Steve Wilkinson has reviewed the remastered Region 1 release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Filmmaking as intellectual enquiry took a huge leap forward in Kubrick’s next project, which would become one of the most meticulously researched films in history. Starting from the vague notion “mankind encounters an alien race”, Kubrick and his writing partner, sci-fi guru Arthur C. Clarke, evolved a storyline that could provide a mythic resonance while also graphically depicting mankind’s expansion into space. Designed at a time when the space race was taking its first faltering steps (and prior to the first Moon landings), Kubrick assembled a small army of technicians, scientists and advisors to ensure accuracy wherever possible in a production which turned into a 4-year $10.5m monster.
The story is deliberately simple and linear. 4 million years ago, a race of man-apes encounter a mysterious black monolith which inspires them to use weapons against animals (providing meat) and other man-apes (providing territory, in this case a waterhole). Man’s evolution secured, we move to an unspecified future. American astronauts discover a monolith “deliberately buried” on the moon, which emits a piercing radio signal. The penultimate episode consists of astronauts Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood) together with their computerised guardian HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) on a mission to Jupiter, eventually revealed as the destination of the transmission. HAL malfunctions and kills all the astronauts bar the resourceful Bowman, who finally goes “beyond the infinite” to meet the source of the monolith and ultimately evolve into the next stage of development.
A deliberately non-verbal film (only 40 minutes of dialog out of 148) of ravishing visual complexity, this film bamboozled just about everybody upon its release. Everybody that is except the youth of the world, a major constituency in the late 60s (and staple of movie audiences ever since) and the source of the film’s eventual critical and commercial success. 2001 was simply too unconventionally structured, too enigmatic in its aims for many to take, contrastingly providing those who did care with discussion material for decades afterwards!
On the level of pure experience the film excels, depicting the minutiae of space-age technology with an appropriate sense of awe, and providing a constant feed of (especially) visual and aural information even when the “story” appears to be going nowhere. The film does contain drama, mostly confined to the HAL situation. Blaming his initial malfunction on “human error” (initially laughable, this turns out eventually to be quite correct) he goes on to make more serious errors of judgment, not least wiping out the entire crew in order to prevent them dismantling him and thereby “jeopardising the mission”.
Bowman’s attempts to overpower HAL involve the viewer in a direct way unusual for the film, but even more unusual (and unexpected) is the emotional punch provided by the computer’s final demise. The viewer is on more shaky ground with the first and final “chapters” as they witness a retelling of ancient human history, and the possible future of the human race. After the satire of Strangelove, Kubrick appears to be earnestly presenting these theories for the audience without smirking, possibly the hardest thing for many of the film’s critics to accept. It remains his most optimistic film, and an unsurpassed milestone of the cinema.
Thankfully the film has been rescued from the clutches of MGM (for whom the term “quality control” is just something that applies to other people) and remastered for this disc, and the picture quality is a revelation compared to the previous version which was non-anamorphic with washed-out colours, excessive edge enhancement and poor detail. No other film relies as highly on the impact of its visuals as this one, making the transfer quality more important even than usual. The only anamorphically enhanced disc in this new Kubrick collection (at the original ratio of 2.1:1), the picture reveals new depths of detail and fine colours. Perhaps a little too much edge enhancement has been applied (virtually none is the ideal), but this is only really noticeable in a couple of scenes. Overall this is visually mind-blowing and although anybody who has witnessed 2001 in its original Cinerama format will question the wisdom of watching it on TV at all (a restored 70mm print is doing the rounds at the moment and was presumably the source for this version), fans will be delighted. The bottom line is that the star fields here are clearly visible throughout, whereas in the original version many scenes looked as if they had been filmed against a black curtain!
The only film in the Kubrick Collection prior to Eyes Wide Shut to be originally supplied with a multi-channel soundtrack (for its 70mm presentation), 2001 sounds suitably dynamic here. Some clean-up work has obviously been applied to the soundtrack to bring it up to date, as dialog often displays more hiss than the space scenes which are completely silent where necessary. The soundtrack is deliberately minimal but no less effective for it, and although it sounds dated at times (dialog often follows the source on-screen, a technique hardly used since the time of massive-screen auditoria) the overall impact is retained. Kubrick’s flawless choices of music also sound much improved from previous versions, being less harsh and with a fairly good dynamic range. It probably hasn’t sounded this good since its original Cinerama presentation!
Warners obviously felt the previous MGM disc had too much in the way of extras, as they have dropped a brief but interesting Arthur C. Clarke interview from that disc. The only extra here is the original trailer, which is disappointing when one thinks of the documentary materials that could have been applied to this disc. Fans are directed to Piers Bizony’s brilliant book “2001: Filming The Future” for much-needed background information. Thankfully Warners have also dropped the cheesy animations from the original disc (using the “star-gate” effect to link the menus together was a bad idea) but overall this is a missed opportunity. One of the most important films of all time deserves better!
The film itself and its presentation here cannot be faulted, this disc is light years ahead of previous editions in terms of video and audio. It’s a pity the same could not be said for the extras (which are practically non-existent) and what are the odds of Warners revisiting the film again for a fully-fledged special edition in the future? In any case, this can be considered an essential purchase for science fiction and/or Kubrick fans everywhere.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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