If ever a movie did not need a sequel, it would be Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was a film that made intellectual discussion of movies a topic for everyone. So many people had to ask “What the Hell?” that most of us felt compelled to try to answer, and many of us disagreed on the answers. Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the script with Kubrick, based on a short story he had written, decided that he was not done with big questions and wrote three sequel novels. The first of these was turned into a film sixteen years after the original classic.
This movie is more closely set in 1984 than in the future [now past 2010]. A new trip to Jupiter is planned in order to investigate the events of the previous expedition and cope with some strange phenomena occurring on the nearby moons of Jupiter Io and Europa. The Soviets are in control of the most ready spaceship and the Americans are tagging along. Hey, this may be the one thing that these films got absolutely right. In 2015, we are hitch hiking our way to the International Space Station, which we built, aboard Russian launch vehicles because we have no replacement for the Space Shuttle.
In the future of this film, the Americans and Russians are in a confrontation over Honduras in Central America. This is really the same kind of problem we were having in the early eighties. The film projects all of the paranoia of liberals concerning Reagan’s tough foreign policy positions onto a future President and the result is a tension filled backdrop for a more traditional science fiction adventure. The ultimate goal is to force the two space crews, the Russians and Americans to work together in spite of the state of war that is going on back home.
The production design on this movie is really very effective. They have recreated the Discovery space ship from “2001” and the Leonov, the Russian ship has been designed to be much more practical, like the “used space” look that was so prevalent in the times. When the two ships do connect to one another there is a slight discordant feel to the film, but it is fleeting and fairly easy to ignore. The model work is very nicely integrated with a variety of Computer Generated images of planets, green screen work in the “space” of the film and the sets created for the movie.
The cast is pretty special as it features Roy Schieder at the peak of his box office career, John Lithgow just two years into breakout roles after “The World According to Garp” and Helen Mirren has her biggest part in a big screen movie up to this point as the Commander of the Russian ship. Bob Balaban who was the hapless translator in “Close Encounters pf the Third Kind” adds another science fiction film to his resume, this time playing Dr. Chandra, the programming mentor to the HAL 9000 that had gone rogue in the original film. Elya Baskin, who played to depressed clown in “Moscow on the Hudson” makes a second appearance on our list of films here as a member of the Russian crew. Special performances are added by Kier Dullea as the remnants of Dave Bowman and Douglas Rain once again voicing the artificial intelligence of HAL.
Director Peter Hyams returned to space for this project, after helming “Outland” with Sean Connery a couple of years earlier. That version of “High Noon” in space probably prepared him well for the extensive use of special effects that would be needed to pull this story off. He is also the cinematographer on the movie, a situation that has frequently caused tension with the professional guilds. He makes some dramatic light choices in the film. The Discovery sets are always bright and filled with white light as they were in the original film ( by the way, all the sets had to be reconstructed since Kubrick had the original destroyed so the studio could not reuse them for some other film). On the Leonov, all the lighting comes from sources on screen, computer consoles, overhead lights and lights on the space suits.
The screenplay attempts to answer the blank spots that “2001” left behind. That may not be a good idea for the impact of the original film is a result of those uncertainties. “2010 The Year We Make Contact” is a much more conventional story and it has a political agenda rather than a philosophical one. The closest the movie comes to having a deep notion concerns the decision to tell or not to tell HAL the truth. Dr. Chandra argues that “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference. We should each be treated with appropriate respect.”
The rest of the “thoughtful” moments involve criticism of the governments, security procedures, and a strong anti-war message that reflects the left leaning nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. If “Gandhi” was the pinnacle of the political sensibilities about war from Hollywood’s point of view, then “The Year We make Contact” is an echo with characters pontificating on international relations and policy makers willingness to deceive the public. The outcome here is to rescue HAL from ignominy and restore him to the ranks of good guys.
I was an avid consumer of Science Fiction at that time in my life. I’d read the Clarke book and went to see almost every mainstream SciFi film made in those years. There were no less than five science fiction based films opening in the two weeks that started December in 1984. I anticipated this movie because of it’s pedigree, but I enjoyed it despite it’s roots. If you can separate it from the 1968 classic and take it on its own, it is wholly enjoyable. Lithgow and Baskin have some fun comic moments, Schieder engages in both hyperbolic political commentary with Mirren and mundane conversation with Lithgow. There is a great moment in the film when the hair on the back of your neck will tingle as Dave Bowman reappears to Dr. Floyd (Schieder’s character).
It is followed by a good scene where a warning is issued and a promise is made. The story plays out in a standard set of action moments trying to get the two ships linked together and vacating the premises quickly. The final message from whoever is behind the mystery of the monolith, is too low context to be very dramatic, and the two lines added by Hyams remind us of the tin eared messages of too many other films. The film was a modest financial success and it received five Academy award nominations in the technical categories but it did not take home the prize in any of them. “2010 The Year We make Contact” is acceptable Science Fiction film adventure, as long as you can divorce it from the Kubrick film.