The Screening Room | Virginia's '2001' screenings offer a film-going odyssey

The Screening Room | Virginia's '2001' screenings offer a film-going odyssey

One of the few modern filmmakers to champion and still use 70 mm film, director Christopher Nolan kept this format alive last year with "Dunkirk," his sprawling tribute to the civilian effort that sprang up to rescue thousands of soldiers stranded on the shores of France.

As soon as he was done making this epic, Nolan began working on the restoration of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," a movie that remains influential even today and is arguably the greatest film to use the 70 mm format.

A special run of 70 mm screenings of "2001" will take place this week at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign. The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with matinees at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. ($8 tickets are available at the Virginia box office, online at or via charge by phone at 217-356-9063).

While the 70mm format remains the same in the projection booth, not every theater's screen is built the same. The only other theater in Illinois showing "2001" in this format is Chicago's Music Box Theater, which has been specially outfitted with a 37-foot-wide temporary screen for the engagement. By contrast, the Virginia will show Kubrik's masterpiece on its 56-foot wide screen -- a truly spectacular and immersive experience that will provide viewers with an opportunity to see the film as it was meant to be seen. (Note: Some Illinois theaters will show "2001" in IMAX theaters, which offers a more square-like image rather than the rectangular, true 70 mm experience that the Virginia will provide.)

It's no surprise that Nolan would be involved in this extensive restoration, as he's said seeing the film was "one of the greatest and most radical cinematic experiences of all time," a sentiment shared by many. Working closely with archivists at Warner Bros., he made sure the new prints were struck from the original camera negative, with no digital tricks, re-mastered effects or revisionist edits added. That means what will be seen on screen is Kubrick's vision from beginning to end looking brighter and crisper than it has in years.

The obvious advantage of shooting with 70 mm film is that it's twice the width of the industry-standard 35 mm, giving the director a much larger canvas to work with. How the filmmaker uses this space is the key, and while the first instinct may be to fill it with detail, some of "2001's" most striking moments occur when Kubrick allows the blackness of space to dominate the frame. Seeing the void that surrounds the characters and spaceships underscores their sense of isolation and emphasizes the terror of being lost and set adrift, something that's lost when watching the movie on television or a standard screen.

Other things you will likely notice on the big screen that you may have missed before are the minute details Kubrick included. For instance, during the sequence where a spaceship docks at Clavius Base, there are people within the various windowed areas working or walking around. In addition, you'll see video monitors in these spots that change throughout this scene. Other small details emerge not simply because of the size of the 70 mm image but also due to the fact that, unlike modern directors, Kubrick's camera often lingers on images, allowing us to drink in every nook and cranny of the frame.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the moments of spectacle and grandeur that have made the film a visual touchstone. A sense of the enormous size of the interior of the spaceship "Discovery" is realized when seen on a big screen, making the scene in which astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) jogs around the craft's centrifuge that much more impressive. The various appearances of the mysterious black monoliths throughout the film become more ominous as Kubrick's low-angle shot have them looming over the audience. Moments like this abound in the movie, the impact of which can never truly be felt on a home screen.

Of course, the journey through the Stargate beyond Jupiter MUST be experienced in a theater. The screen becomes awash with a myriad of colors and shapes that wash over the viewer before turning into a tunnel that astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) must pass through before reaching his final destination. It's during this sequence that the film becomes an immersive experience, the ever-changing lights and images threatening to pull the viewer in at any moment. Most shocking are the still frames that show Bowman's face frozen in terror at this experience, his horror writ large on this extra-large canvas.

This sequence saved the film from financial ruin during its initial release. MGM was ready to pull its underperforming production from release but were told by numerous theater managers that they had noticed many young viewers coming repeatedly to see the movie, lying on the floor at the front of the theater during the Stargate sequence. The story goes that they would drop acid or take some form of hallucinogen before doing so in order to make Kubrick's cinematic kaleidoscope a special happening. (It was no accident that during the film's initial re-release, its poster touted it as "The Ultimate Trip.")

And while much is made of the visual aspect of these screenings, the sound quality cannot be overlooked. No matter how good your home video/audio system may be, there's no replicating the feeling of hearing "Also Sprach Zarathustra" thunder through the theater in six-track Dolby or becoming overwhelmed by the sharp, jarring notes that underscore the Stargate sequence. Be prepared for chills to run up and down your spine.

Utilizing cutting-edge technology to showcase a classic format, these very special screenings at the Virginia will provide viewers with a one-of-a-kind film-going experience that will provide a deeper appreciation of this seminal classic. For first-time viewers or those ready to dive once more into Kubrick's masterpiece, this is a special occasion that should not be missed.

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Topics (2):Film, Theater