The 16-year wait between the 1968 opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1984 release of 2010 doesn’t represent the longest interval between a movie and its direct sequel (that distinction probably belongs to Gone With the Wind/Scarlett, although some would disqualify the pairing because the second installment was a TV mini-series). However, for fans of Stanley Kubrick’s inimitable science fiction classic, it was more than long enough. Even before one frame of 2010 was committed to celluloid, filmmaker Peter Hyams had accepted a huge challenge (the kind that many in Hollywood would find daunting): continue the story begun by Kubrick in a way that answered some of the questions without in any way cheapening the original.
As 2001 was Kubrick’s child, so 2010 belongs to Hyams, who took on four key duties: screenwriter (basing his script on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel), director, producer, and cinematographer. (For those keeping count, that’s one more hat than Kubrick wore.) Comparisons, however unfair, are inevitable. It’s impossible to craft a follow-up to one of the cinema’s most thought-provoking and impressive motion pictures without generating a litany of comments and criticisms. Based on published interviews with Hyams at the time of 2010’s release, he was well aware of the potential quagmire he had entered into, but his appreciation for the original was such that his greatest desire was for the sequel to do Kubrick’s film justice.
One question that arises is whether or not it is better to have seen 2001 before viewing 2010. For most two-part stories, this isn’t an issue, but this is not an ordinary situation. Those who have not seen 2001 will come to 2010 will some background deficiencies, but they will also not have any preconceived notions about style and tone. My guess is that these uninitiated viewers may appreciate 2010 more than stalwart 2001 aficionados because they will accept the second feature on its own terms. Kubrick’s shadow looms large over 2010 and the movie often seems to be struggling to escape from underneath it. The hypnotic quality that characterized 2001 is not present here; 2010 is a relatively straightforward space adventure story that extends the storyline but nothing more.
2010 picks up nine years after 2001. In the interim, not much has changed. The Discovery is still out near Jupiter – a cold, silent tomb for the disconnected HAL 9000 as it circles the planet in a slowly decaying orbit. The moon monolith has been brought from the lunar surface to Earth, but scientists are no closer to unlocking its secrets than they were a decade earlier. Meanwhile, both the Soviet Union and the United States are planning manned missions to Jupiter with the intention of exploring the monolith out there. The Russians’ space ship will be ready earlier, so it makes sense for a few Americans to be on board so that Discovery’s records and memory banks can be accessed. But tensions are high between the two superpowers as a crisis off the coast of South America escalates to where it could be the precursor to World War III.
Through a feat of diplomatic wizardry, politicians from both sides agree to allow three American scientists on board the Soviet space craft Leonov. Joining the Russian crew are Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the former head of the space agency who blames himself for the Discovery debacle; Walter Curnow (John Lithgow), the engineer who designed Disovery; and Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), the creator of HAL. The commander of the Leonov, Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren), is a stern, no-nonsense woman who is initially hostile to Floyd and his associates. However, in a time-honored tradition, as the Americans and Soviets work together to solve the mysteries of the outer Solar System, they form friendships and bonds of trust – even as the political situation between the two nations worsens.
During the course of the film, the solution to the riddle of the monolith is unveiled (although the aliens who created it remain an invisible presence). We learn its purpose and understand how this ties into the prehistoric version on Earth and the one on the moon. HAL is re-activated and rehabilitated, and we are given a somewhat unconvincing explanation about what precipitated his breakdown. (Conflicting orders caused him to turn paranoid and determine that the mission could be carried out without any human involvement.) Everyone is suspicious of HAL once Chandra turns him on again, but the computer proves to be helpful and self-sacrificing. Since HAL’s demise in 2001 represented that film’s emotional pinnacle, it’s nice to see the artificial intelligence get a second chance. Astronaut Dave Bowman (once again played by Keir Dullea), now a ghostly mouthpiece for the aliens, makes a cameo appearance – more, I suspect, out of a need to solidify the connection between 2001 and 2010 than out of any plot necessity. The message he delivers is important, but it could have easily been conveyed in another manner.
2010 ties up a number of loose threads, but it doesn’t resolve everything. The nature of the “star child” is untouched. And it’s still not clear how much responsibility Floyd bears for HAL’s psychosis. Despite the character’s protestations of innocence in 2010, there is evidence in 2001 that he may have known more than he’s letting on. 2010 doesn’t ask many new questions – it’s not that kind of movie – and the film ends with a straightforward, in-your-face moral. Oddly, the message of peace in 2010’s closing moments contradicts something from 2001, where the influence of the monolith leads man to his first act of overt violence.
A few of the casting choices are worth exploring. Obviously it’s nice to see Keir Dullea and hear Douglas Rain again. These two actors give 2010 the feeling of being in familiar territory. Roy Scheider has replaced William Sylvester in the lead role; Sylvester may have been the right age for the character in 2001, but he was too old (and probably too obscure) to re-create the part 16 years later. Scheider’s low-key but authoritative approach works for this script. The character is suposedly the same, but there’s little synergy between the two interpretations. John Lithgow, representing another name for the marquee, successfully keeps his manic tendencies in check. Helen Mirren would have been better if she hadn’t been required to sport a ridiculous Russian accent (one that makes her sound like Natasha from “Rocky & Bullwinkle”). And, for those who like trivia, Candice Bergen has small speaking part as SAL 9000 (HAL’s “sister”), although she uses the alias “Olga Mallsnerd” in the end credits.
Most of the space sequences are effective. While the Kubrick’s lethargic pace has been replaced with something more energetic, 2010 doesn’t speed along. There’s a lot of exposition, which means lengthy passages of dialogue, some of which are clever. (I liked Curnow’s observation that, while in space, he misses the color green. With no plant life in space or on the ship, there’s no green.) The visual effects are as good as, although not noticeably better than, those used in 2001. Perhaps the most impressive task of the special effects team was to re-create the Discovery much as it appeared in the earlier film.
In terms of sound and music, Hyams’ approach is completely different from Kubrick’s. No longer is space a soundless vacuum. Now, we can hear engines and other assorted noises. (Although Hyams gets around the thorny issue of whether we hear an explosion by staying within the confines of the Leonov when it happens.) And, with the exception of Richard Strauss’ “Also Spoke Zarathustra”, which plays over the opening and closing credits, Hyams relies upon an original score for 2010 rather than adopting Kubrick’s approach of applying classical music. (This is probably a good move; anything else would have seemed like a copy.)
2010’s biggest misstep is the Cold War backdrop (an element that was not contained in Clarke’s novel). An attempt by Hyams to make the film relevant to audiences viewing it 1984, the U.S./Soviet tensions circa 2010 now seem ill-conceived and out-of-place, especially considering that the USSR no longer exists. Granted, Hyams can’t be blamed for his inability to see into the future, but the movie’s reliance upon “current events” dates 2010 in a way that was never the case for 2001. It’s also a pretty tired plot element that has been done better elsewhere. Consider James Cameron’s The Abyss, which also employed alien intervention to urge peace between nations – that’s a case where the message folds nicely into the overall storyline, rather than seeming tacked-on, as it does in 2010.
Now that enough time has elapsed since the release of 2010 for outraged 2001 fans to calm down, it can be seen that, while there was no decisive creative reason for Hyams’ sequel to exist, it’s not a bad movie. The features form two largely independent aspects of the same story. Kubrick uses science fiction as a gateway to mystical meditation; Hyams uses it conventionally. Each picture is capable of being viewed separately (enough background is given during the opening sequence of 2010 to elminate the most obvious sources of confusion), although I’m not certain why anyone today would be interested in watching 2010 without having previously seen its more famous predecessor. (Incidentally, I expect interest in 2010 to increase early next year, after 2001 is re-released in theaters to celebrate real-time having caught up with the title.) For those who prefer a “double feature” approach, 2010 continues 2001 without ruining it. The greatest danger faced by filmmakers helming a sequel is that a bad installment will in some way sour the experience of watching the previous movie. This does not happen here. Almost paradoxically, 2010 may be unnecessary, but it is nevertheless a worthwhile effort.