2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - HD DVD review

...take any frame at random from the film and you could hang it on your wall.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"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."

The video engineers capture the movie's 2.20:1 Cinerama ratio nicely, the size measuring out about 2.10:1 across my screen, given a small amount of overscan. You may notice the smallest degree of natural film grain from the outset, some almost undetectable halos on occasion, and some minor shimmer; otherwise, the picture quality is spectacular. It's so clear in its 1080-resolution, VC-1 encode, you can almost read the complete instructions on the Zero Gravity Toilet. Blacks and whites are especially important in conveying all the imagery this film has to offer, and they come through beautifully, the blacks inky and the whites intense, setting off the rest of colors in dramatic fashion. The photography and special effects in "2001" were ahead of their time, and watching the movie today in high def, one would have to say they still remain ahead of their time. I watched a program a while back in HD on cable about astronauts working in space on the Hubble telescope, and I swear the images looked no more real than those in "2001." In fact, in some instances they looked less real.

The user has the choice in English of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio tracks. Understand, however, that the engineers remixed the soundtrack for "2001" from its original sources, which Kubrick largely took from commercially available 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 does not erase completely. Indeed, at high volume levels there is a trace of background noise during most of the quietest passages, music or not. The audio signals to the rear channels involve mostly musical bloom for ambient reinforcement, but they make the music appear more natural than ever. The frequency balance is a tad forward and sharp in the highs, but the smooth midrange and ample bass more than compensate. Although even in TrueHD, which is perhaps a little fuller than the DD+ track, the sound is not quite up to today's movie-audio standards, it effectively submerges the listener in the story.

There is an excellent complement of extras on the HD DVD, and they will take you hours to get through. First, there's an audio commentary by stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood that is informative and fun, to be sure, although the two fellows don't appear to have been in the same room during the taping. Next up is the forty-three-minute documentary, "2001: The Making of a Myth," narrated by James Cameron and including comments from Arthur C. Clarke and many of the film's actors and filmmakers. Like the rest of the extras, it is in standard definition.

Following those main attractions, there is a series of featurettes. They begin with "Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001," twenty-one minutes with people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Peter Hyams, Dan O'Bannon, William Friedkin, and others that "2001" influenced. Then, there is a "Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001," twenty-one minutes; "2001: A Space Odyssey: A Look Behind the Future," a vintage segment at twenty-three minutes; "What Is Out There?," twenty minutes; "2001: FX and Early Conceptual Artwork," nine minutes; and "Look: Stanley Kubrick!," a three-minute collection of photographs Kubrick sold to "Life" magazine early in his career. And there is a sixty-six-minute audio-only interview with Stanley Kubrick, conducted by physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein.

Finally, the disc contains thirty-four scene selections but no chapter insert; a 1.78:1 ratio theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As with all of WB's HD DVDs, the disc also includes pop-up menus, bookmarks, a zoom-and-pan feature, a guide to elapsed time, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
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


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