I'm in the main auditorium at the AFI Silver in suburban Maryland when the curtains close on the big screen while the lights dim, but don't extinguish entirely. A warbling, haunting tune burbles out of the speakers: The overture for 2001: A Space Odyssey serves as both a warning to those still milling about outside the theater and a tone-setting piece of music, an unsettling jingle that signals scope of the picture we're about to see.
The curtains open, revealing the screen. We enter darkness until the projector lets there be light, the volume of the music swelling as "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" booms forth. Images begin to unspool. Seen from space, the sun rises above the Earth, our home in turn rising in front of barely visible moon dominating the field. MGM brings us this vision from Stanley Kubrick, we are informed: 2001: A Space Odyssey. An epic opening for an epoch-spanning film: from the dawn of man to the dawn of the star child, this tale of human advancement nudged along by black boxes from outer space endures as a monument to monumental filmmaking not because it's asking big questions or positing big answers, but because it just looks so damn good on the big screen.
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And the big screen really is the only acceptable way to see this film. Even the best home theater cannot compare to seeing 2001 in a theater, with a professional sound system and a sparkling new 70mm print. The vistas upon which early man roams are enormous, brutal expanses; they presage the pitiless vacuum of space our astronaut heroes Dave (Keir Dullea) and Frank (Gary Lockwood) will be confronted with later. The sheer scale of the ships moving through that airless, black void gives you a sense that they are, truly, dancing to Johan Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz."
The waltz itself sounds great, of course, creating a veritable wall of sound. Your ears feel as full as your eyes while the ships do their docking ballet. The sound design of 2001 contributes greatly to the emotional resonance of the picture. The berthing dance fills you with awe at the beauty and precision of it all, at the difficulty of getting two bodies in motion aligned perfectly to provide a safe harbor in space's harshness. Later Kubrick mutes the score, filling the speakers instead with the sounds of respirators and helmeted breathing to remind you of the claustrophobia that comes hand in hand with the openness of space. The monotonous inhale exhale inhale exhale governing your experience makes you feel as if you too are wearing a helmet. Space may be grand, it may be open, it may be endless, it may be filled with life far beyond our own—but astronauts exist within an incredibly cramped area, a small pocket of livable air between them and nearly instant death.
It's all quite exhausting. By the time the intermission rolls around, you really need the breather. Yes: the intermission! A throwback to a more civilized time, when theaters understood that audiences might like to get up and stretch their legs and empty their bladders and fill their popcorn boxes without missing any of the vital action. More filmmakers should take advantage of this vestige from live theatre. Needless to say, Kubrick's placement of the intermission is perfection: We close the first act with a tight shot on the mouths of Dave and Frank, adopting the POV of the soon-to-be-psychotic HAL 9000, the computer in charge of the ship who is reading their lips while they discuss the best way to shut him down. One can't help but wonder what people were thinking during the film's break in the first weeks of 2001‘s run, unaware that the computer was about to go rogue.
Everything about 2001, from the scale to the sound to the mid-movie break, reminds us of the indispensability of the theatrical experience. We owe Christopher Nolan a debt of gratitude for overseeing the creation of a new print of the film. A longtime evangelist for the glories of celluloid—his most recent, Dunkirk, was screened in 70mm (and about a dozen other formats) across the country last year—Nolan put together the so-called "unrestored" print of 2001 by making duplicate negatives from the original interpositive print of the film and then painstakingly color-correcting them to meet an approximation of how Kubrick initially intended the film to look.
One hopes that Kubrick would appreciate the effort given that his fastidiousness is legendary. Michael Benson's recent book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece is at its most interesting when he gets at the flipsides of the Kubrick coin. On one hand, Kubrick was obsessively controlling, squeezing every penny out of his business deals and line-editing essays written by Clarke about his experience working with Kubrick in order to ensure that the British author did not make the director look bad.
On the other, he was gracious with his time and open to unconventional points of view. Benson recounts Kubrick's discussions with a teenager who showed up at his office hoping for a menial job: "Their conversation meandered on in this way for quite a while, covering evolution, the origins of consciousness, the future of human civilization, and other middlebrow topics. Soon two hours had passed, but still Kubrick didn't seem to have anything better to do. In fact, he looked like he was enjoying himself. Nobody had ever really spoken to Tony like a human being before, let alone bringing him directly into his innermost thoughts like that."
Like Filmworker, the documentary about Kubrick's longtime assistant Leon Vitali released earlier this year, Benson's book serves as a reminder that the director's reputation for off-screen chilliness may have been unearned. A perfectionist, sure; a hardnosed businessman, undoubtedly; completely committed to ensuring his work got its due from PR departments that got tired of taking his calls, yeah. But also friendly and open and gracious with folks you might have expected him to simply dismiss as beneath The Great Stanley Kubrick.
I don't know if 2001: A Space Odyssey is The Great Stanley Kubrick's greatest film, but it's certainly the one that benefits most from the in-theater experience. And audiences have long responded to that fact. It was a hit immediately, grossing more than a million dollars in 1968 dollars during the first five weeks of its run at only eight theaters. Audiences are still showing up; the recent release has grossed over $1.2 million on just a handful of screens and its per-screen average has compared favorably to recent blockbusters.
Moviegoers, it seems, are still up for the ultimate trip.