gives the best performance, especially as HAL poignantly croons Daisy, Daisy while waiting for his own encounter with the infinite. If it’s not Kubrick’s best film – I incline towards Barry Lyndon myself – it’s still a one-of-a-kind masterpiece and as fine an example of screen Science Fiction as you’ll encounter.

The Disc

Back in 2007, the Blu-Ray of 2001 was perhaps the reference disc of any classic film on the format. Seven years later, it still looks damn fine in virtually every respect, although I have a couple of minor reservations. Since the film was shot in the very high-resolution 65MM process, you’d expect it to look fantastic. Certainly, the colours here are gorgeously rich and the level of detail, especially compared to the DVD version, is astonishing. Fundamentally, the secret isn’t anything special, it’s simply that the Blu-Ray is taken from a master which had the good fortune to come from carefully preserved original film elements. My only reservations are some occasional peculiarities in some of the process shots – a certain strange patterning appearing at times – and the quality of the blacks which is sometimes a little more wishy-washy around the edges than I would like. But this is nit-picking and you’re not likely to see a better version of the film unless Warners can pull something special out of their corporate hat for the 50th anniversary.

The quality of the sound is excellent on the lossless 5.1 PCM track with the numerous orchestral pieces coming across very nicely indeed. I’m slightly surprised at the lack of involvement from the surrounds and the .1 LFE but the dialogue is always crisp and the audio effects such as the heavy breathing are very impressive. I seem to recall that the film has always seemed very front-heavy when I’ve seen it in the cinema so it’s probably a characteristic of the original six track mix. The fidelity is wonderful though and it’s a delight hearing the Strauss and Ligeti pieces in such good quality. The use of Atmospheres during the stargate sequence is particularly striking on this edition.

The extras on duplicate those on the Special Edition DVD release.

Commentary with Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea

The two actors, recorded separately, provide an entertaining, insightful commentary. It’s not particularly technical and one does long for the kind of knowledge which Brian Johnson or Douglas Trumbull might have brought. But both men are good company and have excellent recall of the experience of working with Kubrick. It always strikes me as interesting that a director who could clearly be so difficult to work with ended up having such good relationships with actors. Some of the observations are on the self-evident side, such as Gary Lockwood’s comment that Kubrick liked using classical music. But there’s a reasonable amount of content here and not too many dead spots. I should also say that I was quite impressed with Dullea’s mastery of detail.

Theatrical Trailer

This is familiar from all previous DVD versions of the film and is anamorphically enhanced.

2001: The Making of a Myth

A Channel 4 documentary, introduced by a gushing James Cameron, which was made in 2001 and concentrates on the film as both a myth and a special effects spectacular. Arthur C. Clarke appears to talk about the background of the film and the research taken into the future of space travel. We also get revealing interviews with many of those who were involved – Brian Johnson; Heather Downham (the stewardess); actors Ed Bishop, Dan Richter and Keith Denny; editor Ray Lovejoy; Douglas Trumbull; and Keir Dullea. Dullea is particularly fascinating on the deliberately enigmatic nature of the film and Kubrick’s attitude to narrative ellipsis. It’s particularly revealing to discover that the ending was not decided upon until late into production. A number of other talking heads appear. Camille Paglia turns up to state the obvious about the famous cut between the bone and the spaceship. New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell – owner of the world’s best dreadlocks – talks about his first reaction to the film, although I’m not convinced he was old enough to see the film when it first came out. Various experts appear to testify to the film’s prescience as regards voice recognition, videophones and artificial intelligence.

Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001

In which a large number of filmmakers gather to testify to Kubrick’s genius, influence, visionary brilliance and so on ad nauseum. It’s hard to quarrel with any of their estimates – 2001 is indeed just as important as they say it is – but one does get tired of the constant suggestions that person x saw the film before anyone else or how person y knew Stanley better than all the others. I also wouldn’t be too sorry if I never saw Jan Harlan again. It’s interesting, though, to note how much Janusz Kaminski sounds like Paul Verhoeven.

Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001

Lots of stuff here about the “credible future” created in the film with Dennis Muren talking perceptively about how the film suffers from the “optimism of the 1960s”. John Baxter, who has been around for what seems like centuries, explains the poor record of SF in predicting the future and how this freed up Kubrick and Clarke to use their imaginations. There’s some amusement in how the visual look of the 1960s has been slightly tidied up to look futuristic. This is a short but informative feature and I enjoyed it. It’s particularly good to see Roger Ebert who remains one of the most eloquent critics of his generation.

2001: A Look Behind the Future

This vintage documentary was sponsored by Look magazine and features the preparation of the visual design of 2001. It’s dated but rather charming – nothing looks more dated, incidentally, than the furniture which we were meant to be sitting on in the 21st century, not even the suits worn by Tony Masters.

What Is Out There?

Keir Dullea reads from a script about how the film “bursts into the space that words cannot begin to express.” This would be all very well but he then goes on to try and express it. Interesting but rather irrelevant as far as I’m concerned since the only interpretation of the film that matters is the one each viewer comes up with.

2001: FX and Early Conceptual Artwork

Just what you’d expect but the pictures are accompanied by intelligent comments from Douglas Trumbull whose split-scan images make the ending of the film so memorable.

Look: Stanley Kubrick!

A brief montage of images shot by Kubrick during his career as a photographer, accompanied by a great jazz score.

11/27/1966 Interview with Stanley Kubrick

This is a wonderful audio-only item which features journalist Jeremy Bernstein chatting with Stanley Kubrick in a remarkably informal fashion. It’s revealing as a record of Kubrick’s mischievous sense of humour as he talks in detail about his background and his work. He emphasises the importance of problem solving, his relief at not having gone to college, the significance of photography as a training ground for filmmaking and his various experiences on different types of films. He explains how he worked with United Artists using James B. Harris’ money as a completion guarantee, describes the second half of Spartacus as “a bit silly”, talks about the nuclear holocaust and denial in relation to Dr Strangelove and says of his comments, at one point, “You’re gonna have to fix this up because this is gonna sound crap!” I think that the 76 minutes of this interview are as fascinating an insight into Kubrick as I’ve ever encountered and I enjoyed it immensely.

I was delighted to revisit 2001 on Blu-Ray and find it looking and sounding as good as it does. Certainly, it’s still one of the more satisfying discs of a classic film I have seen – no DNR nonsense, no mucking around with the image – and it’s highly recommended. You can get it on its own or as part of the excellent value Kubrick Visionary Filmmaker box set which also contains six other films.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 08, 2014

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