Some Random Thoughts on 2001

I really enjoyed Richard’s post about 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and it got me to thinking about one of my favorite movies.  (It also is a movie that you really haven’t seen unless you’ve seen it on a big screen.)   I think it could be reasonably argued that 2001 is one of the most influential movies of the last 50 years, for at least two reasons.

First, 2001 ushered in the golden age of movie special effects.  Before 2001, movie special effects were little used and were pretty much confined to Ray Harryhausen pictures or stop-motion effects.  2001 was a quantum leap ahead.  Whether it was the classic space station docking scene, or the weightless pen grabbed by the stewardess on the space shuttle, or the astronauts jogging in a seemingly endless and weightless circle, or the giant fetus floating in Jupiter orbit, the special effects on the movie just blew people away.  2001 seemed to destroy all of the barriers and preconceived notions about what could be depicted, visually, on the big screen.  Thereafter, special effects became hugely important parts of movies — some might argue too important.  In any case, films like The Matrix, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Jaws, and countless others owe a great debt of gratitude to 2001.

Second, 2001 seemed to be one of the first movies to fully integrate music and on-screen action.  If you watch movies from the ’50s and before — at least, movies that weren’t musicals — the soundtracks typically are muted, background music, where strings might play in a particularly sappy scene.  In the late ’60s, however, soundtracks began to assume a more prominent role.  In 2001, the soundtrack music really played a crucial role.  Everyone remembers The Blue Danube Waltz and the space station docking scene because it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.  But the scene where the apes discover that a bone can be used as a weapon as Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a crescendo, or the creepy “eeeeeeeeeeee” music that is heard during some of the suspenseful scenes, or the sad music that plays as the space ship takes its lonely voyage to Jupiter, are equally stunning and effective uses of music.  Now, the use of music to specifically convey messages and advance storylines is so commonplace that it has invaded TV as well as cinema.  On House, for instance, it is not unusual for the final scene to involve no dialogue, but only a carefully chosen song that plays as the show cuts from character to character as they deal with the events of the preceding hour.

2001 is a masterpiece, and it shows that Stanley Kubrick was a genius.

The Rules for Revising Movies

In 1997, when George Lucas re-released heavily modified versions of the original Star Wars films, fans reacted as if he had airbrushed a blemish off the face of the Mona Lisa. Even before Jar-Jar Binks, the re-releases gave Lucas a reputation for caring more about making money than preserving the legacy of his films.

The most offensive of Lucas’ changes occurs during the showdown between Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo. In the original film, Han shoots Greedo under the table while they’re chatting away. This was not only an amusing comeuppance for the despicable insectoid Greedo, but a good set-up for Solo’s character, a hardened drifter who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

For the 1997 rerelease, Lucas changed the scene so that Greedo shot before Solo but missed. According to Wikipedia, Lucas did this because “he wanted to make clear to children that Han had no choice but to shoot Greedo.” Basically, he was worried that the scene made Solo appear cold-hearted – which was the entire point of the original scene.

This is an unforgiveable transformation of Solo’s character – if he existed, Han would probably zap off one of Lucas’ thumbs for making the change, and then steal his fortune and gamble it away.

Yet for many movies, the re-release is considered by fans to be the “true” version. This is the case for Blade Runner. When the film was originally released in 1982, the studio forced director Ridley Scott to put in a voice-over because they worried that the audience wouldn’t understand the film. Scott removed the odious voice-over for the 2007 “Final Cut” edition, the first cut he had complete control over. I’m confident that most fans and critics would call this the “official” version of the film.

Why is George Lucas evil when he redoes the Star Wars movies, while Ridley Scott is a hero for changing Blade Runner? Because Lucas didn’t follow the golden rule for changing movies:

The only good reason for changing a movie is to bring it closer to the original artistic vision.

If a studio interferes with a director’s control of a movie, the director gets a pass to fix the movie by reediting it. Somehow, I don’t think this was George Lucas’ reason for changing the Greedo scene; he was either trying to impose a middle-aged sensibility on a movie he made in his early 30s, or a ’90s blockbuster sensibility on a ’70s film. The George Lucas of 1977 would be appalled to see Greedo shoot first.

That’s one of the most tragic things about directors modifying old movies – they interfere with the energy the movie received from the era it was made in. Part of Star Wars’ charm comes from the shaggy haircuts, the somewhat grainy film and the earnest but dated special effects. I’m sure that, like most films, Star Wars also contains some of the zeitgeist of its time, but I don’t have the time to examine it like that now.

So even the small changes Lucas made in 1997, like adding new extras to the scenes in Mos Eisley to make it seem more crowded, or cleaning up the special effects with computers, hurt the film’s feel, which leads me to the second and last rule:

No new footage can be filmed or special effects added.

Fortunately, the trend seems to be moving away from George Lucas-style revisions. I can’t remember any after 2002, when Steven Spielberg changed the police officers’ guns to walkie-talkies in the re-release of E.T. Maybe South Park’s vicious parody of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s practices had something to do with that. I hope we will continue to see edits of classic movies like Blade Runner that needed only meet the approval of the director – the way movies should be in the first place.