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2001: A Space Odyssey
That said, in 2018, I'm finding more and more that this film is something of an acquired taste. I'm only thirty-six years old, so I certainly don't want to come off as the crotchety old-man spewing, "Get off my lawn!" But I do think living in a technological age that's spring-loaded with instant gratification has played a part in this, which is ironic, considering this film very much deals with the pitfalls of advancement.
Straight away, I'll tell you that 2001: A Space Odyssey requires patience. The story is a deliberate slow-burn, using beautifully mesmerizing imagery to drive the point home just as much as the actual events and dialogue contained within its two-and-a-half hour runtime.
Things begin with a musical overture over a black screen. Over the course of several minutes, the tone for the rest of the film is set, and when we finally get treated to our first bit of live-action footage, Kubrick whisks us back to the literal dawn of man… or at least some variation of it. As things progress, you'll spend minutes watching apes deal with day-to-day life and a space station twirl against a backdrop of stars. At this point of the film, you'll either be sucked in or be tempted to ask, "Just when the hell are things going to pick up?" If you believe you might be the latter person… well, as much as it pains me to say it, this film may not be for you.
But if you're the kind of filmgoer that can be sucked in by visual mastery and feel the impact of the silence between the beats, then you're in for what's likely to be one of the most impactful film experiences you've ever had.
I know most of you have already seen this film, but for the few who haven't, expect an intriguing take on what happens when life, at least as far as our ancestral branches of the DNA tree are concerned, reaches the point of stagnation.
Throughout history, scientists have been looking for the ‘smoking gun' or ‘missing link' that connects the evolutionary bridge from ape to man. Some believe it was an act of God, others an unexplainable happenstance of ‘switches' in our genetic code that flip on-and-off as needed, and others theorize about alien intervention. 2001 puts forth its own interpretation but never answers the riddle explicitly - so be warned if ambiguity also isn't your thing - and although its take is certainly unique, I don't think it's as important as the observations being made about where we, the human race, are headed in the long run.
A fair chunk of this feature revolves around a couple of mission pilots with a serious predicament to suss out, but is given mixed signals as to how they should proceed. The ship's computer system, HAL 9000, suggests a drastic measure which mission control waves aside, but Hal insists their immediate dismissal is the byproduct of human error. The pilots weigh their options but begin to grow suspicious of Hal's motives, wondering if it (he?), as preposterous as it sounds, is showing signs of free will. If so, they have to figure out to what end. If Hal has the capacity to lie and deceive, where does that leave the pilots and their mission? Why would Hal want to place the pilots at risk in the first place? Needless to say, this all spirals down a rabbit hole that's unlike anything you've ever seen.
And this cat-and-mouse game between Hal and the mission pilots underlines a very important thematic element. The humans in this film have monochromatic personalities, undoubtedly caused by mankind's marriage to technology. I get the sense that much like the apes at the beginning of the film, this is a sign of humans finally hitting their evolutionary wall. The fact that artificial intelligence (HAL 9000) can exhibit more human-like tendencies than real flesh and blood signifies the need for change, but what can serve as such a catalyst? I won't delve into that because I'd be moving into massive spoiler territory, so I'll instead tell you the interactions between Hal and the mission pilots is real ‘sit on the edge of your seat' stuff. This was true when I first saw the film in the nineties, but now that real-world AI projects have made headlines for predicting our end at the hands of machines, the fear this thread produces in 2018 is more palpable than ever before.
But there's more to this film than fear and anxiety. 2001 is also full of awe and wonder, and by the time the end credits roll, I find those are the feelings that stick with me most. Well, that and the amazement over how timeless this film has proven to be. Not only in its depiction of the drawbacks of AI development, but in its design overall. All the space station and spaceship interiors are minimalistic, and it's a look that keeps the film from ever feeling dated. The only thing that really leaps out as ‘not of this time' are the low-resolution CRT screens being used throughout (you could probably count the pixels if you wanted to). I know there are other sci-fi flicks that both look and feel like a product of their time and people love them for that, but 2001 would have lost some of its luster over the years if its visual design could no longer be taken seriously.
It astounds me that this film was so polarizing at the time of its release, but - and I know this may sound blasphemous coming from a critic, of all things - critics often miss the mark. The legacy of any given film is what ultimately matters, and very few have wound up being as highly regarded or influential as 2001, and this film is a huge reason as to why Kubrick is considered to have been one of the best filmmakers of all time (alongside Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, and more). If you've never seen it before, you're in for the experience of a lifetime, and as for the rest, you're already aware of how infinitely watchable it is.
But let's get to what matters: How does this release look and sound?
2001: A Space Odyssey underwent a new photochemical restoration and was cleaned further through digital processes - don't worry, no DNR switch had been pulled - up-to and including the most accurate color-timing for home video thus far. The end result is simply one of the most magnificent catalog releases on 4K Blu-ray to date.
2001: A Space Odyssey is presented at a resolution of 2160p via the HEVC codec and an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, and although I knew it would look good, I wasn't expecting it'd look this good.
For months, there's been a lot of concern that Christopher Nolan would somehow screw things up, mainly because modern day Hollywood has a tendency to blanket everything in teal and orange and Nolan's filmography has never been noted for having deep and inky blacks. YouTube trailers eventually confirmed that the color timing for this release was indeed different, so naturally, everyone was in a tizzy.
I mentioned something similar in my Halloween ('78) review a couple of months ago, but one thing people fail to understand is that the color timing they've grown accustomed to on television and home video over the years is, in many cases, not as accurate as they'd like to think. So while the color timing is different compared to what we've been watching for years, this newly restorative effort has been timed directly against 2001's original release. It really can't get much better unless Stanley Kubrick himself were alive to provide direct input. In his absence however, Leon Vitali, who worked closely with the famed director, is the next best thing.
The amount of detail on display is astonishing. If I hadn't already known better, the very moment we see the dusty planes in the film's (real) opening, I would have guessed it was shot within the last decade. When apes entered the picture, I was able to see all their fur clearly defined as well as the artificiality of the masks they wore (although they still look great considering when the film was made). Moving forward, the details both outside and within spacecraft are unhindered by contrast issues, softening, or worse. Clothing and skin textures are also well defined, even under lighting conditions where you'd expect them not to be (reds and blues typically wipe them out). Modern films still look a tad better in comparison, but what's been done with 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to drop jaws. Film grain is also fine and unobtrusive, and the visible dirt and debris from the previous HD-DVD/Blu-ray releases are nowhere in sight.
Speaking of contrast, what's on this disc is pretty remarkable. Black levels are quite deep. There's a little elevation at times but nothing that doesn't appear to be inherent to the source. The implementation of HDR creates a well-balanced image with an appreciable amount of depth. I was especially impressed by how bright certain objects were able to get, and without conveying a sense of revisionism at that. As soon as the sun rises from behind the Earth and moon, you know what kind of HDR experience you'll be in for. This is further reinforced when we see spacecraft brilliantly lit against the backdrop of space... but there's a caveat to this. These scenes are going to be real torture tests for HDR televisions, LED LCD's specifically. If your setup gets super bright but doesn't have a high number of dimmable zones and/or poor FALD algorithms, you're going to get a lot of blooming during these space sequences. That's not a reflection of the transfer's quality in any way, shape or form, but it's worth noting.
Colors are equally brilliant. There's a nice amount of saturation in the ‘dawn of man' act, but once the story catches up to the future, things are more muted. Whites are still white and haven't been tinted and skin tones remain accurate, but the sets and wardrobe are sterile by design, probably to accentuate man's dependence on technology and tools. There are some important moments with plenty of red and one with a multitude of colors, and the wide color gamut on this disc presents them with utmost vibrancy… again, without appearing the least bit revisionist.
Compression fares fine, and the only real nitpick I can make about this transfer is that there's a moment or two with sharp haloing, but considering the efforts put forth into providing justice to 2001 once and for all, I believe this, too, is also inherent to the source. For all intents and purposes, this is a five star catalog release and anyone sitting on the fence should pick this up as soon as possible.
It's come to my attention that a fade in the film has been swapped with a straight cut instead. I wouldn't have personally known about this if not for some grumblings online though. It did not detract from my viewing but it'd be nice to see the studio address the issue.
UPDATE 12/23/18: We had heard rumor of the October release discs - many of which did find their way out into the wild - being recalled. Upon getting in touch with our WB rep, they had informed us that the new release in December would be comprised of the same discs. As of December 18th, that info is known to be false, as the new discs contain the corrected fade as opposed to the cut. I have asked our editor to get in touch with WB to see where people can request replacement discs.
The included Blu-ray disc is brand spankin' new and is also much improved over the previous home video release(s). It's no slouch, but the addition of HDR and the wide color gamut make the 4K disc far superior.
This release comes outfitted with two 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio tracks, and while purists would argue you should always listen to whatever replicates the original track as close as possible, I don't think you can go wrong choosing between the 5.1 ‘original' (derived from a 6 track source) or the ‘restored and remixed' version. I don't say that lightly, because sound design is an integral part to the experience that 2001: A Space Odyssey provides, but there's really nothing wrong with either option.
More importantly, even providing such an option is what every studio should strive for if they're going to give us a remastered treatment.
Overall, both tracks do a fantastic job with clear dialogue and a clean classical music score, but the original track has a tad more low-end response but also distortion. Nothing extreme, mind you, but the difference is there. Again, purists will probably prefer this, but it's worth noting that the remastered audio provides wonderful dynamic range and a sonic experience otherwise, and much like the video restoration, does so without feeling revisionist.
I'd urge those who purchase this disc to listen to both options without any preconceived notions and pick the one they prefer without feeling as if they've made some blasphemous decision.
There are three discs in the 4K case: A Blu-ray with just the film and an audio commentary, a Blu-ray with pretty much all the other supplements, and a 4K disc which houses just the film and the same audio commentary as the Blu-ray film disc.
The supplements minus the commentary ring in at over three and a half hours, and the content itself is all rather solid. There's a lot of discussion of the film's legacy, and includes interviews with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Other featurettes focus on the film's impressive take on our technological future, production details, and questions about what's really out in the universe. The most interesting bit of archival footage is an interview with Stanley Kubrick himself, which is seventy-six minutes of audio over a still image of the infamous Star Child.
The only problem with this supplemental package is that it's still the same 480i and 480p stuff we've seen on prior releases. It would have been nice to see something a bit more monumental for the film's fiftieth anniversary, especially considering how the film's restoration had created headlines earlier in 2018.
Otherwise, the 4K disc case comes in a sturdy cardboard box with an opening on the side. Contained within the box is an envelope with a booklet and promo picture cards.
The booklet features plenty of concept art and promo stills.
Warner Bros. gave me a near heart-attack last year when most of their high-profile catalog releases - of Christopher Nolan's, no less - stacked the 4K discs on top of another, which forced me into making a few exchanges in my quest for flawless discs (especially since 4K discs and players can be especially finicky). This release fortunately sees the 4K disc on its own hub, with the Blu-ray discs stacked on the other side. I'm still not a fan of ANY discs being stacked, and wish WB would follow Paramount's lead and throw a flipper in the middle, but this is a step in the right direction.
-2001: The Making of a Myth
-Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001
-Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001
-2001: A Space Odyssey - A Look Behind the Future
-What Is Out There?
-2001: FX and Conceptual Artwork
-Look: Stanley Kubrick!
-11/27/66 Interview with Stanley Kubrick (Conducted By Jeremy Bernstein)
There's always the risk of sounding hyperbolic when someone describes a film as ‘timeless' and ‘flawless' in the same breath, but I feel completely comfortable making those claims about 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a beautiful and wondrous masterpiece that has impacted audiences, numerous filmmakers, and pop-culture in general. To see it so faithfully restored as one of the best 4K catalog discs ever made - and I've seen quite a few - is one of the most notable ‘this format has arrived' moments I've had to date. Tastes have certainly changed over the course of time so I raise a finger of warning for those who have no patience for carefully paced films, but for everyone else, this is simply one of the best pieces of cinema from what's arguably the best filmmaker of all time. The supplements on this release could have used a bit more work, but this is one of the easiest DVDTalk Collector Series ratings I've ever had the pleasure of doling out. Buy with confidence!
UPDATE: It appears due to disc replication issues - which have plagued a number of studios recently - it appears the release date has been shifted to December 18th.
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!