2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT: My God, It’s Full of Stars

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) – Directed by Peter Hyams – Starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain, Elya Baskin, and Dana Elcar.

“Dear Caroline, The first part of this journey is coming to an end. We are about to rendezvous with the Discovery. The race will be on now. We’re going to send a boarding party over to climb inside this 800-foot long shipwreck floating over Io to see if she can be rescued before her orbit gives out. There are nine years of secrets inside, including a sleeping computer who knows the answers. My past is also inside, and I want those answers.”

-Dr. Haywood Floyd (Roy Sheider)

In watching 2010 for the first time, I want to remind people who wished Prometheus was a little less vague to be careful what you wish for.

2010 is a perfectly decent film, but it’s also the kind of film for people who can’t read comics without wanting to know all of the characters’ RPG stats. What 2010 does is attempt to explain the mysteries of 2001. That is not, in and of itself, a horrible idea, but where 2001 is a visual feast and an experience in the importance of sensation over logic, 2010 treating you like your five and continually telling you what’s happening because it thinks you’re stupid.

While I am not interested in basing my overall judgment of 2010 on how it compares to 2001, the structure and execution of 2010 seems to be clearly designed to counter the “problems” with 2001. Stanley Kubrick’s film had no set narrative structure, but was rather composed as four separate sections that link together, but not in a classic beginning-middle-end manner. Structurally, 2010 walks over common ground and comes off like a cross between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien.

Watching 2010 in the wake of 2001 is a bit like going back to a restaurant where the previous dining experience was a 12-course tasting feast prepared by Eric Ripert, and this time it’s reheated meatloaf.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of meatloaf, of course. The advantages of meatloaf (even a reheated meatloaf) is that it’s comfort food. You know what to expect and it’s not challenging. The disadvantage is that while it may be comfortable and thus never sink to the tastebud-driven lows of the charred octopus a la plancha, it also never reaches the heights of the Baked Lobster Goulash. (Yeah, I have no idea how good either of those things actually taste. I’m just menu-diving for examples. No offense, Le Bernadin.)

The most damning part of 2010 is the low regard it holds you in. That quote up top? It’s hardly the only infodump quote in the film. Time and again, we get someone’s voice walking over the footage to tell us things that are rather obvious. It’s incredibly difficult to watch 2010 and not think it was made by someone who was utterly befuddled by 2001 and was determined not to let that happen again, and it’s a shame because if you remove those inane voice overs the film has room to breathe. It is a rather slow-paced film and if all that, “Hi honey, I miss you. We’re about to do something important so let me explain it to you as if you were here instead of 400 million miles away and will get this as a recorded message.”

When a story – be it a film, a novel, a TV show, a poem, etc. – has to continually tell you what it’s doing, it’s a clear sign the creators have little confidence in either themselves or you.

It’s been nearly a decade since the events of 2001 and we enter this movie with the world on the brink of war. The Americans and the Soviets are rattling sabres and moving battleships around the globe like it’s a big ol’ game of Risk. Heywood Floyd was the head of the NCA and took the blame for the failure of the events of the Discovery mission. He’s visited by a Russian who suggests that Floyd attempts to broker a deal with the U.S. government to allow American scientists to board a Soviet mission to the the Discovery. Floyd is successful and they go on the mission.

We get the standard “people waking up out of cryo sleep” sequence, and there’s clear mistrust between the Soviets and Americans. Writer/Director Peter Hyams does a good job creating relationships between Floyd and the Soviet captain (Helen Mirren), American engineer Dr. Curnow (John Lightgow) and the low man in the Soviet pecking order, Max (Elya Baskin), and Hal’s creator, Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban) and Hal (voiced by Douglas Rain).

The best sequence of the movie is when Max and Curnow have to space walk from the Soviet ship they arrived in over to the abandoned Discovery. Does it go on too long? Yup. Is turning the volume of Curnow’s rapid breathing up to 11 annoying? Yup, but there’s also something right about it. For all the trumped up drama of the United States and Soviet Union being on the brink of World War III, it’s in moments like the space walk that 2010 delivers real drama. Curnow is incredibly nervous and Max is not, and both men are adults and professionals about what’s going on. I love when characters are willing to admit their own shortcomings and then attempt to overcome them, and the interplay between the confident Russian and the nervous American is top notch.

The film’s second best sequence is when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) makes a return. The question of what happened to Dave at the end of 2001 is on the scientists’ minds and when Max is ordered to take a pod and investigate the monolith, he triggers something in the object and a beam of light shoots to Earth. We see Dave saying goodbye to his widowed wife and comatose mother, and then later he appears to Floyd, telling him they have two days to leave. I actually like the interplay between Floyd and Hal at the beginning of this sequence better than Floyd’s reaction to seeing Dave return, but it’s all intriguing stuff.

It does feel a bit out of place, however, in what has largely been a conventional film, but that actually helps. We know more of the Discovery than the people on this mission, after all, and so it’s actually effective to see the two films collide in this moment.

The ending of 2010 is completely patronizing, however. We get a Jupiter turned into a second sun, which inspires the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to build a campfire together and sing hippie songs, and it’s rather pathetic that the answer to a global crisis is a symbol in the sky. The final message that Hal sends to Earth frames humanity as moronic children who need to be told what to do by their parents:

ALL THESE WORLDS
ARE YOURS EXCEPT
EUROPA
ATTEMPT NO
LANDING THERE
USE THEM TOGETHER
USE THEM IN PEACE

Thanks, Cosmic Entity!

I like the ending for Hal much better, with Dave coming to the computer to offer absolution. That absolution is infinitely better than the insipid programming error in the middle of the film that explains Hal’s behavior from 2001. I didn’t need that explanation. I was okay with Hal’s actions being vague and up for debate.

2010 offers none of that ambiguity, exchanging philosophy for politics, and mystery for explanation.

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7 thoughts on “2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT: My God, It’s Full of Stars

  1. Yeah, you nailed it totally as to the problem with 2010. It goes out of its way to over-explain everything and as a result there’s none of the cosmic grandeur and wonder of 2001. It’s not a bad movie and I like watching it just for the performances. And there are a whole bunch of nifty scenes such as the space walk. And the scene where the Russian ship has to perform a breaking maneuver. There’s a female Russian member of the crew who looks to be with somebody during that terrifying procedure and goes to Floyd. It’s a nice moment as none of the speaks the other’s language but they understand their mutual need at that moment. But ultimately, as a sequel to 2001 it just doesn’t deserve to stand next to that magnificent film.

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    • Yeah, I really like that scene between Floyd and the Russian woman and I wish it would have served as a blueprint for the entire film because it doesn’t have to vocally explain everything.

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  2. In fact, if this were ANY movie besides the sequel to 2001 I suspect it would be held in higher regard than it is now. As a stand alone space adventure with political overtones/subplots it’s actually a pretty damn good movie.

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