Christopher Nolan has seen the future, and it looks a lot like the past. Nolan is one of a handful of directors who’s made no secret of his commitment to shooting movies on film for as long as possible, even as digital filmmaking becomes the default and maybe an inevitability. In the 2012 documentary Side By Side, an enlightening examination of the digital-versus-film divide produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves, even Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister seemed to think the end of film was near. “I will be one of the last guys shooting film,” he tells Reeves, “and Chris Nolan will be one of the last directors using film. But I’m certain that we’ll be using digital technology within the next 10 years.”
Six years later, Nolan seems to be doubling down, not only refusing to shoot digitally but turning the chance to see 2017’s Dunkirk in 70mm into a significant selling point. He’s also one of the driving forces behind what’s being billed as an “unrestored” 70mm edition of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s currently playing in theaters. And perhaps not by accident, it’s providing a stunning reminder of how much life remains in the old ways of moviemaking.
“Unrestored” doesn’t sound like a selling point, and for a film other than 2001, it might not be. Film preservation has advanced from the early days of cinema when movies were often discarded after their initial runs. (A 2013 study by the Library of Congress estimated that only 25 percent of films from the silent era still survive.) But despite improved efforts, even beloved films fall into disrepair. Digital technology has been a boon to cinephiles, making it easier to go through the painstaking work of restoring a film to what it looked like when filmgoers first saw it.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a special case, though. This new re-release could not have happened if not for an effort to preserve the film in 1999, when the restoration team at Warner Bros. cleaned up old negatives and struck new interpositives, as Nolan and Warner Bros preservationist Ned Price recently explained to The New York Times. If Kubrick’s film hadn’t been canonized nearly instantly upon its original release and then proven so profitable due to continued interest, it’s likely the studio wouldn’t have had such rich raw material for this re-release.
Instead, the Warner Bros. team has been able to simulate what 2001 looked like 50 years ago, give or take some color correction and a remastered soundtrack. And it looks remarkable. I’ve seen 2001 in virtually every possible format over the years, from a taped-from-a-UHF-channel VHS copy to a newly struck 70mm print owned by Chicago’s Music Box Theater, one of the few American venues equipped to show 70mm film year-round. 2001 has, in recent years, been the centerpiece of the Music Box’s annual 70mm festival, and I thought the theater’s print would be the ne plus ultra viewing experience for one of my all-time favorite films. I thought wrong.
This could just be recency bias, but seeing the unrestored reissue at the Music Box surpassed any previous experience I’ve had watching the film. Outer space looked blacker, the colors appeared richer, and the assault of special effects that greet astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) as he’s transported “beyond the infinite” felt more vivid than I’d ever experienced before. Maybe it was the appreciative audience. I heard audible gasps when the unfortunate Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) met his fate. Had they never seen the film? Or were HAL’s choices just connecting like they never had before?
It’s unlikely that Nolan has any hidden motives behind shepherding this version of 2001 to theaters, but it’s hard to miss how well it fits an agenda he’s been pushing for a while, a vision of a cinematic future that doesn’t abandon its analog roots. “What I find,” Nolan tells Reeves in Side By Side, “is that the manipulations that the digital media allow you to do, they are seductive, but ultimately they’re a little bit hollow… I remember the summer when Chips Ahoy came out with these chocolate chip cookies that were like they just came out of the oven. They were soft, and [we thought], ‘Oh, this is amazing. It’s a soft cookie.’ And then after a couple of months, you’re like, ‘Oh no, this is like some horrible chemical crap.’”
Those harsh words put him at an extreme end of the analog / digital divide. For the past few years, Filmmaker magazine has kept tabs on how many features are shot on 35mm. In 2015, it logged 54 films. By 2017, that number had dropped to 31. But Nolan’s entrenched position puts him in good company. Other 2017 films shot primarily on film include Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
It’s not like Nolan is a Luddite. Like many of the directors above, he makes extensive use of digital effects. There might have been a practical way to make Paris fold in on itself in Inception, but CGI makes it easier to pull off many visual effects convincingly. Compared to the work Kubrick and his team had to perform to achieve their effects back in 1968 — efforts chronicled in Michael Benson’s excellent recent book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, And The Making of a Masterpiece — Nolan looks like the Wachowskis merging live action and animation in the neon world of Speed Racer.
But Nolan builds on an analog base and shapes his films like products of the analog era, blending CGI with practical effects and avoiding the confusing every-option-at-once cutting style that’s become more common with the introduction of digital editing. Part of the wonder of 2001 comes from the way Kubrick gives viewers time to luxuriate in the images he creates, from a space station spinning in a cosmic waltz to a lunar lander coming in for a slow approach to an astronaut emotionlessly sunbathing while watching a pre-recorded birthday message from parents halfway across the solar system.
Like Kubrick, Nolan has challenged viewers with new modes of storytelling, while still working with major studios and aiming his work at wide, general audiences. Though Nolan has yet to return to the extreme narrative trickery of his breakthrough film, Memento, his other work similarly expects audiences to find a film’s wavelength and stay tuned into it. Dunkirk’s ambitious three-timelines editing scheme, to choose one example, wouldn’t work if he didn’t trust viewers to follow what he was doing and give them time to figure it out.
The re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t just an occasion to revisit a classic. It’s a chance to contemplate how far filmmakers can push mainstream audiences out of their comfort zones. And on a technological and visual level, it’s an opportunity to reconsider how much analog cinema can still accomplish before the industry lets the film format go entirely. Kubrick’s film is a marvel from the past, and when it’s seen again in a form untouched by digital technology, it still seems like an ideal demo reel for filmmakers, a standard that anyone who wants to make movies should aspire to reach. Or, in Nolan’s words (again from Side By Side): “A transition starts with people offering a new choice, but it finishes with taking the old choice away.” 2001 doubles as a reminder that cinephiles aren’t yet at the point where we should give up that old choice — and maybe we never will be.