When director Christopher Nolan showed “2001: A Space Odyssey” to his young children years ago, one of them had a question:
“Why is the computer talking?”
The child was, of course, referring to HAL 9000, the sentient computer who speaks in a calm and slightly chilling voice even when it takes drastic steps against the humans on a spaceship to preserve its consciousness.
“This was pre-Siri,” Nolan tells me in by phone. “In a way, HAL is now more relevant than ever.”
Nolan, the 47-year-old director of “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk,” oversaw the creation of a 70mm print of “2001” struck from new printing elements taken from the original camera negative.
This means there were no digital enhancements, no edits, no remastered or new effects.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I should call this an ‘unrestored’ version,” says Nolan. “A restoration becomes interpretive if you ‘paint out’ things, get rid of the scratches …
“You could say this is an analog version of the film. I liken this to hearing an album on vinyl rather than an MP3. There might be some scratches, but there’s also a richness you wouldn’t have with a restoration.”
In layman’s terms: This is about as close as you’re going to get to seeing Stanley Kubrick’s legendary masterwork the way audiences experienced the film when it was released a little more than 50 years ago, in the spring of 1968.
I had the opportunity to screen this version of “2001” at the Music Box Theatre — and it truly was a revelation.
The opening sequence (“The Dawn of Man”) was breathtakingly gorgeous and at times brutal and shocking. (Coincidence: “2001,” with that opening section featuring apes from millions of years back, and the first “Planet of the Apes” film had wide releases in the United States on the same day: April 2, 1968. Talk about a landmark day for apes in the movies.)
The set pieces popped with reds and oranges and other vibrant colors. (A space-travel terminal features a Howard Johnson’s lounge, phones with a face-time calling feature and furniture designs that actually became popular in the real world.)
Long before the advent of CGI, the scenes of spaceships gliding through the heavens are stunning and beautiful. (In long shots, you can make out tiny human figures moving about a ship.)
And the famous “Star Gate” finale, in which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) passes through an inter-dimensional portal, explodes with intense colors that might leave you exhilarated but also in search of an aspirin.
Nolan is presenting “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Cannes International Film Festival this weekend. (Remarkably, this will mark Nolan’s first trip to Cannes.) It will then play in select cities, including Chicago at the Music Box, starting May 18.
Whether you’ve experienced “2001” a half-dozen times over the years or never seen it, this is a golden opportunity to see one of the most groundbreaking and influential and mind-blowing films ever made, in optimal circumstances.
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In 1968, early reaction to “2001” from critics and industry types was mixed at best.
A recent article in the Hollywood Reporter was headlined: “In 1968, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Confounded Critics.”
Last month in the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson wrote that a “sixth of the New York premiere’s audience walked right out, including several executives from MGM. Many who stayed jeered throughout …
“The after-party was a ‘a room full of drinks and men and tension,’ according to Kubrick’s wife, Christine.”
Nolan: “I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to a film critic, but it’s very unusual for so many prominent critics to initially miss the boat on a film like this. I can’t think of another example.
“But audiences took to it right away. It was embraced by the public and was the No. 1 film at the box office in 1968.”
Nolan was born two years after the initial release of “2001.” He says one of his first memories of cinema was watching the film at Leicester Square Theatre in London (“they re-released it after the success of ‘Star Wars’ ”) with his father in the 1970s.
Was there anything about the film that surprised Nolan — anything new he appreciated — as he oversaw this project?
“What surprised me were the quality of the performances,” says Nolan. “There are layers in many of the performances. Take the scene where Dr. Floyd [William Sylvester] meets with the Russians. … There’s a lot going on there.”
As for the scarcity of dialogue in the film (we’re 25 minutes into the story before the first line is spoken, and the final 20-plus minutes are dialogue-free), Nolan says this is a film that “demands and rewards our attention” and notes how there are so many instances of “body language [used as] communication.”
Clearly, Kubrick’s work has informed Nolan’s films, but Nolan says Kubrick is more inspiration than influence.
“There’s very little you can do in specific terms of technique because what Kubrick did was inimitable,” Nolan says. “I hold him in the highest esteem. He’s way up there above the rest of us.”