Friday, February 19, 2016

2010 - An Odyssey that's Easy to Forget [Review]

By Terry Hazlett, Entertainment Editor

The best that can be said about 2010 is that it answers the questions from 2001 which have been floating around like so many discarded Sputniks for 16 years.

The worst that can be said about 2010 is that is doesn't answer them very well.

Still, the immediate outlook for this belated sequel is good. If anything can shove the '60s generation out of its TV chairs and into the theater seats, it's a film that promises to settle the mystifying questions and situations posed by Stanley Kubrick in the original film. To director Peter Hyams' credit, 2010 concludes with a revelation that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the 1960s.

Keeping the Pepsi generation in its seats is another matter. Imaginative as 2010 is, it is nonetheless light years away from the Star Wars series. Likewise, 2010 can't boast of sex, profanity or even humor. Despite its PG rating, it might as well forget the school crowd.

In the future, I say.

In 2010, three Americans join several Russians on board their space ship in a joint search for the Discovery. The Russians control all the data, the Americans have been invited only because they can expedite the retrieval of that data.

Roy Scheider is the man blamed for the deaths of the original Discovery crew, John Lithgow is the engineer, Bob Balaban (a Richard Dreyfuss lookalike) is the computer whiz who must reprogram the HAL 9000. There's initial tension between Scheider and Balaban, but it's dismissed like so much space waste.

While the Russians and Americans are beginning to live compatibly in space, the same is not true on Earth, where war is imminent. In the movie's dumbest moment, the U.S. president orders the three Americans to abandon the Russian ship for the Discovery.

The explanation of HAL's actions in 2001 are explained away only marginally better, while the monolith, though never defined, nonetheless appears to be exactly what most viewers believed in the first place.

Keir Dullea, who played astronaut David Bowman in the original, returns to the Discovery in various forms in 2010, wrapping some loose ends for his character and the viewer as well.

One of the major problems with 2010 is that it never seems very futuristic. Although Scheider's home is equipped with a dolphin tank, the movie itself makes no other attempts to vault itself into the 21st century.

Another problem is the movie's non-story. 2010 resembles part two of a mini-series rather than a sequel. Its major developments are never major, the major crisis occurs early in the film, when the spaceship must "brake" to float alongside the Discovery. Because it occurs so early in the film, there's no question the spaceship won't be destroyed. So much for suspense.

There is minor tension when a visibly trembling John Lithgow makes his first space walk, and, later, when Balaban tries to convince HAL to go against previous instructions, but it's not the stuff of great movies.

2010 is decidedly not a great movie nor even a good one. It's merely a competent film, but one as passe as today's space shuttle flights.

When there's no excitement, no danger, no crisis, no one is likely to care.

Originally published 22 december, 1984.

Monday, February 8, 2016

'Dr. Chandra, I presume?'

Painter Chuck Close once famously said 'Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.' Many actors have the same down-to-Earth aire about them; their effortless authority seems natural, as if they were foreordained for their craft.

Bob Balaban was more or less destined for a career in show business.

Bob's grandfather, Israel Balaban, was born in Odessa, Russia. Moving from Russia and settling in Chicago, the Balabans quickly made a name for themselves in the entertainment industry. In fact the entire extended family was involved in the performing arts, in one way or the other.

His uncle A.J. Balaban started the first cinema theater in Chicago in 1908. Not content with only one such venue, the Balaban and Katz Corporation was founded in 1916, almost a hundred years ago. Bob's maternal grandfather was vice president at MGM, and his father as well as his uncles either owned their own theaters, or managed entire theater circuits.

Thus, when Chicago-born actor-director Bob Balaban was 10 years old, he visited the MGM Studios in Hollywood - where his grandfather Sam Katz was head of production - for the first time. You can say he never left; you can even say that he was in fact always there, that his future was written for him since before he was born.

Robert Elmer Balaban never had a chance.

Even his name is memorable - and he has always been Bob, never Robert. In his younger years he sometimes considered reverting to using his given name, but ditched the idea. "Bob went well with Balaban," he says, "all those B's. When I was an apprentice in summer stock, Ann B. Davis said she thought Bob Balaban was a great stage name, so I left it."

When he was eighteen years old and just beginning his acting career, an actress in his native Chicago told him, "As long as there are parts for people who look smart, you're going to get work." It turned out to be true.

Bob Balaban in Midnight Cowboy.

Even though his career is in the movies, he still feels he has somewhat broken the family tradition. "I feel like I'm the black sheep of the family," he says. "I am the only one on the other side of the line, the only actor."

His first movie role was in Midnight Cowboy, and he has been a mainstay in American cinema ever since.

Contrive and Consider

Fast forward 15 years from Midnight Cowboy and Bob Balaban was cast in the role of 2010's Doctor Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai, more colloquially known as Dr. Chandra. The movie was the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which coincidentally was released the same year as Midnight Cowboy.

Kubrick's movie became a watershed colossus, creating a before and after movie industry. The sequel 2010 may not have been equally momentous but it was MGM's biggest production of 1984, and everyone involved had stories to tell.

Bob Balaban remembers the shooting of 2010 in his own idiosyncratic way.

"My first thought," he says, "after reading the script was, 'Great! I get to have a relationship with one of the most famous inanimate objects in history.'"

Balaban's reaction is understandable. After all, he played a computer scientist in the film. Programmers might not appear the most animated of people, so to get under the skin of the character he was to play he had to dig a bit deeper. "I find it important to like my character," he said, "even if he's an ax murderer."

Thus in preparation for the movie he studied actual, real-life, flesh-and-blood scientists. "I wanted to see if they were really people," he says. "I found them all to be three-dimensional."

The scientists had some surprises up their sleeves for the actor. "I met one nuclear physicist with a degree in composing. That was surprising to me because I grew up thinking people were either math or English. And I wasn't math."

His portrayal of Dr. Chandra was one of the highlights of the movie. To Balaban that was a blessing in disguise. "Now I'll probably be a scientist for four years," he lamented at the time, "just as I was a lawyer for four years in movies."

I'm amazed that anything can
happen under such circumstances.

He thinks of 2010 as one of the "Big Set" movies he has appeared in. Not only were the "Big Set" films obviously big productions; in Balaban's mind there is something else that links them, too.

"I was in three," he says. "I lump them all together because they were all supernatural."

Balaban had previously acted in Steven Spielberg's 1977 blockbuster about first contact with extra-terrestrials, so 2010 was not exactly unfamiliar territory. One thing separated the movies, however. Ticket sales.

"They weren't as successful as Close Encounters. I was in Altered States, which took nine months, and I was in 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey; it was another nine-month event."

Science fiction movie production has progressed in leaps and bounds since the late '70s and early '80s. While some purists lament the disappearance of hand-crafted SFX, most producers are still breathing a sigh of relief 25 years later, mostly due to CGI slashing production times with a factor of ten. The movies Balaban remembers, however, were not done in the CGI era.

Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban) troubleshooting HAL-9000.

"All of them were very, very slow," he remembers, "because there were all these special effects. You'd look at a page or two of the script, and that could be three weeks of work."

One thing the stupendous amount of downtime brought with it, however, was the ability for networking and that, in turn, opened up the arena of asserting oneself.

"I actually started sort of thinking about becoming a producer during that movie," he says, "because I was sitting at MGM a lot and having meetings and trying to be aggressive."
The slow and ponderous tempo of the shooting was the catalyst that changed the way he thought about his craft, but there was another thing about the long downtime, too; it started playing tricks on the thoughtful actor.

"The soundtrack of HAL's dialogue was prerecorded [by Canadian actor Douglas Rain]," he remembers, "but I thought after 20 takes that he had changed his performance."

Mind Changer

He is still somewhat astounded he was able to create a believable role, and that he was able to sustain the momentum of the character with all the seemingly endless waiting.

If you have bad habits,
they're multiplied a billion times.

"Day after day I had to sit on a dusty soundstage in front of a blue screen," he recalls. "I'm amazed that anything can happen under such circumstances."

The circumstances, as they were, really drove home both the difficulties, and the dangers of his chosen craft.

"That's the secret of the whole thing," Balaban says, "and I don't know that there's any one good answer. Some people are much better at it than others."

Balaban states that it is not the notorious parties that Hollywood is famed for that creates so much difficulties for so many actors. It is the idiosyncrasy of the job itself, the nature of the beast.

"If you have any tendency to do drugs and drink," he says, "there's nothing like hanging around for 15 hours and working for three minutes. If you have bad habits, they're multiplied a billion times. You're being paid, they're bringing you free things, you don't have any responsibilities. Then you go home, and you have a real life. It's very tricky for a lot of people."

Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider),
and Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) pondering what to do next.

He considers himself lucky not to be in such a position, however.

"Not me," he says, "because mostly I don't work for 10 months on a movie. But I did a bunch of times, and it's tricky."

During the long periods of hanging around the set and anticipating the soon-to-come short burst of activity, the actors had time to talk and reflect. Balaban has nothing but praise for his fellow craftsmen and -women.

"I just love Helen Mirren. She's brilliant, wonderful, and a fabulous person. We were in 2010 together. She was a Russian cosmonaut, and I was the inventor of HAL, the computer, and we spent a lot of time working together. At one point, evidently, I gave her some advice. The idea that I would give someone that talented advice they would actually listen to is shocking. But I had been used to it, because I had already done Close Encounters and Altered States. She was saying, 'How do you do all that blue-screen acting? How do you sustain it? Do you have any advice?' And I said, 'I think ultimately the only advice is: Do it, and then never think about it afterward. You can eat yourself alive looking back at what you did yesterday on your blue-screen, because it’s just so easy to overthink it. You just can’t think about it. Just do it as it comes up, do your best, then totally let go of it.' Which is not exactly a revolutionary thing to say."

None the less, even after all the waiting and the blue screens, Balaban remembers the film with satisfaction.

"Oh, I had a good time," he says with a smile. "I enjoyed my part."

Images copyright©1984 MGM.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2010 graphic novel

Initially it might not seem apparent, but there are genre-overlapping similarities in the entertainment industry. The 2010 graphic novel may have longer roots than is at first apparent.

The official 2010 comic adaptations - or graphic novels as they are called - are rare beasts indeed.

Back in the '80s, successful films were sometimes adapted for the comic presentation format. The trend these days seems to be the other way around, and comic novelization has all but disappeared, making the 2010 graphic novel rarer still.

2010 graphic novel, cover by Tom Palmer.

Novel Narratives

Written by long-time graphic novel writer J.M. DeMatteis, the graphic novel takes some liberties with both the movie, the script, and even the Clarke novel itself. Minor details have been added - details that do not have any impact on the yarn, but are significant in-universe departures. Other details are added, making the story line and the narration of the graphic novel unique.

Nothing even remotely like this is made anymore.

One instance of this might serve as example: the apparition of Dave Bowman tells his wife Betty that she was "his first love". This disclosure appears nowhere in either the novel or the script. Further, when Dave Bowman appears to his mother Jessie in order to say goodbye, Jessie engages in a conversation with her son who is now a disembodied Star Being. This happens neither in the movie, nor in the script. The novel is kinda silent about it, too. At the very least, the portrayal in the novel is completely different from the graphic novel version.

Other tiny embellishments are to be found here and there. Tiny added snippets of both monologue and dialogue are of course due to poetic license, and neither add nor subtract anything from the story. Surprisingly the voice-overs - generally seen as the most cumbersome plot device in the movie - work very well in the graphic novel setting, and provide much clarity and strangely depth to the events.

Going Graphic, Again

The voice-over elements work so well, in fact, that it lends more credence to the view that the movie was initially created as if it would be a graphic novel. Moreover, when director Peter Hyams began work on the film he created the entire movie as a graphic novel before he had written a single word of the script. Hyams is, after all, a talented graphic artist with a degree in music and art from Syracuse University, and he draws a lot of the initial sketches for his movie designs.

Issue #1 and #2 of the two-part graphic novel.

As an aside, director Hyams presented conceptual design artist and visual futurist Syd Mead with his own designs, quickly drawn on a proverbial napkin at their very first meeting.

The official graphic novel looks a bit dated compared to the standards of graphic novels today. Not only has computerized shading and coloring created more variety in the color schemes, but the imaging language itself has changed since the 1980's. The narrative structures have also evolved along slightly different trajectories, making the narrative in the graphic novel appear somewhat stilted in places.

These are, however, not big obstacles if you're set to enjoy the pieces for what they are: time capsules. After all, nothing even remotely like this is made anymore.

Issues and Editions

The graphic novel hit the book stands April 1, 1985. This first issue of the graphic novel is the rarest of them all. Yes, there was another issue later on. The novel was split up into two parts, with the 2-issue magazine-format edition arriving a month later, in May of 1985. Again Tom Palmer did the cover art for both of the issues.

The graphic novel and the magazines are very rare today. If you can find one, any version or any issue, do yourself a favor and buy it.

After all, if anything encapsulates the '80s better than these, I'd sure like to know.

Images ©1984 Marvel.