Soderbergh’s 2001

26 Jan
January 26, 2015

The biggest film-nerd thrill of this young year came and went in a week. Steven Soderbergh’s unauthorized edit of 2001—shortening it by about 40 minutes, and making several other substantial changes—was posted on his site on January 14 and gone by sometime on the 21st.

“The exercise amounts almost to a new genre: something in between filmmaking and film criticism,” said Stephen Marche, at Esquire, but as much as cinephiles might rush to embrace this budding quasi-genre, its legal status is clearly even more tenuous than its classification niche. If you didn’t download it while it was up, you’ll need to snoop for it in the darker corners of the net, or beg a copy from someone who was faster on the draw with the download.

So it is gone, -ish, but will it be forgotten? If I had to guess I would say that cinephiles will be passing it around and organizing shadow screenings for years to come. Because the Soderbergh edit is not a mere curiosity—it is a bloody brilliant creation on its own terms.

I’m sure that he did not attempt it without some trepidation. “Not only does the film not need my—or anyone else’s—help,” he wrote in the article accompanying his video posting, “but if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” But, he says, “it’s technology’s fault” that he was able to both to spend enough time with the film to begin to consider how it could be restructured, and also that he was able to do that restructuring.

He has cut out roughly half an hour of the film—just about all of those cuts coming before the original intermission point of the film. He has also binned the end titles, so all told about 40 minutes of the original have been dropped.

The Dawn of Man sequence has been trimmed—most notably the first attack of the rival primates has been deleted. All of Heywood Floyd’s meetings and conversations on the space station have been deleted (leaving just the brief moment where he identifies himself to the station security computer), as well just about all of the press conference on the moon.  Gone too is most of the conversation on the shuttle to the monolith dig-out at the moon crater, raising the sense of drama and revelation in the encounter sequence.

When we join the Discovery in deep space after only 32 minutes, 23 minutes faster than the classic cut, the ship’s mission is even more vaguely understood than in the original, though the recorded explanation by Floyd still kicks in after the deactivation of HAL 9000.

There is some more trimming in the mission scenes, but again most of the cuts are to inter-human dialogue scenes, especially the private pod conversation between astronauts Dave and Frank, which Hal memorably lipreads.

Soderbergh further adds to the newfound velocity of the opening acts by changing a couple of music cues, moving Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” forward from the moon-shuttle sequence to add a sense of foreboding to the early moments of the Dawn of Man sequence. The later scene on the moon now features another Ligeti piece, “Harmonies Aus Zwei Etueden Fuer Die Orgel”—a louder, more insistent number not originally heard in the film.

The other change to the film’s sound is the addition of a reverb/echo that has been added to Hal’s voice and other sounds coming from the ship’s communications panels. This somewhat distracting alteration (perhaps the only one that doesn’t quite work for me) is one on the ways in which Soderbergh pushes the otherness and strangeness of artificial intelligence into the foreground.

Hal was always one of the greatest novelties of the film, of course, but it seems to me that, more than narrative pace and focus, Soderbergh is interested in a reconsideration of Hal and, more broadly, the evolving relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity.

He signals this interest at the outset by retaining but refashioning the 3-minute overture. In the film’s original release this was simply Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” playing behind a black/blank screen. In later theatre screenings this would have been ditched but it reappeared, eventually, in home video releases of the film. Rather than dropping it, Soderbergh has elected to transform it into an arty flash-forward by intermittently splicing in first the eye of Hal and then the solarized Dave Bowman eye from the through-the-monolith sequence. This nicely sets up the leitmotif of the spliced-in Hal eye that he edits in intermittently through the film, using it both as an editorial stitch and a visual thematic reference point.

Soderbergh’s cut of 2001 can be seen as analogous to his 2002 remake (re-adaptation?) of Solaris. Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the 1961 Stanisław Lem novel was a heavy-duty, 166 minute affair, and its length was not solely due to the Russian director’s meticulous and meditative (yes, slow-paced) style. It was carrying a second payload, so to speak, in addition to Lem’s theme of the limits of human understanding, and that was Tarkovsky’s bleak-ish Christian existentialism. Soderbergh’s film, some 67 minutes shorter, jettisons the added layer of theology and delivers a focused and efficient rendering of the novel’s philosophical and narrative core.

Kubrick’s 2001, in addition to its philosophical probing of human identity, and our place in the universe, has a parallel mission as well, and that its construction of an imagined human future. This was always Kubrick’s explicit, stated, intention—to do the “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie,” one that would not only probe the implications for humanity of the existence of a greater, alien intelligence, but which would also convincingly depict a future world of commercial space travel and lunar landings and outposts.

I really do get why this cut might feel to many devotees like a ruthless chopping at the film’s essence. But let’s be honest. Those painting-the-future scenes don’t do what they used to do. To state the obvious, we no longer think of 2001‘s future as our future. The imaginary 2001 and the actual 2001 are both in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the red Olivier Mourgue Djinn chairs. I love the zero-G toilet instructions. And so on. (This article about the hit-and-miss nature of Kubrick’s future predictions is itself a hit-and-miss affair, but is a useful list for review.) All that stuff is adorable, and no one is advocating that we burn or abandon the classic cut of the film. These are the scenes that divert and amuse. But they no longer amaze.

Let’s also stipulate, right now, that the dialogue in the film is mostly terrible. It’s long been argued that that’s part of the point of the film, that it’s a deliberate irony that the humans are less interesting than the computer. Fine. But there’s still the fact that they are not interesting, at least in conversation. Have I crossed the line into film blasphemy yet?

You could, of course, advance the argument that these world-building scenes have a role to play in pacing. That the airlock sequence with its building, spring-loaded drama and tension wouldn’t seem as dramatic without the slower passages of the film building up to it. Ok, again I can see how someone might experience the film that way. All I can say is, I just watched the Soderbergh cut, and that scene did what it always does—absorbed 100% of my attention, for the hundredth time.

If you can agree with this school of thought at least partly/grudgingly, maybe you can sense why it’s a tempting prospect to think about cutting away the stuff that no longer grips our imagination, to try to unearth an essence that still grips with contemporary-feeling directness, nearly 50 years on.

Of course, cutting the film on a Philistine “cool”/”not cool” basis is bound to feel more like a mutilation than a refinement. The enduring power of the film is such that there has been a recent spate of attempts to distill the film as a contemporary-feeling trailer, with results ranging from this risible fan-boy attempt, to the rather more sleek and refined BFI 2014 UK re-release promo.

“IF i was finally going to touch it, i’d better have a bigger idea than just trimming or re-scoring,” wrote Soderbergh.

What he has managed to do, especially by inserting Hal’s impassive, iconic eye in scenes where it formerly wasn’t, and isn’t directly part of the action, is a gesture of defamiliarization—making us look afresh at this disembodied character who has become part of our mental furniture.

I think of the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“—the way that the eye of the blackbird is a portal to an other intelligence that the poet cannot know. I think of the ways in which Terrence Malick has often used sudden, interjected images of animals to create a similar effect in cinematic terms, perhaps most memorably in The Thin Red Line.

Artificial intelligence beyond the human was a theme already foregrounded in Kubrick’s cut of the film. The idea that such artificial intelligence could be in competition with, or at least an alternative to, the next stage of human evolution, was always a latent possibility raised by the film. What Soderbergh’s cut does is to make this latent possibility freshly manifest.

There is a sublimity inherent in the attempt to comprehend the meaning of a nonhuman entity such as Hal perceiving the world that we do, while cognizing it differently. Soderbergh’s edit is an argument, delivered with digital tools, that what is lasting about 2001 is the way it opens up the big questions about humanity’s essence, and our place in the universe.

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1 reply
  1. Graham says:

    James, there’s a lot in here to consider; way more than I was remotely thinking about. I share your enthusiasm for Soderbergh’s version. Thanks for articulating some really interesting perspectives. I need way more footnotes to follow up on! 🙂

    Reply

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