Why Christopher Nolan wants you to see 2001: A Space Odyssey the way he did — on the big screen, in 70mm film
HAL-elujah! Christopher Nolan may be the only working director qualified to re-examine Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi space masterpiece, which Nolan has carefully “unrestored” to its original photo format for an extraordinary theatrical rerelease unlike any other 50th anniversary.
The 47-year-old filmmaker, who’s a little too young to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first hit theaters, was able to enjoy the film in its full analog glory when it was re-released in theaters following the success of Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977.
“My dad took me to see it in Leicester Square in London on the biggest screen possible in 70mm, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling of the screen just opening up and you being taken on a journey that you never thought was possible,” Nolan describes to EW. “That’s always stayed with me as an inspiration for what movies could do.”
The Oscar-winning filmmaker has indeed taken notes from Kubrick’s innovative storytelling within his own works, from the closely crafted complexity of Inception and the vastness of space exploration and humanity in Interstellar to the minimal dialogue in his World War II epic Dunkirk. But his love for 2001 led him to supervise an “un-restoration” of an original film print of Kubrick’s film, which is now available in select theaters, so that an entire new generation that may not have had the chance to see the film on the big screen, will get to experience it in the same way Nolan did four decades ago.
“I would liken the experience of what we’re doing with these prints to listening to a vinyl record as opposed to an MP3 file,” Nolan explains. “You’re seeing more emotional information, you have a more immersive experience, a more emotional experience, you’re drawn into the film in a way that digital has a much harder time involving in these terms.”
Nolan tells EW about how influential the classic film has been not only for him, but for the craft of cinema, and how it inspired him to make his own space exploration film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For someone who’s never seen this film, why should they go see 2001: A Space Odyssey in this format?
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: 2001 is one of the most radical movies ever made. It was radical in 1968 when it came out, it broke all the rules for how films could tell a story and looking at it again in 2018, it is just as radical and it shows more than any other film I could name that movies can be anything, it just shows the possibilities of cinema. What we’re doing is we’re putting it out there in its original 70mm photo-chemical analog glory to give audiences in 2018 the same experiences that audiences had in 1968, when that movie, I mean, it just changed everything, it changed the way people thought of movies.
Have you found yourself making subtle references or homages to 2001 within your work?
I think one of the things that 2001 tells you as filmmaker is to second-guess things, to say “do I need dialogue to explain something, or can I do it with just an image?” Kubrick always had this masterful sense of calm in the way he told stories — nothing is wasted, there are no extra shots, there are no extra lines, extra words, and so as a filmmaker, you start looking at it, it’s humbling to realize how simple, stripped down his storytelling language was. I find myself at times wondering what would Kubrick do in a particular situation, and it is humbling, because you look at the devices you use generally, and I think 2001 always serves as a little bit of a conscience, the way some of the silent films do for me as well, it’s one of these movies that tells its story, it takes its time with each shot and tells its story in almost purely visual terms, not relying on expositional dialogue and so forth. It’s a great thing to come back to, it’s a great thing to have in the back of your head. It can be done that way by a master, so we should all be aspiring to test the boundaries of movies in the same way.
When Interstellar came out, it was almost immediately described as your personal 2001 — how did it feel having your film put up next to a film that’s been so influential to you?
It’s pretty daunting anytime anybody is mentioning your work in the same breath as 2001. You certainly don’t want people comparing you with that in some ways, but on the other hand, post- 2001, you can’t make a serious science fiction film about journeying out into the universe that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of 2001, it’s too important for that, and so when we made Interstellar, we knew that our film was dialogue with 2001, and so there are references and things that were inspired by it. We tried to do a different thing, we tried to use a different language and use a different form of engagement with the audience, so Interstellar is much more about obvious emotionality and family but at the same time, really for me, it was a process of being inspired to make Interstellar because of 2001, and then putting it to one side and not watching it for several years while working on that film, it was too scary. The wonderful thing about this project is that I got to watch the film again, many times at this point, supervising this version, and it was a joy to come back to it. It was a real pleasure.
Alfonso Cuarón said the same thing about not watching 2001 while he was making Gravity.
Yeah, you can’t. It’s so authoritative. The thing about films of the past and your relationship as a filmmaker with them is, most films are imperfect and they show the potential for an idea or a technique, and so you feel you can be inspired in certain ways and say we can take that a little further, we can build on that. 2001 is too authoritative on that, it’s too complete, and part of that is the simplicity, and the primal simplicity of the storytelling, and so it’s a brick wall that you just bounce off. So you have to put it to one side, put it out of your head and just try and do your own thing, I think Alfonso’s absolutely right, it’s too daunting. And as I said, I didn’t come back to 2001 for a couple of years after I finished Interstellar, that would have been too scary as well. [Laughs]
Which scenes do you think benefit most from this “unrestored version” of the film?
The entire film is so much more heightened in this form, the color particularly; there are things throughout the film that just appear to you in a revelatory way. I would have to point to the visual effects though. They are so stunning, and that first shot where you see that revolving space station as “The Blue Danube” starts up, it gets me every time when you see it on film. It’s remarkable. You cannot believe this film is 50 years old, and the depth of the experience technically, you can’t believe that we’ve made so little progress in filmmaking. [Laughs] It’s humbling, but the way a great masterpiece should be. Throughout the film, the Star Gate sequence in its original analog color is just mind-blowing—you’ve never seen anything like that, you’ve never had an experience like it, and I don’t know why CG has never been able to attain that visceral feeling that you get from the Star Gate sequence that Douglas Trumbull put together. But it never has. There’s something about it that grabs the eye and pulls you in in a way that nothing done today can compete with.
The aspect of what’s different in this experience is that you sense the layers of humanity in the performances of these actors much more deeply in this analog form, and I was very struck by that, seeing things in the performance that I never realized were there. Keir Dullea, when he’s switching off HAL, there’s a layer of aggression to what he’s doing that I was never aware of before watching it on video. The reason film has sustained the way it has is that it’s really, really good at showing faces and involving you in being in their presence, so that aspect of the film really comes to life in analog.
What are your thoughts on reviving classic films, especially as your 2000 film Memento is being remade — could you imagine if someone tried to remake 2001 now?
At the end of the day, you have to have faith and confidence in the original. That is to say, 2001 transcends anything that anybody would reinterpret afterwards. They did make a sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact that Peter Hyams made; that’s a very entertaining film and a very well-made film that I enjoyed very much as a kid, but it doesn’t impact the original masterpiece in any way. That’s the thing about something like 2001, and there are not many films like it, but they stand really independent to what anyone else does around them, and that’s about the test of time really. 2001, it’s abundantly clear when you look at it in 2018, that it has absolutely transcended the test of time. It’s almost like it folded space and time and managed to circumvent the 50 years. It’s pretty amazing.
2001: A Space Odyssey