Thursday, July 23, 2015

2010: A Second Look [Review]

Making sequels seem to be like running marathons: arduous and taxing, and no matter how good you are and how well you did, second places are seldom celebrated.

Taking on the task of directing 2010 must have been daunting. No matter what the outcome would be the movie would be mercilessly savaged by a unanimous core of critics. Everyone knew this, and Peter Hyams knew this as well. When Frank Yablans from MGM approached Hyams—after first (probably rather ceremoniously) having offered it to Stanley Kubrick who promtly declined—the New York director was understandably hesitant. He knew that no matter what he would do, everyone would compare him to Kubrick.

All of the above said there are a couple of things that cannot be denied. When looked at as a stand-alone movie 2010 is not a bad film. Banal? Perhaps. Forgettable? After a fashion. Bad? Certainly not. The sad fate of 2010 is that it can never, under any circumstances, ever be decoupled from its industry changing predecessor. The other thing is that the movie is just that: good. Or rather, good but moderately mundane. Possibly pedestrian. While a lot of the blame—if blame is the word one wants to use—can be put squarely at the feet of director Peter Hyams, the fact of the matter is that the source material (the book by Arthur C Clarke), is no 2001. The same things that can be said about the movie can be said about the book. The book sequel 2010: Odyssey Two is reminiscent of the standard Clarkian fare: hopeful, good natured, boyish, and (excuse the phrase) very British. Add to this that the book is very academic, lecturing even, and you might appreciate why the movie cannot be much different.

Discovery in a tight spot.

Of all of Clarke’s books, and he wrote quite a few in his time, 2001 towers above the rest in a way that seems peculiar. Why, then, is the first installment in the Odyssey series so remarkably different? (Yes, it became a series: Clarke wrote four Odyssey books all in all, of—some say—ever lessening quality.) One issue that cannot be hand waved away is the input Stanley Kubrick had on the book. The pacing, the characterization, the unfolding of the narrative, the build-up of the major themes is all Kubrick. Granted, the greater themes were and still are pure Clarke, but the minute details of the text were worked out by both of them, and when they were not, certainly Clarke could not deviate far from Kubrick’s main structure. It could be argued that the novel really should credit Stanley Kubrick as co-writer. The sequel 2010, however, has Clarke on his naked own.

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey wisely avoided monograph and exposition—one is forced to suspect under Kubrick’s direction and insistance—the following book 2010: Odyssey Two does a remarkable job at dispelling all the mysteries, doing that which should perhaps never be done: explaining the magic trick.

It has to be said both the book and the resulting movie are lesser works when compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no way getting around the fact. That really is the best word one can use to describe both: lesser. Just as one cannot watch 2010: The Year We Make Contact without comparing it to it’s formidable older sibling, one can equally well not read 2010: Odyssey Two without comparing it to it’s predecessor. In both cases they are left wanting. Not hugely, but notably. In the case of 2010, it must also be said lesser does not necessarily mean bad.

Cold Odyssey

With the realization that 2010—both as book and as movie—is a lesser work comes the realization that one is free to appreciate the motion picture on its own merits. The plot elements as they are written by Clarke work surprisingly well within the constraints of the movie format, and by themselves create a narrative backbone upon which the director is then free to place additional elements of his or her own choosing. Hyams chose to excise the subplot regarding the Chinese Tsien mission and their probe sent to Europa, and instead added a Cold War backdrop to the narrative.

Excising the Tsien subplot did not seem to damage the movie at all, in fact there remains more plot elements than could fit nicely into a 120 minute movie in 2010. However, adding the Cold War backdrop anchored the movie firmly into the mid-nineteen-eighties, badly dating it. In contrast the 1968 movie, while being 16 years older than 2010, seems not to have aged at all; 2001 seems like a more recent movie than its far younger sibling.

Where Kubrick paid serious, laser focused attention on every little detail of the production, Hyams seems to have gone for belly laughs and guffaws during the making of the movie. To present an example: the zero-G toilet instructions found on the wall of the Aries 1B lunar shuttle in 2001: A Space Odyssey were the only tongue-in-cheek insertion, and their inclusion only happened after serious deliberation. The very same batch of text was then used by Hyams as a template for every little piece of text in 2010—on walls, on equipment, even on the space ship models—the logic being the text passes by the viewers’ eyes so quickly that they will never have time to neither notice nor even read it. But despite Hyams’ smoke filled sets we can, and seeing it immediately breaks the fourth wall, breaking the illusion that is vital to fantastic stories such as the Space Odyssey. The Leonov model apparently even had a ”Made in USA” disclaimer stickered to it. All in Cyrillic, of course, to make it authentic, you see?

Regarding the movie proper, Hyams must have known he was doomed from the outset. He could use none of the trademark Kubrick tricks from 2001—no classical music, no open ended questions, no slow and ponderous shots of spaceships majestically staving their way to their destiny—and most of all he would be compared to one of the all-time grand masters of cinema. No matter he did. With the game rigged and the odds stacked against him, Hyams managed to produce the best film of his career. Coming as the third installment of his ”science fiction trilogy”—Capricorn One and Outland being the two previous parts—the resulting movie was something of an anomaly. It was a cerebral movie amidst all the light fluff and shallow entertainment of the early nineteen-eighties. It was a slow-moving, thoughtful motion picture, instead of the whiz-bang style much in vogue at the time. In short, it was quite the different Hollywood fare.

Sure, the movie was not—and is not—an instant classic, and is perhaps not even that memorable. It is said that if it would not be a sequel to one of the most heralded works of art in all of cinema history—the film Kubrick towards the end of his life considered his best work—it would be all but completely forgotten now; and if it were not for the fact that it is this very sequel, it would never be written about at all. Especially not 30 years after it was initially released.

Forgotten Space

Do not expect any 30th anniversary re-release of the movie. Warner Bros has displayed a monumental disregard for the film. The only post-VHS releases have been a woefully poor DVD implementation and a Blu-Ray version of the same. The extras consist of one single 9 minute featurette made in 1984 plus a beat up film trailer. Those in the know are aware of several scenes that were axed from the theater version, scenes that could easily be included as buying incentives with minimal work, such as a sweet goodbye scene between Heywood and Caroline Floyd, the original aerobraking voice-over, the much longer aerobraking preparation scenes, the original Wilson and Moisevitch voice-overs, the greetings to Caroline, the Accessway 2 dialogue between Floyd and Curnow, and so on. No plans for inclusion of them as extras exist.

To make things worse for any refurbished release of the movie is the sad fact that many of the cast and crew are no longer with us. Roy Scheider who played Heywood Floyd is gone, as is Natasha Shneider who played Irina Yakunina. Dana Elcar who played Dimitri Moisevitch has also since passed away, as has TV announcer Gene McCarr and Saveliy Kramarov who played Dr. Rudenko. Herta Ware who played Jessie Bowman has passed away, and Cheryl Carter who played her nurse is no longer with us, either. Studio head Frank Yablans has also joined the Choir Invisible, as has art cinematographer Dave Stewart, and none of the three main sound managers are any longer here. Patricia Norris who was nominated for an Oscar for her work on the movie passed away earlier this year. Sad is also the loss of writer Arthur C. Clarke. Many others have simply retired from movies, such as Madelyn Smith Osborne who played Caroline Floyd, and James McEachin who played Victor Wilson. The list is long and keeps getting longer, and no forthcoming specials seem to be on the horizon. To make it short, what we have is what we will get. Enjoy it for what it is, because there will be nothing more.

If one wants to be a bit murky and unforgiving the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact is ”good” only in the sense that it is ”not bad”. But as has been said, Hyams meant well with 2010. Give him some slack and appreciate his movie as one of the best glitzy popcorn wasters from the eighties. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Please do yourself a favour and do not expect it to be 2001. It isn’t.

Images copyright ©1984 M-G-M.

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