Having only seen the film only one time before, there was no earthly way I could have been prepared for the experience I had last week. Even if I had been a dedicated steward to Stanley Kubrick’s now fifty-year-old masterpiece I still doubt I could have done anything to prepare for what it would feel like to experience this film in its native and intended format. I say that word, “experience,” because that was my greatest takeaway from the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is not a film you’re meant to watch with your eyes, or hear with your ears. It’s something deeply affecting, that gets under your skin and into your mind in ways you never knew possible, something simultaneously breathtaking in its beauty and absolutely morbid in its horrors. It fills you with endless ideas that spark your creative mind, as well as those which you safeguard and keep to yourself. Even now, I write this realizing that some of the feelings I had as I walked out of the theater last week, shaking, reveling in this overwhelming journey I just went through, I know there are some thoughts I will never share, for the experience was simply too intimate to spoil by divulging the details to anyone else. Sometimes people will tell you that seeing 2001 in a theater will change your life, and usually when someone makes a ridiculous exaggeration like that my nose tends to involuntary lift up and deeply exhale in a sign of disapprovement. But last week, I was that man, practically stumbling out of the theater, with eyes glazed over and desperately attempting to gain back my senses. I told my friends that had come along with me I was too tired to go out for a drink afterwards. This was only half true. It was late, and I was tired, but even if I wasn’t I doubt I could’ve enjoyed a beer after that. There was still too much left to process.
The car ride back home was mostly silent. I wasn’t even there. I was still sitting in my seat, four rows from the screen, looking up at that sprawling canvas, which I knew my eyes would proceed to search over in an attempt to take in the entire breadth of the film. The lights dimmed as the overture began. It was only music, but my eyes were already fixed on the screen. I don’t recall a single other overture that grabbed my attention like this. Already, I felt the oppressive tone of the film just through this supplementary piece of score. It was only a small taste of what was about to come. The opening to 2001, the opening which has been parodied, spoofed, and referenced to death long before you ever see the film for the first time in your life, is a triumph. There I was, glued to the screen, watching the iconic image of the crescent sun peaking over the curve of the Earth, as the thundering trumpets of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” washed over me like an ocean of revelation. I was hearing it again for the very first time. The pounding drum caused my heart to begin to flutter, and the exuberant reversal of the repeated verse left me excitedly anticipating the familiar culmination of this legendary build up. The joining of the orchestra swept through the entire theater, lifting us on a wave of ecstasy. From then on, I was the only one there, just me and this great behemoth of a film, carrying me along on a journey of mind and body, one which tested my very understanding of cinema itself.
My previous viewing had determined that the first twenty minutes of the film had been my decided favorite. Not knowing how drastically that was going to change, I felt secure in confirming that thought while soaking in the vast desert landscapes of the “Dawn of Man” segment. It’s amazing how much can be communicated simply through physical expression. An entire society is conveyed in the interactions of the apes, warring over a single watering hole in the middle of this craggy, desolate, heat-drenched wasteland. Their primitive screeches are painfully blaring, but not too dissimilar from those we still expel upon each other today. We’re all fighting for ownership of that watering hole, searching for the tool we need to take it for ourselves. That tool, that tool we use to threaten and destroy. We look for that which we can wield as a weapon, taking that watering hole by force, and obliterating anything that stands in our way. It’s a primal instinct, to conquer, and so we watch as the bone-wielding ape mercilessly beats another of his kin to take back his coveted watering hole. He smashes the bone over his head, continually beating him long after his life is surely gone. It’s violent and abhorrent, and seeing it on such an inflated screen there’s no way to look away from it. You must face the truth of this statement, that we are nothing more than those ancestral apes, beating each other with our newfound tools so that we can discover the secrets of some safeguarded watering hole. That tool becomes a spacecraft, and that watering hole becomes the infinite expanse of the cosmos, but they are still just a tool, and just a watering hole we violently fight to conquer, in some primitive sense of trying to own whatever it is that we’ve yet to discover.
The horrors of man’s hubris are then immediately dispelled by the beauty also found within it. These majestic creations of man, these gargantuan testaments to our unwavering spirit and drive, these idols of ingenuity, they dance among the stars, spinning with all the grace of a seasoned ballerina. “The Blue Danube” accompanies their mechanical dance, recontextualizing this classical tune in a completely redefining manner. In an instant, my entire perspective of the film changed. Whereas before I found myself loving the poignancy and artful depictions of the apes as my favorite aspect of the film, here was a profound new revelation that instilled me with awe and joy the likes of which I had not previously known. My natural shell of cynicism faded away completely, just for this short stretch of time. I smiled as I had not smiled before, humbled by the magnificence of such accomplishments. It did not occur to me that what I was beholding was merely a detailed model against a matte-painted background, nor that an achievement of this scale had even been accomplished by the time this film was made. Even now we’ve but scratched the surface of interstellar travel, confined to mechanical exploration of our immediately surrounding planets. None of this occurred to me while watching the nimble spacecrafts waltz along to the jubilant melody. All I saw was the astounding potential of mankind, in all our infinite wisdom.
As is the pattern of the film, this beauty did not last long. The iconic ebony monolith appears four times in the film, manifesting in a mysterious and sinister form. It is wholly alien to us, and staring up at its towering visage from my lowly vantage point made it all the more intimidating. Visually, it’s enough to make any man shudder, but it’s terrifying presence only magnifies when complimented by the nightmare-inducing choir, wailing the incomprehensible language of “Requiem”. The song, and thus the scene itself, feels possessed, like some unnatural force has disturbed a great power which is now rising up in retaliation. Dr. Floyd and his associates descend into the excavation, where the monolith has been uncovered. They treat it as yet another conquest, ignorant to the ramifications of their Manifest Destiny. They gather around the looming black structure, posing for a picture like it’s some great bass they fished out of the lake. The chorus becomes incensed, wildly escalating in pitch until it reaches a fever, at which point a loud, piercing shriek rings out, deafening both the audience and the arrogant explorers. I could see people in the audience covering their ears to guard from the agonizing wail, as if they, too, had foolishly walked into something they were not prepared for. I did not cover my own ears, though they did scream out in pain, pleading for rescue from this terrible assault. The screen faded to black, and with it went the horrifying screech of the monolith’s theme. Not long after, the lights of the theater came up, and the word “Intermission” stretched across the screen.
I had not remembered there being an intermission for this particular film. I was very used to watching many near four-hour films without ever having to leave the couch, so to see a break in a film a good hour shorter than those, I was a bit taken aback. I sat in my seat. I didn’t talk to my friends, I didn’t use the bathroom, I didn’t refill my popcorn; I had barely eaten what I already had. I just sat there, concentrating in my chair, poring over what of the film I had already seen, and bracing myself for what was to come. The minutes lengthened as thoughts raced through my head, anxiety building as I attempted to anticipate the forthcoming scenes. Really, it was just one that concerned me most. I had been thinking about it for weeks now, wondering how the prodigious sequence would affect me. I’d already witnessed how something as simple as the combining of classical music and well-crafted models could have a profound effect when applied on the screen like this, what might I feel from this famously unreal event coming up in the film? My anxiety quickly turned into fear, wondering if I was even capable of handling what was to come, and then afraid it wouldn’t affect me at all, and that I would be missing out on some fantastic cinematic revelation that I’d heard so many people speak of already. My worries weren’t given much time to gestate, as before I knew it the lights had dimmed and the projector had began again. If I truly wasn’t prepared for what was to come, it was too late now.
I have never, in my life, seen something even remotely comparable to 2001’s famous “Stargate Sequence”, projected in 70mm. For nine straight minutes I felt this immense, intimate connection with the various lights and sounds that cascaded across the theater. At one point, I wanted to look around the room to see if anyone else was witnessing this as I was, but I could not. My eyes were so intensely fixed on the screen that, try as I might, I could not look away. It was penetrating. I felt absolutely vulnerable during that scene, paralyzed by the surreal imagery I was marinating in. The idea behind it was to create something totally incomprehensible to the human mind, to create something truly alien for Dave’s journey through the monolith. At first, it’s entirely inexplicable; just a series of vibrantly colored wave patterns rushing past you in increasingly bizarre formations. As it goes on, though, recognizable images begin to manifest. The lights become more fluid, resembling something like a galaxy, or even cells forming together. Tangible shapes like cubes and pyramids can be seen. Pretty soon, something that looks like the surface of a planet appears. Familiar rock formations, oceans, and mountainsides can be deciphered from the kaleidoscopic images, indicating some semblance of understanding has been achieved. Studying the visuals as they flew by me, I saw myself sitting in that spacecraft, propelling through this profound, alien world, and slowly beginning to comprehend it. From then on, I felt markedly different. A significant change had poured through me, and I had a weight of emotion I would carry with me long after the film had finished.
I sat in my seat for a solid minute as the credits rolled. People all around me flocked into the aisles, but I was still grappling with this incredible experience. Outside the theater was a large plywood replica of the black monolith. I could hear the wicked chorus as people gathered in front of it, taking pictures just like the foolhardy scientists in the film. I wore a sullen expression the entire way home, and into the next morning as well. My mind remained blank, dumbfounded by the inexplicable awe of it all. Even now, as I type my recollections, I struggle to piece together everything I felt watching the film. How much of my experience was amplified by the larger format? Had the film always been this affecting? I’m certain I’m not the first to have these thoughts, this sudden realization of 2001’s unparalleled greatness. It doesn’t take a theater experience to understand this about the film, but it certainly does help. Like any film, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t inherently “better” because it’s being projected on a big screen. It’s the same film no matter what size you watch it in, and you’re likely to draw the same conclusions as anyone else. However, there’s nothing quite like hearing those blaring trumpets, or the deafening silences, or seeing that psychedelic rush of color glaze over you in the grandest format ever conceived. Every film deserves to be seen in an ideal setting, and I cannot think of a more deserving way to watch one of the most monumental films ever made.