Revisiting “2001: A Space Odyssey” theatrically for its 50th anniversary…

First, I want to apologize to any regular readers for the lack of fresh content for the last couple weeks (feels like forever ago to me).  Between Halloween (a very big deal at my house) and most of an Election Day week spent nauseously nervous, things have been a bit crazy around here.   Secondly, I know I wrote about “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and its 50th anniversary only last February, but there is a new spin to this story; yesterday, for the first time in 35 years, I had another chance to see the movie theatrically.   To those who might wonder what the big deal is about seeing “2001” in cinema,  I can only assume that they’ve never seen the film on a big screen.  “2001” is one of the reasons why movie theaters exist.  Seeing the film in its native habitat changes its perspective as dramatically as seeing one’s house from the street versus seeing it from a plane at 20,000 feet.  Yes, it’s still just your house, but the change in perspective makes it a bit more interesting.   For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to assume the reader has seen the film (or they can cheat, and check out the blue highlighted link above).

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Like “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (both 1977), “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of those seminal, ‘event’ science fiction epics that begs to be seen theatrically.  Luckily, my very first viewing of the film was in a theater… albeit a rather small one, some 35 years ago (long before THX-Dolby color/sound optimization became the standard).  The theater was showing a revival screening of the film and, after reading Arthur C. Clarke‘s novelization (based on his short story “The Sentinel”), I was desperately curious to see it.   The film was projected from an older 35mm print that was slightly reddening (and somewhat grainy) with age.

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The theatrical print I saw of “2001” 35 years ago wasn’t quite as extreme in its age & red-cast as the photograph in the Before example, but you get the idea…

If anyone reading this has ever seen an old first generation color photograph or 8mm film where skin tones and backgrounds look slightly ‘pinkish’?  That’s what I’m talking about.  The red-cast and grain weren’t too distracting, but even at age 16, they were certainly noticeable.   At any rate, the movie itself was so good that I lost myself in the experience.  There I was, sitting in the cool dark of the theater, alone with the images and intense sounds of breathing as the astronauts of the film seemed to be giving me a first-person tour of human spaceflight.  Despite the intentional ‘dehumanizing’ of its lead characters (save for the psychologically imbalanced super-computer HAL 9000) “2001” has a vivid, ‘you-are-there’ intimacy that is utterly lost on the home screen.  Years later, I’ve owned the movie in various home video formats (CED videodiscs, laserdiscs, DVDs, Blu-ray and digital copies), and I’ve come to memorize almost every frame, but even the best looking copies are still mere souvenirs collected in eternal pursuit of the theatrical experience I remembered in my teens.

 

2018: A Space Anniversary.

Cut to November 7th, 2018.  Over 50 years since the release of the original film in theaters (which I missed, on account of being only one and a half years old at the time), and over 35 years since I’d seen that grainy, reddening print in a long-demolished theater, I finally had a chance to see “2001” theatrically again.   I jumped at the chance; literally buying my ticket online with my iPhone as my wife and I waited patiently in another (IMAX) theater for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to begin (for the record, I was only using my phone long before the theater went dark for the previews; I am not “cell phone guy”).   “Bohemian Rhapsody” turned out to be a lot of fun (Queen’s entire catalog of songs have been stuck in my head for days now), but after we left, I found myself already looking forward to seeing “2001” in a few days… yes, “2001: A Space Odyssey”; a movie I’d already seen countless times (and even memorized) years earlier.   I was looking forward to seeing a movie I’d already owned on video for decades.

If that last sentence didn’t make any sense, I’m afraid the rest of this story won’t either…

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Yesterday morning (Weds. November 7th) I was downtown getting some minor dental surgery done, and afterward, I drove around town trying to kill a few hours before the movie started (I didn’t feel like driving home again only to leave a couple hours later).  I ate a fast food lunch around noon, as the anesthetic slowly wore off (looked like I had Bell’s Palsy for awhile), and since my Galaxy Luxury Theatre was close by, I got there a little early.  After grabbing a coffee in the lobby, I was all set to go back to that future that never was; the future of an alternate 2001 as seen through the “Mad Men”-lens of the 1960s.

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“My god, it’s full of stars!”  Look closely at the top and you’ll see the ceiling of this Galaxy Theatre auditorium was full of tiny LED stars…very appropriate.

The screen wasn’t IMAX-big, nor was it the Galaxy’s big Dolby Atmos auditoriums.  It was in one of the smaller auditoriums, but the seats (as usual) were just amazing; heavy, motorized pleather recliners better than anything I have at home (even my bed, so help me).  The ceiling was also dotted with hundreds of tiny, winking LED stars… yes, stars on the ceiling of a “Galaxy” theater waiting to see “2001: A Space Odyssey”; it was kismet.   The movie opened with an intro about this being part of the “Flashback Cinema” series that Galaxy runs every month (my wife and I caught “JAWS” here a year ago), and there was a talking head guy talking about the landmark movie we were about to see (all four of us in the theater… talk about an intimate venue).   Then, the movie starts…

The bombast of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” began, as the moon, Earth and sun align during the opening titles.  Then we cut to the “Dawn of Man” sequence…

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What a difference 35 years of movie projection technology makes!  Instead of a grainy, red-cast faded print, this 4K digital presentation looked as if it were made yesterday.  The early man hominid makeups are still documentarian in their realism, and there is only the slightest hint of front-projection artifice in the interior-for-exterior shots of the apemen living on the plains of Africa.  It was a few years after I first saw the film (in 1983) that I learned it was not shot on location, and that most of the scenes with the warring apemen were shot indoors (using front-projected sky backdrops) at Borehamwood Studios near London.   Now I see it.  In 1983, I certainly didn’t.  Either way, it’s still a convincing illusion that challenges any green-screen faked movie made today (and still bests most of them).   The scene of the monolith-inspired “Moonwatcher” (Daniel Richter) smashing bones was apparently one of the few ‘real’ exteriors filmed for the movie, and it was shot on a raised platform just outside the studio doors (!).  That ancient “African” sky is all British.

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Next came the sequence of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) catching a connector flight to the moon (and being quite blasé about it, in fact).  This is the sequence of the film that dates it the most, and not in terms of technology or visual FX work, but rather the nagging sexism and non-inclusive casting of the time.   As deeply as I love this movie, and despite its groundbreaking visual prowess, “2001” is still very much a product of the 1960s.  Most women seen in the film are little more than stewardesses and receptionists, while most of the space travelers (on Space Station Five, at Clavius base and aboard Discovery One) are white males.   There is not a single person of color seen anywhere.  Not even an extra.   The fashions are also somewhat retro, even for 1968; all of the men are wearing high-waters, and most of the women are dressed like Jackie Kennedy.   We also see Floyd have a tense encounter with a group of suspicious Russians, implying that the Cold War didn’t end in this universe.  Once again, this was a simple lack of foresight on Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s parts, but movies are always reflections of the time in which they’re made; especially when they try to forecast the future from their own present.  That said?  The sequence of the Pan-Am (hehe… Pan-Am) shuttle docking to the strains of Johann Strauss’ classic waltz “The Blue Danube” are still majestic and hold up surprisingly well on a big screen.  The flesh-tones of the actors in this 4K print were also uncannily accurate, not to mention the staggering level of detail seen in the spaceship miniatures (this was a good quarter century before CGI took hold with “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park”).

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Similarly impressive was Floyd’s descent to the moon’s quarantined Clavius Base, where he (and others) have taken part in a coverup.  Once again, “The Blue Danube” picks up again, as a detailed lunar lander miniature (with pilots visible in the windows) descends to to beautifully detailed telescopic images, and later tabletop miniatures, of the lunar surface.  Once again, the 4K print does not betray the movie’s age.  Most of the FX in this sequence still hold up.  A minor nit is that the astronauts glimpsed on the lunar surface don’t quite move with the bouncier gravity one sees in Apollo video footage, which is quite understandable, since this film went into production three years before Apollo 11 landed at Mare Tranquilitatis, on July 20th, 1969.

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At the base, Floyd meets with his associates as they hem and haw about the coverup story and security oaths, etc.  If there were a scene in which to use the bathroom, it’s this one.  Basically a lot of older white guys (and one woman who never speaks) talking about the coverup.  The conference room set is very Kubrickian; stark white lighting panel walls and nondescript U-shaped table, a small podium and some groovy looking chairs.   The conference room set, save for its electronic door, wouldn’t be too out of place in “The Shining.”

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On a bigger screen, even the moon sandwiches looked a bit tastier…

The next scene when Floyd hops onto a lunar bus to the monolith itself is the payoff; and the monolith’s piercing, electronic shriek at theater-volume made me wish I’d brought a pair of earplugs.  I both love and hate modern sound systems.  Deafening, but effective…

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Oh, what a feeling…when you’re boxing on the ceiling!

The following scenes involve the crew of Discovery One; commander Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), pilot Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), three hibernating crewmembers and the HAL 9000 computer (voice of Douglas Rain).   The Discovery interiors, with their incredible vertical and horizontal volume, really make the most of the big screen; seeing Poole jog and shadow-box along the walls of the ship’s main centrifuge are still pretty amazing.  These days, I would imagine they’d just CGI him climbing the walls, but it wouldn’t quite have the authenticity of the actor climbing along the walls of a physical set.   The clarity and size of the 4k print made this particular sequence almost dizzying.

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The conversation between Bowman and Poole in the privacy of the pod (to escape HAL’s electronic eyes and ears) is the last scene before the intermission; yes, once upon a time, movies over a certain length had intermissions.   Even the DVD versions of this film and others (such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”) still have their intermission breaks for home viewing, but at home one only needs the pause button to answer the phone, scream at the barking dogs, or hit the restroom.   In the bygone days of those three hour MGM epics, intermissions were a nice way to give the audience a break, but they also helped give moviegoers some feeling of attending a live play.  It was a nice little flourish you don’t see anymore; and at this screening of “2001” (as well as my previous screening 35 years earlier), all of the entr’acte breaks were restored into the movie itself.   Yes, they were just black screens with music from the soundtrack, but they still added to the experience of attending something special… an event, not just a movie.

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Galaxy Theatres even added this nice little onscreen cue to remind audiences that it was time to take their seats following “2001”‘s intermission break; I appreciated that, as did the other few patrons in the theater with me.

I actually used the intermission to hit the restroom (that coffee went right to work!), but I made it back to my seat in plenty of time; too much so, in fact.  Once again, I’d love to see modern movies (especially butt-numbing superhero epics) insert a 5-10 minute intermission into their already lengthy running times.  I still remember my poor aching kidneys damn near shutting down by the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”; a movie that really needed a restroom break.

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HAL-9000: “Here, let me help you with that pesky oxygen hose, Frank…”

The rest of “2001” happens at a pretty fast clip, though it never feels rushed; Kubrick’s methodical and deliberate pacing never breaks that first-person feeling of being on the spaceship itself.   After killing Frank by cutting the air hose of his spacesuit with a remotely controlled pod claw, HAL then sets about murdering the hibernating crew members.  I’d almost forgotten that the alarms on their failing life-support tubes are loud as hell, too!   When watching “2001” on home video, I usually mute this scene or fast-forward through it, but that’s one of the realities of movie attendance; no remote control.  You are at the mercy of whatever images and sounds are thrown at you.  I actually prefer movies this way because it reinforces cinema as a live event, much like (the aforementioned) live plays, sports, or concerts.  We’re right there (almost in realtime) over Dave’s shoulder, as he blasts back into the ship through the ’emergency airlock’ (sans space helmet) and goes about the task of shutting down HAL’s higher brain functions…essentially killing the supercomputer, or at least lobotomizing it into a more docile, harmless state.  With the entire crew dead, Bowman faces the giant monolith near Jupiter by himself.  Once again, seeing it by myself, on a big screen in a darkened auditorium (with little stars in the ceiling, no less) really accentuated Bowman’s loneliness.

“Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”

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The next sequence is the real eye-candy of the movie, as Dave ‘falls’ into the giant space-based monolith (a gateway to another dimension) and in one of the most unchained moments of pure cinematic experience to this day, Dave’s little pod goes on one wild psychedelic trip.  Colors & geometric shapes flash by (via the magic of FX maestro Doug Trumbull’s ‘slit-scan’ process) as Dave sees the birth of the universe, a primordial false-colored Earth and (possibly?) the beginnings of life itself.  The aliens give Bowman a quick primer on the history of the universe, as the filmmakers give the audience one hell of a show.  In that plush reclining chair, it was really easy to let those images flow unobstructed into my senses in a way that watching them on home video never could.  It’s no wonder that hippies used to drop acid to this sequence in some theaters.  The movie’s early 1970s rerelease tagline became “The Ultimate Trip” in a crass (but understandable) attempt to cash in on this phenomenon.

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Bowman’s pod then lands in what appears to be a recreation of a luxury hotel suite in oddly futuristic yet archaic Louis XIV-inspired setting.  From there, his lifetime is artificially sped up as each older incarnation of himself dissolves into the next.  We also hear echoing noises which were supposed to be (according to Kubrick, I believe) the unseen ‘aliens’ conversing over their latest ‘test subject.’  Finally, Bowman’s oldest bedridden self frailly lifts a finger toward a large black monolith now standing at the edge of his bed…

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…as he is transformed into a “Star Child” and instantly appears in Earth orbit; presumably to usher in the next phase of human evolution, much as the bone-wielding Moonwatcher did on the plains of Africa four million years earlier.

The End.

(followed by a final black screen, over which played “The Blue Danube” one final time as exiting music).

Well, I got to the theater around 1:30 pm, the movie started at 2 pm, and it was now close to 5 pm.  Long day (this was after morning dental surgery as well), but I drove home with that same satisfied feeling one gets after a really good meal.

“2001” has still got it.  Whatever ‘it’ is?  That’s up for debate…

 

“It’s origin and purpose still a total mystery.”

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is that purest of cinematic experiences… a fully immersive universe that is all sight and sound (and mind, not unlike “The Twilight Zone”).  The movie does tell a coherent story, but it also leaves a lot of its narrative for the viewer to figure out.  The information you need to know is related to you, but not spoon-fed.  Even Arthur Clarke’s fairly decent novelization (written concurrently with the screenplay) comes off as a clunky, nuts-and-bolts exposition dump next to the unapologetically blithe nature of Kubrick’s movie.   Seeing the movie again theatrically reminded me of how such a ‘deliberately buried’ narrative might’ve frustrated some 1960s moviegoers, who were no doubt used to more linear types of narrative storytelling (especially for a big budget MGM studio release, not some dinky arthouse experiment).   Reviews at the time of “2001”’s release were not universally positive, but then again, many classics aren’t recognized as such early on.

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“I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing.”

I want to take this opportunity to thank both Galaxy Theatres and any other chain (such as my local Starlight Cinema) that continue to regularly show classic movies on the big screen, both for nostalgic old geeks like myself as well as for new audiences to appreciate and analyze.   It was also quite nice to see the film projected with a startlingly clean digital 4K print (a vast improvement over my original 1983 viewing), as well as the crystal clear sound and restored entr’acte breaks; those were little touches that added to the overall experience for me.

Kubrick’s “2001″ is uniquely designed to be nothing less than a cinematic event.  It wouldn’t (and couldn’t) work as a stage play or a radio drama.  Despite my owning the movie on multiple home video formats, yesterday’s viewing reinforced my belief that the silver screen is where “2001: A Space Odyssey” will always truly belong.

 

EDIT:  A sad update to this story.

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Woke up this morning (Monday, Nov. 12th) to read this:  “Douglas Rain, voice of computer in “2001” dies at 90/npr.org  Rain created one of the most memorable villains of 1960s cinema using only his voice.  The Winnipeg-born Rain was a unique talent and will be missed.  

“Thank you, HAL.”

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