Major cinema chains are pulling out all the stops these days to make a trip to the flicks a total experience, as we discovered at a recent 50th Anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick’s artfully immense SF tentpole, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY…
Empire Cinemas in a sleepy Suffolk township is this writer’s destination for what turns out to be a truly local presentation of "the proverbial really good science fiction movie" as Kubrick called it. Excitement is certainly running high. Upon arrival, the foyer hums with anticipation as seasoned geeks, some wearing HAL 9000 T-shirts, listen approvingly to a member of staff who informs us that, yes, the film will have a 10-minute intermission just like in 1968. What she doesn’t tell us is that at tonight’s screening we, each in our own way, will not so much view this landmark science fiction classic as become part of it.
The added-value shenanigans are upon us before the film even starts. Unlike a regular screening, the ‘trailer lights’ in the cinema remain on throughout the introductory atmosphere montage, the title sequence and into the film itself. As you probably know (come on, it’s 2001: A Bloody Space Odyssey!), this first sequence shows the arrival on ancient Earth of a mysterious, featureless dark monolith and the strange enlightenment it brings to a group of confused, hairy hominids. As this all unfolds, in a brilliant stroke of manipulation on the part of Empire Cinemas, we the audience find ourselves experiencing a similar level of confusion and denial - are we really paying to watch one of the greatest movies ever made with the lights up, thereby utterly killing the unique atmosphere Kubrick worked so hard to create? My God, I think we are.
An uncanny emotional synchronicity with events on-screen grows deeper as I find myself sharing a powerful empathy with Moonwatcher, the star ape-man (played brilliantly by mime artist Daniel Richter) as he senses the first stirrings of murderous violence in his monkey soul. Suddenly, we are one: he rising and going rogue from his placid group to seek the bone-head tool he will use to hunt warm flesh for the first time in human evolution; me rising from my seat (one of those nice sofas, actually) and leaving my placid group to seek out the bonehead tool who left the bloody lights up and get them switched off for the first time all evening. We are brothers across the eons, Moonwatcher and I.
I find a person, who patiently explains that the system is completely automated. It takes her an age to find the (presumably fairly dusty) manual light switch. As I return to my seat and await darkness, another moment of sublime stagecraft occurs as two other staff appear at the entrance and stare at us blankly, then stare up at the lights shining down on us; then back at us again. This goes on for some time. We all blink at our visitors. A giant philosophical question mark hangs between us.
...and lights out.
The next section of the film involves Dr Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) jaunting off to the moon to get his picture taken with another monolith in the year 2001. On the way, he stops off at a space station for a spot of nervy chitchat with Rigsby out of Rising Damp. It’s the boring bit, really. But Empire Cinemas (the chuckling tricksters!) have anticipated this lull and have another ace up their velvety sleeve. Just as Rigsby gently probes an evasive Floyd as to why Clavius base has been sealed off, the sound volume in the cinema eerily drops lower… and lower… so that as Rigby is straining to make sense of Floyd’s cagey answers, we are straining to hear him too. Brilliant stuff, and at no extra cost to the price of admission, remember. You don’t get this at Secret Cinema.
Another artfully orchestrated moment of roleplay for me soon follows. In the very next scene, as Floyd is alone on the moon shuttle trying to make sense of the instructions on the door of the anti-gravity toilet, I find myself alone in the foyer (again) trying to make sense of the volume issue with another member of staff who explains it’s all automated (again) while regarding me like I’ve just shat on the ceiling of her moon shuttle. The thing is, that might not be a bad idea.
Discovery mission - the cool stuff! And how beautiful is that model? Even after 50 years, 2001 cannot be touched for meticulous space miniatures that simply demand to be seen on the big screen. And HAL 9000 is such a welcome B-plot, offsetting Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood’s brilliantly all-talked-out astronauts. He’s paranoid as hell, of course, especially when he starts lip-reading the two men as they discuss switching him off. This leads straight into the fabled 10-minute intermission. It’s a good place to pause, buy some hot cheesy nachos and calm down a bit. 2001 is gripping enough without the rollercoaster ride Empire is laying on! What else lies in store?
The answer comes at the re-start with the night’s greatest bit of showmanship - total audience paranoia! Remember at the beginning when the lights were left on? Guess what - it happens again! Trailer lights still up, geeks sitting there like prunes, squinting at the bleached ‘darkness’ of outer space, some of them looking back at me expectantly because, well, I’m the guy who keeps storming out and seems to get results. And so it proves: for the third time, I feel myself rise like a lone wolf and depart this place, just as HAL 9000 does something terrible to Frank Poole, the rotter.
Through the empty corridors of Empire Cinemas, I stalk like Jack Torrance, in search of someone - anyone - to turn the lights out (again). Up ahead, I hear the chink of keys. I turn a corner and encounter a lady (not one I’ve met before) with a large bunch of janglers, waiting to lock up as soon as 2001 ends. "The lights are on again in Screen 4", I calmly inform her, struggling to quell the churning madness within. "Oh...is that a problem?" she honestly replies. You know what? I’m not sure it is anymore.
The rest of the movie is a blur. My mind is jelly. As Dave Bowman shudders and sweats his way through the lobotomisation of HAL 9000, I am a quivering shell, driven to the brink of insanity by an automated system that controls everything on this ship - sorry, cinema - and is playing me like a chump. As Bowman speeds ‘beyond the infinite’ then transcends his mortal form to become a great big baby thing, I too am transmogrified in ways I may never fully understand. As the credits roll, I reel away to bed, The Blue Danube taunting me to a troubled sleep.
But what an experience. Be as cynical as you want about D-BOX, 4DX and all the other ‘immersive’ over-priced gimmicks the big cinema chains are touting nowadays, but Empire Cinemas are doing something a bit different. I look forward to future ‘experiences’ and can only wonder what they might have in store for The Shining or Full Metal Jacket. Or perhaps A Clockwork Orange - Kubrick really saw the multiplex coming there. Picture it: hundreds of paying customers sat in front of the silver screen with needles jamming their eyelids open… screaming.