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Why Christopher Nolan “unrestored” 2001: A Space Odyssey

The director made his first trip to Cannes to present the new print, which is now playing in cities around the US.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

You never forget your first time — seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, that is. And director Christopher Nolan certainly hasn’t: At a master class on Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival, Nolan told the assembled crowd that he first saw the film as a 7-year-old, when his father took him to see a rereleased 70mm version of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece at a huge theater in London’s Leicester Square.

“I had the extraordinary experience of being transported in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible. The screen just opened up and I went on this incredible journey,” he said.

Nolan was on his first visit to Cannes — a remarkable fact for a director with such widespread acclaim and success — but he wasn’t there with a movie of his own. He’d brought an “unrestored” 70mm version of 2001 to the festival, which he’d been working with Warner Bros. to create from preserved original negatives.

Even though it’s technically a kind of restoration, Nolan prefers the term “unrestored” because the goal was to give people the experience of seeing 2001 the way audiences saw it when it premiered in 1968 — including the richness and occasional flaws of film. “Film is the best analogy for the way the eye sees,” Nolan said. “It is the most immersive, the most emotionally involving.” The point, he continued, is to give a new generation of filmgoers the same experience he had in 1968.

Actor Keir Dullea, Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Katharina Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick’s producing partner and brother-in-law Jan Harlan, and director Christopher Nolan were at the premiere of the new print of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Actor Keir Dullea, Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Katharina Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick’s producing partner and brother-in-law Jan Harlan, and director Christopher Nolan were at the premiere of the new print of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

The new print of 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered at the perfect setting: the Cannes Film Festival

The “unrestored” print will open in select theaters in the US on May 18 and on 4K home video in the fall. Its Cannes premiere on Sunday night, though, was the first time the film played the festival. (None of Kubrick’s films played at Cannes during his lifetime; A Clockwork Orange played in the Cannes Classics section in 2011.) To see 2001 in the Debussy theater, one of the festival’s largest, which boasts a huge screen and pristine sound system, along with the technology necessary to play the print — audience members had to miss a few other premieres. But those who did were richly rewarded, even those (like me) who had seen the film before.

I sat about 10 rows back. Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director, bounded onto the stage to introduce the special guests for the evening, which included Kubrick’s daughter Katharina Kubrick; his brother-in-law and producing partner Jan Harlan; Keir Dullea, who plays David in 2001 and is now 81 years old; and Nolan himself, who introduced the film by thanking the festival and encouraging the audience to let it wash over them.

2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a musical overture before the curtains are even pulled back from the screen. (Several people in the audience seemed confused, turning around to see what was going on.) Then the curtains pull back, and the film begins.

2001 still has plenty of appeal for a modern audience

On Saturday, Nolan said in the master class that 2001 gave him “a sense that films can be anything,” something that’s carried over into his work in films like Memento, Inception, Interstellar, the Dark Knight trilogy, and Dunkirk.

“What Kubrick did in 1968,” Nolan said, was “simply refuse to acknowledge that there were any rules you had to play by in terms of narrative.” That influence on his work is notable; he frequently employs innovative structures and plays with time in his films.

In 2001, the narrative certainly doesn’t play by any recognizable rules — even less so if you consider how it must have seemed in 1968. Written by Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, the film is loosely based on some of Clarke’s short stories. It’s broken into three main sequences. The first is “The Dawn of Man,” in which a tribe of primates living in a prehistorical desert encounters a shiny, rectangular black monolith that emits a kind of choral singing.

The second, and longest, is “The Jupiter Mission,” set in a future in which space travel is simple; it contains the most famous parts of the film, including HAL 9000, a computer that goes rogue.

The lights sequence from “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”
The lights sequence from “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”
Warner Bros.

The third and trippiest is “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” which passes beyond the realm of the logical. (If you’ve seen it, with its light show and giant baby, you’ll never forget it.)

Everything is how you remember it: the apes, the monolith, the futuristic set design, the vast renditions of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube.” But it feels bigger, somehow. At intermission — in the manner of many of its contemporaries, 2001 has an intermission about two-thirds of the way through its two-hour and 44-minute runtime — the room was abuzz with how remarkable it was to see the film this way.

To watch 2001: A Space Odyssey is to be connected to a long history — of cinema and of humanity

It’s hard to describe exactly what a print of a film like this can bring to the experience. Some people compare it to hearing a great concert on vinyl versus MP3. But there’s something more to it too. It’s not just in the visual “noise” on the “unrestored” print, or in the way the sound dropped out briefly because of the way it was originally recorded. It was the feeling that we were sharing in a historical experience with an audience from 50 years ago.

The film 2001 didn’t get life in 2001 quite right. But 17 years after that deadline passed, Kubrick’s classic still feels forward-thinking in its ideas about human history’s great arc. In the Debussy theater, we got to be part of it, filled with wonder just as audiences were half a century ago. (Though as far as I could discern, there was far less acid being dropped.)

Kubrick told Playboy in a 1968 interview that the film was sort of about an “intriguing scientific definition of God” and how that appears to man. And while nobody burst through the screen shouting, “It’s God!” at the Cannes showing, it was still a remarkable experience — one well worth skipping a premiere for.

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