People always say it, and I often do myself: “Seeing (Movie X) on the big screen again was like seeing it for the first time!” This was emphatically not true for me last night when I took my daughter to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. (It was her first experience with the movie in a theater, however—more on that in a bit.)
I first saw 2001 about a year after it was released—this was the amount of time it usually took big new releases to make it out to our patch of sticks in the small Oregon where I grew up. That would put me at about the ripe ol’ age of nine years old when I took my first trip with Stanley Kubrick to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. The presentation was what it always was at the Alger Theater when I was a kid—images were projected on a screen, sound came from speakers behind the screen, and I was damn grateful for that. I had no idea of the point in technological breakthrough—70mm, Cinerama, stereo sound— where 2001 resided when it was shown elsewhere, and in 1969 I didn’t much care. I had read Arthur C. Clarke’s book and immersed myself in anything I could get my hands on about it in anticipation of actually seeing it for myself, but of course no amount of prep could have done the job. Regardless of how state-of-the-art the theater in which moviegoers saw it in 1968 might or might not have been, one thing was certainly true— this movie bore no resemblance to the bland musicals, stodgy adult dramas and bloated spectacles which had clogged American movie screens over the previous decade.
For my own part, I can’t say I knew exactly what I’d seen when I emerged from the dark onto the main street of my hometown, but I knew I loved it, and everything— movies, the world, everything— looked different afterward. Since that night in 1969 I’ve seen the movie many times in theaters much nicer than the Alger, including the Cinerama Dome, as well as in just about every adequate and inadequate format available on home video—laserdisc, Betamax, VHS, and commercial-riddled network TV. But seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey last night, in the “unrestored” 70mm print now circulating in cities around the US, a print which duplicates from the original negative the way the film was seen and heard in the best theaters upon its premiere, with no 2018-style enhancements, was a genuine eye-and-ear-opening experience. It seemed nothing like the way I saw it the first time, and in some really pronounced ways it felt as if I was seeing this movie, so familiar from countless exposures to it over the ensuing 49 years, for the first time.
And it was a thrill to take my daughter along for the ride. I spent some time beforehand trying to contextualize the state of American movies for her, and what audiences might have been inclined to expect before they sat in their seats and proceeded to make Kubrick’s cerebral consideration of the origins and evolution of civilization one of, if not the most unlikely hit in cinema history. (It was the #1 movie in terms of American box-office receipts among all releases in 1968, and of course it was re-released seemingly endlessly throughout the ‘70s, marketed to a user-friendly generation as “The Ultimate Trip.”) So I tried to put that thought into my daughter’s head: pretend that you haven’t spent your entire life watching movies and TV shows and anime episodes which wouldn’t exist, at least in their current form, without the direct influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and instead try to see it not only the way you *will* see it, but also with a nod toward the way those people who had no idea what was coming once did.
Mission accomplished. In the dazed walk back to our car afterward, together we parsed out our theories of what 2001 was up to—the dawn of man, of consciousness, of utility; the appearance (and re-appearance) of some mysterious and influential semblance of the spiritual, and its influence on yet another iteration of human evolution as it assimilates into, expands and directs the function of human-generated artificial intelligence; and the emergence of some altogether new life-form, perhaps the first visitation of humanoid extra-terrestrial life, and the eruption of changes which it will inevitably set in motion. None of this seemed terribly perplexing to a young woman who, like many of the more thoughtful members of her generation, has been weaned on oblique genre-blasting, narrative-shattering approaches to storytelling. She welcomed the movie’s deliberately mysterious tenor, its disorienting spatial perspectives, and the grandeur of old-world civilization (Richard Strauss, Johan Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian) imposed on decidedly new world technology which had been employed to seek out and discover equally old, yet strange and unfamiliar worlds. And we had a great time talking about all the newfangled techno-concepts which seemed far-out in 1968 (space stations, picture phones, electronically enhanced food preparation, to name but a few), but which are now, 17 years past the actual year 2001, part of our everyday reality.
What surprised me most seeing it last night was the degree to which the 70mm presentation of 2001: A Space Odyssey enhanced the movie’s reputation as an overwhelming sensory experience. I have always had an admiration for the way the movie adheres to its matter-of-fact tone re space travel—zero gravity, the absence of sound, and even the tedium of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles through a star-spangled vacuum. All of these elements give 2001 a specific quality of detachment, the rendering of a giant leap for mankind as something on the order of the routine, which, given Stanley Kubrick’s overall aesthetic, would hardly be unexpected. But the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) from Jupiter to Beyond the Infinite, in perhaps the movie’s most famously disorienting (“trippy,” if you must) sequence, enhanced by blinding rushes of light and ear-shattering atonal chorales supplied by composer György Ligeti, is genuinely frightening and overwhelming, especially in this 70mm incarnation. My desensitized eardrums had no trouble with the overload—in fact, they welcomed it. But my dear daughter and her much healthier auditory system, despite earlier exposure to the movie’s intense use of amplified sound—for screeching extraterrestrial radio transmissions as well as the thunderous performances of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz”—was not, could not have been prepared for what the movie was, in this sequence, about to immerse her in. As a result, she came out the other side of it almost as rattled (though not as aged) as poor, haunted Bowman, himself put through a lifetime of aging in mere minutes.
To those who have encountered 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm before (and if you live in a metropolitan area you may have had many opportunities over the past 50 years since its initial release), all this “Ultimate Trip”-style talk might sound like old news. But even if you have seen it in 70mm before, chances are that the print you saw may have displayed some slight or even more significant wear-and-tear. Not so the newly minted print, which under the aegis of director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. This is what Kubrick’s movie looked like on Opening Day 1968 in the biggest, spiffiest venues possible, light-years ahead of the little rundown movie house in Southeastern Oregon where I first saw it. For folks like me, who to this point, no matter how times we may have seen it, still really haven’t seen or heard it at its most spectacular, 2001: A Space Odyssey in this new 70mm print retains the power to make a viewer look at this world, and those beyond, with eyes that feel new, shaking, challenging, altering sensibilities in a way with which no other movie has since been able to compare, even the ones Kubrick himself created within the long shadow of his pioneering monolith. The movie continues in Los Angeles and other cities for at least another week, through May 31 and perhaps beyond, though not into the Infinite. Make this ultimate trip while you can, before both time and space run out.