2001: An HD Odyssey (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

To live up to the Exotica of our site's name, I think I've gotta have a little more science fiction in the mix.  And so today's entry is an obscure, 60s British space romp a few of you aficionados may've heard of before called 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Directed by the great Stanley Kubrick and based on an Arthur C. Clark novel that was being written concurrent to the filming, 2001 isn't really "my" film.  I've certainly seen it now a bunch of times throughout my life and appreciate a ton of aspects about it and like it well enough, but it's not really one I'm drawn to or would have in my personal collection.  In fact, it's literally not mine in that I borrowed the blu-ray from my dad for this review.  😎  But I wanted to cover it here because I was very curious about the quality of its blu-ray.
If you're not at least passingly familiar with the gist of 2001, then I worry for the state of our culture.  But I will say that, even if it doesn't sound like your bag, it really is one of those films you should see at least once in your life.  It may be the strongest example of Kubrick's style of developing a handful of really powerful sequences and just linking them together to make a movie that resonates more than it gets hung up in plotting.  And more than any other Kubrick film, this is a spectacle movie.  Younger audiences who grew up on Star Wars sequels and CGI wouldn't see it now, but Kubrick was making the Jurassic Park or Matrix of its day in the sense that this was the film mainstream audiences had to go see to witness the new technology and envelope-busting effects.  Unfortunately, computers have killed that "how'd they do that" part of the fun; but the budget's still on the screen, that's for sure.
On the other hand, all these decades later, it can feel like a lot of fawning over effects that, now in 2016, we've seen a million times before.  Hollywood's never been great about living up to the "effects should serve the story" mantra, but at least now the editing picks up the pace.  I mean, there's a point to the slow pacing, showing how man's day to day life has both changed and stayed the same across the film's two eras and all, and in some sequences setting up an ominous tension.  The conflict between the astronauts and their on-board computer HAL midway through the film is as engaging as any masterful thriller you can point to.  But I saw this once with a film class, and for all his extolling the virtues and joys of 2001, the professor slipped out the back door once the lights were out, rather than watch it with us.  I mean, even my grandfather checks his phone during the infamous 9-minute "star gate" scene, and he has a rotary (ba-dump).  But seriously, I could've walked out and gone home for the day as soon as I saw our prof slip away, but I stayed to watch 2001 again anyway.  And that would've been my 5th or 6th time watching it.  Because it is a pretty great, interesting film.  And it helps that I have a pretty steady attention span.
2001's life on DVD has been interesting.  It's a major, flagship title for Warner Bros, and science fiction is always a big seller.  So you can bet pretty much the most famous, critically praised sci-fi film of all time is going to be available for purchase.  And yep, it was released a whole heap of times in one respect, and in another, only a couple.  See, MGM released it first in 1998, then the rights went back to Warner Bros, so they re-released it.  But it was pretty much exactly the same disc.  They released it individually and then as part of a big Stanley Kubrick Collection boxed set.  Same disc.  Same dusty old, non-anamorphic disc.  Then, in 2001 (appropriately), they remastered it, and put out a superior, anamorphic widescreen DVD, in two versions: the standard and a limited collector's edition with the soundtrack CD and a film frame.  And they released it again as part of a second, digitally remastered Stanley Kubrick Collection boxed set.
2007 was the next big year for 2001, because that's when it came out on blu-ray and HD-DVD.  But for people who hadn't made the leap to HD yet, there was a new 2-disc DVD special edition, which featured the new transfer created for the HD ports on an SD disc, plus - finally - a bunch of special features.  And yes, there was another Kubrick DVD boxed set featuring the 2007 versions, and that same content was used again in a 2009 TCM Greatest Classics set.  Next, Warner Bros put out that 2007 2-discer (still with me?) again as a budget single-disc version in 2011, minus most of the extras.  And they put it in their 2011 Stanley Kubrick: Essentials DVD collection, as well as on a 2012 4 Films Classics release and as a 2012 double-feature with Clockwork Orange.  Meanwhile, the blu-ray was reissued as a triple feature with A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, included in the 2011 Stanley Kubrick Limited Edition blu-ray boxed set, 2014's Stanley Kubrick: Masterpiece Collection and Warner's giant Best Of Warner Bros: 50 Film Collection.  And of course, that's just the American releases.
So that's basically a whole ton of repackaging the same handful of editions.  There are effectively three actual transfers: 90s non-anamorphic, 2001 anamorphic and 2007 HD.  And 2007 is pretty old for blu-ray.  It may be getting repackaged as recently as 2014, but that's still a 2007 transfer.  And that's really why I was curious.  How does a very old school blu-ray of a super lavishly shot film, one of the rare ones shot on 70 (or technically, I guess, 65)mm which most hold an immense amount of detail hold up today?  It was certainly receiving glowing, 5-star reviews at the time, but now that we live in an age where Q: The Winged Serpent gets a brilliant 4k scan of the original camera negatives, how does 2001 look?
top: 2001 DVD, middle: 2007 DVD, bottom: 2007 blu-ray.
Well, for a 2007 blu-ray, it still looks pretty good.  You can see a real increase in clarity (and a slight shift in framing) between the 2001 and 2007 DVDs, and I'm happy to observe another increase in clarity from the 2007 DVD and its concurrent blu-ray edition.  It's definitely sharper, the lines are cleaner, and the grain is, well... kind of smoothed away and not there.  I suppose grain would be a lot finer and harder to pull out of 70mm.  Hmm...  Look at the last image, that's some funky edge enhancement haloing around the people chatting, isn't it?  And I see some artificial sharpening or clarifying around the letters in the background.  I tell you what, the reviewers that gave this five glowing stars back in 2007 wouldn't give it the same rating today.  And fair enough.  Now is now, and 2007 was a different time.  I would've been right there alongside everybody else in 2007.
Maybe he just naturally radiates a Heavenly aura around the back of his head...
But what this suggests to me is that it's time for a remaster.  And are you telling me we can't pull anymore background detail out of a film shot on 70mm?  I'd still rate this as a pretty good blu, but I'm pretty sure we could do better.  You know, if Resident Evil: Extinction is still stuck with an old HD master, I don't really care.  In my heart of hearts, sure, every film should get the ultimate, high quality special deluxe edition treatment, but I can understand a label looking at their dogs and leaving them on the closet floor.  But this is Two Thousand and Fucking One.  Also, the LPCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes sound impressive, and I appreciate the wealth of foreign dubs and 18(!) subtitle options, but surely a historical film like this should include its original audio mix as well?
Extras-wise, Warner Bros finally pulled it out in 2007.  The 2001-era DVDs had nothing but the trailer.  Actually, the old non-anamorphic DVDs (both from MGM and WB) had an interview with Arthur C. Clark, which was surprisingly dropped from later editions.  But in 2007, they generated a lot of cool stuff, all of which is on the blu and 2-disc DVD set, including: an upbeat audio commentary by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, a terrific 45-minute British television documentary that includes its own interview with Clark as well as a ton of other key and secondary 2001 players, four featurettes, twenty-plus minutes each, which cover the science and impact of the film (Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001, Vision Of a Future Past: The Prophecy of 2001, 2001: A Look Beyond the Future and What Is Out There?), a 76-minute audio-only interview with Kubrick himself, a short featurette on the special effects and a photo gallery.  Plus the trailer.
So yeah, if you ask me, this 2001 should have a brand new blu, with a fancy 4k scan, the original stereo mix restored, and they could fish that old Clark interview back up to add alongside all the other extras.  Because I want to see the film done right for history and its fans.  But I probably wouldn't buy it myself, so I'm just speaking idealistically.  haha  At least, in the meantime, the current blu can be found surprisingly cheap (because it is so old), and it's pretty loaded.

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