Monday, October 26, 2015

Star Dreck [Review]

2010, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001, is an epic shuttle to nowhere.

by James Wolcott

As scientists on a Soviet-American search for the monolith's secrets,
Lithgow (l.) and Scheider flail about in 2010's zero atmosphere.

The black monolith of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, that domino without a dot, makes a return visit on 2010, joined by other monoliths that dance and converge like iron filings magnetized by the swirling cosmos. (The uncharitable might say that those monoliths look like swarms of shaving stubble being sucked down a drain.) Written, produced, and directed by Peter Hyams (who it seems wasn't up to any of those tasks), 2010 lacks the eerie quiet and zero-gravity drift of Kubrick's visionary expedition; it isn't a light-streaming hallucination. 2010 is a message movie - a peacenik plea for the United States and Russia to mend their differences so that both may witness a fruitful awakening. It's the greening of the universe, with a monolith sitting in the new Garden of Eden.

This swampy Eden looks like the lush spot where Spock was planted at the end of Star Trek II, and 2010 has the frowning, constipated look Star Trek had when it was trying to think. But even with a heavy brow, the Star Trek movies have some personality and bits of business, lightening moments of bad acting. 2010 has hatchet-faced Roy Scheider, whose taut tendons and orange-brown complexion suggest an Indian war chief who has just endured a purification ritual and emerged cruelly honed. Perhaps if he simply let go a little, he'd have something of William Shatner's relaxed, potty appeal. Here, his zippers look too tight.

For a movie that intends to be a celestial climb toward enlightenment, ascending through colors into blinding white light, 2010 doesn't offer much to enthrall the eye. Even the monolith lacks the iconic, hovering majesty that it had in the first adventure - this slab isn't worthy of fear or worship. No, the pleasures of 2010 are primarily aural: the harsh, rapid inflections of Helen Mirren's Russian accent (Mirren plays a cosmonaut); the hurried, frightened breathing of John Lithgow as he space walks above one of Jupiter's moons; the courteous, plaintive misgivings of HAL the computer; the playful clicks of a pair of dolphins. But the tiny, amusing distractions to the ear are of little help, because most of the time we're face to face with the movie's ponderous, immovable boredom.

In Capricorn One (1978), a pop thriller about a faked moon landing, Hyams showed some narrative zip and made amusing, functional use of TV rock heads like James Brolin and Hal Holbrook. 2010 doesn't have any of that Flying Tigers acceleration; its themes and incidents come neatly sliced. Scenes in which Scheider dotes on his son can be filed under Domestic Human Interest, conversations about U.S.-Soviet tensions in Central America belong in the Topical Political Comment folder, and so on. The exposition is so slow and redundant (everything in the opening titles is reexplained in later conversations) that it's as if Hyams feels compelled to update the story at intervals for latecomers in the audience. Cinematically, 2010 is a small step for a man, a giant step back for mankind.

Except for Roy Scheider's grimacing, the actors tend to coast, and who can blame them? Madolyn Smith, too good for this material, is stuck on Earth playing the Loyal Wife Back Home while the pouty, punk newcomer Natasha Shneider (who's described in the publicity as "a classically trained Russian rock'n'roll star" - well, awwwright!) is stuck in a module and clings to Scheider's warrior chest. Keir Dullea, looking as young as yesterday, reprises his role from 2001, but he might as well have sent in a body double, for all he has to do. The cast is carry-on luggage on this epic space shuttle to nowhere. 2001 swept the heavens clean of untidy human life, but its pristine, balletic vision at least seemed to derive from Stanley Kubrick's austere moodiness. 2010 doesn't derive from anything. It's an impersonal hosanna to peace with a big-bang miracle finish issuing from the skies like a greeting card from God. The monolith is the stamp on the envelope.

(Illustration by Melissa Grimes. Originally published in Texas Montly, January 1985)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Add 16 Years to '2001' and the Result is '2010'

by Aljean Harmetz


“How do you continue a classic?” asks Peter Hyams. The answer, says Mr. Hyams, who is currently directing 2010, a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, is: with a great deal of anxiety and awe.

It was in the spring of 1968 that 2001, Stanley Kubrick's half-satiric, half-reverent vision of the bland and depersonalized future of the human race was thrust at movie audiences accustomed to science-fiction movies containing gigantic bugs, decaying monsters or malevolent aliens.

Though Mr. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, the respected science-fiction author, who had co-written the screenplay, had envisioned a cinematic parallel to Homer's “Odyssey,” and though critics were divided in their opinions, there was no mistaking the reaction of audiences.

Despite its mystical ending and deliberate tedious stretches designed to demonstrate the boredom of space flight, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was the fifth most successful box-office attraction in a year dominated by The Graduate. Since then, it has been reissued twice and earned M-G-M a total of more than $24 million in North American theaters.

“When I first saw 2001, says Mr. Hyams, “I was 25 years old. It was like finding a note in a bottle that said, 'There are no limits, no parameters, except your imagination ...' “

Since 2001 was made nearly a decade before the success of a movie almost automatically triggered a sequel, it has taken 16 years for MGM/UA to follow 2001 with 2010.

Now, at 41, Mr. Hyams, the writer-director of such science-fiction adventures as Outland and Capricorn One, is pitting himself against a classic.

The crew of the Leonov.

In 2010, which stars Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban and Helen Mirren, a team of American and Russian scientists put aside their political differences to travel to Jupiter in search of the astronauts of 2001 and to find the meaning of the mysterious black monoliths created by some superhuman intelligence.

When Mr. Hyams was approached a year ago by Frank Yablans, the vice-chairman of MGM/UA, his first reaction to the prospect of directing the sequel was to call Stanley Kubrick, whom he had never met, to ask for his blessing. “He said it was O.K. with him,” Mr. Hyams says.

But it is clear that for Mr. Hyams making a sequel to 2001 is an emotional minefield. “No matter what I do on 2010 I can't live up to people's expectations. But it's desperately important to me that Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick feel what they started 18 years ago isn't besmirched,” Mr. Hyams says.

“Nobody in his right mind can rip off 2001 or be stupid enough to think he can do what Kubrick did.”

Mr. Hyams urgently explains that his movie is not poetry, that it is “very, very accessible,” “a thriller with a beginning, middle and end,” “a hopeful and emotional movie with a focus very different from Kubrick's focus.”

But an hour later, all the wisps of anguish have been tucked away. Striding the set and shouting orders at his crew, Mr. Hyams is a brusque and peremptory movie director.

On MGM/UA's Stage 15, the largest sound stage in Hollywood, the spaceship that has been sent to discover what happened to the astronauts of 2001 sprawls like an inert plastic starfish. Unlike the Enterprise of Star Trek, with its mile-long corridors and ballroom-sized bridge, the Leonov of 2010 is narrow and cramped.

Made of gray plastic, the Leonov – named for Aleksei A. Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut and friend of Mr. Clarke – has ominously low ceilings. Most of the available space is crammed with dials and levers. Computer-generated images compete with data readings on the nine monitor screens above control panels eerily backlit by fluorescent tubing.

“Our ship is no Holiday Inn,” says Mr. Hyams, whose production is expected to cost more than $20 million. “The last consideration is comfort. My image for the spaceship was the submarine in Das Boot.”

“We were building Das Spaceship,” says Albert Brenner, the production designer for 2010. “With the real space shuttle Columbia, the engineers put in a facility for a human whenever they could find a bit of space. The spaceship in 2001, the Discovery, was 800 feet long and looked like it was designed by an interior designer.”

“The spaceship in 2001 looked like the GE Kitchen of Tomorrow,” says Syd Mead, the visual futurist who designed the Leonov's lumpy exterior, encrusted with tubes and plates bolted together.

It is not a lovely exterior. For the ship's interior, however, cramped does not necessarily mean ugly. In the medical bay, the six cryogenic chambers for the scientists who will spend most of the 14-month trip to Jupiter in frozen sleep look like children's beds modeled after race cars, complete with stripes.

Syd Mead's console design for the Leonov.

If Arthur Clarke, who co-wrote 2001 from his short story The Sentinel, doesn't like 2010, it will be partly his own fault. Between Sept. 16, 1983 and April 15, 1984, he corresponded almost daily with Mr. Hyams by computer from his home in Sri Lanka. Since night in Sri Lanka is day in Los Angeles and vice versa, each man went to his computer in the morning to find the questions the other man had asked or answered overnight.

Having arrived at a somewhat slower speed – from Sri Lanka to London by SwissAir, London to New York by Concorde, by shuttle to Washington and then another plane to California, Mr. Clarke was strolling the plastic floors of the Leonov two weeks ago, a cheerful, burly man wearing a yellow T-shirt advertising one of his businesses, underwater skin-diving safaris off the coasts of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Hyams's script has been adapted from Mr. Clarke's 1982 novel, 2010: Odyssey Two. The search that is the basic premise of the novel is intact. However, Mr. Hyams is focusing on a subtext about the politics of Russians and Americans having to get along together.

Mr. Clarke – who has just recovered from an encounter with “a nasty parasite; it's virtually impossible to avoid parasites in Sri Lanka,” he says blithely – called the writing of 2010 almost accidental. He had written and published a movie outline based on another of his books and had discovered “that you can get in 10 pages all the guts of a novel without the hard work of having to write a novel. Having found out how satisfying a movie outline was as an exorcism, I wrote an 8- or 10-page sequel to 2001 and sent it to my agent to send to Omni or Playboy. He sent it straight back and said, 'You have to write the novel.' And I suddenly realized that I wanted to!”

On Stage 30, where Esther Williams used to swim, stuntmen fly across the chasm that was once her swimming pool. Beyond are the bright red cellophane brains of HAL 9000, the soft-voiced computer who was the most human character in 2001. And perhaps the most human emotion in that movie was HAL's terror as he was destroyed by the astronaut Dave Bowman.

For 2010, Douglas Rain, the Canadian actor who was the voice of HAL in 2001, was in and out of MGM/UA before one frame of the film was shot. The actors in the new movie react to his prerecorded voice.

But another ghost from 2001 did roam the sets for a week. Keir Dullea – the Dave Bowman who turns into a star child at the end of 2001 – says he had “the same feeling I had at my 30th high school reunion. The people were different but the campus was exactly the same. The most poignant scene for me was having the voice of HAL to work with: two disembodied voices in a set from 18 years ago.”

His part in 2010, Mr. Dullea says, is “the character everybody talks about for the first two acts, who finally appears in the third.” Like Mr. Rain, Mr. Dullea is often approached by fans of the first movie. They are usually people, he says, who want him to explain the film's ending. He has come to consider the ending a comment on the “cyclical” nature of existence. “The existence of man is a bone in the eye of eternity,” he says. “A caveman throws a bone in the air, and in the wink of an eye it turns into a spaceship. My character, as he ages, reaches up in the same fashion the caveman did.”

Sometimes the other actors in 2010 envied Mr. Dullea his role as a disembodied voice.

“Our space suits were unbelievably heavy because they were designed to be worn in a weightless environment,” says John Lithgow, who plays Curnow, an American rocketry expert who panics during a space walk. “They weighed 100 pounds. We hung like sausages on unbelievably heavy leather harnesses. We couldn's sit down because our suits wouldn't let us bend at the pelvis. They lowered us to the ground and we lay there like knights who'd fallen off their horses. Then someone would come around and put a pillow under our heads.”

“They laid us flat like cords of wood,” says Elya Baskin, a Russian actor who came to the United States in 1976 and who recently played the prominent role of a circus clown who wants to defect in Moscow on the Hudson.

In Russia, he said, “The Government tells moviemakers what should and shouldn't be done. In America, the market tells you. So there's the same percent of good films and bad films in each country. Actors are privileged people in Russia, so people in the movie industry here and there look the same – a little bit phony, a little bit cool.”

Mr. Lithgow, who has been nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor for the last two years for his performances as a transsexual in The World According to Garp and as a timidly adulterous banker in Terms of Endearment has a catalogue of “the other hideous things they exposed us to on 2010.”

“The cryogenic sleeptank suits had a fishnet effect with brass beads at all the junctions. It was like sitting or walking on pebbles and my body would be crisscrossed with red welts at the end of the day. The days we had to wallow around in yellow tempera pigment, we'd wear surgical masks until the moment of shooting. They refrigerated the set for an entire day so one character could explode with vapor when he opened his faceplate.”

Then he smiles and adds, “With actors, the more you suffer, the more interesting you think it is.”

(Originally published in New York Times, June 17, 1984) Source