2010: The Year We Make Contact
(SPOILERS) The deal with 2010: The Year We Make Contact, of course, is that it pales into insignificance if sat next to Kubrick’s film. The further deal is that, just because it isn’t a worthy sequel that doesn’t make it a bad film. Indeed, I’m always rather impressed by it. With the proviso that, like pretty much all Peter Hyams’ best films (see also Capricorn One, Outland, The Star Chamber) it doesn’t quite come together. And that, most damagingly, it feels like an 80s SF movie, whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey for all its psychedelia and monkey suits, hasn’t dated at all. And for that, Hyams really does have to cop the blame.
Less so for the oft-criticised – Kubrick doesn’t appear to have said much about the movie, but what he did say was pretty much this – decision by Arthur C Clarke to explain everything that previously puzzled, or at most was implied. I’m not sure this aspect is that damaging. It is, after all, not much more than Kubrick himself was given to elucidate at the time of 2001’s release. There’s still enough of the uncanny in the sequel for 2010 to find some kinship, but it’s undeniable that the combination of a more literal plot and a much more literal director steers the picture in a largely tangible, defined direction.
Hyams was, after all, a very “solid”, journeyman choice. Both his prior science fiction exercises were very grounded, one dealing with a very plausible fake Mars mission (only the Telly Savalas in a biplane ex machina is a bit much) and the other with post-Alien blue-collar mining on Io. Here, the focus is another of Jupiter’s moons, Europa (Clarke retained Kubrick’s switch from Saturn in his sequel). Roy Scheider – a very different Dr Heywood Floyd to William Sylvester – commented that Hyams take on the treatment was consciously to avoid aping Kubrick: “he told me he didn’t want the people in his film to be dull like in 2001 because the device won’t work twice. That grandiose space movie Kubrick did can’t be done again. You can’t pull the same stunt twice”.
I suspect that’s partly true. Certainly, you could no longer rely on visual splendour and awe at the never seen before to carry sequences (Star Trek: The Motion Picture tried it, and only nostalgia kept its box office head above water). On the other hand, a director with a distinct sensibility might have tipped the picture more in favour of its uncanny elements, the way Ken Russell or Nic Roeg achieved highly idiosyncratic results when they forayed into SF. You could readily imagine 2010’s characters fitting into the same universe as Aliens or Outland. 2001, not so much. Indeed, you need reminding there are tourist flights into space in this future, as you’d easily believe this is an extension of Challenger-era space exploration rather than the Kubrickian.
And this is where Hyams takes a wrong turn in respect of 2010 achieving any longevity. Clarke’s novel featured a joint US-Soviet mission, without any of the Cold War tension Hyams foisted upon it in the name of upping the ante. He was probably correct to streamline the narrative by ditching the Chinese Tsien mission that gets the drop on them and is destroyed by whatever is on Europa, but talk of détente puts the picture squarely in The Abyss territory; one might note that Kubrick originally included a Cold War theme in 2001 (complete with the Star Child destroying nuclear weapons carried by orbiting satellites). One might also note there was a good reason he dropped it.
Despite this, for the most part, the human material works pretty well. Scheider instantly brings with him a certain baggage, not in a bad way, but it means the picture instantly has a lean, rugged dynamic (you can see the same thing in All That Jazz). He’s a smart but not cerebral actor. Helen Mirren is good in a then-rare Hollywood excursion (she had been up for Shampoo in the 70s, but it seems she walked in on some involved “method” activity between her prospective romantic co-star and one of those who inspired his character). The standouts are Bob Balaban as Dr Chandra and John Lithgow as Walter Curnow, the designer of HAL and the builder of the abandoned Discovery 2 respectively (Chandra converses with a female HAL called SAL, voiced by Candice Bergen, which is the kind of slightly cheesy choice mocked in Red Dwarf when Holly changed to Hilly. Or by Doctor Who in casting Jodie Whittaker. Oh wait, that was serious).
Lithgow brings both intensity during his hyperventilating spacewalk and an easy camaraderie with Elya Baskin’s Max. Balaban gets the most engaging subplot as the derelict Discovery is reactivated and Chandra re-establishes communication with HAL. Balaban’s a natural for the boffin (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Altered States) and there’s real emotional weight and tension to his deliberation on how much to communicate to HAL, for fear the computer may go haywire again. Indeed, this whole climactic sequence is superbly sustained by Hyams, as the countdown reaches crunch point while HAL equivocates on proceeding in view of insufficient information. When Chandra tells him the truth, the payoff is additionally affecting (“Will I dream?”: “I don’t know”). Chandra even offers to stay with him.
I was always hugely impressed – and still am – by the revelation of the growing spot on Jupiter, in turn revealed as consisting of multiplying obelisks (accompanied by the eerie atonality of David Shire’s score). It’s an inspired and genuinely resonant idea, possibly the best hook Clarke has in his plot, and certainly 2010’s most filmic “twist” (although "It's reproducing exactly like a virus" shows scientific rigour isn't Clarke's strong point). Elements like this, along with the return of David Bowman (Keir Dullea, wheeled out of cold storage after a decade and a half), ensure 2010 has a lift beyond the mere materialistic, even if it means its closest genre relative during the decade of its making is probably The Black Hole.
The Bowman plot serves both the plans of the alien entity and the sentiment of the picture’s desire to explore “real people” – Bowman visits his dying mother and remarried wife (Mary Jo Deschanel), but the attachment itself is of one who no longer carries deep emotion. He is, after all, also serving a transhumanist agenda, propelled onto the next stage by the mech obelisks/AI (there is no need for God in Clarke’s schema; we can dress the material up as Bowman transcending to the status of an energy-based lifeform, joining those controlling the monoliths, but the effect is one of machine intelligence altering mankind’s development). Bowman comes across as more bewildered than enlightened, not truly perceiving the means and purpose of his behaviour. Rudolf Steiner warned that without direct perception of the spiritual world, there will be “immersion in a trend of thinking merely as mental activity”. Bowman only “appears” as a spiritual being. That facet is an illusion.
Indeed, the falling away of emotional response is a key aspect of the transhumanist ethos, and connects with Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in which humanity is destined to integrate with a hive mind. There, the aliens are revealed as resembling demons (some might argue this as a sleight, and the truth is the other way around). This is a theme later found in the likes of Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit) and Doctor Who (The Daemons).
On which theme, it is curious and telling beyond the mere surface level that Clarke chose to rename Jupiter – now transformed into a second sun, lighting the night sky – Lucifer. Kubrick was surely aware that Venus is already intrinsically linked to the name Lucifer (the morning star), so one wonders at his motives. In Steiner lore, Luciferian influences are very much of the mind. Lucifer “stirs up in man all fanatical, all falsely mystical forces” (and with Ahrimanic very much of the material, one can easily see the thread connecting this to the transhumanist path of rejecting the spiritual). The Luciferic force (which Steiner, coming from the Blavatsky tradition, so to be considered with due reserve, views as having a necessary evolutionary purpose as per the Ahrimanic, but both to be held in check) “strives to draw the human being away from the earth and the tasks connected with it”, leading him into “the heights of self-experience”. Which sounds a bit like becoming a Star Child, doesn’t it? Whereas, of course, the obelisk would be Ahrimanic. In Steiner terms, “faulty spiritualism and excessive materialism” are the snares of Lucifer and Ahriman. One might see them as defining Clarke’s science fiction. Curiously, Steiner’s evolution for humanity ends in the new Jupiter phase, so Clarke might in a sense be offering a direct rebuke of that.
More prosaically, one might be given to ponder the implications of such linguistic creations as the Star Child (and Childhood’s End) in reflection – Ahrimanic reflection? – of Clarke’s known predilections as a confirmed resident of Sri Lanka, and the rumours and allegations that followed him around in that regard. It’s notable that Spielberg was attached to 2010 for a spell, when Fox assumed they had a right to the rights. That’s Spielberg, who lately has enough rumours circulating to make Clarke tattle seem like small potatoes, and who made a film of Kubrick’s A.I. – itself a coded tale of paedophilia. There’s little doubt that the berg would have upped the ante of all 2010: Odyssey Two’s worst tendencies (think various sappy SF/fantasy material from that decade, including his contributions to Twilight Zone: The Movie, *batteries not included and E.T.) Curiously – or tellingly – another Hollywood figure with probably the most abundant rumours swirling about him was, at one time, at the beginning of the millennium, attached to adaptations of 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey: Tom Hanks.
2010: The Year We Make Contact is a very much an adaptation of the novel and very much a Peter Hyams film and very much an 80s SF film (one with dolphins in the family swimming pool, in keeping with the eco-conscious deep dive of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home a few years later. The evocative image on Europa in the 20,001 final shot is also very resonant Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s final shot). None of those are necessarily bad things; it’s just that none of them are great things either. I suspect “bad” would have been the prevailing adjective if either of the other, increasingly destitute sequels had got off the ground.