*/**** Image B- Sound B- Extras F
starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban
screenplay by Peter Hyams, based on the novel 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
directed by Peter Hyams
by Walter Chaw As we slide ever closer to the reality of artificial intelligence, the question of functional equivalence becomes ever more pressing to our sense of ourselves. It's because of this, I think, that Peter Hyams's 2010 seems more pertinent now than it necessarily did in 1984. I watched Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time just a few months before I saw 2010 (this would be the summer of '84; I was twelve years old), and to that pre-teen me, 2010 gave the impression in most ways of being the better film. It appeals to the pragmatist instead of the philosopher, to the childish belief that there is nothing without an explanation under the sun and that should we encounter an alien intelligence, it will inevitably have the same desires and motivations we do. My first viewing of 2001 left me feeling angry and bored--the moments that tickled at something greater weren't moments I was able to isolate and examine (I wouldn't learn the term mysterium tremens until at least a decade later)--and in a sense 2010 allowed me to appreciate the Kubrick picture as a linear narrative. Which is, after all, not the point, and perhaps even ultimately destructive of 2001. It's easy to understand benevolence (whether it's from an alien "creator" to us, its possible creations, or from us to our machine creations), because benevolence is within the human capacity to comprehend. It's much harder to understand an astronaut waking up in a hotel room after a trip down the rabbit hole and then coming back to Earth as a glowing fetus.
2001 is loosely based on a slight Arthur C. Clarke short story called "The Sentinel." What's largely forgotten is that the author dashed off a novelization of his and Kubrick's screenplay while the film was still in production in order to pre-empt questions as to the meaning of it. Based solely on the knowledge that Clarke is more a hard science-fiction writer than, I don't know, a "soft" one, I believe the film irritated him as much as it irritated twelve-year-olds--partly because of its appeal to the acid-droppers and hippie Castanedas--and that he penned a sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, as further rebuke of Kubrick's existential mindfuck, reconstituting its base elements (the trip, the computer, the monolith, the crew) as a by-the-numbers artifact that's predictably dull as dishwater. The movie made from it is to 2001 as Return of the Jedi is to The Empire Strikes Back and very probably a movie that Clarke influenced mightily, given the tabula rasa properties of Peter Hyams's writing and direction. (Hyams has since achieved the distinction with The Musketeer and A Sound of Thunder of having helmed two of the worst non-Uwe Boll films in the history of the medium.) Already pushing seventy at the time of production, Clarke is a relic of a different ethos, shining light on why this flick has more in common with the stodgy, finger-wagging, paternalistically centrist Cold War attitudes of Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still than with contemporary genre classics like Back to the Future, Aliens, The Terminator, Blade Runner, and Predator. What is 2010 but a conservative Cold War "message" flick, with its rebels punished with extreme prejudice (poor Cosmonaut Max, poor HAL) and the promise of World Peace held in the balance of a stentorian, omnipotent alien intelligence visiting with a payload of warnings and biblical-sounding bans. It's more than possible that this is Clarke--author of "The Star," after all--critical of Christianity in his dusty, grandfatherly way. Accordingly, it's not terribly provocative.
Neither is all the dry, across-a-conference-table conversation about the nature of sentience. It's too articulate, nothing is left to the imagination. Consider this from computer scientist Chandra (Bob Balaban) as the sacrifice of super-computer HAL (voiced again by Douglas Rain) is pondered: "Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference, we should each be treated with appropriate respect." Right. This leaves it up to audience surrogate every-schlub Curnow (John Lithgow) to say that if it's between HAL and the flesh-and-blood crew of two ships, well, count him amongst the humans. We're not so sure about Chandra, and the casting of Balaban--as alien a supporting actor as there ever was--is as evocative of our prejudices as the casting of Roy Scheider, who replaces William Sylvester in the role of hero/outsider/expert Heywood Floyd. Scheider was this character, the civilian no matter the rank and title; in Jaws, The Seven-Ups, The French Connection, he's the one with passion. In a couple of bad voiceover interludes including the final one, he gets to tell his family that something wonderful is going to happen. He's the one who knows that rogue pilot Max (Elya Baskin) shouldn't fly too close to the Monolith, the one visited by undead Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) with a message of completely-comprehensible wonder, and the one tasked with convincing the intractable Russians with whom he's hitched a ride to the derelict Discovery vessel that it's of utmost importance that above everything else, he's the one to be trusted. This celebration of the middle is the ultimate ratification of Reagan rules: Glasnost my ass, the Berlin Wall falls because everybody's average all-American--not some pointy-headed egghead, not a passel of teetotaller Reds (in the film's worst scene, Floyd teaches Comrade Kirbuk (Helen Mirren) about good ol' Kentucky bourbon), not some frickin' computer--will be the one to ride into town trailing Law out of his ass.
2010's greatest crime is that its avenue to cooperation isn't courage ("What happened to American courage?" asks Kirbuk; "What happened to Russian common sense?" ripostes Floyd) or science, but just playing the working class, blue-collar gut. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you how I know," assures Floyd, yet the fate of the world (at least this crew that represents, in a future where the U.S. and Russia are on the brink of war over a pissing contest in Central America, the world) depends on the belief that Floyd cannot tell a lie and that his instincts are true--that this meat-and-potatoes guy, a widower with a hot young wife, of course, is not simply our last best hope, he's the only hope we ever had. Take 2010 with another 1984 relic, Red Dawn, for a double-bill of Republican I-told-you-sos with one big finger planted square in the chest of an American public beginning to show, through their preference in genre pictures, a little skepticism in the viability of the promise of that City on the Hill.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
2010 docks on Blu-ray in a wildly uneven transfer as befits a film by Hyams, known to shoot much of his own pictures and to favour underlit scenes consequently high in grain. The 2.40:1, 1080p presentation vacillates between a little grainy and "dust storm." Because the bulk of the picture was photographed in 35mm while the process shots were captured on 65mm (standard practice at the time, to cut down on image-degredation through the various printing stages), the effects sequences are comically mismatched, and the combination of their hyper-clarity and utter datedness makes them a strangely incongruous sight in HiDef besides. (A spacewalk early on is a prime example of exactly how the digital revolution has changed the way we look at things.) I've read that this disc is a marked improvement over the DVD release, so, fans of the film, there you go; I will say that it looks nothing if not faithful to the source, a few banding and other compression artifacts notwithstanding. The attendant DD 5.1 TrueHD lossless audio relegates the majority of the information to the front channels, making me wonder if this is a 2.0 bastardization in stealth rather than the original six-track mix. A musty, '84 vintage "Behind the Story" (9 mins., SD) featurette has Clarke front and centre, as you'd expect from a picture that feels this elderly. The theatrical trailer, likewise in standard definition, is as blunt as the movie and should serve as fair warning. Originally published: June 2, 2009.