Beyond Spectacular: Experiencing '2001' in 70mm; 'Interstellar' is Next
by Alex Billington
July 15, 2014
"This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it." This past weekend, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York City, I experienced the spectacular - Stanley Kubrick's seminal sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey projected in 70mm. The film first hit theaters in 1968, but is touring again as a 70mm restored version, which first hit in 2001/2002. The theater was sold out, every seat filled, the audience awe-struck in total silence for most of the entire movie. Words cannot really describe this kind of cinematic event, as it is truly an experience, one that will "dominate and overwhelm the viewer", as Ebert wrote in one of his posts on seeing 2001 in 70mm. It is that enveloping, but that's what makes it awesome.
I have seen a few 70mm big screen movies before, including Lawrence of Arabia at the Egyptian in Los Angeles when I lived there a few years back (that one is just as spectacular); and I'm well versed in 2001 already, however it had been a few years since I had experienced Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's epic sci-fi creation in full. Luckily there were a few more showings in 70mm to catch at MoMI, and I made the trek out to Queens for the afternoon showing on Saturday. Sitting in the futuristic, blue-tinged Sumner M. Redstone Theater was like being strapped into a spaceship and being taken on a journey through space and time, making us mere mortals contemplate our place in the universe. 2001 is an incomparable work of art.
One of the many thoughts that came to mind this time was that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the definitive science fiction movie, seminal in every way and, dare I say, unbeatable. Right down to the fact that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke are credited for the screenplay - the great genius of science fiction working with the great genius of cinema, there's nothing that can touch this. They cut out all the fat, there's hardly a moment of wasted exposition. It's just the journey, the discoveries, the moments of loneliness and vastness amidst the claustrophobia of space. Or maybe I should say the confinement of oxygen-breathing terrestrials.
Experiencing 2001 on the big screen with full-on audio is like taking a deep breath, reviewing the history of man in one blink, taking another breath, thinking about what the next steps of evolution of man are and our place in that path, and so on, until we learn that the next major step (in our future) is a big one. And then what? Then, well, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite"... Only Clarke and Kubrick know. While our screening came with an intermission, it didn't need one. 2001 is one complete experience from start to finish, showing us all that today's man has accomplished in hopes that one day we can lead further out into the cosmos, with another monolith guiding our way. In the meantime, it's the machines we build and man itself we must fear.
Above all, 2001 is the definition of a truly immersive cinematic experience. One where it's more about the visceral reactions, the overwhelming emotions, the questions, the thoughts, the wonders, the feelings and beliefs that make up our life, and how they all connect to what we're seeing (the big picture). It wasn't until afterwards, however, when I started to try and figure everything out again (and after reading an excerpt of Roger Ebert's post), that I realized the movie is more about the experience of it, rather than trying to figure it out. Instead, it figures you out. It makes you ask questions about your own life, your own place in the world. And why? Because it's that bold, and epic, yet focused. It's not about a specific moment in history, so much as all of history so far. Showing only a few scenes that take place on Earth, the rest is entirely in space.
Kubrick actually commented on the 2001 experience in an interview with Playboy in 1968 (excerpted here):
"To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does: to 'explain' a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one of indication that is has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point. I think that if 2001 succeeds at all, it is in reaching a wide spectrum of people who would not often give a thought to man's destiny, his role in the cosmos and his relationship to higher forms of life."
Only profoundly experiential cinema can provoke the audience to question their own feelings and decisions. Do we feel small compared to the epic scope and scale of massive spaceships and distant planets in 2001? Or do we feel like there are an infinite number of possibilities? That our world is not as limited as we think, that man can and will transcend the constraints of humanity on this planet we call Earth, and one day travel beyond just the moon, beyond Mars. That our lives are only limited by our own fear, even though we have the potential to achieve so much. There's much a movie as stellar as 2001 can make us think deeply about.
The late Roger Ebert explains the major importance of seeing Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm:
Seeing "2001" on a big screen in 70mm is one of a handful of obligatory experiences during a film lover's lifetime. While this engagement may not be the last chance you will ever have, it could be; both 70mm and expensively restored prints are threatened in the new Hollywood, which focuses on the millions rolling in from DVD. If you have thoughtful children or teenagers, going to the movie with them may provide an experience they will remember all of their lives.
[...] During all of those experiences, the film has never grown old or lost its power--perhaps because it is not a narrative but an experience. Just as it doesn't matter how many times you have approached Venice by sea at dawn , or crept to the edge of the Grand Canyon, it doesn't matter how often you've seen "2001" on the big screen. It is one of the noblest and most awesome works of film.
That's how spectacular this movie is - that one of the best words Ebert can use to describe it is "awesome". Yes, indeed, 2001 is the epitome of awesome and must be experienced on the big screen to understand this. Most of Ebert's discussion is on the idea that smaller screens of any kind (cell phone, airplane, iPad, etc) can not properly deliver the real experience necessary to understand all the immensities, the depths and sheer vastness of 2001, not to mention all of its awesomeness. It's true. Nothing can compare, and that's why the 70mm experience lives on as something so timeless. It's not just about the clarity and quality, it's also that the epic movie theater palace is the place where this bold sci-fi concept was envisioned and should be seen.
Which is what leads us right into the next iteration of 2001. After 10 years of Batman, billions in box office earned, Christopher Nolan is finally going big and bold and bring us his 2001: A Space Odyssey in the form of Interstellar (watch the trailer). Or so I believe. Deep, down I have this feeling that in November we're going to experience something on this scale, with this much thought put into it, with the same drive to make us believe in the power of the spectacular. To show us just how far our imagination can take us, how much the cinematic experience is still alive today. 2001 has influenced so many filmmakers ever since it was released, from Alfonso Cuarón to Steven Spielberg to Nolan, and will continue to influence as time goes on.
Whenever I watch (or listen to) the full theatrical trailer for Nolan's Interstellar, I get the kind of chills that remind me of 2001. Even moreso after this 2001 in 70mm experience, noticing a number of comparisons in the footage already, with so much more hidden behind the curtain. So much more that Nolan is waiting to reveal. I think he's ready to take us on a new journey into the vastness of cinema, and has already hinted at in the Wall Street Journal: "The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before. They will employ expensive presentation formats that cannot be accessed or reproduced in the home."
Below are just some of the shots from the trailer that have a 2001-vibe, with Nolan's modern touch to them.
With four sold out shows over this past weekend (and the weekend before), it goes to show that movie fans of all ages still live for the incomparable experience of the big screen. At least when it comes to movies as epic and grand as 2001. Film blogger Joe Walsh (@NitrateStock) recounts his experience in a post titled "Origin, Purpose & Mystery: 2001 at Museum of the Moving Image", saying: "There was a sense of awe, equally spread out across the audience, at what was about to unspool... At an event like this, though, I am so re-imbued with the spirit of a truly transcendent work of art, it makes a youthful newbie of me once more." It's these kind of moments that reminds us why we love movies so much and the effect they can have.
What a spectacular experience - 2001 in 70mm is mesmerizing. What cinemas are made for. That director guy Kubrick is really something, huh.
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) July 12, 2014
Thank you @MovingImageNYC for one of the best cinematic experiences I've ever had, seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm with a packed crowd.
— Brian Cruz (@brianpcruz) July 14, 2014
Have heard from two different people that 'Interstellar' is Chris Nolan's best film. Bring on November. I want to see it in 65mm. Like, now.
— edgarwright (@edgarwright) July 9, 2014
If you ever need that reminder, if you ever want to stop and wonder why still wake up every day passionately looking forward to each week's upcoming releases, then go see a movie like 2001 or Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. It's a reminder that the cinematic medium is only a doorway, and unlocking that door and showing us what is behind it can be a powerful, emotional, unforgettable experience. Kubrick delivered 2001: A Space Odyssey to movie theaters in April of 1968. The movie still plays to sold out crowds today. How many movies can say that? How many movies live on that triumphantly for that long? How can one even say that any new movie opening in theaters today could be good enough to still play in theaters 46 years from now?
Nolan is in the midst of finishing what I hope may be his 2001. "A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage." Interstellar was shot on 35mm and IMAX (which is, technically, 65mm film presented back on 70mm for IMAX). We don't know much about it, aside from that wormhole storyline, and that we're all in for a spectacular ride this November. And that's what lies ahead - Interstellar. From the looks of it, a potentially genre-redefining science fiction creation from a modern day cinematic mastermind (Nolan) and a modern astrophysicist mastermind (Kip Thorne). It could blow us away, and challenge our thoughts, like 2001; I can't wait to find out what he's hiding and how far into (or out of) the galaxy we'll go.
"We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it, and this is the mission you were trained for." In all truth, I'm not trying to make a comparison between Kubrick and Nolan. Instead, I'm pointing out that the next great sci-fi that may push the boundaries of cinema and the genre, in the way Kubrick's 2001 did, might be Interstellar, in theaters later this year. We did just experience Gravity last year, which already achieved Oscar and box office glory. All I can hope are that filmmakers like Nolan, Cuarón, J.J. Abrams, Neill Blomkamp, Brad Bird, Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, Guillermo del Toro, Darren Aronofsky, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron continue to push the sci-fi genre forward. And continue to film in 65/70mm.
Kubrick's 2001 in 70mm was presented at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC as part of the See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two) series. It may be touring next to your area too, so check around. As Ebert says, "Seeing 2001 on a big screen in 70mm is one of a handful of obligatory experiences during a film lover's lifetime." No matter how many times you've seen it before, that big screen is always worth it. Just ask HAL.
[TL;DR - 70mm is awesome, 2001 is awesome, Interstellar will be awesome; big screens are awesome.]