Half a century after its first release picture house cinemas in the UK are showing Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic in its original 70mm format. This new print was “struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative,” and we are assured “this is a true photochemical film recreation, with no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits.” It even has an old-fashioned ‘intermission’ of fifteen minutes.
From the start 2001: A Space Odyssey was hugely ambitious. Kubrick told his collaborator and co-author, Arthur C. Clarke, that he was determined make a film about “man’s relationship to the universe” that would arouse “wonder, awe and terror”. It is only fitting that this epic about life, the universe and everything deserves to be seen on the widest cinema screen available.
Back in 1968 the film divided audiences and critics alike. Actor Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman) says that during the New York premiere, 250 people walked out. In Los Angeles Rock Hudson was heard to mutter, “what is this bullshit?” But many, especially the hippies and science fiction fans, had their minds blown. In San Francisco someone reportedly ran through the cinema screen screaming ‘It’s God!’
Viewers are taken on a jaw-dropping audio-visual journey – ‘the ultimate trip’, according to posters from the time. We all remember the ‘star gate’ psychedelic sequence, but what is most striking about seeing 2001 in all its restored glory is the use of music and sound. In a film with little dialogue it steers us through Kubrick’s serenely beautiful universe.
We are immediately discombobulated, lost in space. For several minutes we stare at a blank screen in the darkness and hear discordant strings, swelling to a crescendo, before fading away, returning and fading once again into silence. Then an old black MGM logo appears, rather anti-climactically, before the first section of the film: ‘The Dawn of Man’.
In contrast to the famous classical pieces used, such as the graceful waltz of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube, Kubrick uses eerie choral harmonising to unsettle us, showing that all is not well in this seemingly utopian future. This comes to the fore in the disturbing scene in which Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) and colleagues approach the mysterious black monolith – sound-tracked by what could be chanting medieval monks, who start to wail, louder and louder as if they are possessed by devils. The scene ends in ear-splittingly high-pitched white noise that has the spacemen (and audience) covering their ears.
2001 has become the gold standard for science fiction films. It influenced many future film-makers and you can see bits of Alien, Star Wars or Gravity in your mind’s eye as you watch. The special effects do not seem ‘old’, the glacial clarity of the scenes in space feel fresh and the detailed models and sets are extraordinary. The film’s action sequences are superior to many modern CGI-enhanced blockbusters.
This vision of the future is stress-free, calm and clean. Its technology works perfectly until HAL’s malfunction and it is ironic that the computer, with its soothing yet sinister voice (Douglas Rain), becomes the most human character in the film.
50 years on, it turns out that Kubrick and Clarke got a few things right. The picture phone used by Dr. Floyd to talk to his daughter looks familiar (Skype). Chess players now play against their computers, and the small personal screens used by astronauts to watch television have become quite popular too …
Quaintly, though, the influence of Star Trek persists in the use of a phaser-like camera, and there are plenty of big bleeping coloured buttons to press on every bit of tech. If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts ‘boldly go’ in space, then 2001’s Pan Am space shuttle has the answer: a ‘zero gravity’ toilet, which has a notice advising passengers to “read instructions before use”.