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)