[box cover]

2001: A Space Odyssey

Warner Home Video

Starring William Sylvester, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood,
and the voice of Douglas Rain

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"The world's most extraordinary film.... as exciting as the discovery of a new dimension in life."

The Boston Globe

"Big, beautiful but plodding sci-fi epic. Superb photography major asset to confusing, long-unfolding plot.... It compares with, but does not best, previous efforts at filmed science fiction, lacking the humanity of Forbidden Planet, the imagination of Things to Come and the simplicity of Of Stars and Men. It actually belongs to the technically slick group belonging to George Pal and the Japanese."


"How much would we appreciate La Giaconda [the Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth', or 'because she's hiding a secret from her lover'? It would shut off the viewer's appreciation and shackle him to a 'reality' other than his own. I don't want that to happen to 2001."

— Stanley Kubrick

"Yes, I'd like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me." — Dave Bowman, while picking HAL's brains

More than 30 years after its premiere, analyzing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is like trying to give the definitive interpretation of Dali's surrealist painting Persistence of Memory, those melting clocks. Lots of people "get it" (or believe they do), and lots of others don't (and don't care). The general consensus agrees that it's unlike anything that came before and most of what came after, and that it's saying something — though exactly what it's saying remains a matter of lively discussion. Since 1968, Kubrick's cryptically visionary koan of alien influence, human development, and cosmic encounters has established itself in our cultural memory as an influential moment in movie-making history.

Rather like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove a few years before, 2001 did what healthy art is supposed to do — it broke the rules, defied convenient categories, canons, and conventions, and showed us that there are still new ways of saying things, and even new things to say. Therefore you'll find people who love it, others who hate it, and even among those who love it you'll discover that they can have a hard time agreeing on what it's all about.

With few exceptions, the initial professional critical responses to Kubrick's 2001 wrote it off as a glorious failure. Something new and ambitious from a master craftsman, to be sure — but when judged by conventional standards and frames of reference, it was a mystery, and mysteries are by nature enlightening or scary as hell or both. At the 1913 debut of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, the startled audience came close to rioting in the aisles. They hissed, shouted, and hooted at the stage (rather like certain man-apes in the presence of a mysterious monolith, eh?). Nowadays Stravinsky's ballet score is considered a masterpiece, a milestone that's one of the most significant cultural works of the 20th century, and audiences pack concert halls worldwide to hear it. Dali's melting clocks pushed an artistic movement by showing us that fucking with expectations could be done with purpose and meaning.

Similarly, having continued to confound new audiences and defy simplistic analysis, 2001: A Space Odyssey is now widely regarded as an evolutionary benchmark in what movies can be and do and say. 2001 is often compared to the work of Eisenstein or D.W. Griffith in its attempt to expand the horizons of film as a medium. It has endured as a touchstone presence in cinema (not just science fiction cinema), outliving its naysayers to become Something Important. It ranks #22 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 American movies of the 20th century, between The Grapes of Wrath and The Maltese Falcon.

"I know I've never completely freed myself of the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this mission." — HAL 9000

Okay. So, what's it about? Well, saying that 2001: A Space Odyssey is about Mankind's first encounters with a godlike extraterrestrial intelligence is like saying that the Star Wars movies are about the ups and downs of one seriously dysfunctional family. That's true enough on the surface, but you're missing some parts. The events depicted on the screen — separate from how you interpret them — are components of a narrative, such as it is, neatly segmented like movements in a symphony, complete with themes, variations, and repetitions:

"The Dawn of Man": Four million years ago, a group of ape-like pre-humans encounter a mysterious black monolith standing near their cave. After reaching out and touching it, the tribe learns to make tools — significantly weapons — thus jumpcutting humanity forward along the evolutionary filmstock from bone clubs to orbiting satellites and space stations.

"From Earth to the Moon": Mankind is now a technological presence even on Earth's moon. A group of starkly banal modern humans encounter a mysterious black monolith buried beneath the lunar surface. After reaching out and touching it, the humans trigger the monolith's alarm signal to space — specifically Jupiter — thus prompting an expedition to that distant world.

"Jupiter Mission": Aboard the Jupiter-bound spaceship Discovery (symbolically spermatazoon-shaped, or is it spinal cord-shaped, or...?), two astronauts undergo the long flight's dull day-to-day routines. Eventually they encounter serious technical difficulties with the chatty and apparently psychotic HAL 9000 computer. After performing an electronic lobotomy, the sole survivor triggers a secret recording from mission control — retroactively expository — thus providing a reason for a final trip in the ship's EVA pod.

"Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite": In the EVA pod, the lone human ambassador encounters a mysterious black monolith orbiting Jupiter. After figuratively reaching out and touching it, he enters a dimensional doorway — mind-bendingly hallucinatory, man — thus taking "the ultimate trip" to what may or may not be an observation cage that may or may not be under the watchful eyes of the beings who may or may not have sent the mysterious black monoliths. Metaphors happen. The human, who may or not be still who he was, completes the cosmic circle when he encounters a mysterious black monolith standing near his deathbed. After reaching out to touch it, he transforms into the "Starchild" — ambiguously transcendental — thus jumpcutting humanity (or at least himself) forward along the evolutionary continuum, accompanied by Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra."

The rest is up to you. I know what I think it's all about, but like sex or a Picasso or a good meal, my experience won't be exactly the same as yours. 2001 can be enjoyed just for its demonstration of the visual power that motion pictures are capable of. That and its marvelous musical score are all you need for a plenty-good movie-watching experience. But 2001's ambiguities and sense of wonder reward deeper involvement. The movie unfolds in a technically masterful but dramatically challenging fashion. The pace is slow, which enhances realism but demands greater patience from the viewer (to mangle MacLuhan, the tedium is the message). By design all the dialogue is banal and colorless, and the most interesting and dimensional character is the mad computer, HAL. The movie's hits are more intellectual than visceral, daring to aim higher than the groin and gut.

(For those who want some answers to Kubrick's conundrums, Arthur C. Clarke's novel, written in conjunction with the movie, focuses a more literal lens on the screen's events. Just as the movie is 95% Stanley Kubrick, the novel is 100% Clarke, with his rich prose filling in the gaps while still maintaining the all-important sense of wonder and awe. The 1984 "sequel" film, based on Clarke's novel 2010: Odyssey Two, more simplistically explains much of what was meant to be unexplainable. While it's a fine routine adventure flick that stands up on its own, the movie 2010 is a product of its era (not to mention a different director and screenwriter) and is therefore strictly literal and superfluous, taking us to a place completely different from its predecessor. Clarke continued exploring his 2001 universe, with mixed results, in two further novels, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey.)

"We had our first freakout in Los Angeles. A kid went up to the screen and screamed, 'It's God! It's God!' People are telling Stanley and me things we didn't realize were in the movie." — Arthur C. Clarke

2001 is justly famous for its Oscar-winning special effects (from a team that included later special effects powerhouse Douglas Trumbull). Its depiction of the realities of space travel is still among the most truthful ever shown on screen (big or small) even with the allowances made for pre-CGI practical necessities and audience expectations. The spacecraft interiors and control consoles still look remarkably modern and believable, and only the space station furniture strikes us as tellingly retro. New technologies were perfected to make 2001 as grounded in reality as possible, and the Slitscan effects developed for the famous "head trip" sequence pioneered an entire realm of visual techniques.

At least one of the effects may have been too believable. 1968's Academy Award for special makeup effects went to Planet of the Apes. Now, 2001's many prehistoric man-apes were far more realistic and nuanced than those "damn dirty apes" who trussed up Charlton Heston. Except for two baby chimps, all "characters" in the Dawn of Man sequence were played by dancer/actors in prosthetics and costumes and makeup. I enjoy the notion (put forth in Jerome Agel's bulging opus, The Making of Kubrick's 2001) that the sequence was so believably created that most viewers — including Academy voters — never actually realized that those were not real apes up there on the screen.

2001 has barely forty minutes of dialogue in its entire running time. Therefore much of its weight is carried via sound, most memorably in its score of classical music and modern atonal harmonies. 2001 has made Johann Stauss' "Blue Danube" waltz familiar to millions, and of course the opening trumpet chords and tympani rumbles of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" are as associated with 2001 as "The William Tell Overture" is with the Lone Ranger. It has become the movie's de facto theme song.

In the realm of science fiction fandom, 2001 stands apart as the best of the breed — brains as well as boffo effects — even if it rarely wins the distinction of being the most entertaining god in the pantheon. 2001 is to, say, Star Wars what the Mona Lisa is to an Archie comic strip. That's not a relative value judgement of either movie, but you can't deny that the two are radically different uses of the same medium. Both have fans and detractors who defend their positions with tent-revival zeal, and religious wars continue to rage between the factions.

In terms of sheer scope and scale, 2001's closest cousin is arguably 1936's Things To Come. Thirty-two years separate those two films. Coincidentally, that's how many years separate 1968 and 2000, and in that time no other science fiction movie has approached 2001's ambition, scope, and belief that the genre can be something more than kid candy. Sadly, it's still one of the few science fiction movies made for grown-ups.

"Its origin and purpose still a total mystery." — the last spoken words in the movie

Is it a metaphysical exploration? A realistic fusion of the scientific and the religious? A commentary on the dehumanization of Man via technology? Symbolism-heavy study of our evolution from warring brute to transcendent Starchild? An impressive yet pointless special effects demo reel? The greatest film of all time or a pretentious bore? Whatever it is, it has stuck with us and refused to be easily dismissed. It has reached the status of Art, meaning that it's going to go on provoking strong opinions.

Like all capital-A Art, both 2001 and its audience benefit from multiple viewings. Much of 2001's structure and components make sense only after you have seen the whole. Warner's digitally restored and remastered DVD edition provides the best opportunity to gaze into its widescreen navel and ponder and argue and contemplate its deeper layers of meaning as often as you like — or to just cook up some popcorn and enjoy it for the simple pleasures of doing so.

The Warner "2000 digital master" DVD

2001 has had a sketchy history on home video. Its original format didn't help matters. Originally made in Super Panavision 70 for the short-lived Cinerama format, the movie was distributed only through theaters able to mount the enormous, semi-wrap-around screen that was demanded by this process. In 1969 it reached wider theater audiences in a flattened 35mm format that diminished its impact. A generation later, as new viewers have acquainted themselves with the film through pan-and-scan VHS, Laserdisc, and two previous DVD editions, it's easy to forget how its first audiences felt surrounded by the experience. Home video can't compete with giant wrap-around screens, but Warner's new "2000 digital master" edition offers the best substitute so far.

Released smack in the middle of (music, please) A.D. 2001 itself, this edition, with its painstakingly restored high-definition visuals and improved 5.1 audio, is the film's finest incarnation since the onset of home video. Part of the "Stanley Kubrick Collection" boxed set, it gives the film a thorough digital cleaning and remastering, plus an anamorphic transfer and enhanced soundtrack. For the first time in the digital age, 2001 is available in a wholly satisfying restoration.

This pristine remastered print is as flawless and clean as HAL's glassy red eye. The film's original negative was digitally spot-polished to remove any defects. So gone are signs of wear and other age-related flaws that marred earlier editions. Also eliminated are the dirt, blemishes, and scratches that can machine-gun a film that spends so much time in stark white backgrounds or the blackness of space. The colors, corrected to Kubrick's own standards, are sharp and true and solid, a significant return to eye-pleasing glory. Also superb is the crisp, deep black-and-white contrast. Detail definition is extraordinary, so the lunar landscape reveals more surface features per screen inch than it has since its Cinerama premiere. All that plus this restoration returns Kubrick's broad canvas to its original aspect ratio of 2.20:1. This is the closest I've come to feeling that I was seeing 2001 fresh for the first time.

The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, from original source prints, offers its own happy revelations. The respectful remastering takes good advantage of 5-channel surround capabilities and floor-rumbling .1 LFE. The dynamic range is cleaner and broader now, and the movie's already potent use of sound is improved by judicious use of directionality and surround capabilities, immediately noticeable in the Dawn of Man sequence. You'll want to crank up the volume for the opening's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" just to feel the orchestra in the room with you.

This edition opens with the original five-minute pre-show Overture of atmospheric tonalities against a black screen. The Intermission comprises Chapter 20 and about half of Chapter 21, totaling just under three minutes. After the end credits "The Blue Danube" continues well after the screen has gone black. The entire running time clocks in at 148 minutes.

The only area where this disc falls down is in extras. The single bonus item on board is the theatrical trailer (anamorphic 1.85:1). Missing are the previous MGM/Warner edition's eight-page booklet of production info and, most disappointingly, the 21-minute film of a 1968 question-and-answer session with Arthur C. Clarke. These omissions are insignificant compared to the improved quality of this disc's main feature. But if you demand the whole tamale, then add this edition to your shelf alongside the original, out-of-print MGM/Warner disc.

—Mark Bourne

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