Let us get one thing clear before we dive into this “review” of sorts: Many, many much more intelligent people have examined and exegeted 2001: A Space Odyssey in much more insightful and elegant ways than I will ever be able to muster (and if you are looking for such insight, I always find the late great Roger Ebert as good a place as any to start). If you think I have the vocabulary to articulate exactly why this transcendent film works so well, I’m afraid you’re going to find it lacking. In other words, if all you’re looking for is some basic rating to tell you whether this movie is worth watching or not, just choose whatever scale you have in mind and max it out because that is precisely how great this movie is. This won’t be so much a critical review as it will be me trying to reflect on what was, and I say this without hyperbole, the greatest movie watching experience of my life.
When I heard that Christopher Nolan was restoring Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and bringing it out on a 70mm IMAX roadshow across the continent, I jealously kept abreast of this development from afar as I got to vicariously read the rapturous reviews of those lucky enough to see it (alas, the closest theatre showing it originally was ninety minutes away from me). But thankfully the roadshow was such a success that finally, my local IMAX theatre put out a run on the movie (not in 70mm, but on a big enough screen to warrant showing up) – and at the first chance I got I trotted out for the Saturday 10:30pm showing in which I ended up being one of seven people in a 400-seat theatre. If you know anything about me, that is as close to the perfect viewing experience as I could think of.
Now before I jump into the experience, let me just highlight what my experience with this film typically was. I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey about 4 times in my life. All of these movies have been on TV screens ranging from a 19-inch VCR/TV combo my wife got in college all the way to my current (and by no means top-of-the-line) 42-in HD TV setup on everything from VHS to Blu-Ray. And let me get this straight: The movie is pretty great in every format. But on my television screen it is easy to call this movie a “cerebral” experience, a movie that certainly works as an intellectual experience but is decidedly cold and emotionless. It is easy to find its quiet passages deliberately glacial and to find its razor thin plot less than satisfying. It is also easy to find yourself wondering about such things like the “deeper meaning” of the final Star Gate sequence, the significance of the mysterious monoliths that inhabit the film, and get caught up in trying to intuit Kubrick’s reasons for his vision. It was easy for me to do those things because on my home-setups Kubrick’s masterpiece was always something that could be contained, something that only took up part of my field of vision when I watched it. It was a movie meant to be appreciated, admired, but always from a safe distance.
Suffice to say, the above description does not in any way describe my experience watching this movie Saturday night. From the moment the lights went down and György Ligeti’s eerie “Atmosphères” filled the theatre in a disorienting darkness for 8 minutes it was clear that using the phrase “cerebral” to describe the film was a severe injustice. Once we finally got the iconic opening shot of the sun slowly emerging from behind the moon played to Richard Strauss’ bombastic and iconic “Sonnenaufgang”, I was in rapture. While that scene played as a nice little overture while watching it at home, on the enormous frame of the IMAX screen it was an overwhelming assault on the senses that quieted me into realizing just how small I was and prepared me for the enormity of the story that was about to unfold.
For someone whose blog is called “Homebody Movies” it may seem a little hypocritical to espouse the power of the cinematic experience. I do stand by the notion that for the vast majority of movies the theatrical experience and the home-viewing experience are, if not identical, at least close enough to make it hard to justify the time and money commitment required to watch them in the theatre. 2001: A Space Odyssey however is one of the clearest exceptions to that rule that proves just how vital the theatrical experience is.
The “Dawn of Man” section of the film is perhaps the clearest example of how the movie plays very differently on screen and at home. The earthly vistas that Kubrick masterfully frames as he slowly zeroes in on a family of apes is certainly interesting on a television screen, but on the IMAX screen they are overwhelmingly majestic. The sheer scale of the landscape is so enormous that my eyes didn’t know where to focus, and I physically had to crane my head to take it all in. Again, where my television allowed the experience to be contained and thus cerebrally appreciated, the IMAX screen did not allow me to be so intellectually removed. Instead these wide vistas were so viscerally overwhelming that it comes as a relief the moment Kubrick finally lands on the ape family – giving me something intimate to digest amongst a lot of majesty. Watching the apes as they slowly become highly evolved at home (and the whole movie in general), I always noticed that movie was deliberately paced. However this time around, the human (or “ape”) drama of the ape’s family rise up the food chain through the discovery of technology was compelling and tense; the deliberate pace giving an element of distilling clarity amidst the larger majestic themes of the movie.
The largeness of the screen also had the odd effect of making the movie strangely and at times intrusively intimate. I don’t think I ever paid attention to just how impressive the sound design of this movie was. In the iconic confrontation with HAL, the sentient A.I. that turns homicidal when its usefulness is threatened, it struck me just how much silence, the sounds of breathing, and the simple whir of machines all combined to give the scene all of its tension. There were also moments where I either literally jumped out of my seat because of a sudden noise or found myself cowering in it because of the unnerving qualities of the soundscape. Again – these were reactions that I had never had watching from the comfort of my couch, but amplified through the IMAX sound system the soundscape became yet another powerful element in my visceral experience of this movie.
Of course I would be remiss if I also did not make the most obvious point about this movie: It is a stunningly beautiful movie to watch. For a movie that came out 50 years ago, it is astonishing just how much of the special effects in this movie hold up and in many cases still surpass a decent chunk of modern CGI. There is an attention to aesthetic detail that makes it rewarding to slow down and observe things closely and it is testament to Kubrick’s design team that blowing the image up five-storey’s high does little to reveal any notable flaws.
Basically, revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey was a revelation. The superiority of the theatrical experience was something I always sort of believed, but could never fully convince myself of thanks to the rising quality of home media. And in most smaller movies, the gap is still much smaller than traditionalists would like to admit. But I have never experienced a wider gap in viewing experience than I had with 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the home screen, the movie plays as a really well-made but ultimately cold viewing experience. On the big screen, where it was meant to be shown, it is much easier to understand why this is one of the greatest movies ever made. It still remains an elusive film for those who want easily definable lessons and meanings but I really found myself not caring about naming whatever deeper meaning this movie had to offer this time because in the all-immersive experience of the IMAX theatre, the movie affected me on a primal level. If you care at all about movies, it would be a severe disservice to yourself if you skipped out on the chance to experience this movie event for yourself.
Runtime: 149 minutes (with intermission)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester