Watching 2010 in 2011

Closing out 2010, I took another look at the film, “2010: The Year We Make Contact.” Once I came to understand Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a space odyssey” — or, at least, my understanding of it — the notion of a sequel seemed foolhardy at best. For a time, I looked at it as a group of people trying to come to terms with the trippy other-worldliness of the original film.

Looking at it now, it also serves as an interesting document of future-thinking in the mid 1980s.

The film opens with a long series of title cards recapping the events of “2001,” from the finding of the small Monolith on the moon to Dave Bowman’s final transmission, “My God! It’s Full of Stars.” Point of order here: The line does not appear in the original film, but does appear in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel. The slide show goes on for about two and half minutes without a single moving image.

Let me remind you that this is a motion picture.

The crawl gives way to a credit sequence. Unlike the stars and planets of the original, “2010” starts with white text on a black background and slowly fades up into the desert surrounding the Very Large Array in New Mexico. That facility is still in use today and marks the first thing the film got right about the actual year 2010. Once we get to Peter Hyams rather ambitious credit: “written for the screen, produced, & directed by” we find Doctor Heywood Floyd cleaning one of the VLA’s numerous satellite dishes.

Floyd appeared in “2001” in the form of actor William Sylvester. That Floyd was the very model of what 1969 expected a man of the 21st Century to be: exactly like a man of the 1950s. He spoke with a very mannered, cultured voice. He uses formal terms in all his conversations, he has a crisp clean haircut, and he looks smart in his suit.

Dr. Floyd in "2001."

In “2010,” Floyd is played by Roy Scheider in a much more naturalistic — and tanned — performance. Now, I love Scheider, but he is about as far from William Sylvester as you can get without re-imagining the part for Paula Poundstone. I suppose you could argue the intervening years and the shame of resigning his government position changed him, but that’s asking a lot. The new Floyd reflects the actual decade and a half between the two productions. All the pretense and manners have been washed away. He’s also wearing those sort of short-shorts men felt completely comfortable wearing in 1984. There’s a fashion note the film gets wrong about our present times.

Dr. Floyd in "2010."

Floyd is accosted by a Soviet Space Program big-wig played by “MacGuyver’s” Dana Eclar. After some verbal sparing, he offers Floyd a number of seats on the Soviet’s new long range spacecraft, The Leonov, which will be reach Jupiter a full year before the planned American mission. He then hints to Floyd that The Discovery‘s orbit around Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, is decaying and will crash with all of its secrets lost forever.

And I guess this is the single biggest thing the film gets wrong in its vision of the future: the continued existence of the Soviet Union. I suppose it’s kind of unfair to rake any science fiction story from before 1990 with this one. From that standpoint, the Soviet Union seemed the immovable object. Despite severe problems in its infrastructure and its expansionist plans thwarted in Afghanistan … cough … the single wildest things you could do in a story set only 35 years in the future was to suggest our bitter communist enemy would not be there. To use a word, it was inconceivable.

After Floyd confirms the orbital decay, he proposes a plan to his replacement at the National Council of Astronautics — the “2001” and “2010” version of NASA — to go out with The Leonov, taking the man who designed The Discovery and Dr. Chandra, inventor of the HAL 9000 computer.

Okay, let’s talk about HAL, because he reflects our grandest dreams and greatest misunderstandings about computers. HAL takes an entire deck on the ship to process millions of pieces of information, but also has complete voice synthesis and voice command. Not only are HAL’s users freed of the keyboard as an input device, but they get a completely natural vocal response from him. It seemed like such an inevitability in computing, that it really obscured the tendency for the technology to shrink. Science Fiction loved giant computers that can talk naturally with a human being.

And while our real computers shrank to the size of an iPhone, we’re still some twenty years (at least) from the sort of vocal interface depicted in both films.

Once in space, Floyd is awakened from his cryogenic sleep as the Soviet ship reaches Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. There, a probe detects chlorophyll. This is one of the film’s more mysterious moments. The probe is destroyed just as it reaches the source of the readings.

Following a rather dramatic sequence in which The Leonov uses Jupiter’s gravity to slow down its velocity, Floyd finally comes face to face with The Discovery, HAL, and the larger Monolith. Here, we get the most prosaic portion of the film as “2010” goes out of its way to explain HAL’s homicidal tendencies. Dr. Chandra announces HAL was instructed to lie about the mission to the flight crew. As this conflicted with his primary function, it created an imbalance in the system and resulted in his paranoia and murderessness.

"I'm sorry, Netflix is not responding."

Praise all the gods we don’t have to deal with that kind of problem on our iPads, laptops, and XBoxes.

While it’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, explicitly stated in Clarke’s novel and hinted at in Kubrick’s film, part of HAL’s enduring legacy is the mystery of his apparent humanity. His instinct for self-preservation, his compassion, and his curiosity reflect a lack of these qualities in The Discovery‘s flight crew. HAL is, oddly enough, more human than human. To offer any direct answer to HAL’s behavior removes an opportunity for the viewer to make up their conclusions about HAL and the implications of such an advanced artificial intelligence.

Back on Earth, relations between the US and USSR have deteriorated and Floyd is ordered to transfer to The Discovery and break any ties with The Leonov. It is here the film finally confronts Kubrick as Dave Bowman appears on the ship to tell Floyd something is going to happen … “something wonderfull.”

The actual scene itself is fascinating in an extra-cinematic way. Scheider’s Floyd walks through The Discovery following the appartition of Bowman. The astronaut is dressed in the same red spacesuit seen in “2001.” After he and Floyd exchange a few words, Bowman changes into the older, white haired man seen in Kubrick’s film. He cycles through the other transformative states seen in “2001.” While Floyd desperately tries to understand the whole event, Bowman — now in his oldest, bald form — smiles and says, “It’s all very clear to me now. The whole thing … it’s wonderful.” The scene reads as the more action oriented science fiction filmmaking of the 1980s trying to grasp the grand reach of an earlier era. This is punctuated by the look on Floyd’s face as Bowman becomes the Star Child. Of course, no real understanding is reached and Bowman’s “something wonderful” is realized as an explosion. Floyd is left only with a warning: he must leave the vicinity of Jupiter in two days.

Because of that warning, the two crews must work together to get The Leonov out of the Jupiter area. The Discovery must be sacrificed as a booster rocket to get the Soviet ship into an escape velocity that will reach Earth. While there is some concern HAL will disobey orders, he agrees to the mission parameters and the operation is a success. The reunited Leonov crew witness a group of Monoliths consume Jupiter, igniting it into a star.

Peace returns to Earth as The Discovery‘s last message reaches the planet: “ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE. USE THEM TOGETHER. USE THEM IN PEACE.” Floyd presumably returns to Earth and Europa, now warmed by a nearby sun, springs forth with life and a Monolith of its own.

It would be easy to dismiss “2010” as a minor film from a studio in decline, but the passing of the actual year brings it into scrutiny for all the things it, and the predictions of Cold War science fiction, missed. It is also an interesting time capsule of future thought, both for its own rather 80s-bound look of 2010 and the amount of late-60s imagery it brings forward from the original film. That mix inadvertently offers an overall design aesthetic that resembles the actual 2010 far more than 2001 resembled “a space odyssey.” The clothes, space suits, and earthbound technology tends to feel like the present times we know. While there are some overt 80s fashion choices, the overall feel is correct. I don’t know if that means we reverted to those styles or if progress halted in 1984.

The film also offers a very believable view of space. Though we are still decades away from manned missions to the Gas Giants, The Leonov looks like the sort of ship we might send out there. I suppose that has a lot to do with Syd Mead offering designs for the film. This is also why the ship resembles “Alien’s” Nostromo. The only major mistakes made in the ship designs are the CRT monitors and the number of meaningless illuminated buttons that reflect an older design aesthetic.

Also, the exterior shots of the Jupiter area are well done:

Jupiter and the Finite

The film features a bevy of talent. Besides Scheider, Bob Balaban appears as Chandra (despite the character’s Indian origins) and JOHN LITHGOW!!!! takes on the role of Curnow, the designer of The Discovery. Douglas Rain also reprises his role as HAL. On the Russian side, there’s Helen Mirren as the captain of The Leonov and this guy:

Actor Ilya Baskin has been playing miscellaneous Russians for decades, but in ‘2010,’ one of his earlier roles, he is actually the only charming actor in a wall of stone-faced Soviet types. His bond with LITHGOW’s character is charming. His encounter with the Monolith is one of the few truly effective plot points in the film.

Mirren does her best with a pretty one-note role. She’s tough and determined. Balaban is … well, Bob Balaban. That’s not to say these are bad things. Like Scheider, they mainly bring their own personas to otherwise empty parts.

This may come as a shock, but LITHGOW! is actually subdued here. I’m not sure how or why, but there it is. Even in a scene where he’s meant to be hyperventilating, it is not the tour de force master class of acting we’ve come to expect by one of our national treasures.

While “2010: The Year We Make Contact” is a lesser film, it does offer some interesting things for those willing to look beyond the shadow of its superior predecessor. It tries to come to grips with the more mystical inclinations of Kubrick’s masterpiece in a rather Earthbound way. While the answers it provides disappoint, the overall depiction of that alternate 2010 is worth the film’s runtime.


About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
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