Saturday, April 2, 2016

Star Peace [Review]

Last week saw the charity premiere of Arthur C. Clarke's new film 2010: The Year We Make Contact. John Gribbin enjoyed the evening but he wonders if the message filtered through to the audience.

by John Gribbin

IF AN ageing English pacifist who wears a sarong and lives in Sri Lanka provides the inspiration for a film in which all the Russians we meet are Good Guys (and Gals), the all-American heroes have to hitch a ride on a Soviet spacecraft in order to reach their objective, there is no on-screen sex or violence at all, and the author's message of peace, love and cooperation among all mankind is laid on so thickly that even the crassest American moviegoer could not fail to get a glimmer of his intent, how many people will go out to see the movie? When the inspiration comes from Arthur C. Clarke, and the movie is 2010, the answer is "a lot".

Arthur Clarke's greatest achievement, in a life full of success, may well be the way in which he has hammered this message home at a time when cinema audiences are developing a taste for super-nationalistic garbage like Red Dawn. I doubt very much if it will do any good, but at least he is trying to known some sense into their heads.

Against that perspective, the glitter of a royal premiere for the film looked distinctly inappropriate at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, last week (4 March) – except, of course, that the proceeds from the jamboree went to the very worthwhile Prince of Wales Trust. The invitations said "7,15 for 8", and in large letters "PLEASE BE SEATED BY 7,45". The Royal party, of course, was late. Just late enough so that the film started promptly at 2010; but if it was someone's idea of a little joke the point was so subtle that it was lost on the audience. Indeed, most of the point of the next couple of hourse was completely lost on the audience.

One of my neighbours literally slept through most of the film. In the crush on the way out afterwards, typical expressions of confidence from the money behind the film and its distributors, that I overheard, included the classic lines "I liked the ending" and "What on Earth was it all about?"

Linking East and West ... in space.

The Philistines didn't know what they had just missed. For, undisturbed by the trappings of the premiere, and unhampered by Clarke's potentially crippling pacifist message, screenwriter-director Peter Hyams has come up with a good looking, straightforward filme that has enough excitement to hold the attention, enough futuristic hardware to please the fans, and just enough loose ends to make everyone rush out to buy Clarke's book of nearly the same name, 2010: Odyssey Two.

The film has a different subtitle, perhaps seeking to distance itself from the original (and to clean up on the Close Encounters market?). Comparisons with 2001 are odious, but inevitable. The films are not the same breed – 2010 is less mystical, has nothing to compare with astronaut David Bowman's "last trip", which had the hippies climbing up the screen in the 1960s, and is very much the film of the book, whereas with 2001 the film came first, the book next, and a second book explaining why the book and the film weren't quite the same (The Lost Worlds of 2001) came third.

Sit back in the cold light of day and try to analyse 2010 and you won't find much there except for the message that we ought to stop squabbling among ourselves and grow up a bit. The depressing side of this is that even Clarke seems to think that the only hope that we will grow up is if someone Out There gives us a stern talking to. Maybe he is right. But while you are watching Hyams carries you along with pace and glitter, a little bit of a race against time and a hint of a cliffhanger – much more like a non-sadistic version of Raiders of the Lost Ark than like 2001, and incomparably superior to any of the Star Trek genre.

The much heralded special effects, including computer simulations of the surface of Jupiter "better than anything from JPL" are indeed good, but so naturally a part of the story that they merge into the background. It is the highest praise for the effects team, though galling perhaps for those who have to pay for the effects, that you take the for granted. On the other hand, Hyams makes scarcely any attempt to convey an impression of zero gravity, which is better than trying to convey it and failing. Now we have all seen real zero gravity on television, the only way the movie makers can compete will be to shoot Odyssey Three in orbit. And, while the technology looks authentic, the level of scientific accuracy can be gleaned from a communication Clarke sent to Hyams on 31 October 1983:

As you are making a movie and not actually going to Jupiter (yet, anyway) you should not let the engineers brainwash you ... as long as the method chosen is plausible, the decision should be based on such factors as visual impact, audience comprehension, plot requirements, and special effects cost/feasibility.

On all those counts, I would rate 2010 a better movie than 2001.

The quote comes from one of Clarke's (or rather, "Serendib B.V."'s) spin-offs from the film, The Odyssey File (Granada), a book built around the "correspondence" between Clarke and Hyams in the run up to the production of 2010. And thereby hangs a tale. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Clarke's proposal for geostationary telecommunications satellites. Even when 2001 was being made in the 1960s, the prospect that its successor would be planned with the aid of home computers providing a link between Sri Lanka and California via just such satellites was almost unimaginable.

The Odyssey File is intriguing background to the film, and perhaps reveals more about Clarke and Hyams than they realise. Read the book 2010 first, then see the film (watch out for Clarke feeding pigeons in front of the White House), read The Odyssey File, then read the book again. From past experience, Odyssey Three should be ready in 17 years, in 2002, and will be set in 2018.

The future is catching up on us, but slowly.

(Originally published in New Scientist March 14 1985) Source

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