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2001: A Space Odyssey Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageStanley Kubrick’s pivotal film was probably the most misunderstood movie of its time, sharply polarizing both critical and public opinion. To some, it was nothing more than a spaced-out, tediously pretentious, audiovisual TRIP, well in keeping with the drug-oriented delirium of the psychedelic sixties that saw its release. Others labeled it as “confusing science fiction,” a cross somewhere between inverted Nietzschian myths and Andy Warhol. By and large, it generated some of the harshest (and funniest) critical diatribes in the history of cinema.

The New York Times compared it to watching “3 hours of Tolkien without the ring.” Critic Andrew Sarris called it “merely a pretext for a pictorial spread in Look magazine,” while The New Leader dismissed its intriguing metaphysical foundations as “a shaggy God story.” In fact, the only ones who really seemed to appreciate its serenely beautiful vision of space travel were those outside influential critical circles.

Now, with the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases by Warner Home Entertainment, “2001: A Space Odyssey” has acquired a kind of reverential status, conceded even by its adversaries as a turning point in the art of cinema. The film has become more significant historically since it virtually destroyed the conception of the Hollywood formula picture. It introduced a mixed bag of “underground” innovations into what was expected to be a mainstream, commercially viable product. Despite its extraordinary finale, “2001” remains essentially linear and plotless with stiff characterization, suggesting that evolutionary progress and mankind’s relationship to the cosmos is cyclical. The ape-men progress to a certain point in their evolution, and through the help of the monolith, invent tools for killing, evolving into their successors, Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, their acting abilities did not likewise hone themselves in the 21st century, considering William Sylvester’s wooden portrayal as Dr. Heywood Floyd.
This new 1080p High-Definition 16x9 2.20:1 version retains the running time of previous DVDs issued by Warner in 1999 as the Stanley Kubrick Collection. The overture and entr’acte intermission music incorporates Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” (the same strange, other-worldly sounds heard over the Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite sequence), just as it did in the original road show Cinerama engagement. However, viewing this film on anything less than a 10-ft screen, even in 1080p High Definition, seriously reduces its impact. I recall seeing this film back in 1968 at the Hollywood Pacific Cinerama Theatre, and remember feeling as if I was embarking on an actual trip into space (the advance box office receipts even resembled airline passenger tickets). At age 13 I had no idea what was going on. In 1998, I saw it again in 70mm on the Egyptian’s Dimension-150 screen for its 30th Anniversary. I was one of few in this massive auditorium, freezing because the air conditioner was set too high, which added greatly to the perception of the cold void of space travel.

Literary critic Harry Levin once remarked that James Joyce’s ULYSSES set such a high standard of excellence that it made the writing of novels thereafter much more difficult. A similar claim can be made for Kubrick regarding “2001”’s effect on subsequent filmmaking techniques. It forced Hollywood to strive harder in the quest for higher levels of visual reality, authenticity and more convincing composites. Fans christened the film a milestone in cinematic achievement, hailing it as the greatest “gadget,” or hard science fiction film of all time. If anything, its head-trip finale certainly did a lot for slit-scanned commercials and flying company logos.

Steven Spielberg recalls during “The Legacy of 2001” (one of four specially made featurettes for this DVD release) how Stanley wanted to change the cinematic form for his original version of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (a project begun by Kubrick). Spielberg asked: “Didn’t you already do that with ‘2001?” George Lucas adds that seeing “2001” for the first time was like “watching a silent movie in the sound era—it was a completely visual experience!” This may be why it’s so difficult to enjoy the film on a 50-inch plasma or LCD. It loses most of its impact on a small visual medium. It really must be seen with a giant 70mm presentation to be appreciated.

The Special Features documentary “Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001,” reveals how never before had so much pre-stage planning gone into a genre film. In his quest for complete authenticity in terms of near-future technology, director Kubrick consulted with more than thirty technical virtuosos ranging from astronomer Frederick Ordway III to other NASA experts, on such important scientific matters as the design of anti-gravity space slippers 35 years hence, to operating a toilet in zero-G. There was no margin for error and an enormous attention to detail was given to the physics of this world.

Watching it now after witnessing the first actual tourist in space, you may ask, was it an accurate forecast of things to come? Maybe… We now have the same comfortable slippers on airlines. But, where is the Pan Am Space Clipper eager to take visitors to an orbiting dual centrifugal space station? Out of business, I guess. And why didn’t Dr. Floyd just use his cell phone to call up Kubrick’s daughter?

Co-author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke proclaimed at the press reception prior to its 1968 premiere in Los Angeles: “Everything seen in the first half of ‘2001’ [with the possible exception of an uptight computer] will take place in 33 years… the technology will be there at least.” Herb Lightman, then editor of the prestigious American Cinematographer magazine pointed out: “’2001’ is no mere science-fiction movie. In truth, to be really accurate, it is more like ‘science fact’ simply extended a few decades into the future. Everything in the picture is a logical extension of current technology.” Kubrick even maintained: “The trip and magical alignment of Jupiter and its satellites are the only things in ‘2001’ that don’t conform to what is known to physicists and astronomers.” Unfortunately, this interview with Clarke and Kubrick—although on the 1999 Standard Definition DVD—has been omitted on the Blu-ray release.

Which calls to mind a problem with most of the other Blu-ray 480p Standard Definition featurettes: We hear endless commentary from Spielberg, Lucas, James Cameron, Dennis Murren, Phil Tippet and a host of other modern-day effects wizards about how ‘2001’ “changed” their lives. After a while this praise gets boring. I would rather hear from the people who actually worked on the movie like cameraman Bruce Logan, who’s still alive. There’s a brief interview with Doug Trumbull on how he created the Mind-Bender Effect showing the seven diamond shapes hovering over Jupiter. But, it’s so short that without prior knowledge of the way slit scan works, most viewers will be lost.

Then, Mrs. Kubrick shows us early conceptual artwork from Chesley Bonestell and others accompanied by violin strains from Khatchaturian’s Gayne Ballet Suite, the same classical music employed during scenes establishing the monotonous lives of astronauts Bowman and Poole aboard the Discovery. This goes on far too long and is quite pointless since none of it was ever used. It would have been better to show us how the Jupiter Machine’s spinning white disc created the amorphous shape of the Jovian giant, or shots of the amazing slit scan setup. That’s what viewers really want to see! Unfortunately, according to Kubrick’s editor, the abandoned City of Light, the deleted candle-like alien life forms glimpsed in Jerome Abel’s book THE MAKING OF ‘2001’, and Frank Poole’s longer space walk—trimmed 17 minutes by Kubrick himself (some say thankfully) after the New York road show premiere—were destroyed by the meticulous director.

Little behind-the-scenes footage graces this new Blu-ray. Only a charming 1960’s retro tour from Look magazine shows us the actual centrifuge set built to simulate gravity aboard the Discovery spacecraft. But this is so general and basic, it doesn’t explain how the camera was mounted to the rig to show Bowman strapped to his seat upside down, as Poole walks normally along the turning Ferris-wheel set to join him at the top of the frame (which is now right-side-up). And there is no mention of the gigantic 60-by-90-foot Scotchlite front projection screen used for the African vistas in the Dawn of Man, or the single shot of astronauts walking on the moon with the Clavius moon base in the background. This is definitely an oversight to ‘2001’ aficionados like myself, since the use of large-scale front projection process photography was the first time ever. American Cinematographer’s 1968 magazine even devoted an entire issue to this single topic.

Commentary by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood reveals nothing spectacularly unknown about the film, and the philosophical “What is Out There?” featurette is nothing more than Dullea reading from what sounds like a fan’s term paper with images of the film as background. An Audio-Only Bonus includes a 1966 interview with Kubrick conducted by Jeremy Bernstein. The feature film audio is only presented in PCM English 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1, so we lose the Left Extra and Right Extra original six-track mag 70mm presentation.

The director’s personal goal of the production was to “solve the previously unsolved problem of making special effects look completely realistic.” It’s been suggested that Kubrick put off making A.I. because the standard in visual effects was not up to par with his elaborate vision. “Space Odyssey” contains a mere 205 visual effects shots; infinitesimal when compared to the number of effects in present-day movies like “The Golden Compass.” Kubrick’s ideal was to have the completed film retain a “single-generation look.” He wanted each scene to resemble “original” footage as much as possible. Any film technician watching “2001” cannot help but be impressed by the extra-long takes in which complex 65mm visuals have an unusually sharp, crisp, grain-free appearance (nearly lost in the Hi-Def transfer). This is especially remarkable when considering the many separate miniature elements that comprise some of the more intricate scenes, assembled without the aid of a present-day computer digital compositing techniques.

In spite of this overwhelming attention to detail, and the crew’s on-set motto: “Do it right – Do it better – Then do it all over again,” I thought it might be fun (since I’ve seen “2001” over 50 times) to explore the extra detail afforded in this 1080p version which allows single-frame inspections of the film. Even though it’s considered one of the most technically perfect films ever made, I found flaws which, sadly, the late director was unable to go back and correct. Sure, some of them are nitpicky, but they exist nonetheless. Too bad Kubrick was never able to digitally fix these faux pas’ and make The Version You’ve Never Seen (Billy Friedkin or Richard Donner-style). Still, it’s a great flick, despite these so-called blemishes. Let me know if you find any others:

1). During the Dawn of Man sequence, the rods in the lithe leopard’s eyes atop the dead horse (painted to look like a zebra) reflect the light with as much proficiency as the background Scotchlite front projection screen. Kubrick serendipitously dubbed it: “A happy accident.” 3M should have renamed their material “Leopardlite.”

2). ‘Dem bones, dem bones, dem…rubber bones, glimpsed when Moonwatcher beats the enemy ape senseless.

3). When the bone-weapon changes to an orbiting nuclear device, line-angle is about 90 degrees off (perhaps intended to show the duality of man.)

4). “Floating” pen glued to rotating 8-ft diameter glass casts a stray light reflection off the top left side of frame. Stewardess must “pluck” it off the glued surface.

5). Because the large-scale space station set could not be an actual rotating centrifugal force chamber, both Dr. Floyd’s and Mr. Miller’s bodies must naturally lean back while walking downhill.

6). Considering current cellular rates, the phone company would probably charge more than $1.85 when Dr. Floyd phones Kubrick’s daughter back on Earth.

7). Dr. Floyd’s corn juice slides back down the straw. In zero gravity this would not happen. The crew should have used Bob’s Big Boy extra-thick milk shake formula.

8). Slight halos can be seen around the astronauts’ space helmets as the front-projected plate (background image) of the Clavius moon base reflects off their shiny surface and back onto the 3-M Scotchlite screen material. The camera sees this because it had to be on the same optical axis as the front projector in order for the process photography to work.

9). As the Aries shuttle and lunar space bus land on the moon’s surface, each kicks up clouds of dust, not in keeping with the absence of air and footage taken of actual Apollo lunar liftoffs.

10). Continuity error as the color photograph of moon anomaly changes to a different black & white photo for the medium shot in Dr. Floyd’s lap, then back to color again for the 3-shot.

11). Kubrick himself can be seen with beard filming during handheld shot as a ghost reflection in faceplate of an astronaut’s helmet. Perhaps this was his auteur Hitchcock signature.

12). Earthlight changes from gibbous phase on horizon to a different phase overhead near the sun when monolith sends its radio emission. The earth never changes position in the lunar sky! And even with the help of alien intervention, it couldn’t change phase that quickly.

13). Poole must be strapped upside down in his chair unable to move as Bowman walks upright on moving centrifuge to meet him. Gravity plays its course.

14). The BBC still doesn’t have 12 channels.

15). You’d think with all of NASA’s technology they’d invent space potholders so that Dave wouldn’t burn his fingers when grabbing for his meal.

16). During chess game with Frank, HAL checkmates in two moves, which should have been three.

17). Not really a mistake, just an observation: Both Frank and Dave must enter rotating centrifuge together because the inner one decelerates and stops just as the outer cylinder begins moving counter-clockwise in order to simulate zero gravity.

18). Since the first space walk was filmed upside down against black to hide wires in order to simulate weightlessness, the shadow of the wire harness holding Frank can be seen across the space pod.

19). HAL’s point-of-view is always depicted with a fisheye lens. But when he reads Frank and Dave’s lips inside the space pod, this is presented with a normal Ultra-Panavision lens.

20). “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” The HAL 9000 computer breaks Asimov’s First Law of Robotics and harms human beings.

21). “Oh, HAL, I’m home!” After HAL kills the four Discovery crewmembers and disables life support throughout the entire ship, Dave must wear his spacesuit in order to survive. As he enters HAL’s super-computer brain center, a fatal flaw displays his left wrist exposed to the vacuum. He would, in effect, be dead in this scene!

22). In “2001,” objects seldom cross in front of one another to avoid the telltale matte lines. Kubrick instructed the female artists to rotoscope (or draw) the holdout mattes slightly larger so that background stars would never “bleed” over the body of the spacecraft. Careful observation reveals stars appearing to extinguish slightly before they pass behind the ship.

23). In Jerome Abel’s The Making of 2001,Kubrick himself admits: “The trip and magical alignment of Jupiter and its satellites are the only things in ‘2001’ that don’t conform to what is known to physicists and astronomers.”

24). During the Opening In the Stargate slit scan sequence, light reflections remain static when seen against Bowman’s faceplate, even though he is passing stars and planets at breathtaking speeds.

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