Someone is going to take issue with me featuring 2010 as a resident of the Island of Misfit Films. There are good reasons to protest. Excepting some “future” technology that looks awkwardly retro in the actual 2010’s and a plot that partially hinges on a military showdown between the United States and a Soviet Union that somehow missed Perestroika and its own dissolution in 1991, 2010 is a solid speculative science fiction drama. The film was profitable, the effects were top-flight, and the cast delivered choice performances from top to bottom. Even the script managed to get the science and the human touches right in the perfect proportions; something only rarely seen in science fiction films of any budget, big or small. The topper? 2010 was nominated for five Academy Awards (though it walked away empty-handed) and won the 1985 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.
How could a movie like that possibly be considered a castaway on the Island of Misfit Films?
For the doubters, consider this: If you happened to see 2010 in theaters almost thirty years ago, chances are that this is the first time you’ve thought about the film in at least a decade. For those under the age of thirty-five, I’m willing to bet this is the first time most of you have heard of the film, period. The same can in no way be said about 2010’s older, more poetically trippy brother, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
In fact, the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 began following Peter Hyams’ 2010 around as soon as the trailer appeared in theaters. Movie critic Roger Ebert was well aware of the potential for unfair comparisons when he reviewed the film back in 1984, saying, “Once we’ve drawn our lines, once we’ve made it absolutely clear that 2001 continues to stand absolutely alone as one of the greatest movies ever made, once we have freed 2010 of the comparisons with Kubrick’s masterpiece, what we are left with is a good-looking, sharp-edged, entertaining, exciting space opera.” A good film, yes, but not a film destined to endure. The penumbra of Kubrick’s chef-d’oeuvre chased 2010 all the way to the Island of Misfit Films shortly after it departed theaters, leaving it a shipwrecked prince lost among the crazy hermits of cinema.
And that is a damn shame. 2010 deserves better.
The film begins with a montage of still images that plays as mission highlights from Discovery’s ill-fated voyage to Jupiter as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Monoliths are discovered, astronauts are launched, HAL 9000 goes nuts, and people die as computer generated text walks the audience through the preliminaries. By the time HAL is deactivated and Dr. Dave Bowman is lost (presumed dead), many in the audience will be secretly relieved to discover that the seventeen hour cinematic acid trip that concludes 2001 is completely left out of the recap. Far out, man!
The scene switches to the Very Large Array in New Mexico. There we meet former National Council on Astronautics chairman Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), drummed out of the NCA in the aftermath of the failed Discovery mission and serving as the University of Hawaii’s Chancellor ever since. He is joined unexpectedly by a representative of the Soviet Union’s space agency to discuss the possibility of a joint US-Soviet mission to investigate the Discovery tragedy as well as the mysterious monolith still floating around in Jovian space.
The mission seems an improbable arrangement. Tensions between the US and USSR run high as the two tussle over an undisclosed dispute in South America, and both nations already have current Jupiter missions in various stages of preparation. The Soviets figure to arrive first in the Leonov, with the United States’ Discovery 2 launching two years later. The Soviets have the means of transportation while the Americans possess all of the data and knowledge about the monoliths and the original Discovery, but time is running out for them both. Discovery’s orbit around Io has mysteriously decayed. If the Ruskies and Yanks don’t learn to play nice, Discovery will crash into Io, along with her collected secrets, before anyone able to unravel the mystery gets the chance to try.
2010 is a film predicated so firmly on its story that summarization will eventually render in inert. Some of the highlights include:
Performances: Helen Mirren is outstanding as the Leonev’s Captain Tanya Kirbuk. Her character moves from cock-sure, to steely-willed, to arrogance, despair and, finally, mutual respect as she deals with the demands of her job, her government, her mission, and her US counterpart, Scheider’s Heywood Floyd. Scheider matches Mirren’s performance with persuasion, pragmatism, and the occasional dash of subversive good humor. John Lithgow is excellent as Dicscovery’s designer, Walter Curnow. His performance during the initial spacewalk between the Leonov and Discovery is tense and absorbing. Lithgow plays well against Elya Baskin as Cosmonaut Max Brailovsky who’s work also bears mentioning. Bob Balaban’s turn as HAL’s creator, Dr. Chandra, rounds out the list of standouts on the set.
Effects/Design: Many of 2010’s Oscar nominations came in what are sometimes (erroneously) called the “technical categories,” including Best Art Direction, Makeup, Visual Effects, Costume Design, and Best Sound Presentation. The visual effects in particular were magnificent. Stanley Kubrick, fearful that future films might cannibalize his models for other productions (a common practice in the Age of Optical Effects), destroyed the Discovery and all of its schematics after the film wrapped production. The Discovery seen in 2010 was a model created solely from photographic reference and painstaking attention to detail. Watching its elongated silhouette tumbling over the calderas of Io, its fuselage covered in a yellow patina of sulfur dust from exposure to the volcanic plumes below, is absolutely stunning. Equally amazing is the Leonov’s trip through the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, blazing like a comet as it aerobreaks to reduce speed for orbital insertion around Io.
Story/Script: Where 2010 both triumphs over and falls short of 2001 is its story. Kubrick’s film is a meditation on the essential mystery of humanity’s nature and place in the universe. Hyams’ is a space adventure predicated on a mystery with a solution, and a message. If you fell in love with 2001 for all of its unanswered questions about the nature of the monolith and the psychotic downfall of HAL 9000, do not see 2010. Similarly, if you go to the movies to escape into a story rather than gawk at visual poetry, steer clear of 2001. For those who crave the escape, 2010 boasts a well written, well paced, and taut script.
If 2010 has a downfall, it is the film’s ending. Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman character spends much of the movie building up the finale by saying, “Something wonderful is going to happen.” Some folks get to the end of the film and agree that it makes good on Bowman’s promise. Others do not. My personal issue with the ending is that the film’s “something wonderful” becomes a kumbaya moment that defuses the state of war between the Americans and Soviets, implying that the one cure for human nature’s inherent destructiveness is alien exigency. The fact that Americans and Russians managed to sort out their differences on their own a few short years after 2010 was made seriously undermines that message.
But these are small complaints. 2010 remains a movie worthy of rescue from the Island of Misfit Films, where it has been marooned for much too long. The film is currently available on Blu-ray, but does little to add value over the initial DVD release except that the Blue-ray transfer is anamorphic and high definition where the original DVD is neither. For those who haven’t seen this film or haven’t seen it in a while, give it a rental. You’ll be glad you did.