Back in 1999 Warners' rushed out a big Stanley Kubrick set to accompany the DVD release of his final feature Eyes Wide Shut. As most of the films in the set were sourced from older flat video masters, quite a rhubarb was raised over WHV's justifying the lackluster transfers with the contention that full-frame transfers were Stanley Kubrick's preference. Seven years and two boxed sets later that objection seems to have vanished, as Warners has finally done the genius director justice with remastered Special Editions of 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut; only Lolita and Barry Lyndon have been left behind. This review fixates on Kubrick's 70mm Cinerama wonder-movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is now more dazzling than ever in a 2-Disc Special Edition. It's also available on Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, formats that might begin to showcase the film's groundbreaking visuals.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most written-about films of all time, a great and visionary Science Fiction epic that can still carry the weight of deep-think analysis. Arthur C. Clarke tells us that Kubrick had little patience with previous Sci-Fi movies, and scorn for most of them. When Kubrick dismissed Things to Come as naïve, he had a point. Forty years after its premiere much of H.G. Wells' film seemed like an ancient fossil. Forty years have now passed since the arrival of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and only a few technical details have dated. Pan-Am no longer flies and we don't yet have space stations or gigantic interplanetary vehicles. The Cold War has cooled, at least in terms of Yanks vs. Russkies.
After the film's initial 'Huh?' impact -- it took a great many reviewers by surprise -- 2001 became a regular Rorschach Inkblot Test for filmgoers. Literal types looked for a concrete meaning for the mysterious monolith, while, inspired by Kubrick's visual pyrotechnics, impassioned art film adepts claimed to have accompanied astronaut Bowman "beyond the infinite". The words 'mind-blowing' and 'psychedelic' were added to the vocabularies of a few more million film-goers. 1
Every Kubrick film from 1953's awkward Fear and Desire forward had marked a quantum career leap for the director, taking him in less than a decade from amateur status to the top rank of his profession. When his films weren't moneymakers they were huge prestige successes, and most of them courted 'dangerous' subject matter -- war crimes, the nuclear stalemate, a novel deemed un-filmable. With 2001 Kubrick went way out on a limb, spending unheard-of sums on a fuzzy story about man's relationship to the universe. Before 1968's Planet of the Apes Science Fiction films had been middling performers at best, and more often than not slightly juvenile in appeal.
Few space effects had actually attempted an illusion of photo-reality. Kubrick wanted nothing to do with visible wires and fluctuating matte lines. Drawing talent as much from the scientific world as from movie back lots, he assembled a crew with the mandate to make everything as authentic and real as possible. Elaborate spaceship interiors are seen for only a few seconds, and massive sets cleverly create the illusion of zero gravity. The views of outer space are done as much as possible 'original negative', avoiding opticals that degrade the image. The entire picture was filmed in expensive 70mm, from enormous spaceship models to microphotography of lacquer smears mixing into water. To film the elaborate Dawn of Man sequence, giant front-projection plates of African locations were matched on English sound stages. 2
Across a hard cut, a bone becomes a nuclear weapons satellite. Michael Powell beat Kubrick to the draw with his time-bridging jump cut between the distant past and the near future, but Kubrick's cut from man's first weapon to his latest killing tool is a stunner, an impressive cosmic joke. We'll skip those millennia of world history, say Kubrick and Clarke; the only important issue is that mankind is still murderously aggressive. Dr. Floyd's nonchalant air regarding rumors of a bizarre 'moon epidemic' keeps the Russians off guard, but even he seems incapable of appreciating the full import of the buried monolith. His fellow 'professional' space executives are just as excited by their ham sandwiches. Space travel has become a routine that takes even evidence of intelligent life as a matter of course.
Unimaginative viewers were tickled by the film's futuristic hardware -- all shiny and clean, with many video status readouts -- but wondered when the outer-space thrills would show up. Previous space travel movies had featured near-disasters with meteors, dramatic intrigues on board and confrontations with dangerous aliens. 2001's space jocks Poole and Bowman play chess and exercise while maintaining an even strain of bland efficiency.
When HAL turns traitor 2001 becomes a battleground for analysis and interpretation. Many see the show as an epic struggle of man's destiny, as determined by his weapon-tools. Apemen were insecure and weak, and sought an advantage to prevail over their enemies; the space program is as dedicated to warfare as it is to exploration. HAL's mutiny shows Man to be losing control over his own weapon-tools. The murder of the majority of the crew, destroying the mission in order to save it, is a horrible joke on mankind, like the Doomsday Machine in Doctor Strangelove. A more cold-blooded massacre cannot be imagined; anybody with a feeling brain senses the tragedy as the life functions of Man's best and finest are 'terminated.' Perhaps the most chilling 'what's wrong with this picture' moment in films occurs when Frank Poole's pod pivots to attack him. We've already sensed HAL's growing paranoia when he read the astronaut's lips and discovered their plans to disconnect him. Mankind's perfect artificially intelligent helper flexes its newfound instinct for self-preservation.
That 'take' on 2001 works beautifully until the final chapter. I remember a nervous sensation flowing through the audience when the title "JUPITER - AND BEYOND THE INFINITE came up: what possible miracle would Kubrick put before us? A second interpretation is less Homo Sapiens-centric and more in line with Arthur C. Clarke's uncredited stories The Sentinel and especially Childhood's End. That novel shows the final generation of human children reincarnated as a new super-entity, much like 2001's Star Child.
In the second interpretation, the specifics of the Bowman vs. HAL duel on board Discovery are as inconsequential as the rest of human history. By leaving his planet, Man has proven himself a resourceful and intelligent species worthy of entrance into the league of galactic beings. Chasing the cookie-crumb trail of monoliths to the rendezvous amid the moons of Jupiter is sort of a graduation exam, not all that different than assembling the Interociter in This Island Earth.
As soon as the expedition to Jupiter begins, 2001 becomes another of Kubrick's sex-based cosmic jests. The Discovery looks like -- what else -- a giant Spermatozoa, and keepers of the monolith need only one human to (for lack of a better analogy) fertilize mankind's transition to its next evolutionary level. Like the myriads of Spermatazoa that don't reach the egg, the rest of our race is now irrelevant.
But the space executives have sent five living humans on board Discovery. To eliminate all but one (and prove him worthy of his prize), the aliens cause HAL's 'major malfunction'. Poor Poole is lost and Dave Bowman must continue the mission alone. Like Odysseus, Bowman uses his wits to overcome the pitfalls in his journey, but the end of his quest is a dead end for his personal existence. When he finally succumbs in the alien 'holding room', Bowman is replaced by a new being, a Star Child with god-like powers. In Kubrick's scheme of things, individual humans don't have souls, only a generic racial spirit with the potential to evolve to a new plane of god-like omnipotence.
Interpretation #2 is cold and anti-humanitarian at its core, but it's basic Stanley Kubrick. Arthur C. Clarke's fiction stressed great wonders for the future of mankind, but Kubrick the director repeatedly imagined human endeavors tripped up by fate and political folly.
Warners' 2001: A Space Odyssey Two-Disc Special Edition fulfills the promise of earlier editions. MGM's 1998 disc was ported over for the first Warners' release, a fairly ugly non-enhanced transfer with a few choice audio problems. Warners' follow-up remaster improved the transfer but was light in the extras department. This new disc is yet another remaster (take a look at one of the HD versions if possible) that rights previous wrongs; even the overture and exit music play over a appropriately blank black screens. Audio is in English and French with subs in English, French and Spanish.
The two-disc set contains an interesting set of extras, old and new. On a commentary Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood discuss their experience working for Stanley Kubrick but can offer few insights as to the workings of his mind; Kubrick kept most normal kinds of on-set communications to a minimum. Dullea does remember suggesting the business with the broken glass for the last scene of Bowman in captivity. 3. A theatrical trailer is present on the first disc as well.
Disc two has the longer extras. The Making of a Myth is a docu overview produced for Channel 4 in England, apparently in 2001. Douglas Trumbull is interviewed on a California beach, lamenting the fact that manned space exploration was curtailed right after the Apollo moon landings. Sir Arthur C. Clarke speaks from the veranda of his home in Sri Lanka; in his garden is a full-scale monolith, with a local monkey playing on it! New featurettes use the same group of interview subjects from Barry Diller to Keir Dullea to approach the movie from four separate angles. One features testimonials from latter-day filmmakers and others examine the accuracy of the film's prophecies. For one featurette, Keir Dullea reads from several interpretations of the meaning of 2001, including interviews with Kubrick.
The shows contain plenty of interesting behind-the-scenes shots, although the focus stays on the giant Ferris Wheel-like centrifuge scene. Another extra gathers conceptual artwork for the film's special effects, while Douglas Trumbull and Christiane Kubrick explain how they were accomplished. Many of the art concepts look like bad Salvador Dalí, or reject ideas for Altered States.
Especially interesting for Kubrick fans is a photo-filled piece on the director's first job as a photographer for Look magazine. Also good is Jeremy Bernstein's 1966 audio interview with Kubrick. We don't expect Stanley to sound like any ordinary New Yorker!
The extras teach us two surprising things. First, Kubrick was often at a loss to visualize an alien world with 'unseeable sights' and 'new colors'. Some of his psychedelic images no longer work as well as they might, especially the solarized views of alpine glaciers, ocean waves and Monument Valley. And second, Kubrick ran out of time and money just like many another ambitious filmmaker; the unique and puzzling 'Dorchester Hotel' ending was apparently considered a compromise. By coming up with the knockout graphic punch of the Star Gate sequence, Douglas Trumbull truly was the picture's savior. The effect blew away audiences in 1968, leading to the film's reissues as 'The Ultimate Trip' and finding a commercial niche for a movie that hadn't gained a grip on the general audience.
Within three years, Hollywood's Cinerama Dome was reviving 2001: A Space Odyssey every time a new booking under-performed. Dalt Wizzy's dizzy marketers repackaged the 1940 Fantasia as a similar 'head trip' movie. For either title, we'd all trek to The Dome to take in the 'light show.' Whenever I see 2001 on a screen, I can still remember the smell of marijuana in the air!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
2001: A Space Odyssey (Two-Disc Special Edition) rates:
1. MGM Culver City's head negative cutter Mike Sheridan told Savant that Stanley Kubrick made editorial changes to 2001 even as he crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner. After its premiere, Kubrick cut the film by 15 -20 minutes and ordered the chapter title cards -- "The Dawn of Man", etc. -- which Sheridan cut in in Culver City. Kubrick controlled the negative and all outs were returned to him, so the extra content of the deleted 20 minutes are locked in the memories of those who saw it. The revisions caught up with the movie less than a week after it opened in its reserved seat engagements. Future producer Jon Davison recorded his reaction in a 1968 letter. He was floored by the movie and went to see it only a day or two later -- to be confronted with the new cut. The same thing happened to the next year's The Wild Bunch, only done without its director's knowledge or consent. It played only a week before being trimmed by over ten minutes.
2. Why do the leopard's eyes glow so mysteriously in the shot of a leopard lying atop its prey? The animal's retinas act just like the front-projection material behind him on the stage, reflecting the full brilliance of the light of the front-projector.
3. I believe that the image of the broken glass has been linked to a theme in Nietzsche's book Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
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