2010: The Year We Make Contact

Hallmark e-card from an alien intelligence
Peter Hyams
Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Kier Dullea
The Setup: 
Sequel to 2001 in which those pesky aliens are still leaving their enigmatic monoliths laying around.

My friend wrote and suggested it was time to re-watch this, given as it IS 2010, after all, and it stars Roy Scheider, who is awesome. So it was swiftly accomplished.

Now, there is some argument among some amateur aesthetes that it is unfair to compare a sequel to its original. The logic of this has always escaped me. If a film is set up as a cotinuation of an earlier movie, with some of the same characters and trying to recreate something of what made the first film what it is, it seems to me they are DIRECTLY comparable. It doesn't mean you can't also consider it on its own terms, I just don't think it's valid to completely dismiss any comparison. And the unfortunate fact of the matter is that this one simply can't compare. Making matters worse is that this one strives to add somewhat of an explanation of the first film, which was a really bad mistake.

One other thing up front: It is easy to assume that, as in most cases, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the original novel 2001 and then Kubrick adapted it. But such was not the case with 2001. Apparently Kubrick and Clarke developed the story together, collaborating on its basic elements, but at a certain point Kubrick felt that he needed to go in his own direction to develop the story as a visual experience, and Clarke went in his direction to develop it as a novel. So in this case it would be wong to assume that the novel offers the "definitive" ending and explanation that Kubrick deviated from--they are different conceptions. The story of this sequel, however, can be entirely attributed to Clarke. By the way, one of the other little info tidbits is that Clarke and director Peter Hyams developed the film together over one of the first applications of email, back when it was in its very early stages.

Okay! So first we hear Dave Bowman say "My God, it's full of stars," which we soon learn was his last transmission before vanishing. Then we have quickie recaps of what happened to everyone in the first film [cavemen excluded], then hear Thus Sprach Zarahustra [the "daa-da-daaa--DAA-DAA!" music] as the credits play. Then we meet Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd, who was apparently a character in the first movie. Seems he was entirely held responsible for the mess-up of the 2001 mission, and he got shifted to a position on the sidelines of the space industry. He is visited by some Russian guy who tells him that the Russians are closer to launch a mission to Jupiter to figure out what happened than the Americans, but they wouldn't be able to understand the data, because they're not American and didn't program HAL, our ol' computer buddy from the first. But what if Americans went along on the Russian ship? Awesome idea--only, the US and Russia are on the brink of war! Yeah, this is back in 1984, when such a thing was a very big deal and seemed super-compelling, whereas now that we know it all pretty much came to nothing.... Anyway, they get Presidential agreement, and Scheider, John Lithgow and Bob Balaban as Dr. Chandra are approved to tag along with the Russians and get the Discover, the ship that houses HAL, going again and figure out what happened.

Chandra is an advanced computer expert and has SAL in his office, who is exactly like HAL, only with a blue light and a soothing female voice [an uncredited Candice Bergen]. He asks for her help in talking to HAL later, although I can't figure out what, if anything, she eventually does. Meanwhile we see that Floyd lives in a house with an indoor dolphin pool, something my friend reports as striking him as mega-cool back in '84, and I had to confess I had similar young teen daydreams, although mine involved having an outdoor pool of friendly sea lions. Anyway, Floyd informs his wife that he'll be gone for 2 1/2 years, and has some bonding with his son before it's time to go. Then--off to space!

Next thing we see, Floyd is awakened by the Russians, led by Helen Mirren with an accent and horror-perm. Bad hair = Russian. Now we see that both the ship's interiors and the manner of the space special effects look almost exactly like those of Alien, and I believe they are done by the same effects team, using the same process, in which they actually shot ships against a space background, rather than against a blue screen and compositing them later. First there's some crater in Io, and when they send a probe into it, a beam of something suddenly shoots out and high-tails it to Jupiter. Then they have to do "aero-braking" around Jupiter, which involves the same sort of "slingshot around the sun" thing as seen in various Star Trek incarnations. They blow up a bunch of heat balloons and we see the ship become a fireball as it goes around, making it safely. This, and the probe thing, are among the many incidents that occur during this film that sustain interest, but in hindsight seem like just so many disconnected episodes that don't necessarily add to the whole--or we are not sufficiently informed as to their place in the whole. Like that beam shooting to Jupiter--what was that about? Is that supposed to be when this whole process was activated? Got me. Also in here is where we begin Scheider's voice-over in the form of letters back home, explaining what we're seeing and how very important it is.

So they wake up Lithgow and Balaban. I totally forgot the name of Lithgow's character, so we're just going to call him Lithgow. He and this friendly Russian make a spacewalk to Discovery, the ship from the first film, that is hanging out by Jupiter and spinning. It is now covered in red dust, by the way. Hyams does a good job of getting us to understand the scariness of jumping out into space as Lithgow has a panic attack on their way over, and the gregarious Russian calms him, which, I'm sure you'll realize, demonstrates that Russians and Americans CAN be friends! Please hold me. Anyway, the spinning ship provides a really arresting visual, which is part of why this sequence [and the apalling ending] are the only two things I recall from seeing this movie back when it was released. By the way, in here we're also had enough repetitions of Keir Dullea saying "My God, it's full of stars" to note that it is delivered in kind of a dumb, goony tone of voice.

So they turn on the lights in Discovery and stop it from spinning [there goes that fun image] and Chandra goes over and recativates HAL. We also learn that Floyd has installed a kill device which will let him cut off HAL should he decide to go nuts again.

Then, boom, there's the monolith. No fanfare, no build-up, just there it is, like you might cut to a set of garden furniture. Come on guys, lets build up a little mystery here, okay? Sense of awe? Wonderment? Anything? So there it is and it's huge, for some reason we are never apprised of. Gregarious Russian Max is sent over, but soon gets zapped, and a big beam of something shoots off toward Earth. On Earth, we SUDDENLY introduce this woman we are to understand is Dave Bowman's widow, who is just trying to watch Wheel of Fortune in peace when her dead husband appears on TV and tells her everything's going to be awesome real soon. Then we drop her just as quickly and move on.

Then Chandra has a therapy session with HAL in which they discuss why HAL killed all those nice men that one time, and Chandra comes back with knowledge that HAL was given conflicting orders from some government official which conflicted with the mission and thus he did NOT go crazy, but was just followin' orders! This is part one of how this movie metaphorically holds a gun to the head of your memories of the first film and blows its brains out. Sure, it might be markedly more interesting and evocative to wonder if this artificial intelligence could actually go insane--but no, turns out it was just ye olde corrupt government official! Anyway, Chandra gets to tut-tut and be all upset that someone would disrespect HAL in this way and not be emotionally sensitive to our artificially-intelligent brothers and sisters.

So now it's time for another goose to the spookiness, when another relative of Bowman's on earth is abruptly introduced, receives a message from the dead spaceman, and dies. It's really notable only for showing a mocked-up Time magazine cover with Arthur C. Clarke as the American president and Stanley Kubrick as the Russian one. There it is above. This heralds bad political news, as it would seem that war has broken out on Earth, and the Russian and American teams in space are told to retreat to their separate spaceships and not to IM or text message. Then Floyd gets his own special visit from Dave Bowman, cycling quickly from youth to old man and back--including a sight of the "star child" from the end of the first--which is supposed to show that he now exists outside of time, but comes off as a cheap shout-out to the original film. He tells Floyd that they'd better get out of there within two days or it's gonna be a cosmic shitstorm such as they have never seen. Floyd breaks protocol and goes to the Russian ship--goddamn it, we can reach across our differences and work TOGETHER!--to convince Mirren to cock up a risky plan to get out of there approximately a month before schedule, without telling her why. This will also involve using the Discovery to push them the first part of the way [they don't have enough fuel on their own], which will destroy the Discovery, meaning that they'll have to convince HAL to destroy himself, which he might not be too keen about. This seems like a tough sell, then--poof!--by the next scene, the whole crew is fully on board with this cockamamie plan. By the way, in here, for some reason, a pen is in zero gravity while Floyd is standing on the floor. This also can be seen as a cheap appropriation from the first film.

Okay, well, what would a sequel to 2001 be without a little HAL action? They toss in the upcoming scene, in which tension supposedly mounts as they try to get HAL to fire the rockets, knowing it will result in his own destruction. For me, it was all just too plopped in here for the obvious reason of tossing off a HAL scene, and thus I was immune to the frisson it strove to create. Chandra finally levels with HAL that he's gonna buy it, and HAL appreciates the honesty and goes along with the plan. Then poor Balaban has to work up some tears to show how moved he is by HAL's noble sacrifice. Then the moron waits until there is less than 10 seconds left to begin his journey to the other ship before the booster rockets fire, for the simple reason of generating another arbitrary, shoehorned-in scene of peril. It is just so obviously trumped-up only to create peril that you really just have to give up on this movie.

By the way, in here there has been a dark spot growing on Jupiter, made up of thousands of monoliths that are rapidly multiplying. The big monolith from before just vanished, apparently, as we never hear about it again. So once the earthlings are headed off, Bowman appears again and tells HAL to aim his dish at Earth and prepare for a very special holiday broadcast featuring Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift and Jay-Z. Then the black spot consumes the planet and concurrently sends a mass email saying "All of these worlds are yours... use them together, use them in peace."

Then we hear Floyd back on Earth, going on way, way too long as we see the new star in the sky--Jupiter collapsed and became a star--over various cities. Floyd sums it all up in a wry, chuckling voice that says the events of the last few days have shown us all that "We're all tenants on this world, and we've been a new lease--and a warning!--from the landlord."

Wait a minuite, that's IT?!? We were waiting for a massive statement of cosmic understanding far above anything humans could understand, and what we get is essentially a Hallmark eCard? Seriously, that is ALL the aliens had to say, this WHOLE time? Couldn't they have just scribbled it on a cocktail napkin? It would fit. This is why I'm saying that this movie takes your fond memories of the first film and rapes them in the mouth before dropping them used in a ditch, because it would be one thing if this film came off as just a later cash-in [which, obviously, it still does anyway], but purports to EXPLAIN the events of the first film.

There are many interpretations of the first film--which is the way Kubrick intended it to be, and said so. To me, the monolith brings with it a huge leap in knowledge every time it appears, and I see the ending as representing this massive leap into a level of knowledge that is way beyond our current understanding. Which to me is the point of the film--there are things WAY beyond our comprehension. Here not only is everything totally within an eighth-grade reading level, it's this banal hippy-dippy 'love thy neighbor' bullshit. And this movie is essentially saying that all that mysterious stuff from the first one was all part of the aliens' plan to ask us all to play SUPER nice. Or we're gonna get a cosmic time out. Oh, and questions from 2001 that make you ponder whether artificial intelligence could ever reach the point where a computer could actually go insane has been replaced by a "Computers are people too!" sensibility, and the reason HAL freaked in the first is not perhaps the result of all those again unknowable mysteries that fit neatly into the larger theme, no, it's just that old standby, the corrupt, war-mongering government offical.

Furthermore, I don't see the massive climate change having a new star as close as Jupiter would wreak upon the world. Did I miss that part? And shouldn't someone at Clarke's level be conscious of that? And the aliens are totally chill that we use all Jupiter's moons for Cinnebon outlets and the like, great, but now they're all uninhabitable, due to there being a giant new star right next to them. Thanks for nothing, aliens.

Okay, so if we do as everyone advises and consider this film separately from the first film--a viewpoint that only becomes necessary when the sequel SUCKS, one must note--it still fails, but all on its own terms. I mean, it's amusing enough to watch, and will pass time as well as vacuuming or flipping through a magazine, but as a film, eh. The first problem is that Heywood Floyd just isn't a very interesting character, with any kind of interesting conflict, he's there more as a tour guide for what's about to happen. Then there's the episodic nature of the film, with little sequences, perhaps somewhat cool in themselves, but that add nothing to the whole. Like the whole aero-braking thing. Other sequences do fit into the story--like the spacewalk over to the Discovery--but they only advance the plot insofar as they get inside and turn the lights on. Then there's the distinct smell that the monoliths and Dave Bowman's cycling through ages are here for no other reason than that they refer to the first film. Throw on 10 minutes of HAL-based suspense, and you've got more of what you loved!

So yeah, I wish I could be more generous. But there's really no reason for this film to exist. I suspect that, no matter how many times you've seen it, your time would be better spent watching the first film again.

Should you watch it: 

Nah, let's just let it fade into history.