Saturday, May 9, 2015

2010: The Year We Make Contact

2010: The Year We Make Contact (Peter Hyams, 1984) 2001: A Space Odyssey took scientific precepts and used them as a launching pad for a philosophical adventure about humans and their place in the Universe in a suggestive and non-narrative way. It's "official" follow-up, 2010, however, tells you what it's going to show ya—then it shows ya—then it tells ya what it showed ya, thanks to a narration by Roy Scheider's character that explains everything but what he had for dinner. It's as far afield in style from its cinematic prequel as it could be—so much so that they feel like they've come from two different galaxies, or as one IMDB poster put it, "it's like comparing apples and concrete."

Based on
Arthur C. Clarke's "romp around the Solar System" ("2010: Odyssey Two"), it proposes a fact-finding mission by Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider in this one, rather then the original's William Sylvester) to attempt to discover precisely what happened to the Discovery Mission to Jupiter and its crew. By hitching a ride on a Soviet space-craft (commanded by er, Tanya Kirbuk*Helen Mirren) that just happens to be passing by, Floyd and his crew—Discovery engineer Dr. Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) and Dr. R. Chandra (Bob Balaban), the computer scientist who developed the Hal 9000 and its twin in Urbana, Illinois—attempt to find out what went wrong with the mission that ended up with a dead crew and no information on where the signal sent by the un-mooned TMA-1 anomaly led. Where the first film revels in the leaps of evolution foisted on Man by "the Zarathustrians" (as I call them), Hyams' film is stuck with the earth-men and women merely trying to crack "what-done-it." 

Frankly, they should have just re-played the first film.
Kirbuk...uh...Kubrick stayed away from the machinations, unless it was visually arresting or amusing—like the zero-gravity-walking up walls, or the gravity-making squirrel-cage aboard Discovery— but Hyams, like Clarke, is only too happy to show the nuts-and-bolts of dropping into orbit with ablating bags, the stress it has on the crew by shaking the camera, the spark-emitting panels (straight out of Irwin Allen shows), and the requisite astronaut who flies across the control center in zero-g. This is the stuff of sci-fi melodrama in all its cheapness, precisely what Kubrick was trying to avoid in his film.
An interesting thing about the films of Peter Hyams: no matter the genre or concepts that he chose to direct, his films appear essentially flat—that's a weird result from a director who also chose to be the cinematographer on so many of his films (he shot 2010). Even when he chooses to shoot with some depth of field, his films feel like television productions, with a strong central object, and rarely little else of consequence (Kubrick did essentially the same thing, but his shot-compositions tended to be more vertiginous with a purposeful one-point perspecti
While everybody is fussing about the flight-mechanics of the rendezvous' with the Jupiter system and the now-tumbling-in-orbit Discovery, the Zarathustrians choose that moment to pull off a Solar System-affecting gambit, using the missing-in-action Bowman (Keir Dullea returning to his earlier role) as a secret agent appearing everywhere (now?) to pull off something spectacular—one shouldn't call it terra-forming so much as solar-forming—gravity manipulation, while Bowman runs interference, squandering the mystery of that omnipotent-seeming Star-Child (the next leap in human evolution seen at the end of 2001), to serve as a planet-skipping/morphing errand-boy who, it would appear, is discarded as soon as he accomplishes his final mission. 
Clarke's ultimate Big Surprise is a nifty one—educational, too, about the configuration of Jupiter—but by granting the unseen architects in both films motivations that seem like cosmic buttinski's very much cheapens the first film and its scope (much like the sublimation of Bowman's potential), making man's Creation merely all in a monolith's day's work. And the cosmic consequence of 2010 feels like a convenient after-thought, easing tensions of a U.S./Russian nuclear conflict (even though they seem to get along enough to launch a joint space mission together). 
It is eerie to hear the voice of HAL again (Douglas Rain) and to see Keir Dullea, through some artful make-up, look as young (and as old, unnecessarily) as he once was. And working from mere screen-captures, Hyams and his art department did a meticulous job recreating the Discovery sectionsthey can't keep the ships from looking like models in the FX sections, however, which is curious for a more late-model movie. So meticulous is their work that it seems bizarre that the Russian ship would look so different in its interior, than what the Americans had come up with by that time. Again, apples and concrete.
One wonders, ultimately, if it was worth doing: it was a toe-splash for M-G-M to explore the possibilities of one of its core properties, but its utter conventionality only points to the other film's complete unconventionality in terms of belaying cheap dramatic tricks and the standard "science fiction" obsession with mechanics (Kubrick turned all that rendezvousing into a dance). It is the only sense of wonder 2010 allows, where its progenitor was far more about wonder than the why's and wherefore's.

2010 serves as a Reader's Digest version of the original, a blunted, condensed presentation of a larger, more sophisticated work. It has highlights, sure, but there's nothing transcendent about it; it's a blue-print, a schematic of ideas, rather than a fully-formed work of art and expression. It's like a hack-magician, who can only keep an audience's interest by revealing how the tricks are done.

But, as Raymond Chandler noted with inferior movies made from his books, the originals are still there to be appreciated on their own. The creation of 2010 really doesn't diminish the work of 2001—it's still there to be seen and appreciated.
The final message to Earth is in English...and reads like a Hallmark card.

A couple of in-jokey cameo's
Pithy cover of Time: the U.S. President is Arthur C. Clarke/
The Russian Premier is Stanley Kubrick
Arthur Clarke (left) sits on a park-bench outside the White House
(Wait a minute—isn't he the President?)

* Read the last name backwards...

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