This week, we recorded a “Shouts From the Back Row” podcast where we named what we consider to be the most overrated movies of all time. One of my top choices was Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve viewed the movie a couple of times, but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t bring myself to enjoy the film. I can appreciate it from a technical standpoint and do understand that the people who hailed this film when it originally came out had never seen anything like it before, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it to be a pretentious, colossal bore. I don’t know, to understand the full impact of 2001, maybe I just need to drop a ton of acid before I watch it. As controversial as my opinion about 2001 may be, I’m going to go one better and state that I actually prefer its 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. I’m sure there are some people who consider that sacrilegious and believe that I should be shot out into the vacuum of deep space for even making that statement. But I do have to acknowledge that one’s enjoyment of 2010 may be completely disproportionate to one’s enjoyment of 2001. This is a much more traditional science fiction film than its predecessor and has a much bigger focus on plot, character and dialogue. It lacks the the mystique and wonder of 2001 and seeks to provide answers to some of the unexplained events that took place in that film. Many 2001 fans were angry that this sequel would try to take away some of the awe and mystery of their cherished masterpiece, but in my eyes, that makes for a much more enjoyable viewing experience.
While some people might believe the idea of 2001 sequel is a cheap Hollywood cash-in, it’s worth noting that 2010 is based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, the original author of 2001, who decided to write a follow-up to his original story. Since the novel was a more plot and character-based story than 2001, Stanley Kubrick expressed no interest in directing a film adaptation, so the project was handed over to a more conventional Hollywood director, Peter Hyams. In my “Underrated Gems” column for Capricorn One, I mentioned that I was a big fan of many of Peter Hyams’ films. No one will ever consider him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but I do think he is a very good director of escapist entertainment. 2010 is no exception as the film exists simply to entertain and tell a good story, and has no pretensions about making any profound artistic statements. As 2010 opens, the Discovery spaceship from 2001 is still marooned in orbit near the large monolith next to Jupiter. The United States and the Soviet Union are in a competitive race to launch a mission to travel to the Discovery and find out what happened to the crew. The Soviets have successfully completed a spaceship called the Leonov, but in order to successfully complete the mission, they need the assistance of three Americans who are familiar with the Discovery. They take along Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the man who launched the original Discovery mission; Walter Curnow (John Lithgow), the engineer who designed the Discovery; and Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), an odd eccentric who created the HAL 9000 computer and seems to relate better to computers than to people. Helen Mirren plays Tanya Kirbuck (an anagram for Kubrick!), the captain of the Russian crew and she is none-too-thrilled to have Americans on her ship.
Now, since we are finally in the year 2010, it’s no secret that a lot of things in this film aren’t exactly historically accurate. Obviously, talking computers like HAL 9000 don’t exist and we still can’t take manned space flights to Jupiter, but the most dated aspect of this story is how the U.S. is on the brink of nuclear war with the now-defunct Soviet Union! However, that element of the story does add an extra level of interest to the film. The threat of war between their two nations creates a lot of tension between the American and Soviet crews, but eventually, they do develop a bond. The relationships between the characters is one of the things that really makes 2010 a superior film for me since characterization in 2001 was virtually non-existent. Peter Hyams wrote the screenplay for this movie and he’s always had a gift for quirky characters and sharp dialogue. There are a lot of nice little character moments and entertaining dialogue exchanges on display here, such as when Floyd and Curnow deal with their fear of an impending event by discussing how much they miss hot dogs. One of my favourite aspects of this film is the developing friendship between Curnow and a likable Russian cosmonaut named Max Brajlovsky (Elya Baskin). In one spectacular sequence, Curnow is forced to take a spacewalk from the Leonov to the Discovery even though he suffers from a terrifying case of vertigo, but Max comes along with him and uses his quirky sense of humour to help Curnow get through it. Of course, the special effects in this sequence are terrific, but their interaction is pretty fun too. Eventually, the most interesting element of 2001 makes its reappearance when Dr. Chandra manages to reactivate HAL 9000.
HAL has no memory at all of murdering the crew of the Discovery and the film provides a really interesting explanation about why he malfunctioned and went psychotic in the first place. HAL is reprogrammed to help the new crew complete their mission, but there’s always the danger that he might malfunction again and cause their demise. The relationship between Chandra and HAL is also very well-written and developed, and there’s a surprising amount of pathos in a scene late in the movie where Chandra is forced to say goodbye to his creation. 2010 is quite interesting in that it answers some of the questions that were raised by 2001, but still manages to create some new ones. However, purists can take comfort in the notion that the mystery of the monolith is never fully explained and that a lot of the mysterious events that take place in 2001 are still open to interpretation. As the film enters its third act, David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the lost crewman of the Discovery, finally makes his reappearance and I must admit that when I watched this sequence when I was eight years old, it gave me chills and kinda freaked me out!
Now, if there’s a downside to 2010, it’s definitely the ending. As you can see in the previous clip, Bowman makes a promise that “something wonderful” is going to happen. And, believe me, the phrase “something wonderful” is hammered home over and over again! The movie builds up so much hype for itself that you know there’s no way the ending could possibly live up to it. Not surprisingly, what happens isn’t particularly wonderful. It isn’t a bad ending per se, but it is kinda hokey and certainly doesn’t justify the massive build-up. However, I do have to acknowledge that I’m not sure anyone could have come up with truly satisfying ending to 2010. Given the iconic status of 2001, providing a solid, definitive conclusion to its story is an almost impossible task. Overall, however, the ending does not spoil what is an otherwise very solid and exciting science fiction adventure. 2010 is a film that was destined to receive mammoth criticism before it was even made, and you can almost say that going in the complete opposite direction of 2001 and making a traditional eighties Hollywood sci-fi film was a pretty ballsy no-win situation. Some people were able to put aside their preconceived notions and acknowledge that 2010 was a good standalone movie, but many others could not. However, my lack of enthusiasm towards Kubrick’s original film meant there would be no bias on my part. Even though 2001 is one of the most famous films of all time, I still stand by my opinion that I enjoy 2010 a hell of a lot more. If given the choice between watching a long ten-minute scene of ships moving through space to the tune of classical music, or a scene between Roy Scheider and John Lithgow shooting the shit about hot dogs, the hot dogs win out every time.