The best movie hitting screens right now is 50 years old—but the 70mm “unrestored version” of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s unspooling at the Somerville Theatre for the first two weeks of June (before moving to the Coolidge Corner Theatre on June 15 for an additional 10 days) shouldn’t look any older than it did when it premiered in 1968.
Credit for this achievement largely falls on filmmaker Christopher Nolan. The director of the Dark Knight trilogy is a powerful proponent of the 70mm film format, which sat dormant for decades until he—along with fellow cinephiles Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino—revived the costly analog process. Nolan captured portions of 2014’s Interstellar and the majority of last year’s Dunkirk on the large-gauge celluloid frames, which contain far more fine-grain detail than even the best digital projection. It would take a digital resolution of nearly 18K to even come close to 70mm film, and yet 4K TV technology is currently billed as the most cutting-edge picture quality.
In fact, Nolan was busy preparing digital remasters of his film library for home release on the trendy Ultra High Definition format last fall when Ned Price, vice president of restoration at Warner Bros., was working on a UHD transfer of 2001 in the same lab. Price showed Nolan interpositive copies that had been made from the original negatives in ’99 as part of a preservation project that was never intended to become public. But Nolan was a fan of Kubrick’s meditative masterpiece ever since seeing it at the impressionable age of 7, when his father took him to see a 70mm print in London.
Perhaps—like me—he was mesmerized by the incredibly realistic representations of commercial spacecrafts, orbiting space stations, lunar surfaces and low-gravity interiors set to the silence of space and the soundtrack’s classical music.
Common complaints in subsequent years include that the film is boring and Kubrick’s musical choices are pretentious—from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, the now-iconic tone poem that opens and closes the film’s cosmic visions, to Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, the unexpected but absolutely perfect waltz that bridges the extended “Dawn of Man” sequence leading to Kubrick’s transition into outer space. But most of those comments have likely originated from viewers who’ve never experienced the movie presented on film.
It’s become a cliche to claim that you haven’t really seen a movie unless you’ve watched it on the big screen—an assertion that typically emanates from a marketer’s toolbox. But every so often, these claims reflect truth. Certainly, 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia retains its narrative thrust even when viewed on a television screen, graced as it is by Peter O’Toole’s star-making turn as English officer T.E. Lawrence. But the epic sweep and grandeur of David Lean’s 70mm production is lost. Take the iconic shot of a distant speck that gradually takes the form of Omar Sharif as he emerges from the rippling heatwaves of a never-ending desert. On a small screen, the Egyptian actor remains tragically tiny.
To see 2001 in anything less than 70mm is even more tragic. Kubrick casts a spell that relies on the complete immersion he creates, deliberately pulling you into his film’s hyperreality. And in Kubrick’s hands, everything is deliberate. Each obsessive layer of detail has been designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible, where the deep focus of Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s meticulously composed frames acts as a window into unshakeable sights and guides us from the beginnings of humanity toward the first steps of its evolution. But even with all of that transformation at play—organic and man-made—Kubrick never shies away from the deliberate acts of death-dealing that propel the development of a species, focusing on the earliest of man’s destructive weapons to his most technologically advanced.
Nowhere is this more explicit than in his famous match-cut between a bone that’s been used as an instrument of murder, hurled toward the heavens, until it’s replaced by an orbiting nuclear satellite, ready to rain death from Earth’s atmosphere. And that’s before even mentioning the HAL 9000, an artificially intelligent computer system that’s increasingly bizarre behavior leads to a showdown of man and machine on the film’s journey toward Jupiter, and the mysterious visions we’re left to interpret at voyage’s end.
One thing forbidden from interpretation is the analog film itself. At no point did Nolan indulge in an urge to “correct” the original image or sound in Kubrick’s masterpiece. Eschewing digital tools, he and his team have left any slight scratches or tears intact, along with the six-channel soundtrack that remains an embedded element. Thus, the “unrestoration,” an analog wonder and its tiny imperfections that should look just as new as the day they were first projected. ◆
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Robert Beatty, Leonard Rossiter, Sean Sullivan and Douglas Rain. Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel. Directed by Kubrick. Special
70mm engagements play at the Somerville Theatre on June 1-14, followed by the Coolidge Corner Theatre on June 15-24. Actor Keir Dullea will appear at the Coolidge for a post-screening Q&A after the 7 pm show on June 23.