The Theater Is Still the Best Way to See a Movie
I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time 20 years ago on a pan-and-scan VHS. I hated it.
Last night I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time on the big screen, and now I’m certain it’s among the handful of greatest films ever made.
This does not feel like a coincidence. In fact, I’ve seen two wildly different movies in recent weeks that have both reminded me that while instantaneous access to titles on my computer or television is wonderful, the theater is still the best way to see a movie.
This 50th anniversary re-release of 2001 is being billed as an “unrestored” print, “struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative.” Supervised by director and analog film proselytizer Christopher Nolan, the official press materials boast that the new (old) 2001 contains “no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits,” and supposedly offers modern audiences the chance to experience Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 exactly the way its first audiences did half a century ago.
That all sounded like a bunch of marketing hooey to me — but it wasn’t. 2001 in 70mm was a genuinely disorienting experience. To complete the illusion of a vintage screening, the Village East theater in New York City presented 2001 without commercials or trailers. After an introduction by the projectionist, the lights dimmed for an overture. About 90 minutes into the film, there was a brief intermission, followed by more music and the finale.
The unrestored print isn’t quite as sharp as the one on my Blu-ray, and the colors were more muted and more weathered. But the effects are far more impressive and enveloping on the big screen. Projected on a huge screen, with the camera swooping through Douglas Trumbull’s pinwheeling space stations and pods, there is a grandeur to the film that was never there on home video.
Still, as big a difference as the expansive visuals make, the use of sound and music was the most striking contrast between all of my home viewings (at least half a dozen) and this theatrical one. A really large HDTV and a Blu-ray player can come close to approximating theatrical images, but very few people have a sound system good enough to rival a theater’s, and the Village East’s absolutely bombards you. The booming classical score evokes a sense of wonder, and the moments of piercing sound effects (like when the uncovered monolith on the moon suddenly emits a high-pitched shriek) were uncomfortably intense. Of course, when there was no sound at all, there was another familiar noise: The 70mm celluloid print grinding through the projector, a once ubiquitous (and now oddly comforting) theater accompaniment that has almost entirely vanished from the moviegoing experience.
Obviously this (un)restoration of 2001 is a rare and special event, not to mention a 50-year-old movie. Kubrick designed the film for theaters; it was made in an era before home video even existed. But theatrical exhibition greatly benefits newer, smaller movies as well. A few weeks ago I enjoyed a French film called The Guardians that I am certain I would have disliked — and probably turned off long before it was over — if I had tried to watch it at home.
The Guardians, by director Xavier Beauvois, is about a family struggling to survive in rural France during World War I. All of the young men of the family, including two brothers and the husband of their sister, are off fighting on the front lines, but this is a uniquely quiet war film. It focuses instead on the women left behind on the home front. While battles rages somewhere very far away, life on the farm continues; Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the matriarch, tends to the fields and eventually brings in a young helper, Francine (Iris Bry) to help her with the chores and upkeep.
Later, Francine falls in love with one of Hortense’s sons, and there are some more melodramatic plot elements in the third act. Most of the film, though, is a rigorous and intricate look at agricultural life in the 1900s. We learn how fields were plowed and wheat was harvested; we watch as horse drawn implements give way to the earliest tractors. Life is hard and the days move very slowly.
The sluggish pacing is deliberate, designed to give modern viewers a taste of the languor on a 1910s farm. It’s so deliberate, in fact, that most home audiences will be sorely tempted to glance at their phone or reply to work emails or check Facebook to see who left comments on that cute video of the dog licking gravy off the baby’s face. But in the theater, the intricacy of Beauvois’ production design and his recreation of life from a century ago was so all-encompassing, I had to remind myself I wasn’t watching a documentary.
Those who argue that the theatrical experience needs to evolve or grow with the times to accommodate changing tastes misunderstand the movie theater’s key appeal: Its ability to take us out of our times and put us into another. Sure, the prices are high, the projection standards are often inadequate, the other customers are occasionally rude, and the selection of movies in multiplexes in many areas leaves a lot to be desired. But when a movie in a theater is good, there is nothing as immersive. It’s like time travel on a budget, without the need to steal plutonium from terrorists.
Once the lights went down at the Village East it was very easy to convince myself I was on a journey through time to rival Dave Bowman’s in orbit around Jupiter. I went back into the past to watch a vision of the future that never quite came to fruition. 2001’s original tagline — “The ultimate trip” — had never felt more appropriate.
Gallery - The Best Sci-Fi Movie Posters Ever: