2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke; Geoffrey Unsworth – Director of Photography
Music by Khachaturian, Ligeti, Johann Strauss II, Richard Strauss
André de Ridder
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 25 June, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Whatever one makes of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the filming, editing and sound-effecting of which took a couple of years to complete) – and there is an awful lot to make of it, as well as being positive or negative towards it – forty-plus years on since its release this film still has the power to bring a full house (at a ticket-cost well beyond the average price of a cinema-seat or a DVD). Here the tickets were priced as for a Royal Festival Hall concert (slightly higher in fact), an acknowledgment of the presence of the Philharmonia Orchestra and André de Ridder, although that begs the question as to why it was thought necessary to remove the music from the soundtrack – music and recordings specifically chosen by Kubrick – to be replaced by exactly the same scores (as adapted by Kubrick) played live.
In what is a wholesale re-mastering, the dialogue and sound-effects remain, and the music is returned in expensive fashion (could this event have been that over-used word: “unique”?) and timed by a digital counter to aid the conductor – an inevitable source of accuracy but restricting (one assumes) de Ridder’s interpretations of Kubrick’s chosen pieces. As it happens, the Philharmonia and the conductor did a very impressive job in playing what Kubrick required – the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (sunrise), Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, three of György Ligeti’s scores (excerpted) – “Lux aeterna” (a cappella, here Philharmonia Voices), “Requiem”, and Atmosphères), and a snippet from Khachaturian’s Gayaneh ballet. Not a huge amount of music, in fact, but effective, although the use of the Strauss waltz seems tongue-in-cheek, and well-enough performed, save, if one were wearing one’s concert-critic hat, the Ligeti pieces, especially Atmosphères, were not always quiet and ethereal enough – hopefully there was no amplification (however subtle) involved. There was also a question-mark as to where the organ for Zarathustra came from – the cinema-screen completely covering the organ-console and -pipe area, the player unable to see the conductor unless by a camera link.
That’s by the by, and while the whole idea seemed (at first) unnecessary, not least because Kubrick had very carefully integrated some excellent recordings (Rosbaud in Atmosphères, Karajan for the Danube waltz, Böhm in Zarathustra, and Rozhdestvensky for the Khachaturian), but there’s no doubting that music presented as in a concert, and in excellent synchronisation, was effective and added a dimension that perhaps the original soundtrack does not afford. Perhaps. But it must be said that the re-mastering of the film leaves something to be desired. Clear and sharp the images may be, yet the firmness of colouring that one would expect from a film of this vintage is not as apparent as it should be. The film looks more modern than its date, and that is not intended as a compliment. Rather like analogue aural recordings that were once warm and vibrant, but which digital re-mastering has made harsh and thin-sounding, this “2001” now seems over-clinical in its images.
The film itself, from apes to astronauts travelling to Jupiter (with editing that cuts directly between seemingly disparate events), the latter accompanied by a dominating, domineering, almost-human (and rather endearing) computer named HAL 9000, is either a deeply serious and pessimistic account of civilisation or one that is too surreal and wacky to fully appreciate, something to watch with a large supply (rather than a pinch) of salt. Yet it makes you think, and further reflect, on just what it – life – is all about and what lies beyond it, both for ourselves and in terms of ‘in space’. Yet the last sections of the film, very psychedelic, very much of its time in a ‘trip’ sense (yet visionary with regards to the images that most computers produce today), and the Victorian-decor, previous-self, future-self Star-Child closing scene, really does defy a proper understanding of what Kubrick was getting at – if anything – or whether he ran out of ideas, for, with hindsight, the final third of the film suggests that what precedes it, however unstructured and fantastical it may seem, in fact is altogether (more) meaningful.
“2001” is not a film heavy in dialogue, and the use of silence, especially in space, is very effective. Whether one of the great films, or a flawed masterpiece, or “pap” (as it has been described – rather unfairly), maybe the film’s biggest problem is that it is too consciously enigmatic, too many questions asked and not enough answers given (rather akin to Patrick McGoohan’s contemporaneous television series, “The Prisoner”, which has a similar cult following, or can be regarded as just very silly). Not that “2001” is that, although this latest restoration includes the original blank-screens that were removed on the film’s general release, and the several minutes of Blue Danube that ended the Royal Festival Hall presentation seemed interminable as film gave way to concert; somehow the music no longer belonged as it would have done when embedded into the celluloid.
Anyway, the film has its iconic moments and continues to fascinate – at its best in ‘Jupiter Mission’ (the planet where intelligent life is believed to exist) with actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as the astronauts (other members of the cast include Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack and Robert Beatty), and with HAL 9000 quite perfectly impersonated by the voice of Douglas Rain – sarcastic, knowing, a match for, even ahead of the humans. This is a computer that can even read lips – an advantage when the astronauts are looking to ‘overthrow’ this mechanical monster and are talking out of earshot if not eyesight (HAL 9000 is endowed with both senses). Again, maybe Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing. Misgivings aside, this was a brain-stretching evening. A time-stretching evening, too, for we had an interval (as Kubrick intended) and maybe we also got the 19 minutes that the director cut between the premiere (in Washington DC) and the general circulation?