2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - Blu-ray review

Wow!

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Film review by John J. Puccio:

"2001: A Space Odyssey." This is why people buy high definition.

Ever since the introduction of high definition in the home, I've heard more than once comments like "The little bit of difference between standard definition and high definition isn't worth the bother" or "You need a television screen that is at least 50" or bigger to notice any difference in high def." To which I can only reply, "Nonsense." I believe people who make such remarks are speaking from any of several motives: (1) They are speaking from ignorance, having never seen or heard a properly set up high-definition system in their home. (2) They are speaking from envy because they cannot afford a good high-definition system themselves, even at today's relatively inexpensive prices. Or (3) they are speaking from fear because they have spent the last decade replacing all of their old VHS tapes with standard-definition DVDs, and now they are unwilling to start over again with HD discs. I could also say these folks are blind and deaf, but that would be peevish on my part. In any case, it has been my experience that high definition does make a difference and that HD can enhance one's enjoyment of the picture and sound of any film, thus increasing the value of the film itself. Although ideally one should see "2001" on a huge theater screen, the next best thing in the home is high def.

Some years ago film critic Roger Ebert asked Tom Hanks what movie had had the most influence on his becoming an actor, and Hanks answered "2001." He said he had never realized the visual power that films possessed until seeing Kubrick's masterpiece, and then he watched it again and again. Since most of today's younger moviegoers have probably never seen "2001" on a big movie screen, only on TV, we hear such comments as those from some of my former high school students like, "It's boring" or "I don't get it." I sympathize. Watching "2001" in pan-and-scan or edited for commercial TV is like reading "The Lord of the Rings" in "Reader's Digest." The fact is, "2001" is perhaps cinema's ultimate audiovisual experience, telling its story almost entirely in pictures and sound; and those are, after all, the major differences between movies and the printed page. "2001" is one of my top-ten favorite films, and while a big movie theater is still the best place to see it, for home viewing Warner's restored, widescreen, high-definition presentation of this MGM classic is better than ever.

"2001" does nothing less than attempt to deal with some of the ultimate questions of the universe: Who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going? The movie deals with the evolution of the human race and then muses on the probability that not only is Mankind not alone in the universe, but that we may have had outside help with our development. The screenplay, co-authored by Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, contains little plot and even less dialogue. Yet it conveys through its eloquent, often majestic images and creative inferences answers to age-old mysteries. Clarke said the film was "...an attempt to convey the probable place of Man in the hierarchy of the universe." It's true that Clarke went on to write three more books about the continuing adventure, in the process providing too much banal explanation for the far more imaginative possibilities he and Kubrick first proposed in "2001." But if one can put aside the author's later over-clarifications, one can revel in the film's endless mysteries and argue interpretations until the suns come up. Alternatively, if viewers prefer not to think about any of it at all, they can take pleasure in just watching the gorgeous scenery and listening to the atmospheric music. Again and again. Thank heaven for HD DVD.

The film opens with Richard Strauss's introductory fanfare to "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and can you think of a more-famous opening shot? From there Kubrick divides the movie into four parts, each punctuated by the director's use of classical music to set the tone. In the first part, "The Dawn of Man," humankind's ancient, apelike ancestors learn to use tools through the influence of a giant, black monolith that suddenly appears in their midst. Then we come to the second part, "From Earth to the Moon" (preceded by one of the most audacious edits in the history of cinema--a split second that jumps millions of years), humans discover a giant, black monolith identical to the first one, buried under the lunar surface, apparently pointing a signal into space. In the third part, "Jupiter Mission," Earth sends several astronauts in the direction indicated by the moon monolith. And in the final part, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," there is yet another monolith, which leads one of the astronauts on a final, mind-bending adventure into galactic rebirth. The film implies that some unidentified higher powers have been guiding Earth's progress and destiny for eons.

There are only a few important characters in the film. The first is Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), head of the space agency that assigns the astronauts their mission to Jupiter. The next are astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). And the last is the HAL 9000 computer, with his easygoing voice (Douglas Rain) and maddening penchant for insisting on always being right. Arthur C. Clarke has denied that he chose the initials HAL because they are one letter removed from IBM. Coincidence, I guess. In any case, John Eastman in his book "Retakes" says that "Kubrick had originally named the computer Athena, which would speak with a woman's voice; then he decided to name it by combining the acronym of 'heuristic' and 'algorithmic,' the two principal learning systems." Anyway, HAL has more personality than any of the other characters in the movie, a clue that this is a story of sights, sounds, and ideas rather than a story of human relationships. The American Film Institute voted HAL the thirteenth greatest villain in movie history.

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that. ... Just what do you think you're doing, Dave? ... "Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it."

The final twenty minutes or so of the movie contain what was in 1968 a state-of-the-art audiovisual show that delighted every pot-smoking hippie as well as every buttoned-down pencil pusher on the planet. It still makes a stunning impression today, especially in this HD DVD edition, and we can easily see how it influenced future films, like the similar climactic visuals in "Contact." For that matter, the whole structure of "Contact" owes much to "2001," a tribute to the older film's continuing impact on storytelling and filmmaking.

The production does not appear dated at all, except perhaps the women's hair and clothing styles and some of the space station's furniture. Additionally, no one in 1968 could have foreseen that in the real year 2001 we would have abandoned the moon as a destination for scientific inquiry, that transportation giant Pan Am would have gone out of business, or that phone calls from an orbiting space station would cost more than $1.70 to Earth. Certainly, nothing about the special effects looks dated, thanks mainly to the imagination of producer/director Kubrick and the wizardry of special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and others. It's easy to see how "Star Wars," "Close Encounters," "Alien," "Contact," and the rest owe their graphic origins to "2001."

Technical review by Dean Winkelspecht:

Video:

Wow. That one word easily describes my first thoughts when the image quality of "2001: A Space Odyssey" first appeared on screen. There was a long wait to actually see something as a musical selection occupies a black screen for a lengthy period of time before an image of apes finally appears. However, the wait was well worth it and I was quickly blown away by the picture quality of this 1968 film. I have always used Warner Bros. "The Searchers" as reference material for how well a catalog title can look, but after seeing Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, John Wayne might be retired. This is just an awesome transfer and the film easily looks better than ninety percent of the more recent science fiction films released. John began his review with the quote "This is why people buy high definition" and I couldn't agree more. This Blu-ray title reinforced my belief that the new high definition formats are easily superior to the older DVD technology and anybody that spends just a few minutes watching this film would be hard pressed to field a legitimate argument.

Presented in 2.20:1 widescreen and mastered with the VC-1 codec, there is not a single flaw with the Blu-ray release of "2001: A Space Oddesy." This is perfection in motion and detail ranks among the strongest I have yet to see on either Blu-ray or HD-DVD. You can see any texture or minute detail through this entire film. Buttons and lights on consoles are bright and you can make out each sharp corner. The highly detailed space suits look amazing with the detail provided by this release. Color is also as good as it gets. From the reds and oranges featured in the space suits and on HAL 9000's console, the colors seemingly jump from the television they are so bright and finely colored. Black levels are out of this world and whereas most older science fiction films don't have true black spacescapes, "2001" is as good as it gets and the starfield shows how well blacks and whites are in this picture. I honestly can say that I'm still just amazed at how great this film looked.

Sound:

Alex North's all-too-familiar score of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra have never sounded as good as it does on the Blu-ray release with its Dolby Uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack. I imagine this release is identical to the HD-DVD's Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and I can hardly imagine the film getting any better sounding. The musical score sounds so good it tingled my heart. The first scene with the apes instantly showed how well sound effects were goint to sound. The crickets were all encompassing. The cheetah and fearful cries of the apes were sharp and detailed sounding. The remaining sound effects are also strongly delivered and in the grand scheme of things, the sound effects are the best aspect of the mix. For even in all of its glory, "2001: A Space Odyssey" does show some limitations of the source materials. As John pointed out in his review, there is a definite tape hiss present in the soundtrack and although you need to turn up the volume some to hear it, it is hard to miss. It doesn't take much away from the soundtrack and the quality of how it sounds, but it does prevent "2001" from being perfect.

Extras:

I enjoyed the look of the pop-up menu for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and thankfully there is more than a spiffy menu in terms of special features. I had previously owned the large box set on LaserDisc, but have long since parted with it. I'm not sure of how well this compares to that pricey $125 set in features, but I'm more than happy with the value added content provided on the Blu-ray and HD-DVD release of the film. A lot of credit needs to be pointed in Warner Bros. direction for providing this fine Blu-ray release. There is 148 minutes of film and they still found a way to squeeze all of this wonderful bonus materials on a BD-50 platter. I must say that the extras contained on this Blu-ray are very good, although I do miss one or two that were present on the LaserDisc.

A Commentary by Actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood is the first selection under "Special Features" and finds a Criterion-styled commentary track that dives into the history of the film and their experiences in making the picture. There were times when the commentary felt a bit dry, but I thought it was nicely done and this is one of those films where any further information you can dig up is always an added bonus. The 2001: The Making of a Myth (43:08) finds the King of the World James Cameron hosting a recent documentary on the making of this landmark film. Cameron is a good orator and with Keir Dullea, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and others lending their time, this is a very good making of feature that is educational and not promotional.

After the top notch commentary and lengthy documentary, six more features are included. The second documentary, Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001 (21:25) finds George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and others discussing how this movie influenced their own careers. There was an unexpected strong bass track with this feature. This is another very nicely done supplement. Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001 (21:31) look at how close the film was to the real 2001 and how its warning of technology fared when the turn of the century occurred. Another nice feature, but not as strong as the others thus far. The fourth documentary is 2001: A Space Odyssey: A Look Behind the Future (23:11) is a vintage feature that spends time looking at some of the film's shooting locations.

Next up is What is Out There? (20:42) is unusual in that it looks at philosophical, theological and scientific arguments. There were some moments I was intrigued with, while others were forgettable. This is mixed with film footage. Still, I remain impressed with the lengthy and numerous supplements. The 2001: FX and Early Conceptual Artwork (9:28) is another retro feature and looks at how some of the film's visual effects were achieved a decade before George Lucas and his "Star Wars" rewrote the rules on special effects. Interestingly, most of the effects still hold up nicely today. Look: Stanley Kubrick! (3:15) is a quick look at Kubrick's early career as a photographer at Taft High School and how he had photographs in Look magazine. The 11/27/1966 Interview with Stanley Kubrick (1:16:30) is a very long interview with the late director and a very strong feature. This is audio only and features a quick shot of the Star Child looking towards Earth while the audio is played. The interview was handled by writer Jeremy Bernstein and is an excellent listen if you have the time. Finally, the Theatrical Trailer is the last supplement contained on the disc.

Closing Comments by John J. Puccio:

I can hardly think of a movie that benefits more from high-definition processing than this new HD DVD release of "2001." I mean, take any frame at random from the film and you could hang it on your wall. It's that beautiful, that visionary. Few movies can make such a boast.

Warner Bros. have made "2001: A Space Odyssey" available in HD DVD, Blu-ray, and standard-definition. All three formats are available separately, and the SD versions are also available in the big "Stanley Kubrick Director's Series" box, which includes "2001," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," "Eyes Wide Shut," and the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures." Most of the films in SD come in two-disc special editions, with the exception of the single-disc "Full Metal Jacket" and the Kubrick documentary.

"In an infinite and eternal universe, the point is, anything is possible." --Stanley Kubrick

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
8
Extras
9
Film Value
10