Friday, June 2, 2017

The Once Over Twice: 2010

(1984) Written and directed by Peter Hyams; Based on the novel 2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke; Starring: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Hellen Mirren, Keir Dullea, Bob Balaban and Douglas Rain; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“People ask me what the monolith means, and I have a simple answer – I say see the film, read the book, and repeat the dose as often as necessary.” – Arthur C. Clarke (from 1984 featurette 2010: The Odyssey Continues)

“It’s about something that not only could happen, it’s about something that we’d love to actually happen, because it’s so hopeful, and I don’t think there’s something more primal, at least to me, than the fascination with making contact.” – Peter Hyams (ibid)

Call it one of the greatest acts of hubris in film history, a fool’s errand, or MGM trying to make a quick buck, but creating a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was bound to invite scorn and derision. The original film represented a landmark in science fiction storytelling, with a story spanning the breadth of human history, and special effects that were unprecedented in detail and scope. Writer/director Peter Hyams (working from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke) boldly accepted the challenge of following up one of cinema’s greatest achievements* with a continuation of the story. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that 2010 (aka: 2010: The Year We Make Contact) would have taken a different approach than its predecessor. What was surprising was how well it complemented Kubrick’s original.

* Yes, I understand not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for Kubrick’s film, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. To each, his or her own, however. I’m not judging…much.

As we can glean from the title, the story picks up nine years later, after the failed U.S. mission to Jupiter, which resulted in the loss of the spaceship Discovery and its crew. Analysis of the data has yielded few clues, only questions. One of the primary scientists responsible for the mission, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider, replacing William Sylvester from the original film), is invited to tag along with the Russians on a new mission to find out what went wrong. Due to escalating tensions between the two superpowers, it’s not an easy sell for either government to permit the joint endeavor, but they relent in the interest of shared intelligence. Thus, the combined crew set out in the Soviet spacecraft Alexey Leonov to rendezvous with the Discovery, which has been orbiting the volcanic moon Io.

* Fun fact: Watch for an Arthur C. Clarke cameo in an early scene, seated at a park bench in front of the White House, feeding pigeons. He appears later on a Time magazine cover along with Stanley Kubrick.

2001 reflected Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, setting the bar to nearly impossible heights for anyone following in his footsteps. 2010 doesn’t disappoint, however boasting impressive visuals that hold their own against the effects in the previous film. Because Kubrick ordered the sets, drawings and models destroyed after shooting 2001, 2010’s crew had to re-create the Discovery model and interiors, based solely on film frames from the original. Considering this handicap, they did a remarkable job of staying true to the original designs. Richard Edlund’s visual effects hold up quite well, evoking some stunning imagery that could give today’s digital effects artists a run for their money. Syd Mead described his interior and exterior designs for the Alexey Leonov as “functional,” created not for aesthetics, but to get the job done (“…minimal cost for maximum utilitarian value.”).

Fortunately, 2010 is more than just sound and fury, featuring some excellent performances by a very capable cast. Scheider brings a down-to-earth believability to his character, Dr. Floyd. There’s a nice little moment between Floyd and one of the cosmonauts, Irina Yakunina (Natasha Shneider), as the Alexey Leonov performs a tense and hazardous air braking maneuver in Jupiter’s atmosphere. They cuddle together to share a platonic moment – two humans against the harsh, indifferent void of space.

In an essential nod to the first film, Douglas Rain returns as the voice of HAL 9000, and Keir Dullea (looking like he never aged a day since 2001) reprises his role as David Bowman. John Lithgow is also terrific as Dr. Walter Curnow, an engineer who’s more comfortable behind a desk than floating in space. His terror is palpable as he drifts between two spacecraft, an ocean of nothing surrounding him. Helen Mirren also shines as the no-nonsense Russian commander, Tanya Kirbuk. The only questionable casting choice is Bob Balaban as Dr. Chandra – a role that was obviously created for someone of Indian descent. To his credit, Balaban, a talented actor in his own right, does a fine job as Dr. Chandra, who shares a strange bond with HAL.

Although the Cold War politics in the film are dated, the basic conceits remain intact. The pervasive “us” versus “them” mentality depicted in 2010 never goes out of style, regardless of which countries occupy the roles. As their representative nations are poised for potential war, the Americans and Russians come to terms with the fact that the only way they’ll get out of this alive is to cooperate.

For those viewers who are still struggling with the cognitive dissonance of a sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece, it might be best to regard the two films as separate entities, functioning in the same universe. Boiled down to its essence, 2001 is a big budget art film, designed to ruminate on the existential. 2010 is a completely different beast. The universe was already established in the first film, so there was no need for a reintroduction. Hyams doesn’t try to copy Kubrick’s contemplative style, which would have been a disastrous misstep. Instead, he approaches the material as a straightforward space adventure story. At the time of the film’s release one reviewer accused the film of trying to explain away everything, but many of the mysteries remain intact. There’s a cursory explanation about the cause for HAL’s malfunction, yet we’re never sure about the computer’s motives, or how it will react to Discovery’s new mission. We still don’t understand the nature of the enigmatic monoliths, or exactly what their function is. We’re also left to speculate the unseen alien race that created it the monoliths. There’s still plenty left to speculate and debate.  

2010 represents the best aspects of science fiction cinema, sparking our sense of wonder, while satisfying our spirit of exploration and adventure (albeit without the requisite ray guns and space battles). At its core, it’s a hopeful film. As David Bowman states, “something wonderful” will happen – that is, if we can manage to put our differences aside long enough to stay alive. 2010 never received its due during its initial run, but it’s well worth re-examining on its own formidable merits. Go ahead, say it with me: Hyams wasn’t trying to copy Kubrick. 2010 stands together and apart from 2001. Both films can co-exist in the same universe.


  1. Good review, Barry!
    I saw 2010 years before I saw 2001, and thankfully I enjoy them both!
    Plus the novels are rather great, too! Even 2061 & 3001!

    1. Thanks John! It's been many years since I read the books, but I enjoyed the different iterations. It's a pity the latter books were never made into movies. I guess no one wanted to take a chance.

  2. I liked that Hyams didn't copy Kubrick. This was a good feature that tried to answer the questions put forth in 2001. Good pick

    1. Thanks, Vern! I think it did a good balancing act of solving some mysteries while keeping others intact. Hyams doesn't get enough credit for the work he did here.