There are events in life that are so momentous that once they occur, the world is forever changed. The release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction magnum opus, was one such event. In the space of two hours and twenty eight minutes, Stanley Kubrick changed the way we looked at science fiction, special effects, the use of music in film, and even the way stories are told. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in short, both the greatest and most important motion picture ever made.
Stanley Kubrick was a restless filmmaker. He jumped from genre to genre, rarely touching the same ground twice. When he set his sights upon science fiction, he did not like what he saw. Wave upon wave of b-movies that were essentially fantasy flicks that took place in space. There were a few good movies, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, but the science was in no way solid. Meanwhile, science fiction literature of the period was rich with stories that combined both great storytelling with credible science (often referred to as speculative fiction, rather than science fiction). Stanley Kubrick saw this discrepancy and decided to close the gap.
2001: A Space Odyssey advanced the art of filmmaking and storytelling in a way that almost no film before or since has done. Compositionally, Kubrick astounded his audiences with meticulously framed and visually dense shots that no prior film in his oeuvre would have suggested. The wide vistas of Africa, the vast blankness of space, they all come to life in magnificent 70mm. But Kubrick was not just painting pretty pictures. Through his use of editing, Kubrick changed the very language of film.
Take, for example, the famous shot where an ape, having been intellectually enhanced by coming into contact with a mysterious Monolith, throws a bone, man's first weapon, high into the air. As it comes back down, the film cuts to an arms satellite that orbits the earth, millions of years in the future. What a loaded cut! It can be taken in so many ways. First, it shows a direct path from the revelations of the Monolith straight through to our latest and most advanced technological achievements. It also suggests that for all the countless years that have passed, perhaps mankind has not evolved very far at all. This is just one point where Kubrick's visual style conveyed a series of layered meanings to the audience.
One of the great things about the film is that there is very little in the way of explanation for what we're seeing on screen. Most of the dialogue sits on the surface, dealing with mundane details. The characters themselves don't understand the significance of what they're experiencing. Even Dave, the astronaut played by Keir Dullea, has no comprehension of the journey, the odyssey on which he has embarked, until the very end. Kubrick intentionally left the film open to interpretation, which is what has allowed it such malleability that it remains popular even to this day.
The special effects in the film are astounding. 2001 was and in many ways still is a benchmark for visual effects. Kubrick's attention to detail and accuracy are to thank here. He and Arthur C. Clarke visited NASA and used their research to extrapolate how space travel would work and grow. The result is that quite often, the film stays true to actual physics, giving it an extra level of authenticity. It's done so well that watching it today, it feels completely natural. Most people forget that the film was made before the first moon landing, and before much about space travel was known. The fact that it feels authentic is a testament to the work Kubrick and his team put into it.
The use of music is equally important. Kubrick commissioned a score, but abandoned it when the temp score he used for editing worked perfectly for his purposes. Of course, there's the famous use of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" during the main and end titles, as well as the "Blue Danube" during the space docking sequence (also known as the "Space Waltz" for obvious reasons). At the time, with the exception of a few rare films by filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, movie music was used either incidentally or to punctuate the action occurring on screen. Stanley Kubrick broke those conventions through his use of music, making the score independent of the action on screen, and not emanating from something in the actual film, such as a jukebox. This had the result of allowing the audience to free associate how the music related to the visual content. Not only that, but Kubrick used pieces by the experimental composer Gyorgy Ligeti, especially for the "Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite" sequence. Now, consider that this was a massive production by a major movie studio. The fact that such compositions were able to make it into the film is nothing short of miraculous, and points to the sheer clout Kubrick wielded by that point.
All of these elements and more make 2001: A Space Odyssey the enduring masterpiece that it is. It's conceptual thrust is literally cosmic in nature, tracing man's evolution from prehistoric to, as the title card says, "beyond the infinite." The film's layers of meaning build one upon the other, bouncing off each other and reflecting upon each other, creating an organic experience that is never the same twice, and will never be replicated. 2001: A Space Odyssey is beautiful, daring, intelligent, and transcendent. It's a true work of art, of which there are too few in cinema. If someone who never had any experience with culture asked me to give him a single example of each art form that would justify the entire medium to him, my choice for film would undoubtedly be 2001. Such is the power, the sheer undeniable creative energy that the movie holds. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't just a motion picture, it's an experience, a vital cultural milestone that continues to marvel and inspire generation after generation.
This is the best there is.
The HD DVD:
The only flaw I could find with the 2.20:1 VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer of 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it's not a 70mm film print being projected on a 100 foot screen. Short of the HD DVD transmogrifying itself, this is about the best we'll get for home video. And this is a real stunner. Aside from IMAX, 70mm is the highest quality film stock you can get, and already several HD titles transferred from 70mm have shown what kind of high quality we can expect. The detail is phenomenal. This transfer shows the amount of attention Kubrick paid to every aspect of his sets, with the label on every button visible, and the tiniest pieces of electronic components right there on the screen for us to see. Color reproduction is superb, with excellent separation. Perhaps the best praise I can give the image is that the wide shots (some of which encompass entire planets) exhibit as much detail and sharpness as the tightest close-ups. This transfer is breathtaking. It will look even better if you're playing it on a large screen with a projector. A film like important deserves no less than the best.
Warner Bros. offers up two Dolby Digital mixes for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first is standard Dolby Digital (640 kbps), and the other is lossless Dolby True HD (48 kHz/24-Bit). As some of you may know, 70mm natively had 6 channels of sound, allowing for surround mixes at a time when stereo and mono mixes were the standard. Kubrick paid as much attention to detail in the sound mix as he did to the visuals. I've seen 2001 in 70mm and the mix was strikingly unique. While the track here certainly sounds very good, it doesn't quite match what I heard in the theater. For one thing, HAL's voice is spread across the entire front soundstage, whereas in the original mix his voice clearly comes from only the center speaker. It gives HAL an unnatural quality that is lessened here. But these are nitpicks by a devotee of the picture. I think most will find this to be a very good mix. The music is expansive, filling the speakers and the room. Dialogue suffers slightly from the period in which it was recorded, but it sounds of the time and clearly isn't from poor remastering. Again, a few nitpicks aside, this is a fantastic mix and truly enhances the material.
Warner Bros. has released 2001: A Space Odyssey twice before on DVD, each time with a disappointing collection of extras. This has been remedied, as both this HD DVD and a simultaneously released 2-disc set is brimming with features. All of them are in standard definition.
- Commentary with Actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood: The actors who played the astronauts in the film weigh in with some thoughts and recollections. Gary Lockwood dominates the track, giving stories of how he first discovered Kubrick's work, and then what it was like to be on the set with him. Both men give their thoughts on how they feel the film holds up, the humor in it, and how good the effects still look. There's a good range of technical information and personal reminiscence.
- 2001 - The Making of a Myth: Sometimes too cheesy for its own good, this 40 minute documentary hosted by James Cameron still has a decent set of interviews. Everyone from collaborators such as Douglas Trumbull to commentators such as Camille Paglia and Roger Ebert discuss the film and its ramifications. There are a few behind the scenes photos, but not much footage from the set.
- Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick - The Legacy of 2001: A wide variety of filmmakers, from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to John Dykstra and Sydney Pollack, discuss how 2001 influenced them and changed the cinematic landscape.
- Vision of a Future Passed - The Prophecy of 2001: Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Trumbull, among others, talk about the technology in the film. Employees of various technology companies discuss how accurate Kubrick's ideas were.
- A Look Behind The Future: An examination of some of the behind the scenes components of the picture.
- What Is Out There? Keir Dullea hosts and narrates this feature, which is mostly Dullea himself reading quotes by notable scientists and philosophers on the subject of extraterrestrial life. There are some vintage interviews of Arthur C. Clarke thrown in for good measure. There's a lot here, but at times the presentation can get quite dry.
- FX And Early Conceptual Artwork: This is my personal favorite out of the extras package. In the first part, Douglas Trumbull explains some of the techniques used for the Stargate sequence. In the second, Christiane Kubrick shows us some previously unseen sketches she and the visual department made for areas in the Stargate sequence, none of which were used. You can see the influences of both Magritte and Dali and they're beautiful sketches, even if they weren't right for the film.
- Look! Stanley Kubrick: A collection of pictures Kubrick took in the 1940's for Look! magazine.
- 1966 Stanley Kubrick Interview: This is a radio interview hosted by Jeremy Bernstein that lasts almost an hour and a half. Kubrick is in top form here, with all kinds of interesting answers to Bernstein's questions. Not something you can just pop on, but very rewarding for those willing to take the time to sit down and pay attention.
2001: A Space Odyssey is, in my opinion, the single greatest film ever made. Kubrick's masterpiece changed the language of film and has inspired people all over the world. Short of seeing the film in 70mm, this is the best way to view it. The 1080p transfer on this HD DVD is absolutely stunning, and the sound is also very good, given the film's age. There's also a very nice set of extras that looks at various aspects of the film, its production, and its impact. This isn't just a great presentation of a one-of-a-kind movie, it's a reason to rejoice. Warner Bros. has done everyone everywhere a favor by releasing 2001: A Space Odyssey in this excellent package. This is the definition of "must have." DVD Talk Collector Series.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.