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Christopher Nolan’s “Unrestored” 70mm 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Village East

2001: A Space Odyssey

I’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey on 70mm twice over the years before going to see the “unrestored” print out now in limited release. Christopher Nolan premiered this new print at Cannes, and his interview from there with Eric Hynes is helpful to understanding some of the thinking behind this reissue. Still, I haven’t read anyone really breaking down what Nolan’s birthed, which is incredibly specific.

Nolan’s explanation is that he’s gone back to the original camera negative to come up with a print that looks like what the very first public audience to view 2001 would have seen. This isn’t entirely accurate, since the 21 minutes Kubrick cut out after that disastrous premiere haven’t been added back in. With that caveat, a practical consequence of Nolan’s project is that these gleaming new 70mm prints of 2001, which look stunning in many ways, have deliberately retained flaws that I presume that premiere audience would have seen. There is a strip of blue running up and down a chair when Heywood Floyd is first introduced on the space shuttle; I thought perhaps it was a flashing proto-LED strip of lights on the chair’s side that I’d missed on previous viewings, but when the camera position changes to further back I realized it wasn’t on the chair at all, just an error in the print. This kind of thing is incredibly distracting when the deliberately retained print flaws appear during the many parts when the screen is filled by gleaming all-white sets; in that overwhelming brightness, any error is especially distracting. I am charmed by Nolan’s thought experiment, which takes the idea of medium specificity to whole new levels by replicating the experience of watching a film on a very particular night; it’s a fascinating thing to watch, but I’d hate for it to become the default 70mm presentation. It almost feels like each screening should be preceded by a 20-minute lecture explaining exactly what you’re about to see; at least that would allow me to be more precise in my terminology about the specific types of errors I saw.

All that said: I will (try to) never say anything mean about Christopher Nolan’s movies ever again, because what he’s pulled off is pretty astonishing. Long after the era of celluloid-based anniversary reissues (the kind that were fairly common as late as the ’90s) has passed, Nolan has gotten WB to spring for this probably pretty pricy endeavor, then turned it into a genuine theatrical event experience that’s packing them in. The per-screen average opening weekend was $50,069, higher than any other film on the charts; this is not really replicable as a way to get mass audiences back into repertory celluloid re-releases, because there’s only one 2001, but it’s still wildly impressive. (It seems entirely possible that this will reissue will climb to a million dollars domestic.)

At the Village East, 2001 is in its fifth week playing in the large auditorium. If you live in NYC, you should go. Arrive 20 or so minutes before showtime so that you can get a seat in the middle section of the upper balcony. Otherwise you’ll be too far left or right, at a severe angle to the screen, or sitting on the lower level, in which case you’ll be staring up for a long time and it’ll be a literal pain in the neck. Do not expect a lot of amenities for your $20 (MoviePass is not an option [EDIT: I’m told it is, the theater will just charge you the difference between the MoviePass rate and the ticket price); do expect the doors at the back of the auditorium to slam loudly throughout. It’s all worth it, because this is the closest I’ve ever sat to the screen while seeing this; the distance between you and a very large image has been minimized, and the level of detail is outstanding. You can really peer into this image and probe wherever you’d like.

During the sequence where Floyd arrives to lecture all the Jupiter employees about monolith protocol and cover-up secrecy, I started staring at the upper-left-hand side of the screen. The white in this scene is extremely intense, but if you look at the very top left of the screen you can see where one of the wall panels will flicker ever so briefly, allowing for a tiny black bar to appear and disappear repeatedly, as the white square panel becomes momentarily more trapezoidal. I don’t know if this is just some kind of stutter effect as the film rushes through the projector or something on the print itself; either way, it’s hypnotic and exactly like some of the stutter effects David Lynch has worked with. It’s the kind of image I can imagine Lynch (whose love for the film is well-established) seeing at a formative image and burrowing into his subconscious, waiting for the time when it’d be repurposed/revisited. Maybe it didn’t happen that way, but it’s a pleasant thought; that I had the chance to see that for myself feels to me like Nolan has performed a true public service.

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