I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at not-quite thirteen years of age from the back rows of San Francisco’s movie palace, the Castro Theatre. Prepared as I was by a recent reading of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization of his and Kubrick’s screenplay, I still had my prepubescent mind blown by the ultimate trip, from the dawn of our species to the far corners of the universe and back. Even the print being slightly faded couldn’t deflate the experience. Further screenings down the road had me longing to see this great work fresh and pristine, and this quest was finally sated, again at the Castro in my very late teens. This gorgeous new 35mm print was the true work, without a doubt, but my grail quest continued: I hadn’t yet seen it in its originating medium, 70mm. Many years later, this, too, was fulfilled at the Castro. As projectionist rather than viewer, I became intimate with the lovely version of the whole 70mm image printed down to 35 available in recent years, which I had the honor of projecting a few times in SFMOMA’s Wattis Theater. Like Moonwatcher impelled to kill by the monolith, or Bowman beguiled across the galaxy by its intoxicating mystery, I’ve felt compelled to pursue the infinite resonances of this work as far as consciousness could carry me. But as a lover of the celluloid film medium, I’ve had to wonder: Will my odyssey be snatched away? Will the digitally-deranged at some point squirrel away the film prints, allowing only robotized digital copies on the big screen? It was with some excitement, then, that I greeted the news of yet another new restoration to play at the Castro, this one an all-photochemical rendition, with no pixels polluting pure, luscious celluloid. This mouth-watering enterprise was said to be initiated by and facilitated under the aegis of Hollywood wonderboy Christopher Nolan, who wanted to deliver unto us the 2001 he’d first seen as a boy… But, whoa, the fire and fury this project has ignited! Various social media sages, with various degrees of self-anointed expertise, have been apoplectic at Nolan’s rather unfortunate descriptor, “unrestored.” Based on my viewing of the first evening’s show this past Friday, I can proclaim that what he’s presenting is in fact a true restoration, an attempt to recreate a version of the film using elements as close as possible to the originals, by means of the artwork’s own intrinsic technological apparatus. And it is a Wonder, a joy to behold. Having never seen any of his films, I don’t give a fig for Nolan, other than as a champion of celluloid, and he’s been quite the champ, so he’s aces with me. What he’s brought forth here challenges the absurd orthodoxy that “restoration” isn’t about returning an artwork to the best possible rendition of its original form, but rather, properly described, renovation to conform works to standard contemporary technology as it comes down the pike. The battle that waged in classical music spheres decades ago — and which was very much won by originalists, who try to play music from centuries past with anti-anachronistic instruments and instrumentation — has come crashing into the film world via Nolan’s powerful gauntlet toss, much like Moonwatcher’s Zarathustra-scored smashing of tapir bones. Until the film world went digital-mad — not that long ago, really — restorations were accomplished 100% photochemically, and they still sometimes are, or close to it, even today.
So what was the experience like? Well, my brothers and sisters, in a word: violent. Violent, among other reasons, for being disturbing, challenging, engulfing, exhilarating. I’d never seen the film in such detail before, even in previous 70mm screenings. The force of its being as a constructed work was brought home by how it could be more clearly seen that Kubrick was working with paintings and models. The drama of Moonwatcher’s tribe, with its life of constant fear, was more palpable than ever before, bringing to mind the dynamics of a gang, such as that of Alex and his droogs. I was more cognizant of the thematic line of aggression running throughout the film. Examples: the space stewardesses watching wrestling, Frank Poole’s shadowboxing as he runs through the Discovery’s centrifuge like a rat in a treadmill, then later playing the wargame of chess with HAL. And also, deception: Dr. Floyd’s counter-intelligence moves against the Russians, then later his deceiving the Discovery’s crew (as well as the world) about the nature of their mission. Then there’s HAL’s deception of Bowman and Poole, and their faulty attempt to deceive back. This viewing brought forth the film’s sense of man’s exploratory drive and innate aggression, and propensity for deception, as being intrinsically, perhaps hopelessly, intertwined.
The impact of Kubrick’s artifice mixed with photographic hyperrealism was amplified and complicated by the digital rendering of the film’s original six-track magnetic sound. The music and some sound effects were as intense and present as ever — sometimes even more so, as in the lunar monolith’s radio blast, which for the first time felt truly assaultive — but most of the dialogue felt removed, as if heard behind a thin pane of glass. The stereo separation was far stronger, with characters’ voices sometimes coming from opposite sides of the screen, though their bodies weren’t far apart in onscreen space. These effects disappeared for HAL’s demise, which was as present, and humanly touching, as ever. Unhuman, though, and far more disturbing than I’d ever experienced before, were the alien voices emanating from the walls of Bowman’s hotel room. They were louder, and mixed so that we were more amongst them than with the human specimen on display. The suite became a cage or aquarium, and one shuddered at alien vibrations made native, and coursing through one’s flesh.
Five years ago, I had the revelatory experience of seeing Vertigo for the first time in IB Tech. I described it thusly: “All the colors & rich textures felt of the period, but paradoxically, all the more vivid, and sprung to life out of its time and into ours… A film, therefore less ‘in quotes,’ in evoking its period, than a bit of that period alive, and less easily digestible, within current time.” This new 70mm photochemically-created 2001 isn’t that, but it’s both almost as powerful aesthetically, and perhaps even better, a harbinger blow from the future. While not a replacement for previous restorations — which I believe were mostly also photochemical, and mostly just lovely in their own ways — this technologically correct version could be for the film-viewing world nothing less than the dawning of a new millennium.