May 20, 2018

2001: A Space Odyssey, the 70mm All-Photochemical Restoration

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.


2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm plays select dates at the Castro Theatre through May 28th, and in other select theaters across the US

Comments (13)

  • Just saw this today. I felt the image was a little soft on the right hand side. I don’t know if this was an issue with the projection or the film itself. I’m interested to know what others have experienced.

  • And you’ve chosen to fight an imaginary battle with an army of one. Enjoy the (ever-diminishing) view. :o)

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Dude, I’m not your dancing bear. I don’t owe you any “proof.” The assertion I’m making is just a matter of basic logic: celluloid film isn’t digital video. Are you asserting that it is? Are trees birds or monkeys ferrets just because they’ll all living things? Are watercolors oil paint? Is plastic marble? Businessmen come down the pike selling their wares. You’ve chosen to join the crowd admiring the naked emperor’s clothes. Enjoy.

  • The lady doth protest too much, methinks – but even Don Quixote had Sancho Panza to back him up. I’m still waiting for you to cite just one other individual, organisation or source of any description to support your claim that digital restoration is NOT film restoration.

    Conversely, please cite just one archive or other entity working in film restoration who still solely work in the photochemical realm. You won’t because you can’t. Keep watching out for those windmills! ;o)

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Ha ha, I’ve been involved in film in various capacities for going on 36 years. I have no need to consult anything to understand film restoration, especially as I’ve had a decades-long friendship with the award-winning restorationist of SHADOWS, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, KILLER OF SHEEP, THE EXILES, and others. I’ve visited the UCLA film restoration facility several times, and have held the original negative of SHADOWS in my hands. Exhibiting motion pictures digitally without film prints also being struck only became standard practice in the last 5 years, and digital tools have only been used in attempts at film restoration for the past 20 or so. For the previous century of cinema, only photochemistry-based tools had been employed, and the definition of “film restoration” was well-understood. The introduction of extra-filmic tools may have changed the definition of the term for some. Not for me, especially when it comes to restoring films made before the alien medium of digital technology was available for use, or even conceived of. There are scores of film people who prefer celluloid motion picture film as a medium to digital, and try to use it as much as possible in their efforts, including exhibition. Examples include Nolan, Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Some filmmakers, especially some experimental filmmakers, prefer to work entirely with photochemisty-based tools, and don’t like digital at all. There are also filmgoers, believe it or not, who refuse, either entirely, or for the most part, to see films aside from those projected as film prints. There are still repertory theaters, such as leading film restoration patron David Packard’s Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, and Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, which show film prints exclusively. You may ally yourself with industry powers in the Orwellian drive to suppress the understanding of motion picture film as central to cinema, but I stand with those who resist.

  • Feel free to acquaint yourself with Google and search for “film restoration”. Please report back on your findings and be sure to link to just one other other source or individual, whether lay or professional, agreeing with you. Just one. You won’t.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Perhaps you don’t understand the meaning of “restoration”? I refer you to the dictionary. Until the digital age, film restoration was always a photochemical affair. Some in the industry have decided that film and digital media are interchangeable. This is a commercial decision based on intellectual sleight-of-hand. The medium of all art forms is key to their apprehension and whatever meaning their makers are attempting to convey or create. A pastel is not an oil painting and a film created in motion picture film for the purposes of being printed and exhibited on film is not a digital video. I never said that film prints aren’t copies, of course they are. They are film copies of film, that’s how the medium works. Digital copies might be very good indeed, but they are copies in another, different medium. Maybe you don’t know many people who work in film? There are quite a few who do who appreciate the value of medium specificity and love the medium of celluloid motion picture film. Feel free to acquaint yourself with the broader world out there.

  • Hmm. So this isn’t about the specifics of this iteration of 2001 or any other. It’s just you trying to rewrite the very definition of the term “film restoration”.
    That’s your prerogative, though I’d be amazed if you can find just one other person or source to corroborate your definition. You could start by googling the term, or perhaps try asking Christopher Nolan or Ned Price, who – along with the rest of the world – clearly disagree with you.

    A Quixotic quest, to be sure, but one that in this context is serving only to create unnecessary confusion and potentially misleading your readers.

    By the way, all films that aren’t an original negative are copies of copies – of copies, or dupes of dupes if you prefer. The method, whether analogue or digital, is immaterial. According to your definition, very few people outside of a processing lab have ever seen an ‘original’ film.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    I understand there’s some controversy about this project, but whatever this current version of the film is, converting 2001 to digital isn’t “restoring” anything, as Kubrick never made a digital video work, other than perhaps his Director’s Guild Award acceptance speech. The acceptance of such conversions as “restorations” has been quite the con. If applied to the museum world, “perfect” digital prints of Van Goghs, say, would replace canvasses in gallery exhibitions.

  • A heartfelt, impassioned appraisal indeed, but this is not a restoration: it’s a reprint of a preservation element, as Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros.’ Ned Price – one of the best in his field – have been at pains to point out.

    It’s a reprint, simple as that. Rewriting established filmmaking terminology does nothing whatsoever to enhance this already very worthy project. It serves only to confuse the cinemagoing public who are less au fait with the actual meaning of such terms.

    Ned Price is currently hard at work on an actual restoration, which be soon be appearing on 4K UHD BD and DCP.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Ian, and you are of course right about Poole being HAL’s chess opponent. Thanks for the note, and teasing out the implications of this. I corrected my post. It’s interesting that although Keir Dullea’s character doesn’t display Poole’s warrior-type traits, he’s the one who has the confrontation with HAL and survives. He’s also named Bowman, apparently because his metaphorical arrows are shot true.

  • Great article – agree wholly on the powerful sound and visual detail of this print, which leads to a kind of “reregistry” of familiar audio and images. (I don’t remember ever realizing before that there were juvenile primates among those feasting on tapir meat, for instance.)

    I liked also your discussion of aggression, but there is an important correction to make on one point: it is Poole also who plays the “wargame of chess,” not Bowman. I think it is crucial for the characterization of the astronauts (and their ultimate survival) that Poole is the one who consistently exhibits more competitiveness and violence, both in action and in the way that he speaks. (Bowman’s recreation is drawing sketches, while he is more philosophical and considerate in his speech.)

    Thanks for the thoughtful and articulate review of the print and the film.

  • I loved your article, that of someone who had the opportunity to see the premiere of this work that would change the way of understanding space and science fiction. I was fascinated with this movie when i was a child but it’s enough later than its premiere. I think that no one can be indifferent to this film at any time, because it transcends temporality. I wanted to congratulate you for your articles that make tribute to great movies and take advantage to show you my tributes, that as a designer I am are visuals, to works like 2001 or Vertigo among others.

    I’m sure you’ll like it.

    You can see in


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