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2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.2:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  148 Minutes
Release Date:  October 23, 2007

“Dave…my mind is going…I can feel it…I can feel it…I’m afraid, Dave…”

Film ****

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is its timeline, which spans the entire breadth of human evolution.  Beginning with “The Dawn of Man” and ending with “Beyond the Infinite”, we see all of mankind’s history truncated into two and a half hours, starting from the very beginning and ending in a place too advanced for us to completely understand.  The film also suggests that some intelligence (God, perhaps, but in a non-traditional way) has been watching over us, guiding our collective destiny, and ultimately, waiting for us to step off our home soil and come out.

2001 was instantly recognized as a bold and revolutionary new film upon its release in 1968, but not everyone praised it for those qualities.  Even a renowned and respected critic like Pauline Kael called the picture “amateurish” and “unimaginative”.  Walkouts were plenty, and many of those who stayed that year after the “summer of love” stayed because they found in Kubrick’s film “the ultimate trip”.

But this picture, like most of Kubrick’s works, was ahead of its time.  Years passed, and suddenly it was almost universally acclaimed as one of the greatest movies ever made.  It’s certainly been my favorite ever since seeing it for the first time.

Why the initial coolness?  There are many reasons, I suppose, not the least of which, strangely, is the film’s sense of optimism; a spirit that wasn’t prevailing in this country at the time of its release.  With the Cold War fever in full bloom, were people really ready to see an American and some Russians sitting together in the same space station, chatting amiably and inviting each other to visit their country?  Probably not.   In fact, they still weren’t ready to in the early 1980s when 2010 came out, a film that returned American/Russian hostilities to the narrative without explanation.

This spirit of optimism helps define, if not explain, the ending, where astronaut Dr. David Poole (Dullea) is transported through some kind of stargate to find a surreal yet comfortable world waiting for him, where the remainder of his life is rushed through so he can evolve to the next phase of humanity, the famed “starchild”.  We don’t completely comprehend what this means to us, but we can’t help but sense that it’s something good.

Of course, the heart of the story is the Jupiter mission, which is a classic science fiction tale about the dangers of man making machine in his own image.  A “perfect” thinking machine, the HAL 9000, malfunctions and finds itself at odds with his human companions, Drs. Poole and Frank Bowman (Lockwood) on board the spacecraft Discovery.  

But consider the parts of the movie that surround this central conflict, and how challenging it was to the traditional film narrative.  Dialogue is very sparse…in fact, there’s not a single spoken word for the first half hour or so.   Kubrick doesn’t rush through his “Dawn of Man” sequence, which I know personally drives some first-time viewers mad, as it’s nothing but grunts, growls and screams.  But this is a vital part of the story, and it takes faith to get through it and follow the picture to the end, THEN put all the pieces together in your mind.

Man is portrayed as humbled, clumsy, and starving.  The desert areas (in which the earliest human remains have been discovered) were hot and oppressive.   Water was scarce.  Man was not even able to defend himself against animal attackers…in fact, man and animal were often shot together in integrated groups.  There was practically no difference between them.

The only physical evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence in the movie is a tall, smooth, black monolith that makes its first appearance here.  This monolith somehow communicates to man the idea to pick up a bone and use it as a tool.  Suddenly, man becomes the hunter instead of the hunted.  He has meat to consume.  By the end of the segment, this group of men is no longer on all fours, but upright, and the animals are now separated from them (or vice versa).

Without the benefit of a new title card, the story hurtles from the distant past to the near future (the logical progression of learning to use a tool is apparently the construction of a spacecraft, if you jump ahead a few million years).  Man has reached the moon, and discovered another monolith buried beneath the lunar surface.  Man doesn’t remember the monolith, but the monolith clearly remembers man, and sends a powerful radio signal towards Jupiter, letting whatever intelligence out there know:  it’s taken awhile, but man is finally coming out.

Enhancing the storyline are Kubrick’s groundbreaking special effects, many of which still look remarkable by today’s standards.  He spent a full five years on this picture, and a great deal of that involved painting out the matte lines one by one and frame by frame in his model spacecraft shots…a tedious and painstaking process, to be sure, but one that produced the greatest illusion of space travel ever seen on the screen…an illusion that would not be duplicated until the age of CGI.

These images are cut to the sounds of classical music, most notably, Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz.  In these modernistic images, Kubrick obviously saw something balletic and beautiful in the movement.  A master of using music in ways that defined tradition, here Kubrick used it almost as a counter to what was happening on screen.  The music did not enhance or support the narrative.  It existed completely outside of it.  Yet today, who can hear the opening strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra without thinking of 2001?

Now that we’ve passed the year that Kubrick made famous with his film, one can study the picture with a lot more perspective.  It’s clear that the optimism of Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clark was a bit premature…maybe such a future is still ahead of us, but it's further away than the 33 years these men envisioned.  We are not a world at peace, our computers are not yet self-aware, we have yet to send a man any further than the moon (and when we got there a year after the film came out, we sadly found no evidence that anything was waiting for us).

But it’s still these possibilities that make 2001 a film that defies time.  Ten years from now, it won’t matter that we’ve passed the year by a decade.  We’ll still watch with hope.  After all, if it took us 4 million years to go from an ape-like figure with a bone to a race of men that walked on the moon, perhaps a few more years isn’t too long to wait for bigger and better things.

Video ***1/2

The single worst DVD experience of my career to this date is still the first time I popped the original 2001 in my player.  I was not only shocked that ANY disc could look as bad as that, with compression artifacts, edge enhancement, shimmer, grain and more, I was completely brokenhearted that a film as great as this would be the victim of it.  For the first and only time since getting my player, I did NOT retire my VHS copy of the film.

Amends have been made, however, with this new, remastered, anamorphic and correctly framed offering from Warner Bros.  For the first time on home video, a transfer was struck using the original 65 mm negative, leading to a taller 2.2:1 transfer instead of the more tightly cropped 2.35:1 CinemaScope print.  The difference is breathtaking.  On-screen images have a much better sense of framing, as at long last, Kubrick’s original vision is completely intact.  All of the aforementioned problems are completely gone.  Colors are much more natural looking and vibrant, detail is much improved, sharpness is better with less artificiality, and best of all, the space scenes are no longer marred by haze, halos, shimmers, and other evidences of compression.  This is how the film should have looked in the first place, and now at last, it finally does.

Audio ***1/2

With the abundance of classical music, this movie cried out for a 5.1 remix, and finally received it.  The original mono version was passable but unremarkable; the new version sings with a clarity, fullness and purity that it never had before.  In addition to the improvement to the score, the rear channels open up for some nice surround effects, particularly in both the opening and closing segments.  The .1 channel adds a little vibration to the more intense scenes.  Overall, a magnificent offering.

Features ****

At long last, this is the extras package the film deserves.  The first disc has a wonderful new commentary by co-stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, and they get to speak much much more than they did in the actual movie.  There is also the original trailer.

The second disc has the Channel Four documentary on the making of the film hosted by James Cameron, plus four new featurettes.  There is a look at the conceptual artwork for the special effects, a look at Kubrick's early Look magazine work, and an audio interview with Kubrick from 1966.  Outstanding!

Summary:

The year 2001 may not be as singular a year in the history of the progress of mankind as Stanley Kubrick had envisioned, but at least it will be remembered as a day of future passed with this terrific disc.  Cleaned up, digitally and anamorphically enhanced, correctly framed and with a terrific new surround soundtrack, fans everywhere ought to be thrilled with this new DVD offering from Warner.

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