Brow Beat

Does Christopher Nolan’s “Unrestored” 2001 Do Right by Kubrick?

Nolan’s pro-celluloid agenda doesn’t serve the notorious perfectionist well.

A collage featuring Christopher Nolan at Cannes and a still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Christopher Nolan and 2001. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Resistance is futile: Christopher Nolan is now officially Warner Bros.’ anointed successor to Stanley Kubrick. But would Kubrick agree?

This past weekend at the Cannes Film Festival, the Dark Knight auteur joined the venerable Hollywood studio—plus Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, as well as her brother, longtime Kubrick producer Jan Harlan—in a sly bit of brand cross-promotion. Nolan the photochemical proselytizer honors the obsessively exacting auteur by presenting a new 70 mm print of his crowning achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Except it’s not really that new, since the marketing department is touting it as an “unrestored” version. And starting Friday, the film will get a 50th anniversary release in select, properly equipped theaters that can handle this defiantly digital-free, analog-only experience.

“Unrestored” means time-weathered celluloid, warts and all. Within the first five minutes following the iconic opening credit sequence, once Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” finishes thundering in your chest from the amped-up soundtrack (which at times sounds troublingly distorted), minor scratches and dust start to crackle and pop on the image while a jagged tear in the emulsion dances quickly across the left-hand side of the screen. Changeover cues, those pesky cigarette-burn rings in the upper right corner that aid projectionists with manually switching from one reel to the next, appear with timepiece regularity. The 70 mm film resolution is crisp, though, and for most of its 164-minute running time it stays that way. But the occasional imperfections are undeniable.

“The first time I saw 2001 was when I was 7 years old,” said Nolan during a 90-minute master class the day before the screening. “I had this extraordinary experience that I’ve carried with me ever since of just being transported in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible.” Fair enough. But can you really credit celluloid for that experience? Kubrick might point out that his protean abilities as a filmmaker and storyteller probably left more of an impression on the future director of Memento and Inception than did the fine-grain advantages of 70 mm.

Also, the film’s formerly state-of-the-art special effects, practical and analog and nondigital though they may be, were created half a century ago. Some of them are still breathtaking, yes. But others are just dated. The monkeys in the opening “Dawn of Man” segment still look like guys jumping around in monkey suits. You can’t change those costumes, but if 21st-century techniques can stabilize, enhance, and clean up the image itself, it seems perverse not to.

Kubrick might have been touched by Nolan’s meticulous preservation of celluloid’s quirky shortcomings. Then again, in an age of 8K digital image scanning and near-magical restoration techniques, the wonkishly technophile director might also have shaken his head at the misguided devotion to a 19th-century format. His film is called 2001, right? Isn’t the whole premise of the movie to track humanity’s developmental leaps from ape to man to star child? There’s a dark irony to curtailing advanced technology for a movie that’s about nothing but.

From Nolan’s point of view, though, the whole “unrestored” hoopla furthers his pro-celluloid agenda. And that’s not necessarily bad, but it is dangerously dogmatic. “There has to be a photochemical backbone for management and updating and storage of all photochemical film assets,” Nolan said. “We need that as an industry, we need it for the history of film, and we need that for the future of film, because film is the only stable archival medium that exists.” Absolutely true. And yet …

In Nolan’s view, there seems to be no room for digital intervention in film restoration. “In the world of restoration and archiving,” he said, “it’s increasingly important to dismantle some of the thinking that emerged over the last couple of decades, which is if archives digitize their materials, that would then replace the photochemical originals, which no archivist really believes. But for years they could really only get funding to digitize their archives.”

When I later shared Nolan’s concerns with a prominent curator attending Cannes, he violently disagreed. “Nolan is wrong,” he told me. Digital assistance has helped film restoration immeasurably, not only preserving classics but also allowing lost films to be rescued and rediscovered. And no responsible archivist would ever replace a photochemical original with a digital copy. Supplement, yes, but never replace.

“With analog color you have an infinite number of color gradations as opposed to digital, which is very limited in that regard,” said Nolan. That argument was definitely true 20 years ago, and probably still so 10 years ago. But progress in computational power is narrowing the analog-digital gap with every passing day.

Nolan’s indefatigable (and seemingly intractable) loyalty to the film medium is laudatory. But his almost fetishistic reverence for this “unrestored” approach to 2001 could backfire. Casual movie fans might see it and shrug—or, worse, savor the superficial imperfections with an almost taxidermic fascination and let them distract from the truly awe-inspiring cinematic narrative itself.

It would be a shame for Nolan’s devotion to form to supersede his passionately created content. “In Dunkirk, we also have digital versions I was very proud of which we worked very hard on,” he said about the film he shot almost entirely with analog Imax cameras. So are those digital versions inherently inferior? And are you a chump if you see it that way?

Nolan offered a revealing insight during the master class when he talked about being an English lit major in college. He knows that once he creates something, it’s out of his control. “I struggled greatly with the idea that if somebody hasn’t consciously placed something into a work, that interpretation must be invalid,” he said. “And studying English literature and talking a lot about it, I started to become more at ease with the idea that storytellers grasp evocative symbols and resonant imagery that readers, or in the case of film, filmgoers, can pick up on and interpret in their own way. And that was something, in retrospect, I very much needed to get on board with.”

It seems like he might also be struggling with the idea that other people are going to see his movies in their own way and interpret them accordingly, whether it’s in an Imax theater or on an iPhone. He may not trust that, but he has to live with it. “I started off in the film noir genre,” he said. “And that’s a genre in which you define character through action. People can talk about who they are and what motivates them, but you don’t trust them. In various ways all the films I’ve done have relied on that film noir dynamic, whether it’s science fiction with Interstellar or Inception, or action films like the Dark Knight trilogy.”

Nolan also candidly dovetailed his love of film noir with why he likes collaborating with people like his filmmaker brother, Jonathan, as well as his longtime producer and wife, Emma Thomas. “I suppose it’s logical that I’m somebody who’s concerned with having people around that I can trust to help me,” he said. “Clearly I’m someone who’s terribly fearful of betrayal, and that speaks into the work. Film noir draws, at base level, very specifically on an exaggeration and an extrapolation of our own fears, and our own wishes, and our own desires.”

That remark makes Nolan truly sound like a worthy disciple of Kubrick, a man who also started his career in film noir and never truly let go of its underpinnings. (Kubrick’s first feature, a war film he famously disdained, was even called Fear and Desire.) If Nolan embraces anything about Kubrick, it shouldn’t be a slavish devotion to the photochemical process. It should be this instinct for exploring how people can lie to each other and how humanity can lie to itself. Because if Nolan doesn’t, it really would be an act of betrayal.