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Josh Reviews the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact!

April 2nd, 2010

On Monday I wrote about Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent novel 2010: Odyssey Two.  After completing the novel, I couldn’t resist taking another look at Peter Hyams’ film adaptation, with the revised title of 2010: The Year We Make Contact.  (It’s a film I had only seen once, back in the mid ’90s on video.)

Somehow it seems acceptable to me for Mr. Clarke to choose to write a follow-up to his own novel (2001: A Space Odyssey).  Yet the idea of a movie sequel to Stanley Kubrik’s iconic and influential film — particularly a sequel helmed by another director, and one whose story would set out to answer many of the questions that Kubrik so pointedly left unanswered — seems almost sacrilegious.

2010 is not a film that should be any good.  It could have so easily wound up being Blues Brothers 2000.  And yet, somehow, while  it’s nowhere near as great as the novel, it is a far better film than it has any right to be.

Whereas Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 was slow and lyrical and notably short on any actual plot or character development, 2010 is more of an adventure film.  There is no shooting and there are no fist-fights, thank goodness.  But there’s solid narrative thrust throughout the film, as we follow Heywood Floyd (recast here as the wonderful Roy Scheider) on his odyssey towards Jupiter.  Once there, tension mounts as the mysteries deepen and an enormous potential danger is discovered.

I was very pleasantly surprised, rewatching this film, at how many talented and familiar faces make up the cast.  There’s Roy Scheider, of course, who makes a potent lead.  His Dr. Floyd is a man of great intelligence and integrity, and a bit more of an action hero than the rather administrative version of the character as played by William Sylvester in 2001.  John Lithgow plays the American engineer Walter Curnow, and he brings a lot of warmth and humanity to the role.  I was disappointed that the Indian character of Dr. Chandra, HAL 9000’s creator, was recast in the film as an American — but when that American is played by the terrific Bob Balaban, I really can’t complain.  Then there’s Helen Mirren — yes, THAT Helen Mirren — as the Russian captain of the Lenov (the vessel launched towards Jupiter in an attempt to rescue the Discovery and discover what happened to Dave Bowman).  She doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, but she’s great whenever she’s on screen.  It’s fun to see her in this type of sci-fi/adventure role.

While the visual effects of the film don’t quite hold up as well as those in 2001: A Space Odyssey — they don’t have quite the same degree of stately grandeur — 2010 looks pretty great for a film made back in 1984.   Leonov and Discovery are very well realized, as are the different environments of Jupiter and its moons.  The sequence in which a flaming Leonov sling-shots around Jupiter is probably the film’s dodgiest sequence, effects-wise.  But on the other hand, the tense climax — in which the Monoliths multiply on the surface of Jupiter and begin to consume the planet — comes off fantastically well.  The set design and art direction also suffer somewhat in comparison to 2001 — the sets mostly look like, well, sets — but, as with the visual effects, they’re still pretty darned good.

I give great credit to director (and screenwriter, working from Mr. Clarke’s novel) Peter Hyams for pulling this off.  He’s created a fun, tight little adventure film that honors its predecessor and seems of a piece with it, and yet doesn’t seek to slavishly emulate Mr. Kubrik’s film.  Rather, Mr. Hyams has taken the characters and settings established in 2001: A Space Odyssey and created an entirely different type of film set within that narrative “universe.”  This is a stunningly brave thing to do, and I think it’s the key ingredient to the film working as well as it does.

My main quibbles with the film mostly deal with the areas where Mr. Hyams & co. diverged from the source material.  Although, on the whole, 2010 is a pretty faithful adaptation, there were some changes that rubbed me the wrong way.  The most major change to the film was the elimination of the novel’s storyline involving the separate Chinese mission to Jupiter.  This means, for example, that in the film it has to be our heroes on the Leonov, rather than the Chinese, who make an important discovery on Europa.  That makes sense in theory, but the way that sequence was shoehorned into the story felt awkward to me.

The narrative tension from the Chinese competition has been replaced in the story by the addition of a subplot about rising Russian-American tensions back on Earth.  Here too, I understand the reasons behind this decision, but sometimes I found its execution to be awkward, as references to the problems back home had to be continually inserted into scenes so that we wouldn’t forget about it.  The is change also affected — not for the better — the very first scene of the film, in which Heywood Floyd is visited by a Russian who imparts some key information that gets the story going.  In the novel, the Russian was an old friend and colleage of Dr. Floyd’s, whereas in the film it’s established that the two have never met (I guess because of the US-Russian problems), and they have a somewhat antagonistic relationship in which they shout to speak to one another.  I get that the filmmakers wanted to emphasize that Americans and Russians aren’t really getting along — but without that prior friendship, there’s no real reason for the Russian to trust Dr. Floyd with the information that he gives him.  There was also, incredibly, a change made to the critical final message given to mankind at the end of the story.  Now this message directly addresses these political issues on Earth.  I found that change to be heavy-handed and silly, whereas Mr. Clarke’s original, briefer text made the same point far more gracefully.

But these are, on the whole, minor complaints, and they say more about my great love for Mr. Clarke’s novel as opposed to any serious problems that I have with the film.  While I’d love to see this saga brought to life using today’s visual effects tools, 2010: The Year We Make Contact stands as a very successful (if somewhat forgotten, today) science fiction film for adults, in which the issues confronted by our heroes are intellectual, scientific, and moral, and they’re not solved by shooting guns or blowing things up.  If you’re a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but have never seen this follow-up film, it is well-worth your time.  Hard to believe that we’re actually living, today, in the year 2010!!

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