G Dir: Stanley Kubrick | Warner | 2h 29min
Plot: What’s it about?
If I could answer the above with any level of conciseness, I think I’d have to start demanding compensation for writing articles. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that has defied all attempts at explanation, categorization, simplification and, to some degree, even rudimentary understanding for the last 45 years. It’s simply astounding to me that this film is actually that old. Perhaps even more amazing, though, is that it remains just as relevant, timeless, impressive, ethereal, beautiful, and hypnotically haunting today as it has always been. That the film has been so incredibly divisive over the years is hardly surprising. It’s as sterile, impenetrable and purposefully-paced as any of Stanley Kubrick’s most cerebral works, and the sheer scope and narrative distance can be oppressive for those more used to films that welcome the viewer in to the experience more openly. 2001: A Space Odyssey has no such aspirations, being content to simply tell its story and allow us to make of it what we will – or won’t. And the story – what there is of it – is sparse and unrelentingly desolate in its execution. A black rectangle (called the monolith) is discovered on the surface of the moon in 1999. Once dug up, the monolith emits a radio transmission toward Jupiter. Two years later, the USS Discovery is sent to determine the meaning and purpose of the signal. En route, the ship’s onboard computer, the HAL-9000, begins acting strangely. It eventually sabotages the mission, forcing the ship’s commander, David Bowman, to venture out alone to uncover the secret of the monolith.
That, quite literally, is the entire film. And while that may read like just the opening setup for a movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey could never be faulted for having a traditional narrative structure. Just about the time you think to yourself “okay, now where in the world is this going”, the film abruptly ends. Even in a film that clocks in at two and a half hours, it’s a rather jarring cut to black. No doubt, most people in 1968 (and in 2013) left Kubrick’s science fiction epic scratching their heads and needing a handful of aspirin. It is a film for everyone? Absolutely not. But I’d argue that it’s also not only a film for the pretentious. I don’t profess to understand everything about Kubrick’s magnum opus, but I do find enough cinematic treasures in it to revisit it regularly. And perhaps it is the film’s very insistence on being so difficult to absorb that makes the attempt to decipher its mysteries all the more enthralling. It’s one of the rare films I can think of that actually makes less sense when taken as a whole than it does when dissected scene-by-scene. You may be wrapped up emotionally in the disintegration of the human / HAL interactions in the second act, for example, but once it’s run its course, you may find yourself wondering what it all meant. And that same analogy can quite effectively be made for the entire experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those films that may hold wonders too vast to comprehend. Or it may actually just be as vacuous a motion picture as it seems.
Personally, I’ve always suspected that the answer lies somewhere in between. I’ve never seen the film as the unrivaled science fiction masterpiece that some have, and yet it’s an undeniably important and influential film that can’t responsibly be dismissed as the empty tripe as some would claim it is. My personal take is that it’s a film that was probably as far ahead of its time as any ever made. So far ahead, in fact, that I’m not even entirely convinced that Kubrick himself understood exactly what it all meant. And maybe he wasn’t concerned with whether he did. Much of the film, as researched by historians over the last several decades, is comprised intentionally of metaphor and symbolism. And on that level, it’s possible that any attempt to interpret anything in the movie at face value is utterly pointless. Was Kubrick trying to make some statement about the technological dehumanization of our species? Is the end a visual representation of an inevitable evolutionary step in our future, there for the taking once we have the dreams, ambition, scientific proficiency, and perhaps unbridled arrogance to dare reach for it? Or maybe Kubrick just wanted to wow his audience with a tour-de-force of visual effects, and he’d painted his story into a corner as vast as the unknown answers to questions humankind has asked since the dawn of time. We may never know. And that’s why we’ll keep watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and asking the question, in the vain hope of seeing an answer somehow present itself. I can think of no better life metaphor than that.
Video: How does it look?
I still remember being blown away by the video quality for 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the days of the CAV Special Edition laserdisc. Things have only improved exponentially since then, with Warner’s Blu-ray going the extra mile by not only edging out the previous presentations, but trouncing all over them with a visual knockout punch that will leave fans of this classic film simply speechless. The 65mm film elements have aged miraculously, and I truly could not ever have imagined that we’d be seeing Kubrick’s vision with this kind of splendor at home. Blacks are near-perfect here, with a deep and inky quality that proves vital to a film set in space. I did note one or two instances of banding during the opening scenes on Earth, but these were so fleeting and inconsequential that I couldn’t bring myself to knock the video score down even a half point because of it. Fine object detail is outstanding, lending the film a truly 3D appearance more than once. The model work holds up remarkably well, even today (as well, I suppose, it should, as this was the film that convinced some fringe conspiracy theorists that Kubrick has faked the Apollo moon landings the following year). Really though, for a film of this vintage, I don’t know that I have ever seen a presentation so absolutely pristine, clean, and clear of virtually any defects of any kind. It’s like it was filmed yesterday. Fans of the film will absolutely want (no, need) to add this disc to their collections. If there are any Kubrick fans out there that have somehow not picked this one up yet, you’re missing out on one of the single best catalog releases ever. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, German SDH, Italian, Italian SDH, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish. What, no Japanese?
Audio: How does it sound?
In a word, spectacular. Warner has done a terrific job here of presenting 2001: A Space Odyssey in a glorious LPCM 5.1 audio track that more than does the film’s visuals justice. From the famous opening strains of “Thus Spoke Zarathusthra” to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”, the envelopment – especially for a film of this era – is truly impressive. The surrounds are more active than I would’ve anticipated on this title, with great, seamless directionality across the entirety of the sound stage. Dialogue comes in loud and clear (when it occurs), and I am happy to report that the 5.1 mix is quite respectful of the original theatrical sound experience, expanding the aural experience tastefully without inserting new and unwanted effects to distract from the film. LFE has a nice kick when called for (again, more than I was expecting). This is a truly great soundtrack that surprised me with its quality and immersion. If I absolutely had to include a gripe here, I did find the high end of the mix just a slight bit harsh on a couple of the movie’s loudest moments, but I’m sure that’s attributable to the age of the audio elements rather than any fault with this Blu-ray presentation. Lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 are also offered up in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Warner has assembled a quite nice package of supplements for fans of Kubrick’s film. I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from what appeared to be a single-disc, low-key release. But the quality really outweighs the quantity this time, and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s an excellent commentary track with stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood first up, and the two are extremely involving and engaging speakers. This is a long film (and arguably a rather dry one), but this commentary is quite the opposite, with terrific anecdotes and information sprinkled consistently all throughout the film. The rest of the extras are geared toward the documentary / featurette arena, but that’s hardly a bad thing. “2001: The Making of a Myth” is a BBC documentary on the making of the film that was a bit more in-depth and interesting than I had expected. On the featurette front, there are several. “Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick” is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know how 2001: A Space Odyssey has influenced science fiction in the years since its release (or just films in general). “What is Out There?”, “Vision of a Future Passed” and “A Look Behind the Future” are all focused on various scientific aspects of the movie, with some hindsight observations about things that were predicted back in 1968 and how real-world technology evolved differently. We also get a photo gallery of Kubrick in Look magazine, a conceptual artwork collection, and a nice interview with Stanley Kubrick from 1966 which will be of particular interest to film enthusiasts. All in all, a really nice package of supplements that should please fans – especially for a release not even labeled as special edition. Well done, Warner.