Fifty years since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, Stanley Kubrick's film is new again.
Christopher Nolan, whose own films include Memento, Inception and the Dark Knight series, clearly remembers the first time he saw Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. "They had re-released it in 1977, nine years after its initial release, because Star Wars had been such a big hit," he says. "We went to the biggest screen in London. And I remember very clearly the magnitude, the scale of this experience that I didn't understand. I think I've carried that with me in everything to do with movies.
"I always want to see other people's movies on the biggest screen. And in terms of making films, I've always been chasing that sense that the screen is opening up, offering the audience infinite possibilities." The most important take-away, he thinks, was the revelation that movies could make their own rules. That a film could be anything.
Stanley Kubrick, who died in 1999 with a reputation as one of cinema's great maestros and life's great eccentrics, made 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Kubrick wasn't yet 40, but he had made several landmark films already – Paths of Glory, Lolita, Spartacus, Dr Strangelove – and wrote it with Arthur C. Clarke, a doyen of the sci-fi genre. That pedigree notwithstanding, the film was an immediate critical disaster. Lead actor Keir Dullea remembers 250 people walked out of the New York premiere; the reviews were terrible. "Stanley was very upset," he says. "And MGM were worried, I think. But after a month, the film started doing very well."
"The people who rescued it were the young," remembers Kubrick's in-house producer, brother-in-law and eventual screen biographer Jan Harlan. "I think that is so interesting." The film has a deceptively simple plot – two astronauts go on a mission to Jupiter with a computer that malfunctions, rebels and sets out to kill them – that culminates in a spectacular photographic free-for-all as we plunge with Dullea's character into a new dimension. It was baffling, visually extraordinary and, thanks to the thundering chords of Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra, very loud.
"Fundamentally, people who expected something like Dr Strangelove didn't know what was going to happen," says Harlan. "But younger people realised there was something there that they had never experienced, an expression of respect for what the film-makers didn't know themselves. Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick were both people who were not religious but had the greatest respect for the endlessness of the universe. Of course there is more than we understand." Despite the critical bloodbath, queues for 2001 were soon going around the block. "And all of a sudden," laughs Katharina Kubrick, Stanley's daughter, "the studio turned the marketing round to '2001: the ultimate trip'."
Nolan has come to the Cannes film Festival with Harlan, Dullea and Katharina Kubrick to present what he calls an "unrestored" version of the film. The same version will next be seen in Australia. Later this year there will be an ultra high-definition release of the film for home viewing that Nolan says will be as close as home viewing can get to the real thing, but this actually is the real thing: a 70mm print from a new negative constructed from the original 1970s printing elements.
Sitting in the theatre, a viewer sees the film exactly as the perfectionist Kubrick intended, complete with an overture and a 20-minute interval. The overture, adapted from Strauss' Blue Danube waltz, was included on the original negative, Nolan explains; the film runs black for seven minutes while it plays. The Cannes Classics organisers asked if they really wanted an interval, given there is no bar in the Cannes theatre to keep people busy, but you can't leave it out: those 20 minutes of blank screen are also built in. Anyway, says Nolan, "we want to show a new generation what this film was. What it is."
For him, making 2001 new again was a labour of love. Last year, he was transferring his own films on to the UHD format when the Warners technical whiz working with him mentioned that they were planning to do the same thing with 2001 and he had some original film print reels handy. Would Nolan like to see them? "So, without sound or anything, we put them up on the projector," he recalls. "And they had such freshness and immediacy, seeing the film in its glorious original analogue format."
He came up with the idea of making a new negative. It could be released through cinemas that still had 70mm projectors – of which, he says, there are more than you might think, especially in the United States. Nolan remains as loyal as he can be to celluloid. "Without worrying about the odd scratch, the odd bit of dirt, you give people a much fuller, more emotional experience," he says. He also believes in the integrity of presentation.
In recent times, directors have become mere "content providers" for multiple platforms, divorced from any idea of putting on a show. But it doesn't feel that way on a set, he says." You want to say 'hang on, the presentation of our work has always been a huge part of the creative process'. Everyone on any set working in features, from the hair and make-up person to the cinematographer, we are thinking about the big screen, thinking about what the impact of the work in that format will be. We owe it to ourselves to watch it that way, the way the creators intended."
Certainly, the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey remains as gnomic as it was in 2001. In the beginning, ape-like humanoids are starting to use tools when they discover that a tool is also a weapon. The journey begins; HAL the computer goes haywire and we end up somewhere in a future where the young have become old and the mysterious Star Child floats towards our blue planet. "There was a conviction in Kubrick that the way we behave, we will destroy ourselves," says Harlan. "Humanity has no chance to survive. Maybe another 500 years, maybe 50, what's the difference? We are going to go under. You could say it's the same topic in Eyes Wide Shut or Full Metal Jacket."
And what about Nolan, who would become his own generation's great innovator in what might be called science fiction? Did he understand 2001 at seven? "I think I understood it better," he says. "Because the question is the answer. You know what is happening at the end only because you feel it; the experience is the point. And that is why I think it is the most cinematic of all movies."
2001: A Space Odyssey is screening at the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne from May 24; Sun Theatre in Yarraville from June 7 and Astor Theatre in St Kilda from June 8.
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