Christo­pher Nolan ex­plains why he re­stored one of the great­est sci-fi films ever. Plus, in­sight from those who were there in ’68.

Total Film - - Contents - Words JAMIE GRA­HAM

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.


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).

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