2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Christopher Nolan explains why he restored one of the greatest sci-fi films ever. Plus, insight from those who were there in ’68.
Christopher Nolan was seven years old when his father took him to Leicester Square to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The thing that I really remember is the scale and awe of the spectacle of it, and the idea that the movie screen can transport you anywhere,” he tells Total Film
40 years later. “That has absolutely stayed with me: the scale of the imagery and the sense of immersion… it’s something I’ve been chasing in cinema ever since. You’re looking to get back to that childlike sense of wonder.”
It is 14 May, and the previous evening Nolan marked the 50th anniversary of his favourite film by screening it at the Cannes Film Festival, to a standing ovation. A lot of painstaking work went into 2001’s tip-top presentation – all of it overseen by Nolan, a renowned perfectionist, working from Kubrick’s notes. And yet, cutely, he has dubbed it the “unrestored” version, for there has been neither revisionism or interpretation: new 70mm prints were struck from the original negative; digitalisation was eschewed (“You tend to lose the emotional impact of the shot in ways that are more subconscious than conscious”); and even the original six-track mono soundtrack of the film’s 1968 release was adhered to.
In six months’ time – as you read this article, in fact – Nolan’s own personal odyssey to deliver Kubrick’s star-trekking, soul-searching epic to a new generation will continue with 2001’s release as a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with High Dynamic Range. “4K UHD allows the closest recreation of viewing the original film print in your own home,” explains Nolan, immaculate in casual suit and open-necked shirt. “Kubrick’s masterpiece was originally presented on large format film and the deeper
colour palette and superior resolution comes closest to matching the original analogue presentation.”
After the release of his seventh movie, Dr. Strangelove, in 1964, Kubrick decided that his eighth film should be a science-fiction spectacle that would grapple with Big Questions rather than outsized monsters. He had a colleague reach out to writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, and Clarke responded that he’d be “frightfully interested in working with that enfant terrible”. Kubrick and Clarke first met in April 1964, in New York, and spent many months reading books on science and anthropology, and watching sci-fi movies. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel – about the discovery of a signal-transmitting artefact on Earth’s Moon – would act as the basis for the screenplay and novel that were being developed. But it needed expanding.
What slowly came together was [spoiler warning ahead for anyone who has not yet seen the 50-year-old classic] a story bridging millions of years, from apes wielding bones on the African veldt to a pair of astronauts, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), journeying to Jupiter, their quest signposted by mysterious monoliths. With them are three scientists in suspended animation, while the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, mostly operates their vessel, Discovery One. Then HAL undergoes a terrifying breakdown and Bowman, who’s exited Discovery One in an EVA pod, is pulled into a vortex to travel vast distances of space. He arrives at a neoclassical bedroom to view older versions of himself until he is lying in a bed as a dying man. A monolith appears and he is transformed into a foetus that floats through space in an orb of light.
ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS IT AIN’T
The film – shot at MGM-British Studios and Shepperton Studios between December 1965 and September 1967, with Kubrick overseeing the 205 special effects shots from June 1966 to March 1968 – underwent many changes. Often it was a case of Kubrick taking away: removing a prologue of scientists talking of extra-terrestrial life; extracting a voiceover; jettisoning an early draft’s proposal to have the climactic Star Child set off nuclear weapons carried by Earth-orbiting satellites; ditching Alex North’s score in favour of strains of classical music and deep spells of silence.
Kubrick described the finished film as “basically a visual, non-verbal experience that hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting”. And 50 years on, viewers are still debating 2001’s meaning. Existentialism, evolution, technology, AI, destruction, hope, rebirth, extra-terrestrial life, God… themes and theories float and glimmer like stars in our solar system.
“Neither of them [Kubrick or Clarke] were religious,” says Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long-time producer, Jan Harlan. He is in Cannes with Kubrick’s daughter Katharina and 2001’s leading man, Keir Dullea. “But both of them were totally respectful that there is so much more than we can understand,” Harlan continues. “They wanted something that tells the audience that we know nothing. It’s just impossible to know: billions of stars just in our galaxy. Stanley takes a bow to the unknowable. You can call it God, you can call it extraterrestrials… I don’t know. Stanley didn’t know. Arthur didn’t know.”
“As characters, we didn’t have an overall awesome view of what was happening… there was no deep insight into the meaning of the film,” shrugs Dullea. “To paraphrase Stanley: ‘How do you explain in words your experience of Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony’?’ You can’t. Every human being has
a different experience because you bring a different persona to hearing that music. It’s the same with 2001.”
For Katharina, what 2001 means to her is a period of her life. She was 10, living in New York, when her father started work on it, and then the family moved to Elstree, England, and she spent many amiable days on set.
“We would play with the chimpanzees and walk on the centrifuge [a huge rotating set] and eat the food,” she smiles. “The sandwiches in the film were actually sponge cake, because he didn’t want them to crumble. They were trying to make it as real as possible yet 2001 was made with glue and string and tape and models – Airfix kits. The art department was the most amazing place to visit. All these people beavering away and being inventive.”
“The set was polish and paint and plywood and gears, and velvet with holes in it,” Harlan agrees. “There were no computer graphics. It had to be done real.”
Dullea, naturally, adored having such sets and practical effects to work with. He grins while recalling how he would just walk on the spot in the centrifuge and it was actually the entire set, including Gary Lockwood eating food at his station, that was revolved down to him (“When they first shot it, the food all dropped.
It took an hour to clean up the mess”). In fact, representing zero gravity on a 38ft Ferris wheel was a doddle compared to getting through the dialogue scenes with HAL…
“For HAL, we didn’t yet have the voice of Douglas Rains,” says Dullea. “Stanley couldn’t make up his mind so he said, ‘I’ll worry about it in post-production.’ He turned to his assistant director Derek Cracknell and said, ‘You do the voice of HAL.’ It was [adopts Cockney accent], ‘Y’know what I mean?’ Like working with Michael Caine. Now that was acting – keeping a straight face.”
As for the famous ‘Star Gate’ sequence, that too was all achieved in-camera, using slit-scan photography of thousands of highcontrast images on film, plus printed circuits, electron-microscope photographs of molecular and crystal structures, and slow-motion photography of coloured paints and chemicals swirling in a cloud tank.
“That Star Gate sequence would so obviously become digital now,” says Nolan, whose own films favour practical effects and whose revolving corridor fight sequence in Inception borrowed wholesale from Kubrick’s centrifuge. “And it wouldn’t have the same impact. The impact is to do with a tactile, handmade, hand-crafted quality that has a massive sophistication to it, and real-world textures. That’s something animation can never do.”
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey broke all the rules, narratively, visually, technically. For many, at the time, it was too much – there were 240 walkouts at the New York premiere and it got mixed reviews, with Pauline Kael labelling it a “monumentally unimaginative movie”.
But the counterculture youth got it (a tagline reading ‘The Ultimate Trip’ tapped into the market) and 2001 became the biggest box-office hit of 1968. Now, 50 years on, it is considered one of the greatest films – and pieces of art, period – of the 20th Century, still inspiring viewers and filmmakers alike.
“Every time you watch it, it changes,” says Nolan. “There’s a primal simplicity to the way the images tell the story that sustains many, many watchings and many, many readings. I think the change in the film is partly you changing in your own life. But I think it’s mostly because it’s about the future. Its relationship with the future ebbs and flows.” Nolan goes on to reference FaceTime, iPads and Siri, all predicted, in kind, by 2001, and points out that “its relationship with our world has never been stronger; it feels taken from the headlines”.
As for Nolan’s own moviemaking, he acknowledges his debt (he refused to watch 2001 as he prepared to make Interstellar, saying it was “frankly too daunting”) and explains, “You try and not lift anything from Kubrick in any conscious sense, because he works on a plane far above the rest of us. The inspiration you take is a general one: movies can be anything. You can make up your own rules. 2001 just whole cloth reinvents cinema. So as an aspiration, that’s what you look to. It’s something to chase – how a filmmaker can carve out a space for autonomy within mainstream cinema, and how radical films can be.”
2001: A SpAce OdySSey iS AvAilAble On 4K UltrA Hd blU-rAy frOm 29 OctOber.
highs and lows From the first mammals to brandish tools (below) to the dizzying majesty of outer space (above).
director’s chair (top) Kubrick with production designer tony Masters; (above) 2001 super-fan christopher nolan.i’M aFraid, dave Keir dullea as astronaut david Bowman (left).