This has been a big year for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, it’s been the focus of many special events and a return to the big screen in a variety of formats. The final piece in Warner Bros.' celebrations is the highly-anticipated release of the film on 4K UHD, one that’s been delayed over the course of the year, but is now finally available to the public. It’s fair to say that there are few films more sought-after in this new home entertainment format.
Earlier this year, I wrote a long piece on Kubrick’s masterpiece for SWITCH to commemorate the 50th anniversary. I won’t repeat much of it here, except to emphasise once again what an extraordinary artistic achievement this film is. In the past twelve months, I’ve revisited it multiple times on the big screen, and seeing it again in a cinema has only strengthened my love, admiration and dedication to it. One thing that is easy to forget though about ‘2001’ when focusing on its technical and philosophical might is how enormously entertaining it is. The film moves like a freight train, jumping from one remarkable chapter to the next, carefully building tension until it bursts into chaos. We think of it so much as an impenetrable monolith, and while its subtext is immense, its main narrative is lean and direct, boiling down for most of its length to a statement on survival in an inhuman place. The storytelling is peerless and perfect, almost entirely visual and experiential. This is the film where Kubrick’s understanding of the storytelling capacity for cinema was at its apex and most powerful, where experimentation with technique married perfectly with narrative and character in its most distilled form. ‘2001’ holds you totally in its grasp, on the edge of your seat, keeping you there transfixed until the last possible delicious moment.
You’ll find more analysis (and hyperbole) about the film here in my feature, so let’s move onto the more pressing question at hand: how does ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ look and sound on 4K UHD?
PICTURE & SOUND
There has been some controversy around the presentation of ‘2001’ in the past year. For the 50th anniversary, the film returned to cinemas in both 70mm and IMAX formats, but there are significant differences in detail between the two, apart from the obvious differences of film and digital. These have bearing on what we have on the 4K, so stick with me for a bit.
The 70mm print was supervised by Christopher Nolan, an "unrestored" chemical reproduction from an interpositive of the original negative, with tears and imperfections left intact. Colour correction was made to match the interpositive, while a preservation 35mm print from the 80s provided the six-channel soundtrack. Nolan’s intention was to recreate what the film had looked like in 1968, or as close to as possible, but that itself proved a problematic decision. The interpositive was created in the late 90s from the original negative, so the quality of the negative was already compromised, meaning that the interpositive couldn’t be an accurate recreation of the 1968 colour palette. Seeing ‘2001’ on 70mm is always an incredible experience, but this Nolan print was significantly more desaturated and yellow in appearance, and while the imperfections were a nice curiosity, to maintain them seemed unnecessary, as the original presentation would have been without them in 1968.
The IMAX Experience version though did not reflect the 70mm experience. Clearly a digital restoration without tears or dust, the palette was much cooler, closer to the restored DVD and Blu-ray versions we’ve had over the past decade or so, which were rumoured to have been approved by Kubrick before his death in 1999. There was still a slight yellow tinge to the image, but in a manner that felt more organic and less the result of ageing. Having seen the two, I thought the IMAX presentation the much stronger, the image often far more breathtaking and detail far greater.
So what version is on the 4K? Thankfully, this 2160p 2.20:1 presentation looks much closer to the IMAX presentation than the Nolan 70mm print, and consequently, the results are absolutely stunning. The image presents a level of detail we’ve probably never seen from this film, most notable in many of the close-ups, and there’s also a more noticeable depth of field in the image as well. The film certainly looks its age, but in the best way possible, with a subtle yet noticeable grain field which maintains the vital organic feel to the image. Perhaps best of all, the HDR allows a much richer colour palette, not just in obvious places like the Stargate sequence, but when in the quality of the whites and blacks in the film. The disc is also listed as featuring Dolby Vision.
In a nutshell, this really is a superb transition to 4K for this perfect film.
In terms of sound, the film has had a far less contentious track record this past year. Nolan noted that the most surprising discovery from looking at the almost original elements was how loud Kubrick had pitched the sound (something particularly noticeable in the IMAX presentation). The 70mm print featured the original 1968 theatrical mix formatted for 5.1, while the IMAX presentation featured a restored and remixed version. Both are included on the 4K UHD release, and there is a small but noticeable difference. The restored DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is a little richer and little more detailed, with a much more contemporary sound balance. In a way, it feels a tad more immersive. By contrast the 1968 theatrical DTS-HD MA 5.1 track has a lot more immediate punch to it - it certainly sounds its age more than the other track, but what it lacks in fine detail, it makes up for in weight. Of the two, I tended to prefer the restored track, but both are impressive in their own right, and Warner Bros. should be applauded for including both.
As with their release of ‘The Matrix’, Warner Bros. also use the 4K restoration for the included 1080p Blu-ray release (which is also released separately). It’s an obvious improvement over the original Blu-ray release, especially in fine detail, and though the 1080p image doesn’t have the same punch as the 2060p image, possibly a little darker than the 4K. Both of the DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks from the 4K are included.
In a nutshell, this really is a superb transition to 4K for this perfect film. It’s a relief that the IMAX restoration seems to be the basis rather than the Nolan 70mm version, offering a presentation that preserves everything so special about the film while offering greater and richer detail than ever before.
Unfortunately, the only misstep for the release is in the bonus material. On disc, we’re given all the extras from the original Blu-ray release, with the commentary from actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood included on both the 4K and Blu-ray film discs. The rest of the material is included on a second Blu-ray. While all the material was excellent at the time of release, especially the retrospective material, it’s a pity that nothing new was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary. For Australian fans, we also miss out on the booklet and art cards included on the U.S. and UK releases. That said, since the purpose of this release is to give us a superior presentation of the film itself, these shortcomings aren’t that much of a mark against what is a generally excellent release.