*****MONOLITH-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
Back in 1984, the Cold War was in full swing. Soviet Russia (before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union) was the binary enemy of the United States; they were the ‘commie pinkos’ and we were the ‘capitalist swine’ (even in those days, I never bought that propaganda). The US space shuttle program was advancing very slowly (this was a couple years before Challenger explosion and 19 years before the loss of Columbia) as the Russians were gaining spaceflight endurance experience through their Salyut space stations (Mir came two years later). America was experiencing a resurgence of patriotism that seemed more grounded in a perception of economical prowess than any new ‘greatness.’ Malls were the places to hang out, and I was a high school senior.
On my 18th birthday that year, I went to see the newly arrived sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey”; a film I’d seen theatrically at a revival screening a year or so earlier, and with which I’d fallen madly in love with (still am, in fact). I’d also read Arthur Clarke’s book, “2010: Odyssey Two” a couple years earlier (still have my first edition hardback), so I was ready for reentry into that universe. The film, oddly retitled “2010: The Year We Make Contact”, was adapted and directed by Peter Hyams (“Capricorn One” “Outland”). Hyams and Clarke collaborated via computer, since Clarke lived in Sri Lanka and Hyams was making the film in Hollywood. Email was very innovative in those days. Maybe the future had arrived after all?
The movie opens with a very blue computer text crawl over a images from “2001: A Space Odyssey”; the images are presented as a final mission report, citing the failure of Discovery’s HAL9000 computer, the loss of of the crew while in hibernation, and the last cryptic, gravitationally-distorted message from Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) as he left the ship to rendezvous with the monolith near Jupiter: “My god, it’s full of stars!” That line was in both novels of “2001” and “2010” but was never heard in the actual “2001” soundtrack.
After the report, the film cuts to the original movie’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (composer Richard Strauss’ classic that became the theme of Kubrick’s “2001”), as dawn breaks over the VLA (Very Large Array) of radio telescopes out in the desert of New Mexico (a location later used in 1997’s “Contact”, based on Carl Sagan’s novel). We see a recast Dr. Heywood Floyd (now played by the late Roy Scheider) mindlessly polishing part of a telescope’s mechanism, as Russian scientist Moisevitch (Dana Elcar) comes to visit Floyd with a proposal; a joint mission of Americans hitching a ride aboard a Russian spacecraft, the Leonov (named after Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, who passed away only weeks ago) to rendezvous with the derelict spacecraft Discovery before it crashes into Jupiter’s moon Io. Hitching a ride with Russians for access to space became commonplace by the real year of 2010, and is still practiced today…
Floyd takes the Russian proposal to the current chairman of the NCA (Floyd’s old job), Dr. Victor Milson (James McEachin), who has the ear of the current ‘reactionary president.’ Floyd decides on three Americans to go on the flight. The first is Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban, somewhat miscast as an Indian). Chandra designed HAL9000, and might be able to learn why he malfunctioned, as well as recover any monolith data he might have accrued. The second is one of the designers of the original Discovery, acrophobic engineer Walter Curnow (the amiable John Lithgow). The final pick is, of course, the guilt-ridden Heywood Floyd himself, the architect of the original failed mission.
There is a brief scene at the University of Chicago where Chandra breaks his good news to HAL’s sister computer, SAL9000 (voice of Candice Bergen, credited as “Olga Mallsnerd”). HAL’s twin wonders if she’ll dream when her creator temporarily takes her offline. A sympathetic Chandra assures her that she will, because “all intelligent creatures dream.”
We later see Floyd at his beautiful California coastline home (complete with the book’s dolphin moon pool). We meet Floyd’s much-younger wife Caroline (Madeline Smith) and their 8 year old son Christopher (Taliesin Jaffe), as Floyd prepares to tell his family that he has volunteered to go to Jupiter on a two year-long mission. Upon hearing the news, a distraught Caroline shatters a glass in the sink, and little Christopher wonders if his dad is going to die. Could’ve gone better.
Cut to several months later, we see the Soviet spaceship Leonov (with its now outdated Cyrillic CCCP logo) as it approaches two of the innermost moons of Jupiter, Europa and Io. The crew has detected some curious telemetry from Europa, and wake up Dr. Floyd from cryogenic suspension a little early to help them investigate. A groggy Floyd is awakes to the sight of the Russian captain Tanya Kirbuk (Kubrick backwards…hehe), played by the amazing Helen Mirren, and ship’s medical officer Dr. Rudenko (played by the late Russian comedian Savely Kramarov).
Leonov science officer Dr. Orlov (Oleg Rudnik) launches a remote probe to Europa and detects what appears to be chlorophyll (yes, that green stuff in Earthly plant life) hiding within the icy crevices of the Jovian moon (“There was something down there… it was organic. There was life”). As the probe descends toward the source of the readings, a blinding flash ejects from nowhere; knocking out the probe’s sensors, and erasing all of its telemetric data. Floyd believes the flash wasn’t an “electrostatic buildup” as the Russians conjecture… he believes “something wants (them) to stay away from Europa” and that something is the mysterious, 2 kilometer-long monolith orbiting over Io, where the Discovery is parked in its rapidly decaying orbit.
Note: in the book, the discovery of life on Europa was much more explicit, as giant leafy tendrils reached out from below the ice and destroyed a manned Chinese lander, the Tsien.
Next, the Leonov prepares to ‘aerobrake’ over Jupiter (aerobraking is a now-routine maneuver often done with unmanned space probes to adjust their orbits or slingshot them onto other destinations). Much anxiety builds as the Leonov battens down the hatches and prepares to skim the upper atmosphere of gas giant Jupiter in order to fling them onto Io. Floyd nervously waits in his tiny personal cubicle as the Russian cosmonauts hurriedly prepare for the dangerous maneuver. A terrified young Russian woman named Irina (late Russian rocker Natasha Shneider) looks to Floyd for comfort (the two had sex in the book). As the ship rocks, buffets and is engulfed in flaming ballutes, the two cling to each other until the ship settles. The non-English speaking Irina gives Floyd a chaste kiss of gratitude, and leaves. A formerly lurid encounter from the novel wisely turned into a moment of simple human comfort for a PG film. Smart…
The Leonov settles over Io, and sees the derelict Discovery, tumbling end over end and coated in sulfur from Io’s wildly active vulcanism spewing into space. The science of the film (and the book) was based on the Voyager missions from the late 1970s, and was very accurate for its day. If anything, Io’s surface-changing vulcanism in the film is depicted as a bit more conservative than it is in real life.
At this point, it’s decided to awaken the last two Americans still in cryogenic suspension; Dr. Chandra and Dr. Curnow. The two feel “like s#!t” and are brought up to speed by Floyd on the events of Europa and the mission to date… as well as escalating tensions back on Earth between the mission’s two rival countries. Curnow is to partner up with Maxim “Max” Brailovsky (Elya Baskin) for a spacewalk over to the derelict Discovery, in an attempt to stabilize her orbit. Afterward Chandra will board the ship and tinker with HAL9000 in order to see what went wrong with his homicidal cybernetic brainchild. But first things first; the spacewalk over to Discovery, which the acutely acrophobic Curnow isn’t looking forward to…
Max gently guides the panic-stricken Curnow over to the spacecraft, with actor Lithgow riffing on his own role in “Twilight Zone: The Movie”, where he played a reimagined version of the petrified air traveler first played by William Shatner (in author Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”). Curnow loses it, but a cooler-headed Max manages to thin his oxygen mix and calm him down a bit. The two then enter the same airlock that last saw David Bowman reentering the ship to shut down HAL in the first film. They open their helmet visors and sample the ship’s air. Max begins to panic when he thinks he smells Bowman’s rotted corpse. A recovered Curnow quickly assures the thanatophobic Max that the smell is merely spoiled meat in the ship’s galley. The two men share a laugh over their respective phobias and get to work. Discovery is powered up, and her orbit over Io is stabilized.
At this point, it’s “time to unleash Chandra” and see what went wrong with HAL. We see Chandra floating into the massive red-lit memory core of the computer (today’s smaller, more powerful computers weren’t yet conceived for the early 21st century). We see Chandra tinkering with and adjusting HAL’s vocalizations until we hear the dulcet tones of late actor Douglas Rain’s HAL voice coming through the interface speaker, “Good morning Dr. Chandra, this is HAL. I’m ready for my first lesson.”
With the ships connected via a retractable tunnel, the Russian and American crews pass to and from the two vessels, working together despite escalating tensions back on Earth (much as astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station do today as well). Discovery is stable, Chandra is busy tinkering with HAL, and the two ships glide towards their ultimate destination… the giant monolith in orbit over Jupiter; the same monolith which seemingly swallowed astronaut Dave Bowman nine years earlier. Kirbuk decides to launch Max aboard a pod in an attempt to get a closer look at the giant alien artifact. Floyd instinctively balks at the order, which has ‘bad idea’ written all over it. They could just as easily send an unmanned probe for telemetry, without risk to human life. Kirbuk is adamant, and Floyd’s recommendation is rebuffed. Max jokes the flight will be as “easy as pie”, which his newfound friend Curnow corrects “cake, easy as cake.”
As with the novel, Max’s flight doesn’t go well; he approaches the humongous ebon slab, which absorbs radar and radio signals. Max begins to maneuver the pod a bit closer, and closer… until another blinding flash, similar to the one seen at Europa, shoots from the monolith, zaps the helpless pod, and kills Max. Curnow is aghast, crying out in vain to his lost friend. The combined crews are in mutual mourning.
Aboard Discovery, Chandra has restored HAL to partial functionality. He gathers Floyd, Curnow (wearing Max’s cap) and Orlov into the Discovery’s pod pay to fill them in on his progress with the supercomputer to date. Chandra has also learned why HAL went berserk and killed the rest of the crew; he was caught in program loop…he was ordered to lie to the crew about their real objective (the monolith) and that lie was in basic conflict with his original program; the accurate relaying of information without distortion nor concealment.
Floyd is incensed when he learns that the White House authorized telling HAL about the monolith, something Floyd (allegedly) didn’t approve when he was NCA chairman. This is a major retcon from the first movie.
The final act of “2001” saw Dave Bowman clearly receiving a prerecorded briefing from Dr. Floyd (then played by William Sylvester) after disconnecting HAL. Floyd’s briefing specifically states that HAL was informed of the mission’s true objective from the very beginning. “2010” reimagines an angry Dr. Floyd growling between gritted teeth, “I didn’t know! I didn’t know!!” Anyone who remembers the original film has to wonder if Floyd is merely covering his own ass, or does he have a very faulty memory? Chandra does remind Floyd that he personally signed the order to tell HAL, an action Floyd blames on the White House’s NSC. I get that Scheider’s Heywood Floyd is supposed to be the sequel’s hero, but in the earlier film, William Sylvester’s Floyd was portrayed as a politician who seemed perfectly at ease with lying. He uses an ‘epidemic’ cover story to hide the existence of the Tycho lunar monolith at the American lunar base. That version of the character had no issue with discretely informing HAL about the monolith at Jupiter, forcing the computer to lie (and fatally malfunction). Scheider plays it as if he’s genuinely in the dark, which doesn’t jibe with the first movie. This new retcon acts as a patch to acquit Scheider’s Floyd from any blame.
We then cut to a couple of scenes that border on the ridiculous. The ‘ghost’ of David Bowman was the energy burst that shot from the monolith earlier (accidentally killing poor Max…no apologies), and now it’s arrived on Earth to say a few fond farewells; first he pays a visit to ex-wife Betty (Mary Jo Deschanel, mother of actress Zoe and wife of cinematographer Caleb), whom he creepily appears to on her TV set (again, this is straight from the book). Then the Bowman-ghost is off to see his comatose mother Jessie (Herta Ware, of “Cocoon”) in her nursing home, where the disembodied astronaut-starchild revives her, brushes her hair and gently eases her into death…a relief from her suffering. The ghost-TV Bowman effect is like something out of Steven Spielberg’s “Poltergeist”, while the nursing home bit feels like a deleted scene from “Ghost”. While I understand the need for both Clarke and Hyams to humanize the Bowman character (who is now a human-celestial hybrid), these scenes are clumsy and are my least favorite moments in this otherwise solid film. I didn’t like them in the book, either.
Back in Jupiter space, the astronauts and cosmonauts each receive bad news from their respective governments; due to a deadly incident over Honduras (the film’s analog to a Cuban Missile Crisis), the United States and the Soviet Union are now in a state of war. The American astronauts are ordered to leave the Leonov and fly home on Discovery, while the cosmonauts aboard Discovery are ordered back to the Leonov. The cable bridge between the ships is collapsed and dismantled. Both crews are despondent.
Later aboard Discovery, Floyd is strapped into the command deck, conversing with an increasingly functional HAL. HAL tells Floyd that he’s receiving a text message from an unknown caller; the message tells Floyd that they must leave Jupiter space in two days. Floyd assumes it’s a bad practical joke from Curnow, but HAL insists that Curnow isn’t sending the message. Ever the skeptic, Floyd demands to know who’s behind the messages. A new message reads, “I understand. It is important that you believe me. Look behind you.”
An uncertain Floyd turns around to see a youthful Dave Bowman in his red EVA suit, standing and smiling (I wonder how much more effective this scene would’ve been if we hadn’t seen the “ghost-Bowman” earlier). Floyd follows this seeming apparition down the ship’s corridors and into the pod bay (we never see the Discovery’s main centrifuge; too expensive to rebuild, I imagine).
Confronting the ‘ghost’, Floyd is stunned to see Bowman appearing at random ages; from youthful astronaut, septuagenarian and centenarian. Bowman tells Floyd that “something wonderful” is going to happen here in Jupiter space, but that it’ll be too dangerous for the two spacecraft to remain. Floyd insists that Discovery doesn’t have enough fuel for an earlier departure. Bowman blithely ignores Floyd, only telling him that “there may be another message after, if all goes well.” We then see Bowman appear as the iconic “Starchild” (the ‘space-baby’ seen in the final frames of “2001”). The ‘ghost’ disappears.
Ignoring their government’s orders, Floyd grabs a spacesuit and rockets over to the quarantined Soviet vessel to meet with Kirbuk. He tells her that he has it on good authority that they have to prepare to leave together right now. She tells him “You have been drinking your whiskey from Kentucky” (a reference to an earlier scene after Max’s death where the two shared a swig of Floyd’s smuggled alcohol rations). An insistently sober Floyd tells her that they can’t return to Earth separately, but they can leave together; the two ships can dock, using an unmanned Discovery as a booster rocket, leaving Leonov enough fuel to return home with both crews aboard.
As the two argue, Floyd looks out the window and realizes that the giant monolith hanging over Jupiter is suddenly gone. That settles it; something is definitely up, and the decision is made… both ships will prepare to leave ASAP, using Floyd’s escape plan.
The crews work together again, as they crunch the numbers and work out the details of physically attaching the spacecraft. With the bulky, clunky Leonov taking ahold of Discovery’s lengthy spine like some sort of cosmic mating ritual, the two ships connect. As the countdown for launch begins, an ethical consideration arises. Dr. Chandra is adamant that HAL be informed of his fate as a disposable booster. HAL is needed for the precise firing of Discovery’s engines, but should he be told why? When asked how HAL will react, Chandra isn’t certain; HAL is an intelligent entity, and is now being asked to commit suicide. Does the computer have a sense of self-sacrifice, or will this choice drive him insane? Will he actively stop the crew from killing him, as he tried to stop Bowman before? Time will tell…
Orlov and Curnow, using the telescopes on Leonov, observe a large black spot on Jupiter that appear to be a shadow, but isn’t. Upon closer examination, the ’spot’ is comprised of millions of monoliths that are reproducing like a virus. The spot is getting larger and larger, until it will envelop the gas giant world, increasing its density. As the countdown enters a critical phase, HAL wants to remain and study the phenomenon. Chandra tries talking him out of it, but HAL is insistent. Floyd nervously looks to Curnow… the two of them had rigged a computer kill-switch if HAL got out of line, but they don’t want to use it unless they have to, since HAL’s precision is critical for launch success. A tearful Chandra tells his cybernetic brainchild the full truth; if HAL doesn’t help them with the launch now, they will all die. After a moment of hesitation the computer resumes countdown, telling his creator he’s grateful to know the truth. Chandra replies, “You deserve it.” HAL tells Chandra to leave immediately for the safety of Leonov, but not before asking his creator if he’ll dream when he dies. An emotional Chandra answers, “I don’t know,” says his goodbyes to HAL, and makes a harrowing, last-second escape back to the Leonov…
…just as Discovery’s main engines ignite! The conjoined spacecraft are violently rocketed out of Jupiter space, just as the gas giant begins to shrink. As the multiplying monoliths continue to envelop the planet, they increase its mass. The spent Discovery is detached and falls behind, just as Leonov fires her own engines for the return course home. Onboard the Discovery, we hear the disembodied voice of Bowman talking to a confused HAL, who can’t see the astronaut on any of his monitors. Bowman instructs HAL to point the AE-35 antenna towards Earth and repeatedly transmit a single message for as long as possible. As the transmission begins, Jupiter implodes…and then explodes into a new second sun. The shockwave destroys Discovery (along with HAL) and shakes up the Leonov crew, but they and their ride home survive intact. The message is as follows…
We hear Floyd composing a final message to his son Christopher before going back into cryogenic suspension for the long trip home. In his letter he tells his son that someday his children will be born into a world of two suns, and that “they will never know a sky without them.” Floyd also hopes that the children of the new sun will someday seek out the children of the old, in the hopes our stellar neighbors will be our friends. With proof of extraterrestrial architects carefully tending the life within our now dual solar system, hostilities between world powers shrink to insignificance, as Floyd points out that “we’ve been given a new lease, and a warning, from the landlord.”
The final coda shows Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa, now basking in the rays of its new sun (called Lucifer in the book). Over eons, we see oceans form, plants, trees and eventually the sounds of animal life… and standing on the edge of a Europan lake, as it stood near an open plain in Africa on Earth millions of years before, is a single black monolith. Fade out. Cue Strauss.
The late Roy Scheider (“French Connection” “JAWS” “Blue Thunder”) inherits the role of former NCA (National Council of Astronautics) chairman Dr. Heywood Floyd from William Sylvester, and he plays the role much like astronaut Chief Brody from “JAWS”; sailing off into the ocean of space to hunt his Great Black Monolith. He also plays the character in a typically ‘Roy Scheider‘-way; edgy, sharp, and a bit short-tempered now and then (“Forget reason! No time to be reasonable! The politicians can go screw themselves!”). Overall, Scheider’s Floyd is an intense, intelligent guy who isn’t afraid to step on toes or buck the system to get things done.
This is in sharp contrast to the late William Sylvester’s Heywood Floyd, who was played more as a bored, smalltalk-making bureaucrat who just also happens to be an astronaut. Sylvester’s Floyd easily engages in coverups (the lunar ‘epidemic’ at Clavius Base, the written oaths of secrecy, the covert programming of HAL, etc), and is a born politician. In short, he is the very opposite of the fiery, passionate Heywood Floyd of the sequel. “2001”’s Floyd has no issue with missing his little daughter’s birthday party (Floyd’s daughter is also referenced in “2010”; it’s implied she’s off at college). Scheider’s Floyd agonizes over leaving his son. This is not to say one version of the character is quantitively better than the other; it’s just that Scheider isn’t playing the same character as William Sylvester. And for the requirements of “2010”’s more heroic protagonist, that’s a plus.
Another plus is the casting of now-legendary performer (and Dame) Helen Mirren; the sole Brit among her cadre of cosmonaut comrades. This was the first film I’d ever seen of hers, and I was deeply impressed. Her character of Soviet Air Force Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Orlova in the book) is a near-perfect combination of vulnerability and strength. We see her pain following Max’s death. We feel her caution and see a genuine smile creep upon her face when she opens up to Floyd about her daughter and home life… only to have Floyd awkwardly bring up the painful subject of Max, closing that window into her soul. This was not her only Russian role that decade, either; she also played a Russian ballet director and ex-lover of Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1985’s “White Nights”, which I also saw theatrically and enjoyed very much. What can I say? Russians were really in vogue back in the 1980s. Like the late Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren is one of those actors who can, through sheer ability and will, instantly up the quality of any film in which she stars. See her in 2006’s “The Queen” if possible; it’s a must-see performance, whatever one’s opinion on the monarchy.
Returning for the sequel is Keir Dullea as Commander David Bowman, the sole ‘survivor’ of the first Discovery voyage to Jupiter. He isn’t playing the same character either; this Dave Bowman is more like a malleable, disembodied consciousness that remembers Bowman, but isn’t entirely Bowman, either. Dullea looks not all that different than he did in 1968’s “2001”, and his detached delivery gives this new Bowman hybrid a semi-divine detachment that fits the new role. As a fan of the original film, it gave me genuine chills seeing him standing behind Floyd in that bright red spacesuit.
I actually had the pleasure of meeting Dullea (along with “2001” costar Gary Lockwood) at my second ever science fiction convention in Pasadena back in 2002 (17 years and 65 lbs ago for me). I remember Dullea and I having a nice little chat about digital cameras (he liked my old Minolta). Seemed like a very nice guy. Loved meeting Gary Lockwood as well; he had a salty humor that I very much appreciated.
I also met actor Elya Baskin (the ill-fated “Max” Brailovsky) once in Los Angeles back in 1986, when I was trying to learn Russian (my terrible memory hasn’t retained much of it, I’m afraid). I would get copies of the Russian language American newspaper that he used to work on (“Panorama”), and he and I once had a nice meet-and-greet at the offices of his newspaper offices in L.A. I very much enjoyed his work in “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984); his best role, in my opinion. He was also excellent as a tormented monk in “Name of the Rose” (1986), and as Peter Parker’s landlord in the first two “Spiderman” movies (2002/2004). Sadly, I never got around to asking him for an autograph (this was before I became a hardcore autograph nerd, which was shortly after I met my equally geeky wife).
“2010” is, like most movies, very much a product of its era. The mid-1980s saw the Cold War reaching a climax, and the possibility of a nuclear confrontation was weighing heavily on the world. Who knew that the real 21st century would be dominated by caliphates of terrorism, and not big dreaded ‘evil empires’? Nuclear war isn’t quite as tangible now as it was in those days, either; today we’re arguably more afraid of a solo terrorist with a radioactive dirty bomb.
We also don’t have manned voyages to the planets (yet), but we do see thriving privatized space travel becoming a thing (SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, etc). I remember seeing a small fleet of spacecraft prototypes during a Planetary Society “Planetfest” event in Pasadena, back in 2012. The private spacecraft in the exhibit included the manned SpaceX “Dragon” capsule and a spaceplane from the now defunct XCOR Aerospace company. SpaceX is still thriving however, and makes regularly deliveries to the International Space Station, which has been continuously manned by crews from many nations ever since 2000 (with Russians working alongside Americans…chalk one up for “2010!”).
While the movie didn’t predict the smaller, slimmer personal computers, flatscreen TVs and smartphones we’d enjoy in the real 2010, there is a scene where we see Heywood Floyd using a tiny portable Apple (circa 1984). The failure to predict the impact of computers in every nook and cranny of our current lives is a failing of all science fiction, not just “2010”, so I don’t blame the film for not getting that one right. No one did.
The 21st century to date has been less about moonbases, monoliths and manned voyages to Jupiter than it has been about the internet, disinformation, terrorism, a disturbing rise in populism, and the one issue that trumps them all…climate change. Sadly, it’s not quite been the optimistic 21st century we imagined back in the 1980s.
“I think it’s many things.”
While not as meticulously crafted or deliberately esoteric as Stanley Kubrick’s classic predecessor, Peter Hyams’ “2010” is a perfectly fine science fiction movie in its own right, on a par with recent greats such as “Gravity,” “The Martian” or “The Arrival.” Whereas the original was more a cosmic travelogue than a traditional story, “2010” is much more accessible. “2001” is open to interpretation on multiple levels (at least in its final act), but “2010” lets the viewer in while not revealing all of the mystery. As a fan of both films, I see it more as an apples/oranges situation. When I want a full-on sensory experience, I put “2001” into the blu ray player; when I want a solid sci-fi yarn, there’s “2010.” “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of my favorite movies of all time, but I appreciate that “2010” is wise enough to tell its own story in a very different way.