2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - DVD review

...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?

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

OK, since you can't tell the edition without a scorecard anymore, here's the story: MGM issued Stanley Kubrick's 1968 landmark sci-fi film, "2001: A Space Odyssey," on DVD in 1998; two years later, Warner Brothers reissued it in this digitally restored and remastered version. Since the Time-Warner Company and AOL and Turner Entertainment and MGM all seem to be connected in one, big, happy family, it's easy to see how the film might pop up under any number of banners. Anyway, the movie has, indeed, been cosmetically improved, and it is one of many Kubrick films to get the new, restored treatment in Warner's Kubrick series, among them "Lolita," "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Eyes Wide Shut," available separately or in a nine-disc gift box that also includes "Dr. Strangelove" and an excellent documentary disc on Kubrick, "A Life in Pictures."

In my original review of the MGM edition, I mentioned that I remembered film critic Roger Ebert asking Tom Hanks what film had had the most influence on his becoming an actor and Hanks answering "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 in pan-and-scan on a monaural television, we hear such comments as those from some of my high school students like, "It's boring" or "I don't get it." I sympathize. Watching "2001" cut up for TV is like reading "The Lord of the Rings" in "Reader's Digest." "2001" is probably the screen's ultimate audiovisual experience, telling its story almost entirely in pictures and sound; and those are, after all, the major differences between the screen 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 DVD presentation 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 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 its 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 just in watching the gorgeous scenery and listening to the atmospheric music. Again and again. Thank the heavens for DVD.

The film opens with Richard Strauss's introductory fanfare to "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and from there the story is divided into four parts, each punctuated by the director's unique use of classical music to set the scene. In the first part, "The Dawn of Man," humankind's ancient, ape-like ancestors learn to use tools through the influence of a giant, black monolith that suddenly appears in their midst. In the second part, "From Earth to the Moon," 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 two 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 millions of years.

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 laid-back voice and maddening penchant for always insisting on being right. In his final book in the "Odyssey" series, "3001," Arthur C. Clarke denies that he chose the initials HAL because they are one letter removed from IBM. Coincidence, I guess. 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 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 spectacular impression today, especially in this restored 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 story telling and film making.

Little is dated about the production, except perhaps the women's hair and clothing styles and some of the space station's furniture. 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, the special effects aren't dated, thanks mainly to the imagination of producer/director Kubrick and the wizardry of special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull. It's easy to see how "Star Wars," "Close Encounters," "Alien," and the rest owe their graphic origins to "2001."

What's best is that this new restored transfer to DVD conveys all of the picture in richer, deeper, more crystal-clear colors than ever before, while the screen size captures the movie's wide, 2.20:1 ratio, Super-Panavision Cinerama image. There are still several instances of line flutter, even with my Sony 7700 player, but they are nevertheless a moderate improvement over the first edition and hardly a distraction.

The Dolby Surround 5.1 soundtrack is remixed from its original sources, which, with the exception of dialogue, was taken largely from commercially available, two-channel stereo recordings of music by Ligeti, Khachaturian, Johann Strauss, and Richard Strauss. As such, there is a touch of inevitable tape hiss present, which even this newly remastered rendition can't erase; but the signal to the rear channels seems more natural than ever. Let it suffice that the sound is not quite state-of-the-art by today's standards but otherwise effective in submerging the viewer in the story.

Incidentally, the Warner box now lists the film's running time at 148 minutes, rather than MGM's listing of 139 minutes, because the new box sensibly counts the final wrap-up of the "The Blue Danube" waltz at the end of the credits. However, there is no longer included the twenty-minute question-and-answer session with Arthur C. Clarke, made just prior to the film's premiere; nor is Warner's cardboard-and-plastic packaging able to hold the information contained in MGM's old eight-page booklet of trivia and notes. English and French are still the spoken language choices, but Portuguese has been added to the English, French, and Spanish subtitle choices. Thirty-two scene selections and a theatrical trailer round out the affair. If it doesn't seem like much of a bonus package for so special a movie, it may be that the Warner folks are expecting serious Kubrick fans to get their superb Stanley Kubrick documentary disc.

The documentary, available in the box set, is a must for anyone interested in one of the most influential filmmakers of our time. Titled "Stanley Kubrick, A Life in Pictures," it is almost two-and-a-half hours long and tells us practically everything we ever wanted to know about the director, his movies, his motivations, and his themes. It is narrated by Tom Cruise and features interviews and commentary with Woody Allen, Arthur C. Clarke, Keir Dullea, Shelley Duvall, Nicole Kidman, Malcolm McDowell, Paul Mazursky, Jack Nickolson, Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Richard Schickel, Steven Spielberg, Peter Ustinov, and many more. Extensive film clips from Kubrick's films and from private sources take us behind the movies and into the soul of the man who made a precious few, but ever so unique, films.

Parting Thoughts:
I didn't think I could recommend any DVD more highly than MGM's first issue of "2001," but now that the remastering has slightly improved the image, maybe I can recommend it over again. I can't in all conscience tell a person who has already bought the first version to go out and buy this one; the audiovisual differences are not that great. But the differences are there, and they are, indeed, improvements. However, if you don't already own the film, it is a must-buy. If you do already own the film and you are a perfectionist, as was Kubrick, it is also a must-buy. I mean, take any frame at random from the movie and you could hang it on your wall. It's that beautiful, that visionary. Few films can make such a boast.


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