Filming a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey is a bold prospect, but Peter Hyams managed to do it with some success in 2010: The Year We Make Contact, an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two. At heart, 2001 was a profoundly deist vision of the universe, an attempt to visualise the cusp between science and whatever lies behind it, a sublime horizon that Clarke and Kubrick finally figured as the primal interface of curve and line, planet and monolith. At the same time, 2001 took us to the threshold between human and machine consciousness, in the form of HAL, while forming a pivot point between what Gilles Deleuze described as the movement-driven images of pre-WWII cinema with the time-driven images of post-WWII cinema. For Deleuze, this shift produced “pure optical situations” in which people, like the astronauts of the Discovery, were presented with images that abstracted time so radically that they seemed to demand some kind of movement, even as they forestalled it.
2010 is true to that project insofar as it appreciates that this cusp between science and religion, man and machine, movement and time, remain beyond the realm of representation. Rather than explaining the original, Hyams and Clarke lead us towards the same singularity by a slightly different and later route – the mission of the Soviet-US spaceship Leonov, led by Dr. Heywood Floyd (Paul Reiser) and Dr. Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren) who are tasked with investigating the Discovery, which is still floating in the orbit of Jupiter. Once they arrive, they’re presented with the same thresholds as the original astronauts, but in a different form, as the “embassy of a higher intelligence” once against manifests itself through the monolith, cautioning them to leave within a certain period of time to avoid a “wonderful” event. While they do discover some new information along the way, the final note is still mystery and mysticism, leading Floyd to eventually reflect: “I still don’t really know what the monolith is.”
Of course, it’s hard to fully replicate the singularity of the original film just because it was so singular, while the sixteen-year gap between 1968 and 1984 inevitably changes the tenor of Clarke’s vision as well. Whereas 2001 predated the moon landing, 2010 came out as the space race was waning, and on the heels of an equally epochal science fiction vision – Alien. As a result, Hyams’ film often feels like a crossover between 2001 and Alien, especially once the astronauts venture onto the abandoned Discovery, where Hyams often hesitates between a Kubrickian (or even Spielbergian) wonder and a more claustrophobic mode of space horror.
At the same time, the Cold War had considerably converged the domestic and cosmic over the 70s. While 2010 may venture even further into the galaxy than 2001, it also departs from Kubrick’s vision by featuring a large number of scenes set in present-day Earth. In place of the prehistoric prologue of the original, we open with the Very Large Array in the New Mexico Desert, where Hyams and Clarke commence a story that is thoroughly embedded in the geopolitical landscape of the time. In that sense, 2010 feels considerably less futuristic than 2001, since it replaces the notional futurity of Kubrick’s film with a more specific sense of countries, jurisdictions and political ideologies. At one point, in a scene shot in front of the White House, an FBI agent jokes to Floyd that the depths of space are nothing compared to the travails of political life: “I’ve got an idea – you go see the President, I’ll go on the mission.”
Hyams thus presents the monolith as the latest theatre in the Cold War. Rather than fighting for control of Europe, the Soviet and American contingents on the Leonov are contesting control of Europa, the Saturn moon that has pulled the Discovery into its own gravitational field. As they move towards Europa, the situation deteriorates in Europe, leading them to gradually express their “hope that there’s a planet to return to.” When war is formally declared in the third act, all Americans are ordered to evacuate Russian territory and vice versa, even in the depths of space, where the US crew have to move onto the dilapidated Discovery to avoid remaining in enemy territory. Conversely, when they beam the monolith’s message back to Earth in the closing scenes, it ends the Cold War, although we never see this.
All of this gives 2010 a much more discursive and expository quality than the elliptical moodiness of 2001. A good deal of Kubrick’s sublimity involved eschewing language, whether in the prelingual prologue, the postlingual finale, or by recourse to the mechanised voice of HAL. By contrast, 2010 is obsessed with Dave’s last words – “so many stars” –vand starts with a long conversation, at the Very Large Array, which is accentuated by Floyd shouting down from the satellite to the Russian astronomer who comes to ask for his help on the Leonov. The film as a whole is also full of explanatory sequences, while the reprise of the famous closing “room” of 2001 now features dialogue too, as the eerie man of all ages finally speaks.
This shift doesn’t merely speak to a world where science fiction has been domesticated by the Cold War, but a media landscape where visions of outer space have become common as family television viewing. For long stretches, 2010 looks like television, and is disadvantaged by being shot on the cusp of widespread CGI, since the special effects look far more dated in the original. That’s not necessarily an issue, though, since there’s a palpable plasticity and artificiality to Hyams’ entire vision, a sense of being cosily set-bound, that often makes this feel more like a televisual sequel to Kubrick’s vision. That movement to a more serially spirited text is reflected in one of the main spectacles of the third act – the stately sublimity and singularity of the monolith giving way to a serial squadron of monoliths birthing from Jupiter.
All of that prompts one of Hyams’ boldest decisions – to replace Kubrick’s sweeping, balletic thresholds between movement and time with a grittier and more embodied sense of space travel. No doubt, there are grand curving trajectories here, as when the crew decide to slingshot around Jupiter’s gravitational field to conserve fuel, or when astronaut Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) approaches the Discovery as it spins round and round. However, these great curvatures tend to be a source of anxiety, rather than sublimity. The slingshot is shuddering and tenuous, and almost kills the crew, while Curnow starts to hyperventilate with anxiety when he reaches the spinning ship, suffused with a vertiginous sense of dread. Nor do these curved lines achieve the same sense of sublimity when grafted onto the interior of the Discovery, which we only glimpse intermittently, by flashlight, from awkward obliquities.
While 2010 is strong on procedural, then, it’s not so interested in metaphysics – this is the analytic version of the cosmos to Kubrick’s continental mysticism. Yet that very refusal to replicate Kubrick’s vision, while remaining true to Clarke’s deism, is what makes 2010 distinct as well. At its best, it allows Hyams to replace Kubrick’s cosmopolitan space age future with a more 80s sense of the future as embedded in the present. Ironically, the most science fictional space we see here doesn’t actually occur in outer space, but in the lavish design of Floyd’s apartment on Earth. This is the true sublime kernel of the film – a bizarre liminal zone that we barely see. Since Floyd’s wife Caroline (Madolyn Smith) is a marine biologist, they have a bank of aquariums behind their bed and a dolphin pen that comes right into their kitchen. Yet Hyams only gives us the briefest glimpse into the bizarre 80s decadence, which thereby becomes a new horizon for the franchise – a vision of the future in the present, outer space on earth – that restores Kubrick’s wonder for an era of more domesticated cosmic enquiry.