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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.

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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.