2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Robert Beatty, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

"Tomorrow" finally arrived on January 1st this year. For anyone who grew up with "2001: A Space Odyssey, " Stanley Kubrick’s epic visual tone poem about man and his place/ill fit in the universe, that number always represented the future with its attendant horrors/wonders awaiting. By that reckoning, I should have been writing this review from my Hilton hotel room on a space station waltzing with the earth. Watching "2001" in 2001 is an irony Kubrick would have relished and its transmutation from bulky 70mm film to a five-inch disc available at the local electronics store constitutes nothing less than technological alchemy.

"2001" returns to DVD a second time via Warner Home Video’s newly remastered "Kubrick Collection" DVD set. Previously released on the MGM Home Entertainment label, the first time around offered a standard <$PS,widescreen> transfer, and a smattering of extras. Many complained that the first DVD suffered from a lack of faith in the format’s abilities, namely a non-<$16x9,anamorphic> transfer. Unfortunately, I am not able to give a frame-by-frame comparison of the previous MGM effort to Warner’s new edition. The fact is, other than one instance back in 1989 for about a week, I have never owned "2001" on video and I have made it a point to always see it in a theater. (The 1989 blip was the Criterion CAV laserdisc edition I bought and returned a week later due to defects. As they were out of stock, I took store credit and never bothered to replace the purchase.) While I miss seeing Kubrick’s transcendent visuals on a giant screen, Warner’s treatment of the film on this new DVD edition is simply breathtaking. Perhaps I have been too dogmatic about how "2001" might be shoehorned into the small screen.

Kubrick collaborated with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, using Clarke’s short story "The Sentinel" as the starting point for their screenplay. ("The Sentinel," published in the early 1960’s, details an excavation on the moon of an alien artifact, an "alarm clock" that once uncovered sends a signal to its original owners that man has extended beyond the earth.) The fusion of two such giants in their respective fields has happened only once to my recollection, when British film mogul Alexander Korda worked with H.G. Wells on 1936’s visionary "Things to Come."
The "plot" begins at the VERY beginning: "The Dawn of Man." Man-apes roam the desolate plains, foraging for shrubs and trying not to be eaten by predators. Stronger, more aggressive hominids enact Darwinian theory by stealing life-sustaining watering holes. Natural selection takes an extraterrestrial turn when a smooth, black monolith appears one morning before our "protagonists." From that point, what started as a National Geographic special detours into wholly uncharted cinema terrain. Bone becomes weapon, mankind murders to survive and through one astonishing cut between two images, we see the result of that first leap of logic: a primitive tool into a spaceship.

While still in the "Dawn" sequence, Kubrick and Clarke guide us through a then-conjectured tour of a very busy outer space. Spaceships glide between Earth and the moon, choreographed to Strauss’ "the Blue Danube Waltz." While space may have been conquered, there are still mysteries to solve. We follow Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) on his trip to moon outpost Clavius Base, regarding matters "not at liberty to discuss." Another monolith has been found "deliberately buried" just under the Moon’s surface. When Dr. Floyd and his colleagues don spacesuits to investigate the polished enigma, an eardrum-piercing signal aimed at Jupiter overtakes the moonwalkers.

Another jump cut to the title "Jupiter Mission – 18 Months Later." The camera comes upon Discovery, a spaceship with one eye, three mouths and a sleek body that seems to go on forever. Discovery houses an expedition to the Jovian planet, consisting of five astronauts and the latest generation of the HAL 9000 super computers. Three astronauts are coffined in suspended animation and the two "animated" members of the team, Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), celebrate birthdays and chart the heavens with equal torpor. In this section, Kubrick stages the most famous battle between man and machine since the first cries of "obsolescence" at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Finally, in "Jupiter – And Beyond the Infinite," Kubrick and his army of special effects technicians catapult the viewer through visuals so unique they have prompted literally millions of interpretations with no two exactly alike. Although probably everyone reading my missive already has seen the film, I won’t give away the ending for the few who haven’t.

In his college days, Kubrick was a chess player and that thinking infiltrates "2001." For any given scene or character in the film, multiple meanings and speculations may be found. Protagonist Bowman is the story’s "everyman", but his name plugs into a connotation for Homer’s epic wanderer and ace archer Odysseus. (Don’t tell anyone, but HAL’s single eye might be a stand in for Odysseus’ foe, the cyclops Polyphemus.) The shape of the Super Panavision frame itself becomes an aesthetic tool, with interstellar voyagers trapped within rectangular view ports or shuttle bays. (A practical observation: I can’t imagine a commercial carrier allowing a shuttle flight to the moon with only one passenger, as we see Floyd the only person sitting inside the Pan Am space shuttle.)

Perhaps the "greatest" moment of "2001" is the famous bone-to-spaceship jump cut. If "film" is editing, as critic Andre Bazin and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein argued, then Kubrick in that single moment gave films the biggest shot in the arm since color. Within 1/24th of a second, Kubrick illustrated the entire breadth of human achievement, underlined the irony of man’s ability to create and destroy simultaneously and shouted to the world that in film, "all bets are off." Volumes have been written about the final "stargate" sequence. I wouldn’t be surprised if right after the film’s release, there was a dramatic upsurge in therapy patients.

Mastered from restored elements, the 2.20 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer captures many of the details I thought I could only enjoy on the big screen. Kubrick’s fanatical attention to scientific accuracy shows a universe filled with stars, but not a twinkling "Star Wars"–type firmament. The laserdisc barely captured their luminescence, but here they are legible. Deep, pure blacks bring out the stark white of the space station and the psychedelic colors of Douglas Trumbull’s groundbreaking "slit-scan" effects. The image is sharp to a fault. On laserdisc, the instructions for the "Zero Gravity Toilet" (the slow pullback constitutes the film’s only intentional joke) shook like an earthquake whereas here the shot is reasonably free of aliasing. Detail delineation on the spaceships just stuns. I could make out the smallest features on the models, but I also detected quite a bit of edge enhancement, especially in the first space scenes. Fleshtones, human and simian, look natural (under the circumstances). The restoration must account for the pristine presentation of Geoffrey Unsworth’s mesmerizing images, free of blemishes or defects. I detected no digital artifacts, save for one whopper. It might be my player, but the black momentarily breaks up after the fade-up from the MGM logo.

The remastered <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio is never anything less than pleasing. While not completely full blooded, the soundtrack captures the organ wheeze at the beginning and end of Richard Strauss’ "Thus Spake Zarathustra," the film’s signature musical cue (all but destroying the composer’s connection to the material), the delicate orchestrations of the "Blue Danube" and the jarring compositions by Gyorgy Ligeti. The remixing also opens the sound field considerably, much more than the original theatrical playback. The rear channels engage frequently, with sound effects like the frenzied ape fight at the watering hole to the labored breathing of the astronauts echoing in all five channels. (Paging Darth Vader!) The LFE channel remains mostly silent, occasionally picking up the lower registers in the music. However, during the "star gate" sequence, it gave my subwoofer a vigorous workout. A French language 5.1 soundtrack option is available, as well as subtitles in French ("Oeuvre la porte externe, Hal"), Spanish ("Abre la puertas de la nave, Hal"), Portuguese ("Por favor, Hal, abra o compartimento las capsulas") and English ("Look, Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this."). I wish they translated the Russian dialogue during the scene between Dr. Floyd and Dr. Smyslov on the space station (Chapter 7.) My father once explained that the final line spoken by Dr. Smyslov roughly translates as: "He knows more than he’s saying."

No special features appear on the DVD other than a theatrical trailer. Presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, the snippet exhibits smooth color rendition with decent sound. The Criterion laserdisc offered some supplemental materials including a section on Frederick Ordway III, the film’s scientific consultant. The extras would have been nice here, but the sparkling audio and video is cause enough to celebrate.

Even in the midst of its namesake, "2001" continues to tease and taunt us.
Until the next time it plays on a fifty-foot screen, I have no problem returning to the future on my 41" screen. Bravo, Warners.

I have never forgotten the question my father asked me, after seeing the film the first time with him twenty five years ago: "What’s the German translation for one stone?’" — "Einstein."