2001: Not like 1968

Like a lot of people, I’m looking forward to the new 70mm presentation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was not quite 14 when I fell in love with this epic science fiction extravaganza in its original release. For at least a decade, it was my all-time favorite film. It was the first title I bought on Blu-ray.

The Los Angeles Times proclaims that this release will bring back 2001‘s “original glory.” AP promises that the new prints “will allow audiences to experience it as they did upon the film’s release in 1968.” Don’t believe it. The theaters have changed. The photographed image has changed – even though it remains analogue. The sound has changed. And the world we live in is not the 21st century pictured in 2001.

Without the hyperbole, it’s still exciting. I’m looking forward to revisiting 2001 at the Castro, and if you care anything about cinema, you should, too. Just take a pinch of salt with the claims that this is exactly the movie that blew peoples’ minds in 1968.

Christopher Nolan oversaw the making of these new prints. He calls it an unrestored version because it’s completely analog and doesn’t try to remove scratches and other film-based artifacts.

Here’s what has changed since 1968:

Theaters

In its original roadshow release, 2001 was screened in Cinerama, and that’s how Kubrick intended it to be seen. In 1968, Cinerama meant not only a 70mm print made from a large-format negative, but also projected onto a huge, deeply-curved screen (the more impressive but problematic three-strip Cinerama died with 1962’s How the West was Won).

The Castro has a large screen, but it’s not truly huge. And it’s not curved; it’s flat. Both the New Mission and the Grand Lake will screen the new 70mm print later in the summer, and their screens are huge. But they’re still flat, either. For something like a true Cinerama experience, you’d probably have to fly down to LA at see it at the Cinerama Dome.

Image Quality

A German woman I met at the Nitrate Picture Show told me about two recent 2001 70mm screenings she attended. The first was an original print from 1968. The colors were horribly faded, but otherwise the image was extremely sharp. The other print came from Nolan’s “unrestore.” There was no sign of color fading, but that sharpness was gone.

The 1968 prints were made directly from the camera negative. I haven’t found an exact description of how the new prints were made, but two articles I’ve read referred to a 1999 interpositive. From that special print, I assume, Nolan and Warners made an internegative, and the 70mm prints were made from that. The 1968 70mm prints were one generation away from the original. These new prints, I assume, are three generations away. That could account for the lack of sharpness.

I’m going to anger a lot of people, but I have to say it: A well-made 4K DCP, mastered from an 8K scan of the camera negative, will probably look closer to the original prints than Nolan’s “unrestore.”

Soundtrack

In the 1960s, 70mm prints carried six high-fidelity magnetic audio tracks. Five of them fed speakers behind the screen. The sixth track fed the surround speakers.


The four brown stripes carry the six magnetic audio tracks

Today, you’d have a tough time finding any movie theater with that configuration. Three front speakers has been the standard for some 40 years, even for 70mm.

New 70mm prints use digital audio, which sounds almost as good as magnetic and greatly reduces costs. They usually have a 5.1 or 7.1 configuration, and neither of these systems support five front speakers.

I do not know what mix these prints have. It might be the four-track mix Kubrick signed off on for 35mm prints. It might be the 5.1 mix used for the DVD and Blu-ray. Either way, it won’t be the original 70mm roadshow mix.

Who we are

When 2001: A Space Odyssey opened on May 12, 1968, we all knew that in a little more than a year, a man would walk on the moon. Almost every person on the planet was excited by this.

Along with the film’s mysticism, artistry, suspense, and incredible visuals, 2001 provided a look at an exciting and believable future only 33 years away. Today, we know that that future never happened. True, we have an international space station, but it doesn’t look like this:

Some twenty years ago, I was happily amazed to discover that people too young to have seen 2001 when it was new still loved it. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My generation, too young to remember World War II, took Casablanca to our hearts.

Sometimes a work of art, intended for its particular moment, breaks out of that moment and becomes a classic. Future generations won’t see the work the same way the original audience did; they find something new in it.

I’ll write about the experience of watching the new 70mm print in a week or so.

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