I first experienced '2001: A Space Odyssey' during my senior year in high school. I was on a Kubrick-kick, and had invited a bunch of friends over to watch the sci-fi classic I'd heard so much about. Watching the film, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the room as each of us found ourselves completely taken by some of the most arresting visions that have ever been committed to film. By the time the credits rolled, each of us were almost dumbstruck with same feeling that we'd just seen something truly special.
Developed by writer Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, '2001: A Space Odyssey' begins with an extended vignette about human evolution. A bestial group of pre-humans live their daily lives in fear until they stumble upon a black, rectangular monolith. After encountering this otherworldly device, one of the creatures inexplicably invents the first tool and uses it as a club to protect his tribe. The film suddenly leaps forward to the future where man inhabits space in ships and orbiting stations. On the surface of the moon, a dig uncovers a deliberately buried monolith that's identical to the one the man-apes found at the beginning of the film.
Two years later, two pilots -- Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) -- escort three scientists to Jupiter on the spaceship Discovery One. The ship is run by HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), a supercomputer that represents the pinnacle in human-created artificial intelligence. Treated like any other crew member, HAL talks to the pilots and mimics human behavior and intelligence. Everything is seemingly routine until HAL stumbles upon information on the secret excavation on the moon. When Dave questions HAL's reliability, the computer stages a mutiny.
Like many Kubrick films, '2001: A Space Odyssey' is best approached as a cerebral endeavor rather than as outright entertainment, as Kubrick uses the trappings of the sci-fi genre to pose genuine questions of sentience, existence, and intelligence. Action fans won't find any gunfights or explosions here; instead, this is a deliberately paced adventure of the mind that requires patience, thought, and introspection. The director famously refused to explain his interpretation of the film, preferring that his audience draw their own conclusions. To be blunt, the film demands a level of engagement and intelligence from its audience that's truly rare in modern filmmaking.
It's safe to say that almost everything about '2001: A Space Odyssey' is challenging and atypical. The characters are painfully naturalistic, relationships are cold and unnerving, and the ending is vague and experimental. Kubrick decided early on that he wanted the film to be a primarily non-verbal experience, and the result is an eerily quiet film. The silence is punctuated by classical music, technical banter between the astronauts, the hums and rumbles of the ship, and HAL's soothing voice.
In fact, the only segment of the film that relies on a familiar genre scenario (HAL's mutiny) doesn't gain momentum until the final act. But even then, this classic clash of wills doesn't constitute the climax of the story -- that comes a bit later as Dave is confronted with a metaphysical journey across time and space that makes for a most intriguing twist in the story.
Kubrick is the only director who makes me feel like a puppet on strings, and this is the only film that manages to leave my head spinning no matter how many times I watch it. Every time I think I've got my finger on the pulse of Kubrick's methodical madness, I realize there are ideas in this film that I'll probably never completely wrap my head around. It astounds me in our age of technological advancement that a futuristic film made in 1968 remains one of the most compelling cinematic labyrinths of all time.
Years ago, I gave up trying to argue the merits of the film with those who find it tedious or plodding. I've come to accept the fact that '2001' is a definitive love-it-or-hate-it flick that will forever split audiences. Still, whatever you may ultimately think of the film itself, '2001: A Space Odyssey' will literally haunt your brain after you watch it. In my opinion, every film fan owes it to themselves to experience '2001' at least once in their lives.
Presented with identical 1080p/VC-1 transfers on HD DVD and Blu-ray, this remastered release of '2001: A Space Odyssey' features a revelatory upgrade in picture quality that's likely to leave fans buzzing with excitement. Colors are magnificent, rich, and stable from beginning to end -- skintones are perfectly saturated and primary hues are bold and vibrant. Blues and reds receive the most noticeable improvement from past DVD editions, but the entire palette is striking. I'm also happy to report that contrast is dead-on, black levels are inky, and shadow delineation reveals a variety of elements formerly cloaked in darkness.
Fine detail sets a new bar for high definition catalog releases. Facial imperfections are a cinch to spot, hair is crisply defined, and the star fields are flawless. I paused on several occasions to note actors' naturally splotchy skin and chipped fingernails. There are even scenes in this transfer that I completely re-watched just to have another chance to explore the intricacies of the sets and props. For the first time, I was able to read all of the small text Kubrick strategically placed across the film. Call me obsessed, but I found myself completely fascinated by these minor details that I'd previously been unable to enjoy. Pay close attention to the barren wilderness in the opening scenes, the space station electronics, and the slightest etchings on the ships floating above Earth. My apologies for sounding like Captain Adjective, but this transfer is just that beautiful.
The print is in excellent condition and isn't marred by softness, edge enhancement, scratches, or any distracting instances of source noise. There isn't a hint of the blockiness that haunts 'A Clockwork Orange' and the transfer easily surpasses the new 2-disc Special Edition DVD (as well as every other previous home video release of the film). As I watched this HD DVD, I searched for something to complain about, but I'm happy to report that I failed to find a single thing. '2001: A Space Odyssey' has set a new bar for catalog transfers in high definition. For a film that's nearly forty years old, this high-def release is nothing short of a godsend.
This HD DVD edition of '2001: A Space Odyssey' features a Dolby TrueHD surround track (48 kHz/24-Bit/3.0 Mbps) and a standard Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Mix (640 kbps). While I didn't notice much of a difference between the two tracks, both sound better than ever and provide a a faithful experience that still manages to enhance Kubrick's original vision.
The classical music in the film opens up the soundfield and resonates with solid bass and stable trebles. Dialogue is crisp and perfectly prioritized, with HAL's soothing tones dominating the soundscape to good effect. Sharp sounds like bestial grunts and mechanical hisses have a distinct impact, while quiet scenes on the ship are layered with a careful level of naturalistic ambiance. This was the first time I'd noticed the subtle and comprehensive intricacies of the sound design -- small whirs, echoes through the ship, and the cooling fans inside the heavy space machinery were new to my ears. Like the clarity of fine elements in the video transfer, this high definition audio package revealed details that had escaped me so many times before on home video. I was also pleased to hear that the tracks sound much fuller than the mix on the newly released 2-disc Special Edition DVD.
The only thing that modern film fans may be disappointed by is the generally front-heavy soundfield. The original 6-channel stereo sound track has been remixed for 5.1 surround, but the rear channels have a limited presence that bolsters acoustics more than anything. The tone of the sound design is a clear product of the '60s -- particularly evident in the tenor of the voices (which can be attributed to the original recording more than anything else). Having said all that, it's hard to fathom that '2001: A Space Odyssey' could ever sound much better than it does here.
Porting over the entire array of extras that appear on the concurrently-released 2-disc Special Edition DVD, this HD DVD edition of '2001: A Space Odyssey' is a veritable cornucopia of supplemental content. It may not give purists the "absolute" experience they were hoping for (many were praying for a technical commentary or a track that contained a critical dissection of the film), but it's hard to imagine any fan being truly disappointed.
First up is a friendly commentary with actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. They avoid diving headlong into discussions about the cultural ramifications of the film or its interpretations, but instead have an engaging conversation about Kubrick, the production, the on-set atmosphere, and reaction to the film. They share plenty of fun anecdotes and prove themselves to be generally affable gents. I didn't really learn anything new about the film per se, but it was interesting to hear their personal accounts from the trenches. The only downside is that the two actors clarly aren't old hands at recorded commentaries, and as a result seem to skip over some obvious scenes and topics that I would have loved to hear them discuss.
The best feature on this release in my opinion is an audio-only bonus that documents a "1966 Kubrick Interview Conducted by Jeremy Bernstein" (77 minutes). The notoriously elusive director remains true to form, but Bernstein (a physicist and veteran writer for the "New Yorker") keeps Kubrick chatting. I was surprised to find that Kubrick doesn't come off anything like the blowhard he would be accused of being in later years. His answers are thoughtful and polite for the most part, and he divulges a bit more information than I expected. This is a true gem for Kubrick fans that shouldn't be missed.
"2001: The Making of a Myth" (43 minutes) is a Channel Four documentary that includes extensive interviews with the film's cast and crew, author Arthur C. Clarke, and numerous leading industry directors, producers, and professionals. This is a compelling glimpse into the impact the film has made in Hollywood and the world over the decades. It documents the initial critical reaction, the eventual declaration of '2001' as a masterpiece, and a hodge podge of other facts that kept me riveted from beginning to end.
"Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001" (21 minutes) concentrates solely on the influence the film has had on countless directors and filmmakers. It includes interviews with notable filmmakers like George Lucas and Stephen Speilburg. This is a tight journey through a cult phenomenon that James Cameron calls "a film that shouldn't work, but does."
Rounding out the exploration of the film are three more featurettes. "Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001" (22 minutes) is an entertaining look at the technologies that the film predicted (or inspired) and the visions that have yet to transpire. "A Look Behind the Future" (23 minutes) is an archive bonus that examines the sets used during production. "What is Out There?" (21 minutes) includes a discussion about space and the possibility of intelligent life existing somewhere other than Earth. While each of these three featurettes are cute, overall they didn't strike me as particularly worth the time. Completists will appreciate their inclusion, but I found them to be dry and a bit repetitive.
Finally, we come to a featurette that looks at the film's "FX and Early Conceptual Artwork" (10 minutes), a photo montage of Kubrick's photography called "Look: Stanley Kubrick!" (4 minutes), and the film's theatrical trailer.
(Note that all of the video features listed above are presented in 480i/p video only.)
Admittedly, '2001: A Space Odyssey' isn't for everyone -- but in my opinion it's the single most important science fiction film in the history of cinema. It has influenced film as we know it and deserves all of the clout and recognition that can be heaped on its silent shoulders. Likewise, this HD DVD edition is a must-have release, featuring a jaw-droppingly gorgeous transfer, an elaborate TrueHD audio track, and a wealth of supplemental features. It's an upgrade in every sense of the word and may just be the easiest twenty dollars I'll ever spend.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.