Note: all framegrabs were sourced from the 4K UHD disc
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C+
starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter
screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick, based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel"
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Bryant Frazer In 1965, film director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke embarked on a remarkable collaboration. Taking an old Clarke short story as their starting point, the duo rewrote it and dramatically expanded its scope, drafting the blueprint for a film to be directed by Kubrick as well as for a novel to be scripted by Clarke. In Clarke's original story, "The Sentinel", astronauts found an ancient artifact on the moon that functioned as a radio beacon, transmitting signals into outer space. The expanded film treatment was many times more ambitious, beginning in the deep pre-history of human evolution and climaxing with a futuristic journey to Jupiter, where one man confronts an unseen alien intelligence--and undergoes transformation and rebirth. More than a science-fiction thriller or space-bound adventure movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a meditation on Man's place in the universe that mounts a convincing argument that the sum total of human knowledge gathered over the millennia is insignificant, at best, when compared to the vast mysteries of the greater universe. That sense of scale is demonstrated, vividly, in a climactic sequence that uses colour and sound to depict a wild journey into--a distant realm? Another dimension? A new plane of human existence?
For decades, befuddled viewers have dipped into Clarke's novel, published shortly after the movie's release, for a more conventionally detailed description of the events of the film's third and final, dialogue-free act, titled "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." Literal-minded fans have created wikis and websites intended to function as guides for the perplexed. I'm sure they mean these explanations to make the picture more accessible and explicable, but they also make it more ordinary. Unfolded in a 2,000-word explainer, the story of 2001 is simply a story. Broken down encyclopedically for a wiki, it's just a catalogue of characters and events. As a novel, it's speculative fiction in the classic style. Yet on film, it's one-of-a-kind--a meditative, poetic succession of images that culminates in an aggressively-conceived sequence that seeks to harness pure imagery in the service of communicating something otherwise indescribable. In some ways it's exciting and in others, it's alienating. At moments, it's as terrifying as anything in The Shining. Understandably, 2001 left studio heads at a loss for words. But it was released in psychedelic times, and eventually the promo copy wrote itself. Posters were reprinted and reissued with a new tagline pitched directly at younger, hipper audiences: "The Ultimate Trip." 2001 itself would become the biggest box-office draw of the year.
2001: A Space Odyssey was an instant classic, despite the fact that much of its audience was too square or too stubborn (or both) to embrace its elliptical narrative and Kubrick's clean-room visual style. My mother, who was rarely so passionate about such stuff, hated the film. Don't take her word for it--auteurist par excellence Andrew Sarris disparaged Kubrick's mysterious trip beyond infinity as "Instant Ingmar." (Sarris came around a couple years later, calling it "a major work by a major artist," but bringing it up around my mom still triggered a reflexive eye-roll as late as the mid-1980s.) No matter. Its groundbreaking special-effects work set the stage for the next two decades of fantasy filmmaking, and its supremely confident dependence on carefully-conceived environments, observational camerawork, and purely visual storytelling revved up a new generation of filmmakers who admired Kubrick's legendary perfectionism and intensity. A subset of them even embraced his chilliness. Also worth noting: with the spaceship Discovery's malfunctioning and murderous onboard computer, HAL 9000, Kubrick and Clarke warned us about artificial intelligence long before the cool kids started giving Alexa the side-eye. That is, maybe, the chief lesson of 2001--if anything can save us, it's certainly not going to be technology for its own sake.
That's apparent from the opening of the film's "Dawn of Man" chapter, a long, wordless sequence set in prehistory that builds to the appearance of a black monolith near a tribe of ape-men. Following the monolith's arrival, one of the hairy critters figures out how to use a bone as a weapon; before long, he and his pals are using bones to terrorize a rival tribe, clubbing one to death over a contested watering hole. In perhaps the most famous jump cut in all of cinema, this newly evolved killer throws the bone in the air; Kubrick fast-forwards four million years and the bone is replaced, mid-air, by a satellite. Kubrick chooses not to make the function of that satellite explicit in his film, though in Clarke's novel Earth is orbited by military satellites bearing nuclear missiles. There is something quite Strangelovian--despairing and darkly comic--about that suggested connection between modern man deploying nukes in the heavens and the previously seen imagery of a bunch of dumb, excitable apes figuring out how to pound each other out of existence. Technology, it seems, is overrated. It's the thing that may kill us all. And technology is the very subject of this film. For most of 2001's running time, technology is all Kubrick cares to show us, aside from the natural wonders of outer space itself.
The first human character we meet, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), is an American astronaut is on his way to a viewing of a mysterious alien artifact--actually a second monolith--found buried underneath the surface of the moon. With tongue in cheek, 2001 portrays a trip to the moon as a casual journey out of the dreams of Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Floyd wears a business suit rather than a space suit. Pink-clad receptionists welcome new arrivals to a space station shaped like a massive wheel (centrifugal forces apparently simulate gravity), where functionaries and clock-punchers dress in business garb and visitors chill at the orbital Hilton or Howard Johnson's. Public videophones, a well-loved science-fiction trope, allow real-time communication with friends and family back home. Aboard the lunar lander that shuttles travellers between the space station and the moon's surface, a sign reading "Zero Gravity Toilet" is printed with 10 paragraphs of instructional text. Clarke called this the only intentional joke in the movie, and it's a good one: Here we are, well over four million years into human existence, and we're still striving to keep from flinging piss and poo all over the room. Kubrick's sense of humour is also more subtle. The use of Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube," conducted by Herbert von Karajan, as the soundtrack for the spectacle of the space station endlessly spinning is a witty subversion of space-movie expectations. It's almost enough to make you think Kubrick really does find man's industrial achievements beautiful and worth celebrating. Then you may remember that Kubrick was notoriously suspicious of technology, and loath to set foot in an airplane.
The film's second section, "Jupiter Mission," takes place in and around the spaceship Discovery. Astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) are running the mission with the help of HAL 9000 (voiced, brilliantly, by the late Douglas Rain), which controls most of Discovery’s functions, responds calmly to spoken commands, and almost seems to think for itself. Things go south when HAL identifies the humans as a threat to the Discovery's mission. The eventual showdown between Bowman and HAL is arguably the film's most famous sequence; you know what happens but I'm going to describe it anyway, because it's amazing. The confrontation is precipitated by a secretive conversation between Bowman and Poole, who worry that HAL's malfunction means they will have to shut the computer down entirely. They retreat to a sealed transport pod, where they ensure that HAL can't hear their voices before starting their discussion. Unfortunately for the humans, HAL can still see them--Kubrick cuts to a shot from HAL's point of view that darts back and forth between close-ups of the two men's lips moving as they speak. It's a chucklesome but tension-building inclusion, worthy of Hitchcock. Long story short, when Poole is working outside the spaceship, HAL murders him--it happens off-screen but we know what's up--and then, after Bowman heads out to retrieve Poole's body, locks Bowman out of the ship. Bowman orders HAL to let him in--"Open the pod bay doors, HAL"--and HAL declines in curiously familiar but matter-of-fact fashion: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
The exchange has lost none of its chill factor over the decades, and has been amplified, I suspect, by the innocuous, even genial relationships we share today with our own pocket-size AIs. (Imagine if you asked Siri to play The Decemberists and she called you a pussy and put on Pig Destroyer instead.) The crisis ends once Bowman forces his way back onto the ship and, ignoring HAL's advice to "take a stress pill," shuts the computer down by removing physical blocks of his memory, one at a time. Despite HAL's apparent malevolence earlier, as well as our own rooting interests as human beings, the scene doesn't play as a triumph. Instead, HAL verbalizes helplessness and vulnerability: "Stop, Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it." Dave does not stop. Regressing, HAL offers to perform a song he says he learned when he was first built and activated. Out of kindness, Dave asks him to sing it. Reverting to a childlike state, HAL sings "Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)" as his voice slows and his consciousness audibly disintegrates. The scene is unsettling because it seems to peer at the beginning and end of consciousness itself, and because it does so during the death of a machine.
The uncomfortable fate of HAL 9000 is nothing compared to what awaits Bowman himself. In "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," Bowman completes the Jupiter mission solo, piloting a transport pod to rendezvous with a third monolith floating in space near Jupiter. This is the "trippy" part of the film, in which Kubrick deploys a fusillade of mostly non-representational compositions of colour and light--the kaleidoscopic films of Jordan Belson, inspired by Buddhist mandalas, are the most obvious influence--to suggest travel at high speed, representing what seems to be a journey into another dimension, or through a time-space warp. Known as the "stargate" sequence, its defining aesthetic was the elaborate, time-consuming "slit-scan" camera technique developed by John Whitney for the opening titles of Vertigo and adapted here by VFX guru Douglas Trumbull. As the animations play out, Kubrick intercuts freeze-frames of Bowman's terrified face inside his spacesuit. At this point, Kubrick is in full-on showman mode--Bowman's expression of shock-and-awe is clearly meant as a reflection of our own feelings in the theatre, with the visor of Bowman's helmet analogous for the movie screen itself. (Recall the terrifying POV scene from Vampyr, wherein Dreyer puts the audience inside a coffin and carries us through town en route to our burial as we peer out through a glass window in the top.) The imagery is fantastic, but the clear suggestion is that the journey beyond the infinite is torturous.
By the time we reach Bowman's apparent destination--a clean, classically-furnished bedroom dressed in pale colours and illuminated by soft white light, like an Apple Store fucked the Ritz-Carlton--our protagonist looks ever more disturbed in his reverse shots, head tilted slightly forward, gaze directed up past his brow, body trembling. (I thought of Vincent D'Onofrio's Leonard Pyle, also having reached the end of the line, in Full Metal Jacket.) Another reverse and Bowman sees himself, standing across the room in his space suit, aged by decades. The jump-cut with the bone and the satellite gets all the press, but this edit is no less provocative, raising questions about the passage of time. Did Bowman grow older during his voyage, or upon his arrival? Is time accelerating, or has he been in this place for many years? Is this room something built by an alien intelligence in a gesture of hospitality, having monitored the collective human consciousness over the millennia? Or is it something inside Bowman's mind, an interior space for him to inhabit while visiting an environment he can't possibly comprehend? Whatever it is, the film is less concerned with its exact nature than with Bowman's experience there. Repeatedly, Bowman notes the arrival of a new version of himself, each one visibly older--which is to say more decrepit--than the last. As must we all.
Although Kubrick and Clarke worked out the narrative of 2001 in detail, Kubrick eventually made a clean break from much of the planned exposition. Rain, for instance, was originally hired to deliver explanatory voiceover that would explain and clarify much of the action on screen. Kubrick jettisoned it. (When Clarke finally saw the film, he was reportedly so put out by the resulting ambiguities that he left at the intermission.) But then, that's the genius of 2001: you have room to interpret how you like. Watching Bowman age in the blink of an eye, I wondered about simulation theory--perhaps the attending alien intelligence was pushing the fast-forward button, either as a show of strength or simply as a practical move to accelerate Bowman's physical process of death and rebirth. Rebirth, anyway, is exactly what happens at the climax of 2001, as a stiff, wrinkled, visibly enfeebled Bowman begins to have trouble eating and, finally, reaches out eagerly towards the fourth monolith that appears at the foot of his bed. Once again, his appearance changes, but this time he transforms into a pink fetus, with soft skin and soulful Keir Dullea eyes, floating in a glowing blue placenta. In the film's final moments, this infant--known in Kubrick-speak as the "star child"--is seen floating above the earth. While the scale is not apparent, the baby appears to be huge. As 2001 theme song "Also Sprach Zarathustra" wells up on the soundtrack for a second time, the star-child turns his serene, wide-eyed gaze directly to the camera. Fade to black.
Clarke's novel suggests that the star-child will be a teacher and protector of the human race, beginning with his decision, in the book's final passage, to safely detonate the nuclear weapons in Earth's orbit. Apparently, some readers misread that passage and thought the star-child was attacking the planet instead. I think that's not a completely unreasonable misunderstanding of the text--indeed, it seems clear that mankind's destiny, at least, is out of its own hands at the end of the story; for better or worse, whatever the star child wants us to have is what we will get. After all these years, though, I read 2001's final section mainly as a cry for help. Let's call it an atheist's prayer. You don't have to believe in God to understand that sufficiently advanced alien intelligence would be godlike from a human standpoint. So if there is no God as He is commonly conceived, perhaps an alien intelligence could be His surrogate. Certainly, Bowman has his long Jesus moment in this film, undergoing a physical and psychological crucible that culminates in death and resurrection. Our saviour? Well, I don't think Kubrick believed we can save ourselves. Even resisting an explicitly religious allegory, there's plenty to chew on in 2001's denouement. A man, having finished a long and confusing journey, comes to terms sooner than he'd like with the facts of his mortality and the smallness of his lifespan, not to mention his insignificance in the greater context of the infinite. It's a lesson in humility. This experience is universal and its implications are profound. It's a journey we all go on. And 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the very few movies that feels big and mysterious enough to contain that kind of drama within itself.
THE 4K UHD DISC
A longtime fixture in 70mm-capable arthouse schedules, 2001: A Space Odyssey finally gets a worthy home-video release with this Warner Bros. UHD BD, featuring a remastered version of the film complete with HDR and Dolby Vision treatment. No details on the new transfer are reported in the box; reportedly, this disc was sourced from a recent 8K scan of the original camera negative, following film-based preservation and restoration work completed in 1999. It's hard to imagine 2001 looking much better. Standout sections include the warm, bronzed images of the "Dawn of Man" sequence, the crispness of the spaceship interiors (the jaundiced tones seen in previous versions are balanced to linen white here), and the rich red interiors of the spacecraft that ferries Dr. Floyd to the moon--or of the inside of the computer memory bank where Bowman works to deactivate HAL, somehow suggestive of both a hot furnace and the cozy interior of a womb. Fabrics and textures of different costumes and surfaces have never been more apparent or more tactile-seeming. At the same time, this 2.20:1, 2160p presentation has carefully managed to avoid revealing too much. The projected backgrounds for the "Dawn of Man" scenes, for instance, remain smooth and consistent from edge to edge. None of the model work suffers from the dramatic increase in resolution, and the purely visual elements of the "stargate" sequence near the film's climax benefit greatly from the extended dynamics and gamut of HDR colour space.
At the other end of the spectrum, close-ups of the actors take on an almost startling level of depth and detail. (In fact, the only special effect here that does suffer, slightly, from the spiffy new transfer may be Dullea's final old-age transformation, the execution of which looks a mite stiff under the 4K microscope.) It wouldn't be accurate to say results are 100 percent consistent, end to end. A small number of shots on this disc exhibit anomalies like elevated grain levels, a bit of jitter owing to frame-registration issues, and, yes, some haloing around high-contrast edges. (Though haloing is often associated with harmful digital sharpening techniques, it can also be introduced optically, through lens artifacts or in the creation of dupe elements.) At least some of these issues are probably down to unusable sections of the original negative that have been replaced with dupe elements; it's safe to say that even those shots look better on this UHD BD than they have on any other home version of the film. That Kubrick's longtime right-hand man Leon Vitali helped supervise the mastering bodes well for accuracy, though WB didn't properly render a fade-out at about 33:44 in the original pressing of this disc, no longer on store shelves. (There is also a minor but annoying issue with audio sync; see below.) Perhaps there is yet room for yet another, more dazzling version of 2001, but for now, this one is simply definitive. I sampled the film in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision and, while DV likely provides an incrementally more accurate picture, I can't imagine anyone with a 4K screen being disappointed that they can "only" view a basic HDR rendering. The picture is breathtaking. The UHD BD package additionally contains a BD featuring the same new version of the film at HD resolution along with a second BD of supplemental features.
There are two lossless 5.1 English-language tracks (in DTS-HD), one meant to represent the original six-track audio of the film's 70mm theatrical release, the other offering a newer 5.1 mix that honours the intent of the former while benefiting from the increased dynamic range and more precise stereo separation of contemporary audio tools. Both tracks sound pretty great, in general, though some flaws (crackle and hiss, mostly) in the original elements are highlighted in the cleaner, brighter contemporary mix. Though I usually gravitate towards the theatrical mix in such cases, this one is a tougher call. The original mix has a bigger, more powerful sound--especially if you're watching with the volume cranked up to reference levels--and may be preferable under certain viewing conditions. On the other hand, the newer mix has a more precise quality overall; the musical selections, especially, really come to life in the more modern mix with details that are completely lost in the other. Unfortunately, the remix is improperly synced to picture during the opening credits, running just a split-second behind the titles as they appear on screen. The original audio is properly synced up so that the titles appear right on the beats. This is a flaw that will never be detected by casual viewers yet will be a source of annoyance to those who know the movie well. It's a shame, because the contemporary mix is otherwise a compelling option for both types of viewers.
The complement of extra features is fine, as far as it goes, but they're all holdovers (in standard definition, no less!) from earlier issues of the film. That might be A-OK for vintage talking-head interviews, but it's a serious liability when it comes to reproducing art and photography on screen. Fortunately, that's not an issue for an audio-only interview with Kubrick that dates to 1966, when Kubrick was well into principal photography on 2001. The conversation is basically a Kubrick career retrospective, covering everything from his school days and his time at LOOK magazine to his feature-film resume. Kubrick comes across here as very down-to-earth, more businessman-hustler than cineaste, offering details of the budgets and financing of his early films and talking frankly about his first studio projects. (The slave rebellion of Spartacus, he recalls, "seemed a bit silly"; he blames "incredible pressure against the making of [Lolita]" for a "total lack of eroticism" that "spoils some of the pleasure in it.") He doesn't have much to say against the still-in-progress 2001, though he has nice things to say about Clarke: "He captures the hopeless but admirable human desire to know things they can never really know and reach things they can never really reach."
The other audio-only component of this set is the commentary track by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. This seems at first like a questionable endeavour, since the two actors appear on screen for a relatively small portion of the film's running time, but both men are well-informed Kubrick fans and are able to provide enough anecdata on the production to keep the proceeding rolling along. Dullea, for instance, explains that Kubrick directed the teams collecting footage of the African plains via telephone, and he identifies two handheld shots where Kubrick operated his own camera--the first comes at about 53 minutes into the film, when you can actually see Kubrick's face reflected in the helmet visor of one of the men at the lunar base. And both men describe the panoply of 16mm projectors that had to be affixed to the outside of the spaceship sets, each one projecting a tiny little movie in miniature to fill one of the display screens seen on the other side. Dullea notes that the actors and Kubrick never had any detailed philosophical discussions about the film's meaning, something he feels made it easier to play his role realistically.
The longest video feature here is "2001: The Making of a Myth" (43 mins.), a Channel 4 (i.e., UK) documentary from early-2001. Hosted and narrated throughout by James Cameron, it trots out an array of cast and crew including Clarke, Dullea, and Trumbull, as well as many others: editor Dan Richter, costumed ape-men Dan Richter and Keith Denny, scientific advisor Fred Ordway, bit players Heather Downham and Ed Bishop, and film critic Elvis Mitchell. (Plus, wait a minute, who let Camille Paglia in here?) The agenda is a little heavy on questioning whether or not the film accurately predicted the world of the future, with Thoughts on the Matter from an "AI expert" and a "videophone technologist" from AT&T. We also spend a lot of time with the now (obviously) older Dullea, which is poignant in the context of his old-age makeup in the film. Amusingly, Downham remembers that Kubrick would often relay direction through his first AD, Derek Cracknell, and then pretend he couldn't hear the actors at all if they tried to speak to him. Annoyingly, there are a couple of bad audio edits to Cameron's commentary early in the program, at 2:25 and 4:28; they seem to be baked in and not a video glitch. I had to rewind and check the subtitles to make sure I wasn't mishearing things.
"Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001" (21 mins.), dating to 2007, is an insider love-fest with a veritable who's-who of big-time Hollywood filmmaking lining up to offer their takes on what made 2001 special. Among those effusing their praise: Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, George Lucas, Roger Ebert, Peter Hyams, William Friedkin, Ernest Dickerson, and 2010 helmer Peter Hyams. Of similar vintage (and featuring some of the same interview subjects) is "Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001" (22 mins.), another attempt to compare the film's vision of the future with the real world. Wisely, this featurette makes the point that science-fiction has had a rather poor record of accurately predicting the future, noting that what makes 2001 special is that its technology is all credible, if not necessarily prophetic. Clarke points out with some sadness that the once-expected extraterrestrial colonies never appeared to attract leisure or business travellers. "There is nowhere to go to yet," he says. In "What Is Out There?" (21 mins.), Dullea reads extracts from interviews that were conducted for a planned prologue that would have helped illuminate Kubrick's thinking about the nature of God and the implications of alien intelligence. I guess this is interesting enough from the standpoint of film scholarship, but, you know, Kubrick decided against putting all this stuff in the movie for a reason. At any rate, anyone who's seriously interested in the subject of extra-terrestrial life will likely have come across most of these ideas and arguments elsewhere.
Of special note to ephemeral film fans is "2001: A Space Odyssey: A Look Behind the Future" (23 mins.), a making-of featurette from 1966 within a similarly vintage come-on from the publisher of Kubrick's onetime employer LOOK magazine, which was trying to sell space in a special advertising supplement that would celebrate the promise and excitement of space travel. It's best appreciated as a cultural artifact, offering a breathless appreciation of 2001's production design as some sort of triumph of industry (IBM, GE, RCA, and Bausch & Lomb are all celebrated for having contributed in some way to Kubrick's vision), but there are some mildly interesting bits of behind-the-scenes footage, and it's kind of fascinating to see one of the more downbeat and complex films ever made being pre-sold as a sunny, optimistic vote of confidence in human know-how.
I was frustrated by "2001: FX and Early Conceptual Artwork" (10 mins.). After a segment where Trumbull talks about some photographic techniques used in the film's special-effects shots and a brief introduction by Kubrick's widow, Christiane, we get a look at some wild concept art, much of it with psychedelic-Sixties overtones. This feature dates back only to 2007, but was somehow completed at SD, rather than HD, resolution. Unfortunately, that means the picture quality is severely wanting on a 55-inch screen. That criticism goes double for "LOOK: Stanley Kubrick!" (3 mins.), a montage of selected photographs from Kubrick's magazine tenure set to jazzy music that flips past too many of them at breakneck pace. Worse, most of the pictures are cropped and/or panned and scanned to fit the TV screen, making it difficult to get a good sense for Kubrick's original compositions. For 2001's landmark 50th anniversary, it would have been a nice gesture to have one or both of these features remastered at least in HD, if not at 4K. I know that budgets are always tight for projects like this, but this is almost like opening up a lavishly-packaged hardcover art book to discover that the images within were reproduced on each page at the size of a postage stamp. At some point, 480p video content just has to be put out to pasture.
Said packaging, on the other hand, is fairly extravagant. The first print run, anyway, bundles the three discs in a standard plastic BD case (two BDs stacked on the left, the single UHD BD getting the right-hand spindle to itself), which is tucked into a cardboard slipcase with a semi-reflective finish and raised type. Fitting snugly in the box is a fancy little envelope holding a set of four glossy postcards, in addition to a similarly glossy 16-page booklet of production stills and concept art. Overly fussy? Maybe. But still handsome.