Christopher Nolan's 'Unrestored' 2001: A Space Odyssey Is a Testament to the Power of Analog Cinema

The 70mm restoration of Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece is a reminder of the ways advances in technology can help keep old formats alive.


Warner Bros. Pictures

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie about tools and technology, evolution and intelligence, finding God and, perhaps, becoming one. It is a cold and brilliant masterpiece about human potential and the mystery of consciousness.

The 1968 science fiction epic relies on a non-traditional narrative structure to trace the arc of human evolution—from the moment a pre-human first used a bone to crush an enemy to a futuristic space age, in which man has conquered the solar system and developed powerful artificial intelligence, which eventually decides to turn on its creators. The use of tools both to advance individual goals and aid the survival of the species, the movie seems to say, is what defines our species, what separates us from the animals. Technology—the struggle to create and control it—is what makes us human.

So it is perhaps a bit ironic that the best way to see 2001 is in a format that is now ancient, at least as far as cinema is concerned. For its 50th anniversary, the film is playing in limited engagements in a 70mm "unrestored" version overseen by Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, Inception, and the Dark Knight trilogy.

Nolan is perhaps the most prominent proponent of the notion that movies should be made and viewed on film—actual physical film, not digital—and that they should rely on digital trickery as little as possible. He has dubbed his restoration of 2001 "unrestored" because it was made using an entirely analog process derived from the original photo negative. "This is a true photochemical film recreation. There are no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits," Nolan said when announcing its release. "This is the unrestored film—that recreates the cinematic event that audiences experienced fifty years ago."

I caught a screening at AFI Silver in Maryland over the weekend. While I can't speak to its faithfulness to the original presentation, I can say that the new print makes for a truly astonishing viewing experience. It is a testament to the enduring power of analog cinema. It is also a reminder of the ways advances in film technology can help keep old formats alive.

For the uninitiated, 70mm refers to the size of the film used to project the image; the bigger the film, the more information it holds. Even during the era in which analog projection was standard, most movies were projected on 35mm. A 70mm print thus displays four times as much visual information as standard film. That makes a particularly big difference on a motion picture like 2001, which was originally shot on Super Panavision 70, a large-format photography system designed in the 1950s to capture especially epic widescreen images.

Nolan's print was made from an interpositive—an intermediate stage in the film development process—that was produced using the original camera negative and based on Kubrick's personal notes. From there, the goal was to produce a clean print that otherwise changed as little as possible. "None of what we did was interpretive, we didn't correct mistakes, we didn't say 'maybe he would have liked to do it this way,'" Nolan told the Los Angeles Times.

The historically minded formalism extends to other aspects of the presentation as well. The film begins with a musical overture that starts before the curtains open; there's an intermission about an hour and a half in. The overture helps set the mood, preparing you for the film to come. The intermission, which creates a brief cliffhanger, gives the movie a chance to breath, giving you a chance to contemplate what you've seen. You can think of these details as the cinematic equivalent of a cocktail garnish; they don't change the movie itself, but they frame the film, subtly altering the viewing experience.

The result is a chance not only to see a classic film on the big screen, in the company of others, but to see it as the director wanted you to see it, or as close as you are likely to get a half-century later. It's a sort of cinematic time machine—a movie about the future, seen as it was in the past.

And what a sight it is. I have watched 2001 in any number of smaller formats over the years—on cable, on VHS, on DVD and Blu-ray—but on the big screen, in 70mm, it is an entirely new experience. It is bigger, of course, and more enveloping; tiny details that are difficult to see on even the largest television suddenly become visible. The immense and lonely blackness of space is immersive in a way that no home viewing experience could ever replicate.

But the difference is more than sheer scale. Unlike digital projection, which breaks up the picture into discrete bits of information, film provides an unbroken image that emphasizes texture and feel. It's a tactile experience that creates a sense of intimacy with the work. Think of the difference between viewing a high-quality photo of a great painting and seeing the original in person at a museum. There's no distance between you and the work. At times I found it genuinely overwhelming. And as I left the theater, I thought: This is truly the best way to see the movie.

I am not a Luddite or a technophobe, but occasionally I sound a little like one when it comes to film. I prefer to see a picture like 2001 in a premodern format designed for a different cinematic era, and I can occasionally be found grumbling about the prevalence of weightless computer-generated imagery and photography in modern blockbusters.

Analog cinema enthusiasts like myself often complain about the dominance of digital projection and small-screen viewings, which rob movies of their big-screen majesty. But I think we need to recognize that newer tech didn't obliterate the glories of analog; if anything, it has helped keep it alive.

A throwback viewing experience like this one is only available because of the profusion of formats that have kept the film available over the years; I might never have been able to see it in the first place, much less view it so many times, if not for the multitude of subpar format options that made it accessible. The same goes for the movie's millions of other fans. A 70mm screening is a premium experience, supported by decades of relatively crappy experiences with VHS and DVD.

Indeed, without all those lesser, more convenient viewings, I doubt I would have fully appreciated the enormous difference that a 70mm print makes. It's fitting, then, that a movie about man's complicated relationship to technology is so profoundly enhanced by a presentation that emphasizes the film's relationship to technology.

*CORRECTION: 70mm film displays four times as much information as 35mm, not twice as much.

NEXT: Brett Kavanaugh's Discouraging Record on the First Amendment and 'Commercial Speech'

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Unpopular opinion: 2001 was disappointingly boring when i saw it as a kid, and when i tried to watch it again recently, it was still boring.

    I’ll turn in my nerd card now.

    1. You are dead to me. (Sobs)

    2. It’s a brutally slow movie, especially by modern standards. The 10 minute psychedelic sequence at the end is just unbearable to sit through.

      It definitely has some cool parts though. If you edited it down to ~80 minutes you could make a great film

      1. I like the slowness of it. And there are so many great lines and scenes in it that have become iconic. The ape with a big bone whacking the other ape, “I am sorry Dave but I can’t do that” and so forth. I get why it can be a hard film to like. But I still love it. It is just like no other movie that has ever been made.

        The sequel they made back in the 80s with Roy Scheider is a good movie as well. It is much more approachable and conventional and still very good.

        1. I like the slowness also – but, yeah, if it was edited down to 80 minutes or so it’d be a better film.

        2. The book of 2010 was really good, but the movie was too preachy. The book had the same message but didn’t try to beat you over the head with it.

      2. It’s a brutally slow movie, especially by modern standards.

        It’s no Fast and Furious, that’s true.

      3. It’s at least partially the source material – as much as i love hard sci fi, i never got into Clarke. As cool as the worlds he created were, the stories he wanted to tell in them just never resonated with me for whatever reason.

        1. The book is not the source material for the movie. They were made at the same time and the book and movie were both co-written by Clarke and Kubrik although the basic story comes from short stories by Clarke.

          1. I don’t think your link works, J.

            The novella The Sentinel was the inspiration for it. It cleared up a lot of things in the film when I read it.

            1. Not sure why. Must have screwed up the tags. It was just the wiki article

          2. Not sure why i didn’t know that, but it doesn’t change my opinion.

        2. I find some of his lesser-known books to be more fun. Like “The City and the Stars” and “Imperial Earth”.

          1. I like Childhood’s End.

            1. There was a miniseries made recently based on that, starring Tywin Lannister. I really enjoyed it.

              1. I haven’t seen that. It didn’t suck, then?

            2. I was horribly disappointed with Childhood’s End. I’d always heard about how great it was, but when I finally read it, I thought it was pretty weak, especially the ending.

              The best Clarke novel I’ve read is Rendezvous With Rama.

        3. Yeah, I am not a huge fan of Clarke. There is something missing from his works. Same for Asimov, for me. I am a huge fan of Lem, and he thought the only good American scifi writer was Phillip K. Dick. I would add Sturgeon, and a few others, but there just aren’t that many greats. Sturgeon’s Law looms large.

      1. NO YOUR WRONG

        1. Your opinion is attributed to human error.

    3. Unpopular opinion: 2001 was disappointingly boring when i saw it as a kid, and when i tried to watch it again recently, it was still boring.

      IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE BORING! Bright flashy things are not always art.

      Any 11-yr.-old can appreciate the depth of Disney/Marvel Sci-Fi where phenomenally complex problems require quirky team and montage to solve. Grape juice tastes great to everyone. Unfortunately, sometimes space travel is going to require you to take 5-10 min. mundane minutes just to get from the floor to the ceiling.

      Apocalypse Now! is, despite the exclamation point, boring as hell too. IMO, half the terror induced in Alien is the direct result of the relative banality developed in the first 1/3 of the movie. Watch (or just consider) 2001, Cast Away, Passengers, and Lost In Space (from 1998). Far more action in the latter, but eminently more soul-sucking. Hell, even in other more ‘adults-only’ genres: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, James Bond, and Jason Bourne. I get and agree that the movie is boring. That’s half the point.

      1. “Slow” and “boring” are not required to be the same thing.

        1. See old Dr Who versus new Dr Who for another example. The new one is often too frantic to be watchable or even comprehensible. The old one is slow but IMHO rarely boring.

        2. I see your wife finally got you to see the error of your ways.

      2. Event Horizon….

        1. Event Horizon is more horror than scifi. Awesome flick either way.

          1. +1000

      3. Apocalypse Now! is, despite the exclamation point, boring as hell too.

        My God what is wrong with you people?

        1. Ennui. Another great movie.

        2. Saw Apocalypse Now when it was first released in ’79, on the big screen in a huge old theater.

          On that scale, it was positively soul-twisting.

          I can imagine 2001 would be likewise.

          1. You know, some years ago, I saw the remastered Spartacus. It was 70mm, I think.

    4. I agree. I appreciate it and it has some great parts, but it’s hard to watch

      1. I think part of it is the lack of a cohesive plot. I love watching The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly..which is even longer. But it looks great and it has a story and characters that keep you entertained.

        1. Plus, I don’t know if you guys realize it, but the 2001 in the title is supposed to be the year 2001. I hate to break it to everyone, but I remember that year and we didn’t even have Twitter yet. There’s no way we were on the moon.

          1. OK, so he was a decade or so off but he did predict Alexa.
            It’s weird how, as a society, we decided it was a good idea to copy the most sinister thing from that movie.

          2. Of course not, silly. The Moon blasted out of orbit on 9/13/99.

            1. The Limeys have no say in scifi canon.

              1. No, no, it’s true. The current Moon is a two-dimensional facade of the original. That’s why we haven’t gone back. And they had the very bad-ass Eagle.

    5. Thanks for turning it in voluntarily. I’ll keep your nerd card for safekeeping. I am sure you will earn it back soon. I will give you a head start. Name your top five scifi works.

    6. I think Barry Lyndon, Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove were the best of Kubrick’s films, but that’s just me.

  2. Vinyl records are the same way. Listen to the digital version, then LP. So much more depth and warmth to the sound.

    1. Depends on how it was recorded and edited. Music recorded for vinyl is better on vinyl.

      1. Depends on the quality of the vinyl and the quality of the record player as well. Digital music on a good system sounds a lot better than crappy vinyl played on a cheap record player. The thing about digital is that you can have $200 system from Best Buy and it sounds really good. Vinyl can sound better but it will take a lot more than $200 to get a sound system to do so.

        1. Equilibrium predicted the future too, where fluorescent light bulbs and vinyl records were banned.

        2. Quality of the speakers. Using earbuds you won’t hear a difference either way.

    2. depth and warmth

      It’s called noise.

      1. Listen to music on Sirius satellite digital radio some time. It’s called quantization noise.

    3. Not true, dynamic range is the problem with CDs/Digital . They sacrifice loudness (volume) for dynamic range and compress the shit out of modern music. A properly balanced recording on CD will always have more fidelity than a vinyl record, ALWAYS, it’s physics. It just that modern albums sacrifice a lot to pump up the bass and volume. Any true audiophile knows this. It’s okay to be nostalgic for vinyl but you don’t have to shit on digital recording just because the industry has lost it’s mind about how to properly record music.

      1. To say nothing of the problem that every single playing scrapes just a teeny bit more of the high frequency content off the vinyl.
        Then there’s the RIAA equalization curve, and the problem with encoding/decoding and matching between mastering system and playback system.
        And the inherently limited bass response or the variation in, for lack of a better phrase, record-ability from outer to inner edge of the vinyl disc.
        It’s not up to Rube Goldberg, but it’s a mess.

    4. i feel the same way about tube TVs, rabbit ears, and walking up to the tv to change the channel on my tv. My doctor says its my ballooning heart rate from lack of exercise that is causing the warmth I feel but he’s younger than me, so what does he know?

    5. “more depth and warmth to the sound’

      You mean more static;)

      Seriously though – you can’t just compare digital to analog without talking about bitrate and compression.

  3. You have not experienced Kubrick until you have read him in the original Klingon.

  4. While I can’t speak to its faithfulness to the original presentation

    I think it was originally presented in Cinemascope, but I could be wrong. I’ll definitely go check it out in 70 mm. Went to see the 70 mm Hateful Eight at AFI Silver and it was interesting, mainly because the 70 mm looks really nice but also rather “filmy” at the same time.

    1. Aw shit. It ends Thrusday. Guess I won’t get a chance unless I go by myself.

    2. 70 mm film also has more information in it than any modern commercial (not laboratory) projector and hence higher resolution. That’s one reason it looked better to the author of this article but he didn’t seem to be aware of that. So while digital can be a perfect copy of the original, the analog will have higher rez, at least until too many generations of copies have been made.

    1. I have always wanted to have a giant femur and hang it in my office. See if anyone gets the reference.

      1. Well, okay, but I’d prefer a monolith. 1:4:9.

        1. The aspect ratio it was meant to be seen in!

        2. That won’t look cool like in the movie – 1/4/9 is kinda clunky and Kubrik changed it for the actual prop used in filming.

      2. Just tell one of your dates to leave the turkey leg when she is done with it.


  5. The film was inspired by the novella The Sentinel.

    I read it and it cleared up a lot of things in the film.

  6. How many theaters still have 70mm projectors?

    One hopes the new print will find its way on to the 64 megapixi lscreen as soon as Moore’s Law imposes itself on OLED , and we get eyeball-equivalent image resolution

    1. The Hateful 8 was shown on 70mm. They are still out there.

  7. Not paced to modern tastes, but the visuals still hold up after all these years. And the visual effects definitely feel more “real” than 99% of the science fiction films made after it — analog or CGI.

    1. Not really, they’re good, and yuuuuge for the time they came out but they can’t compete with modern CGI from top notch CGI labs. They don’t have the texture and physics or fidelity to motion that modern effects have.

  8. I’ve lived in SS/Takoma Park for years and I guess I’ve never heard AFI referred to as “AFI Silver” even though it’s on the huge sign. I thought you were trying to say the AFI in Silver Spring. Weird.

    Well anyway, saw the preview for this when I went and saw “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and it looked pretty impressive on the big screen.

  9. Greatest. Movie. Ever. Made.

    Interestingly Kubrick had control over the final prints and ordered all the footage that wasn’t used to be destroyed when he died. On his death this wish was carried out though read somewhere some footage was discovered in a salt-mine vault in Kansas of all places.

  10. 70 mm rocks. UHDTV is just now starting to catch up.

    Some other movies that look great on 70 mm are Patton and Ran.
    They almost look 3D at times.

    1. And modern TV and film making still hasn’t caught up to Technicolor.

  11. So does this mean the movie will now have a nerve-wracking Hans Zimmer soundtrack slowly driving to crescendo from start to finish?

  12. Hey Mr Nolan, Interstellar totally sucked.

  13. The studio out-takes of Captain Beefheart and the magic band from the same period when 2001 was made are equally worth listening to. They can be downloaded at the Pirate Bay.

  14. A 70mm print thus displays twice as much visual information as standard film.

    Not to nitpick? well, precisely to nitpick? it’s four times as much visual information. When you double the diagonal of the film, you double each side, and so change in the amount of information is the square of the change in the diagonal. So (70/35)? = 4.

  15. Kubrick is definitely one of the top five directors of all time. That being said, 2001 is not my favorite picture from him because I’m not into sci-fi that much. Although, Keir Dullea is a great actor(try Bunny Lake is Missing). For me its always been :

    Dr. Strangelove
    A Clockwork Orange
    Full Metal Jacket (RIP R. Lee Ermey)
    Paths of Glory

  16. AFI Silver Spring is a great place to see a movie, just about any movie.

    I saw North by Northwest there several years ago and it was, well, maybe not as mindblowing as 2001, but nonetheless great. The scenes going across Mount Rushmore were a whole lot more exciting, interesting, and real. I can only imagine how great 2001 was on that huge screen.

    If you get into the DC area and like film, a side trip to the AFI Silver Spring is a reward you owe yourself. It’s a couple blocks from the Red line Metro – easy to get to.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.