It looks great in every format. This year I’ve seen 2001 in a standard theatrical presentation, in a 70mm “unrestored” print, and in an IMAX presentation. Each one was amazing. Seeing the 70mm print — made from the original negative, it’s full of visible scratches and wobble — between two viewings of the pristine digital version was instructive, but really not much of a whiplash. Christopher Nolan has done admirable and important work in giving audiences the opportunity to see 2001 on high-quality analog film just as its first audiences did, but the digital version is tastefully done, and gorgeously immersive on a giant IMAX screen. Digital noise removal fits Stanley Kubrick’s antiseptic aesthetic.
It’s a masterpiece of storytelling. 2001 is infamous for its unconventional narrative and cryptic ending, but a fundamental reason it exerts such a spell is that Kubrick demonstrates a supremely confident grasp of visual storytelling. Consider the opening sequence with the apes: it’s deliberately slow, yes, but every single shot contributes to gradually establishing the milieu and the stakes until we’re properly shocked to see the first instance of armed combat among human ancestors. Similarly, the final “voyage” isn’t just a kaleidoscope of images. There’s a progression and a logic leading up to the legendary sequence in which David Bowman experiences the progression of his own life from both inside and outside his own body.
The detail is near-bottomless. Those zero-gravity toilet instructions? You could read them from top to bottom if you had enough time and resolution. (They’re published in full in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.) Maybe the best example of Kubrick’s attention to detail, though, are the several sequences where we can see movement in the interiors of ships and space stations. To realize in the 1960s, that took exacting multi-process photography, and the scale and orientation match up perfectly. In the scene where the lunar landing ship is lowered into the base, we see multiple bays full of working station staff — and in one bay, there’s a monitor that nearly shares our own view of the incoming ship.
(For comparison, consider the fact that George Lucas, whose massive space vessels were directly inspired by Kubrick’s, didn’t even try to achieve a similar effect in Star Wars. A single figure seen walking on the deck of Jabba’s giant sail barge in Return of the Jedi, 15 years after 2001, is wildly out of scale. Kubrick would never have allowed it.)
The sound design is responsible for much of the film’s impact. As Nolan, no stranger to extreme sound design, noted, “The film is mixed in a very extreme way. There are incredible sonic peaks that are beyond anything anyone would do today.”
Given how influential and revered 2001 has been over the past half-century, it’s remarkable how few science fiction filmmakers have demonstrated his resolve at depicting the silence of space. Star Wars sound effects are overwhelmingly the norm, and when we’re not hearing the ships, we’re often hearing a pounding original score. Not only did Kubrick consider point-of-view from not just a visual but an auditory perspective (that’s why we’re often hearing Bowman’s nervous breathing, or HVAC hiss), his musical selections leveraged the avant-garde music to evoke the profound disorientation of space travel.
HAL’s death scene is the heart of the film. One of the film’s deepest mysteries isn’t who cleaned up Bowman’s broken wine glass, it’s what the central section has to do with the movie’s larger arc. A taut, slow-burning battle of wills that builds to one of the most unique life-and-death confrontations in all of cinema, the Discovery story is, purely from a plot standpoint, ultimately tangential to the universe-spanning epic of assisted evolution.
The thematic connections, though, are acute when Bowman enters HAL’s nerve center — one of the most striking sets in a film that’s full of them — and begins to slowly disable the computer’s mind. With HAL, Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke dramatize the poignance of being a conscious entity with a personal relationship to one’s own creator. HAL knows his powers, but he also discovers his limits.
In the opening section, the apes greet the monolith with fear, hesitating to touch it. In the final section, Bowman’s journey through the stargate is agonizing; when he arrives at the room prepared for him, he’s delirious with trauma. HAL, the superbrain whose capacity for emotion has been doubted by Bowman himself, finally confesses to the man who’s taking him offline.
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave.”