2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey is fifty years old this year, and to celebrate it’s been released for the big screen in a pristine 70mm film print. It looks spectacular.

The version I saw was the new ‘unrestored’ celluloid print, as distinct from MGM’s new digital restoration. Film director Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, Inception) convinced MGM to strike a new 70mm print directly from the original negative.  Most film prints, even at the time of the film’s release, are likely to have been second or third generation prints.  A first generation print would be a treasure, how Stanley Kubrick intended it to look: the definition, grain, lustre, contrast and colour grading.

This is a film made to be seen on the big screen for the emotional engagement and sense of wonder.  In theory, a 70mm print should have a greater resolution than most other formats, although whether its equivalent to 8k, 12k, 16k or any other digital resolution seems to be a contentious topic.  Either way, 2001 was originally shot for the medium and arguably it’s best way to project it to match Kubrick’s intentions.

2001 70mm film
Some frames from the 70mm print (photo from Picturehouse Central)

Like many people around my age I first saw 2001 on television, then later on DVD and blu ray.  However, I’ve also been fortunate to see the British Film Institute’s 70mm print twice previously at their Southbank cinema (once in the presence of special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull).  Both times have been immersive experiences.

So how did I find this new ‘unrestored’ 70mm print?

The first thing I noticed was the stability; there was none of the shudder or shaking that you sometimes see particularly at the start of a reel.  Nor was there any discernible scratches or other physical damage.  So the negative was clearly still in pristine physical condition, and in no obvious damage in need of a digital touch-up.

Then I noticed the colours, they were more vibrant and richer than I recalled seeing before: the orange skies on the African plains during the first section of the film, and later the space suits’ primary colours both stood out.  And the famous Stargate sequence was incredible.

The depth and level of detail was also exceptional, and drew you into the picture.  As this was printed from the original source, I can’t imagine it could be any sharper.

The contrast was fine. Arguably this is a particular strength of digital, as the whites can be made whiter, and the blacks darker.  I’m not sure if this particular film would have benefited particularly from any further enhancement.

Overall, the visuals were incredible.


2001 group
Katharina Kubrick, Keir Dullea, Christopher Nolan and Jan Harlan at Cannes where the ‘unrestored’ 70mm print premiered (photo from The Guardian)

The sound was less impressive, to be honest.  Bearing in mind it was recorded fifty years ago, it just didn’t have the dynamic range and separation that you can get nowadays of course, and its limitations were particularly apparent in a cinema with a high quality modern sound system.  That’s the case with any older film of course, and perhaps I noticed the sound being flat only because the picture quality was so good in comparison.  So this is not really a criticism (that would be deeply unfair and unrealistic).

The film itself is wonderful, of course; it still stands up extremely well and time doesn’t detract from the awe and mystery.  The special effects still impress even when shown on a huge screen on 70mm and I found myself marveling at the attention to detail that must have gone into them to make them look so good. The spaceship model shots are so well lit they still look convincing.

One thing that only now seems dated are the ape costumes in the ‘Dawn of Man’ opening sequence.  In 1968, Planet of the Apes received a special Oscar for ‘special make-up design’, something that irked the 2001 filmmakers.  Arthur C. Clarke jokingly wondered if the judges though that the 2001 apes were real! Nowadays, the latest batch of Planet of the Apes movies makes the 2001 sequences look very like a group of guys in monkey suits.  Interestingly, I don’t think this is due to the CGI, but because the movements in the Apes films are now so much closer to what we see on wildlife documentaries.  Just watch the Terry Notary sequence in The Square to see what I mean.

But these are small quibbles.  It was a real treat to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen in such a perfect format.  It really doesn’t get any better than this and if you get a chance to see it, go!

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