The Journey is Still Sublime: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 50 Years Later

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s cosmic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, the operatic multi-sensory cinematic experiment that any modern film buff will tell you changed a generation of filmmaking.

To celebrate its golden jubilee, Warner Bros has joined forces with director Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Interstellar) to restore the original 70mm print through a painstaking nine-month photochemical process where each of the film’s whopping ten reels were cleaned. Unlike many modern film “restorations” that involve digital tinkering, Nolan was intent on keeping Kubrick’s original vision completely intact. The restoration premiered this May at Cannes, and has been released in select 70mm-compatible theaters this summer, with a blu-ray release scheduled for later this year. At the opening night last week in Boston, the MC exclaimed, “What you will see tonight is exactly what filmgoers experienced in the late spring of 1968.”

And while that may be true of the physical film, the last fifty years have obviously had an impact on the way we perceive it. When the film was first released in 1968, we were at the height of the space race with Russia and had not yet put a man on the moon. When original audiences were subjected to Kubrick’s groundbreakingly-long takes of revolving spacecrafts set against planetary skies, they were being lured into a hypnotic vision of a promised future not yet realized.

Despite all of this, the film did not initially do well. Some 241 audience members walked out of the film’s New York premiere, and critics across the country almost unanimously called the film “a waste of time.” After a horrendous opening weekend, MGM considered shutting down the film, forcing Kubrick to cut nineteen minutes of footage. Even today, after the passage of time has elevated the film into the realm of those few inimitable masterpieces, many still claim to have first seen the film in tiny, more-consumable chunks.

The reoccurrence of this black stone monolith, Kubrick’s representation of some superior alien power purposely perpetuating the evolution of man, is one of the only bonding elements in all of the film’s four acts.

When most think of the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is astronaut Dave Bowman overcoming the sentient A.I. gone haywire, HAL 9000, ignoring the long stretches with no explanation of the characters or action unfolding, no mood music guiding the audience what to think or feel, or the psychedelic-light-show final act whose overall meaning is still debated on internet blogs of young cinephiles around the world.

“I wanted to make a non-verbal statement,” Kubrick said, “One that would affect people on the visceral, emotional, and psychological levels.” Quite possibly, these open-ended qualities are what have made the film stand up so well against time. One visual effects creator compared the film itself to its own black monoliths: abstract and unexplained, but always appearing to give you what you need.

As we all know, 2001: A Space Odyssey did not shut down after its terrible opening weekend. Despite the critics’ views, young people began showing up in droves. John Lennon famously claimed to have seen the film each of the 80 weeks it was in theaters and the film reached the top box-office slot of 1968. Kubrick had created a film that, when viewed in the closed environment of a theater, created a certain level of disengagement with reality that spoke to the moment.

After all, 2001‘s release year was also the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, along with the violent anti-Vietnam war protests at Berkeley. Kubrick’s hypnotic space-opera not only allowed the audience three hours of reprieve from the chaos of the outside world, it also provided an abstract canvas to project our own shifting beliefs of the root of intelligence and our search for humanity.

Half a century later—after the year 2001 has come and gone—we find ourselves trapped in an all-to-similar moment. Protests rage against police brutality, immigration policy is ripping families away from each other, and large portions of Americans feel their civil rights threatened on a daily basis by the battering actions of a far-right administration.

It has been 46 years since anyone has been to the moon and Kubrick’s view of the future now seems increasingly optimistic. To its original audience, 2001 was a celebration of technology, but also a warning call to the ways in which innovation might endanger humanity. In the film, remember, the hero dismantles the machine.

Now, we all carry HAL in our pockets. When watching the film today, it is hard to not see the ways in which Kubrick foresaw the dehumanizing results of a culture dependent on technology. When we now watch a character in flight to the moon, we can’t help but notice how he sleeps the whole journey, never awake long enough to notice the view of earth hovering outside his window. In the infamous scene where Dave Bowman dismantles the “brain” of HAL and audiences are given the slight hint of a heroic climax, today we can’t help but notice how HAL’s parting words might be the most human-like dialogue of the film: “I can feel it Dave. I can feel it. My mind is going,” HAL slowly yields, as Dave charges on.

2001: A Space Odyssey is still the marvelous visceral masterpiece Kubrick set out to make. The visual effects hold-up and evoke a sense of awe that has yet to be rendered from today’s modern digital effects. Nolan’s 70mm restoration seamlessly allows the illusion of being transported back to a time where we still believed that hope would prevail and in the glory of man’s capability to conquer all.

For those of us who have never been able to shut-out the world long enough to appropriately delve into the relaxing sunset that is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, find a way to get yourself to a theater.

On opening night in Boston, the man who introduced the film asked the audience to raise their hand if they had been there in 1968, and I watched as about a third of the audience’s hands went up. Then he asked who was seeing it for the first time, and another third shot into the air. We all exchanged smiles, excited to share this experience together, before the room briefly lit up with screens and the shadows of fingers sliding their phones to silent.

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About Author

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Emily Moeck is a professor of literature and creative writing at UMass Boston. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Fugue, and her drama has been produced by Rareworks Theatre. She is the Editor-In-Chief of the online literary journal Breakwater Review.

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