2001: A UHD Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece has been waiting for the arrival of 4K and big-screen TVs to finally be able to be appreciated in the home.

Young people won’t believe this, but there was a time – a very long time – when ‘widescreen’ and ‘television’ were incompatible concepts, not just in the shape of the TV but in the programming being broadcast. If a film was shown on TV (or released on video) it would invariably be adjusted in some way to fit the 4:3 format. Some films suffered more than others with this, as panoramic vistas were squeezed, zoomed or cropped. The more epic a movie, the more problematic it became for broadcasters, who had their hands tied by the demands of the thicker end of the audience – if a film was shown letterboxed, even slightly, there would be floods of complaints from outraged viewers who pointed out that they didn’t pay their TV licence for half a picture. And while we might all facepalm at this level of ignorance, it’s also worth noting that the size of the average TV screen in the 1970s and well into the 1980s tended to top out at about 24 inches, and the TV set would invariably be in the corner of the living room. Showing a letterboxed film on these screens really did involve a reduced viewing experience. For viewers who didn’t know any better – and that was most of them – seeing a film full screen seemed to be a much more acceptable way of viewing a movie, even if half the picture was lost.

The problem was that while most feature films could be reasonably accommodated to pan and scan, some films were too stubbornly vast for such adjustments. On New Year’s Day 1982, Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey had its first showing on British television, when it was the centrepiece of BBC1’s evening schedule. 2001 is not a 4:3 friendly film. Even if most of the scenes could be effectively crushed into a TV format, the scenes set in space were much more problematic – how do you adjust the 70mm Cinerama spectacle without losing the power and the majesty of it all? Some bright spark at the BBC thought that they had the answer, and so the film was broadcast with these scenes in widescreen – but with added stars filling in the black bars. These stars did not look anything like the black, empty space of Kubrick’s film and for some reason, this additional content was faded in at either end; the result was not a satisfactory one for anyone, Kubrick included. And we haven’t even discussed the reduction of the sound to a tinny mono that would buzz with distortion if you tried to achieve any level of volume.

I tell this story not just as a nostalgic memory of the awfulness of TV’s technical past but because it tends to show that for some films, it has taken a very long time for television technology to reach the point that the film demands. I do think that in general, each technical move forward in terms of home viewing has become less a leap and more a step – the move from VHS to DVD was unquestionably a vast one but the shift from DVD to Blu-ray was less of a jump (at least until the widespread use of large screen 4K TVs) and the most recent upgrade to UHD is the sort of thing that is only noticeable – and of interest – to the most obsessive techie or movie fan, and sometimes seems to require people to convince themselves that the new is better and the old is now automatically unwatchable. It’s notable that each move to new technology has brought fewer people with it – DVD became the default very quickly but Blu-ray has remained somewhat niche, still generally outsold by its predecessor, and UHD is very much for the collector only (we’ll not even get into the shift to streaming and people watching films on their phones, which shows just how disinterested most are in quality over convenience). UHD is a particularly curious beast, given that it demands a set-up that many people are just not that interested in and don’t appreciate – and the sharpness of 4K is often beyond what people actually want. I expect outraged commentary from the home video equivalents of the audiophile here, but it’s a simple truth – most people just don’t see the need for UHD just as they don’t see the need for 80-inch TVs and it seems destined to remain the domain of collectors rather than the masses. Like vinyl, it is strictly for connoisseurs.

Nevertheless, there are those films that seem to have been waiting for this moment. While I am happy to see a movie like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things issued on UHD, it doesn’t exactly seem the essential format for viewing a low-budget 16mm movie on. But 2001: A Space Odyssey is a different matter. Here is a film that absolutely demands the biggest screen, the sharpest picture, the best sound… the most overwhelming experience. It’s not just the sheer vastness of Kubrick’s visuals – it’s simply that this is a big film in all senses, one that really has been reduced when seen on television screens in PAL or – worse still – NTSC conversions. People often say that such-and-such a new release “has to be seen on the big screen” but most of the time it is just hype – quite honestly, there is nothing in the empty spectacle of most modern action and superhero films that seriously demands the theatrical experience, especially when many cinemas these days have screens that are less than overwhelming to begin with. The whole IMAX promotion feels like an attempt to overwhelm the viewer into overlooking the emptiness of many new films by bombarding them with empty spectacle.

2001: A Space Odyssey is different. Here is a film that – perhaps until this moment – always felt compromised when seen outside the cinema. In truth, it often felt compromised in the cinema because of bad projection, tiny screens and audiences that would wander around visiting the toilet or buying (and noisily eating) more popcorn. In general, the cinema experience is overrated – at home, you don’t have to sit next to noisy, sweaty strangers who insist on asking their other halves what is going on.

I won’t insult your intelligence by summarising 2001 – my God, if you are somehow unfamiliar with the film by this time, then you really don’t need me spoiling it for you. The film remains as coldly intense and ambiguous as ever – though perhaps not really that ambiguous if you pay attention. For all the talk of the film being an incomprehensible mystery, I think 2001 is actually quite narratively tight. It just presents that narrative in ways that feel increasingly removed from the way most movies like to tell their stories and most audiences like to consume them. It’s deliberately slow, breathtakingly beautiful and almost painfully intelligent. In 1968, that was unusual and revolutionary; today, it seems entirely removed from anything else that you might have seen, apart, perhaps, from almost all the Kubrick films that came after it and which shared that sense of nihilistic isolation and dehumanised madness. Impressively, this is a film that doesn’t age, not even in the special effects, which tend to be the Achilles’ heel of most science fiction films of yesteryear (just look at how rapidly CGI effects look laughably unrealistic). Only the title feels out of touch, given that ‘2001’ was over two decades ago. But if we leave aside that and the space flight predictions, much of the film feels oddly accurate in its little moments of futurism – video phone calls, AI and the rest.

2001: A Space Odyssey currently sits at number 6 in Sight and Sound‘s Greatest Films poll – not, itself, a guarantee of actual greatness (I mean, look at the film in first position on that poll) but perhaps a sign of how it has become part of the film canon over the years – a film that doesn’t insult your intelligence just because it is science fiction (something that far too many sci-fi films still do, unfortunately) and which remains significant, mysterious and dazzling. It’s a film that deserves the attention given to it in this new edition and the audio-visual razzle-dazzle of UHD. I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, but this is one where it is worth cranking up whatever home theatre audio you can muster and dealing with the irate neighbours the next day; that or simply invite them around for a cultural experience that remains unlike any other. 55 years on, 2001 remains The Ultimate Trip.

The new Film Vault edition follows the earlier collection and is part of a series that includes Jaws (which immediately sold out as you might expect), The Shawshank Redemption and Apollo 13. The package is suitably ornate and impressive – if you have been holding out on an upgrade of 2001, this might be the one to go for as it not only has all the extras that are on previous editions – commentaries, documentaries about the film and Stanley Kubrick – but posters, reproduction lobby cards and a ‘crystal display plague’ that is a novel addition. As much as we are generally aghast at unboxing videos – mostly the sort of awful vanity projects where people open up Amazon packages and look at what they have bought – this seemed the sort of collectors edition that was worth capturing on camera. And so we have: check out our exploration of the full package below (note: YouTube rules insist that anything supplied to review counts as ‘paid promotion’. Rest assured that we have not been paid a penny for this and all opinions expressed are our own).

Jaws/The Shawshank Redemption are out 4th September 2023 and 2001/Apollo 13 are out 2nd October 2023


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One comment

  1. It must have been the 1982 broadcast when I first saw 2001, since I remember it being near Christmas, and according to the BBC genome it wasn’t shown again until 1986, and I definitely saw it before then. My dad insisted I watch it, and it was a profound experience. I was about four years old, and suffering from a bout of ‘flu, so was laying on the setee, with a bowl perched nearby. I don’t remember the widescreen stuff – I do remember a later showing of Close Encounters, letterboxed, which caused uproar, I seem to recall they switched to fullscreen after complaints? In our house, myself and my brother were watching on a small portable, the second set in the house. Kubrick subsequently only made films in fullscreen (though there is maddening debate on the subject across various forums), perhaps the ruination of 2001 on TV influenced this decision?

    Of course the UHD edition and appropriate home cinema set-up is the ideal – in part, the slower uptake on the part of many consumers is simply that it is beyond their budget. The same goes for stereo gear. The casual viewer will be happy with a basic set up, anyone with more than a passing interest would want the deluxe experience, but many people are on a lower budget. Really impressed with blurays I’ve seen – similarly, was watching Salem’s Lot on DVD the other day and thinking it looked just fine. Another thought about the state of retail physical media – the boutique companies are orienting themselves around higher priced special editions and whatnot. There should be a budget price DVD label a la 4-Front et al. There are loads of films, particularly foreign films, which have never had a home video release. There might be interest in these films, but not enough to warrant a twenty quid bluray. These fifty quid jobs might guarantee a bigger trouserfull for the distributor, but the emphasis on a canon of tried-and-true titles will lead to a homogenous market.

    Bill Lustig often opines about this, as if there is literally nothing to release outside of the films we love best, from the ’67-’82 period. The fact is there are tons of films which have never even had a release, but which aren’t classics.

    It is a great shame that Kubrick didn’t live to take advantage of developments in technology, since then we might have had more examples of spectacle and substance in film. That said, AI was not much cop – even before it was Spielberged to oblivion, it was derivative instead of innovative – not only of Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune and Bladerunner, but also of the dodgy ZPG, of all things! (even the acronymic title)! There’s a film that deserves a budget-priced DVD. To be sold beside supermarket checkouts.

    I wonder if Ridley Scott’s Napoleon will offer stimulation for the eye as well as the mind?

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