Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Films of 1984: 2010: The Year We Make Contact

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is absolutely, indisputably a one-of-a-kind movie.  It is a cinematic masterpiece, and more than that, one of the greatest films ever produced.  

So the simple and apparent fact that must be acknowledged and embraced regarding the Peter Hyams sequel -- 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact -- is that it is not in the same class.

Kubrick’s film was part science fiction, part art film, and part “ultimate trip” head  movie, and 2010’s ambitions are, well, if not smaller, then at least a great deal more direct.

When approaching 2010, one must, therefore, dispense with the perhaps-unreasonable expectation that the enterprise is going to rival, or even near the majesty and awe of its 1968 predecessor.

Because a funny thing might happen once you jettison those personal expectations (or, perhaps, your memories of 2001).

Another truth looms ever more apparent.

2010: The Year We Make Contact is still a very good science fiction film, though of a markedly different style. 

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey took man to the precipice of his own future, and to the next step of his very evolution, the sequel is very much about who man is “now” (in 1984, essentially).

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey offered a commentary on how man’s tools could overwhelm his life, and his environs (remember the white-on-white minimalism of the production design…) 2010 instead reveals man grappling with his still-human nature: the propensity to fear that which he doesn’t understand, and to go to war over territory or ideology.

2001 paid some attention to that idea, certainly. One scene in the space station lounge saw Heywood Floyd meet some Soviet scientists, and they questioned him about all the secrecy on Clavius. The scene hinted at on-going rivalries and distrust between Super Powers.

Similarly, the orbiting nuclear platforms depicted in A Space Odyssey suggested that war and hostility had survived and endured to the 21st century. Man’s competitive nature -- apparent from the moment the ape-man tossed a bone-weapon into the air at the dawn of the species -- was thus seen as unchanged.

Yet in Kubrick’s film that idea was merely a note in a great and elaborate symphony.

In Hyams’ 2010, by contrast, that note underlines and even dominates the entire composition. It does so in faithful, earnest adaptation of Clarke’s 1982 literary source material, as well as in a brutally honest reckoning with the political details of the early 1980s.

In many ways, 2010 is thus the “hot” to 2001’s “cold.” 

The snow-blind whites, minimalism  and yet majesty of the space station and other settings in 2001 have been replaced, largely, in 2010 by cluttered, smoky control rooms bathed in suffusing red alert lighting. 

And the sequel’s characters -- instead of showcasing smooth, emotionless efficiency as Frank Poole or David Bowman did -- experience outbreaks of panic, fear, homesickness, and even…humor.

If Kubrick’s film took a big step back from the characters and attempted to observe the long arc of man’s development with a sense of cerebral detachment, Hyams’ film instead examines man at this juncture with passionate, colorful, up-close strokes.

When considered in such terms, 2010: The Year We Make Contact might be viewed as a pretty strong and, yes, wholly valid complement to Kubrick’s film. It is both a faithful continuation of the franchise’s overall narrative, and at the same time an apparent commentary on the visionary world envisioned by Kubrick. 

It’s almost as if this sequel applies the brakes -- the aerobrakes? -- in response to 2001’s flights of imagination and futurism. 

It says, insteadHold on!  We’re not quite there yet

The famous black Monolith may have judged Bowman ready to evolve into a star child, but for now, the rest of humanity remains mired in conflict and self-destructive impulses.

Absent entirely in 2010: The Year We Make Contact is Kubrick’s sense of “order in the universe,” the amazing compositions which suggest a God’s eye view of the cosmos.

Missing as well is the feeling that we humans are part of a long, ongoing process of development, moving from our “dawn” to “the infinite and beyond.” 

The sequel substitutes such awesome visions and ideas with a direct, teletype-style message to mankind (from the aliens…), transcribed by HAL.  “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there. Use them together. Use them in peace.”

In 1984 -- soon after The Day After (1983) aired on television, and at the height of East-West Cold War tensions -- the Klaatu-esque message of this film really resonated, at least with my teenage self. It was less “grand,” perhaps, “less cosmic” than Kubrick’s intellectual musings, but perhaps 2010’s direct approach was the very thing that audiences needed to hear at that moment in history.

Bluntly worded, 2010 tells its audience this: you can’t evolve and be “a star child” until you grow the fuck up. 

The astronauts of the film -- men and women from the United States and the Soviet Union -- are at the vanguard of that growth, and become the very symbols for man’s ability to, even in dire circumstances, to evolve beyond basic tribal instincts.

So if 2001 concerns what man will one day become, 2010 suggests how he needs to get there, through the end of war and petty conflict.

“My God, it’s full of stars.”

Nine long years after Discovery One went silent near Jupiter, and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) was lost approaching the strange, alien monolith, the Cold War on Earth has grown hot. 

The Soviet Union and the United States of America tussle over the resources and loyalty of the Third World.  A problem in Central America, in Honduras, grows ever worse, and the United States threatens a naval blockade.

Meanwhile, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) is asked to spearhead a mission to Jupiter, to re-activate the HAL 9000,  nd then determine the nature of the mysterious Monolith.  

Unfortunately, the Russians will beat the Americans to the derelict Discovery One, so an accommodation --- a joint mission -- is broached by the competitors.

Floyd and an American team consisting of computer expert Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), and Discovery One designer Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) thus board the Russian craft, Leonov, under the command of Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren) for the journey.  In turn, they will share their findings about the Monolith.

Leonov begins its long space journey, and takes a detour to Europa, where chlorophyll -- an early sign of life -- has been detected.  A probe is sent to examine the surface of Europa, but is destroyed by an unknown force.

Later, the Leonov conducts a difficult aero-braking maneuver on approach to the Discovery, and Dr. Chandra revives HAL.

Meanwhile, on Earth, an entity resembling Dave Bowman begins to appear to the astronaut’s surviving family members.  He tells them that something wonderful is going to happen, and soon.

Tensions on Earth grow exponentially worse, and at the same time, HAL warns the crews of the Leonov and Discovery One that this area of space is becoming dangerous because of a strange “storm” of Monoliths in the atmosphere of Jupiter.

With the storm expanding, and the outcome unknown, the two space crews must put their ideology and suspicion behind them to survive and escape this region of space.

“We should each be treated with appropriate respect.”

2001: A Space Odyssey raised many questions about the universe, mankind’s evolution, and even the reasons why the HAL 9000 went berserk.

2010: The Year We Make Contact makes no bones about the fact that it is in the business of providing answers.

For instance, early in the film it is established that the final reports regarding Discovery One and the Jupiter Mission failure left its readers with “a good amount of questions.”  Just like some members of the audience for 2001. Later, Floyd reveals, in voice-over, very detailed information about the Monolith “controlling” everything in nearby space. He seems to know a lot about it.

If the sequel boasts any substantial flaw it is that it feels both conceived and executed to satisfy those who were unsatisfied by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Accordingly, the answers just keep on coming.

And yet, if you were unsatisfied by 2001, you didn’t really get the movie, did you?

Leaving that issue aside 2010 takes great artistic pains to “ground” all the proceedings in terms that its audience would easily comprehend. For example, Floyd feels guilt and remorse about sending the Discovery One crew people to die, and so this Leonov mission is explicitly one about his redemption.

This won’t bring those men back,” or provide “absolution” suggests Heywood’s wife. 

And again, one need only note that in 2001, we had no such insight into Mr. Floyd, or his motivations. He was not humanized in such fashion.

Other characters are similarly endowed with traits that ground them, or make them more recognizably human and contemporary. Chandra is prideful at times, and Curnow undergoes a bit of fear or agoraphobia on a harrowing spacewalk. During the tense aero-breaking scene, Floyd and an attractive Russian astronaut clutch one another, out of abject fear.

Even when Dave was locked out of the Pod Bay of the Discovery in 2001, he evidenced no such outward signs of fear.

Indeed, the film’s entire approach to character is best exemplified by Curnow’s line that he misses the color “green.” 

Was there any green (outside the Dawn of Man segment) in 2001?  Was there any explicit longing for it?

What 2010: The Year We Make Contact wants to suggest, then, is that although man may erect a white-on-white future, he’s not going to like it, and he’s still going to long for the “green” of terrestrial Earth.  He’s still going to be “man" as we recognize him now.

HAL is newly humanized as well in this sequel. We learn that he is, essentially, schizophrenic, because of the contradictory orders he received from home base. Instead of acting as a ruthless, cunning opponent, he becomes here a figure of sympathy, one who even asks if he will “dream” when Discovery One is destroyed.

Finally, the ghost of David Bowman indulges in behavior that we would consider extremely human and emotional too. He visits his relatives on Earth. He combs his elderly mother’s hair.

Again, this kind of material is absolutely absent from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where even a vid-phone call between father and child feels strangely distant and unemotional. But 2010 is a different film.

This film’s modus operandi -- also evidenced in the desire to create thrilling space action scenes like the space walk or the aero-braking --  is to showcase the yin/yang of human emotions or passions.

The environs of the Leonov, the new ship created for the sequel, likewise showcase this aesthetic. The ship’s control room is always either under-lit and dark, or bathed in red light. Papers are scattered everywhere, on panels and tables. The visual aesthetic is much more Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) than it is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. And again, that’s because the film wants to present a realistic portrayal of emotional, contemporary man in space. 

Why? Well, the film examines man at close-up range. He can be wonderful and good, seeking absolution, longing for nature's "green," or acknowledging his fears. Or he can bring the world to the precipice of nuclear Armageddon. 

And again, I feel it incumbent to note as well the apocalypse mentality of the country in the first Reagan presidency, which forms the cultural context behind this sequel. This was a time when in public forums Russia was derided as “The Evil Empire,” and it was announced (as a joke) that bombing Russia would begin in "five minutes." It was an era in which cabinet appointees like Secretary of the Interior James Watts declared it was not really necessary to take care of the planet's environment because Jesus Christ would return in his lifetime, and this would be the last generation.  These words are not my opinion of what happened, they are part of the historical record, and therefore not partisan or biased. These things were said in public, and heard in the public square, by children and adults alike. They were noted.

2010: The Year We Make Contact is very much about that context (as well as the Falklands Island War…), an environment of distrust and concern about nuclear war in which it becomes impossible to visualize your “enemy” as another human being, but rather as a godless monster that must be destroyed. 

The message is made plain in the film terms of the astronauts’ behavior, and their cooperative solution for survival. 

To endure a disaster near Jupiter, two ships and two crews must literally become one. 

The Russian Leonov and the American Discovery One must join together and pool resources -- literally as one ship -- to see a new sunrise.  This is the Monolith’s lesson for the entirety of Earth as well. The two rival super-powers --  if they hope to claim their stake in space -- must become one. They must treat each other “with appropriate respect” and recognize their enemy’s common humanity.

The aliens final message in the film is very on the nose.  “Use these worlds together. Use them in peace.” 

If humans do not do so, the implication is that the Monolith aliens will respond accordingly. The events on Europa with the destroyed probe reveal that these aliens will brook no interference with their agenda. Again, this seems highly reminiscent, at least to me, of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and its alien ultimatum.

“Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t transmit an easily-digestible message like that, which can be stated in a few simple words, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact does.  The two films stand in stark contrast because of that difference. 2001 coolly asks its audience to interpret its message, and 2010 states its message, rather bluntly and emotionally, and with some degree of heat and excitement.

In general, I prefer Kubrick’s approach, but there are times when the 2010 approach becomes a necessity too…especially if you are the parent of a misbehaving child. 

As such a parent figure (as the Monolith aliens may be to humanity), it is necessary at times to make certain you are heard and clearly understood

The message in 2010 is indeed clearly heard and understood. That fact doesn’t make the movie “bad.”  It just makes the film a very different kind of space opera from its predecessor. 

Beautifully mounted, and buttressed with splendid recreations of the Discovery One, and some tense moments in space, 2010 is a worthwhile film, and a solid sequel to one of the cinema’s all-time greats.  We can remember it that way, in part, because it sought not to imitate a great film, but to chart its own (if ultimately less challenging..) territory.

Another way to put it. We may not give 2010 equal respect to 2001, but let us all treat it with "appropriate" respect nonetheless.


  1. John perfect review.
    For me, 2001 and it's sequel 2010 are both different but good films, like Alien and Aliens.
    I liked that in the film on the cover of Time magazine the U.S. President is depicted as Arthur C. Clarke and the Soviet Premier is Stanley Kubrick.
    Little did we know in 1984 that in 2010 the Soviet Union would be Russia again.
    I wonder what Stanley Kubrick thought of the 2010 film?

  2. In all honesty, I hated and still hate, the sledgehammer blows they gave the Cold War. On the other hand, there is a lot I like. Roy Scheider is one of my all time favorites and he owns this film. The bits with Dr. Chandra, SAL, and HAL are totally top notch. "Will I dream?" ranks for me as one of the best lines in a genre film. And Chandra's finale with HAL, even down to him being willing to die with HAL, is emotional in the extreme. The whole idea behind why HAL went nuts is a subject that endlessly fascinates me to this day. Simply an amazing concept. It's not 2001, what could be? But it is in the end worthy. "Perhaps you will dream of HAL."

  3. From reading what Arthur C. Clarke had to say about the making of 2001 and reading the novel version he wrote along with the screenplay I've noticed that he always seemed very clear in his mind about many of the things the original film made quite vague (the nature and purposes of the monoliths and the aliens who created them, the transformation of Bowman, what lay behind HAL's actions etc.) so I didn't find the more straightforward manner of 2010 as much of a change of style as many did. Ultimately I really like both of the films different as they are in the manner in which they tell parts of the same story.

    Also, I really love the design of the Leonov. It's sort of my version of Ebert's Harry Dean Stanton rule - any movie with a cool looking space ship in it is already well on the way to being loved by me.

  4. I've always said I admire 2001, I like 2010. It's a good, solidly made film that I think would be considered a genre classic of rare intelligence and thoughtfulness if not for its predecessor.