Roger M. Wilcox's review of

2010: The Year We Make Contact

(First posted to Bad Movie Night in 2000 or so.)

I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey. I devoured the novel. I took sandwiches with me into the movie theater so that I could eat when the characters in the film were eating. It was the proverbial "Good Science Fiction Movie", something that had never graced the silver screen before and, at this rate, may never have an equal. It enamored me once-and-for-all to the genre of Hard Science Fiction. So when, sixteen years after 2001 first hit the theaters, I heard of a sequel in the works, I was ecstatic. I bought Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two while it was still in hardback and read it cover-to-cover. My father and two of my close friends made a special pilgrimage to one of those theaters equipped with the new "THX" Sound System standard so that we could enjoy 2010: The Year We Make Contact in its full glory. I was ready for the experience of a lifetime.

Ah, the naivete of youth.

In the movie's defense, let me say that the special effects were pretty good for their time and that the sound was "way cool"™ in certain places. There's also a heart-rending scene between HAL and his creator that Arthur C. Clarke never put into his book, but probably should have. But other than these two high points, 2010 is yet more proof that Hollywood can't turn a book into a decent movie if its life depended on it.

Do you remember the character of Heywood Floyd from the first movie? No? Well, that's not surprising, considering that his role was rather small compared with that of Dave Bowman or Frank Pool. Floyd was played by William Sylvester in 2001, an actor of some notoriety in Great Britain but practically unknown on this side of the pond. The character was apparently a government agent who projected just the right milquetoast facade to get him ignored when he wanted to be. This was all fine and well for the first film, but in 2010, this same Heywood Floyd is supposed to be the HERO. The main character. The big cheese. And we can't have some wimpy British sot playing the hero in a Hollywood film. Noooo. Americans want guts. They want action. They want tough macho he-men who can arm-wrestle with gorillas. They want ... ROY SCHEIDER?!?

Yes, Roy Scheider. The captain of the SeaQuest. Now Heywood Floyd isn't just a mousy government bureaucrat, he's a tough-talking no-nonsense in-your-face mousy government bureaucrat. And he even pretends like he never knew HAL had been told to lie to the crew in the first movie — despite the scene in 2001 after Dave Bowman deactivated HAL, which showed a video tape of Heywood Floyd himself talking about how HAL was keeping everything a secret. We can't have a tainted hero in a Hollywood movie, after all.

The premise of the book hinges on celestial mechanics and the weird alien monoliths hanging around near Jupiter. Discovery's orbit around Jupiter is decaying and the only spaceship that can get to it and rescue it in time belongs to the USSR. When they reach it, they reactivate HAL after having wiped his memory of the nastiness he perpetrated in 2001, and then discover that the alien monolith has been busy planning some big catastrophic fate for Jupiter and Dave Bowman's ghost tells everybody that "Something terrible is going to happen" and they have to leave in 15 days instead of 22 days at their designated launch window. They have to leave Discovery (and thus HAL) behind to use it as a booster rocket stage for their main spaceship, then Jupiter blows up and everybody has a good light-hearted Arthur C. Clarke laugh.

Naturally, such a plot doesn't have nearly enough suspense and heavy-handedness for a Hollywood film. The movie escalated the cold war so that the Soviets and U.S. were ready to nuke each other at an instant's notice. The U.S. astronauts, including Floyd, were ordered to steal Soviet secrets from the Russian spaceship they got a ride in. Walter Curnow's little bout of vertigo turned into a life-or-death cliffhanger a thousand miles above Io. Dave Bowman's ghost turns into an Angel of the Lord bearing good tidings of great joy. The 15-day deadline to leave Jupiter before it blew up got shortened to three days. The cold war escalated even more (if such a thing is possible) while the ship was in Jupiter orbit. Jupiter's shockwave as it exploded got amplified from a little love-tap to a tsunami. And, of course, at the end, the aliens instructed all humanity to live together in peace and happiness and not nuke each other, so everybody lived happily ever after.

Oh — and as is tradition with Hollywood science fiction, they screwed the physics up. The Russian spaceship had this ridiculous rotating section in the middle that kept turning and turning even while performing thrust maneuvers or re-orienting the spacecraft. The spaceships' engines were incredibly noisy out in the totally soundproof vacuum of space. The explosion of Jupiter produced an intensely violent shockwave — which, like sound, also requires air to propagate in real life.

All in all, if you'd never read the book, had never seen 2001, and learned all your astrophysics from watching Star Wars, this would be a pretty absorbing movie. But as the sequel to the greatest space SF movie ever made, it had a very high standard to live up to and, once Hollywood got its let's-guarantee-a-profit-by-making-it-more-mainstream mitts on it, it never stood a chance. Stanley Kubric was still alive when this movie came out, but if he'd been dead, he would have turned over in his grave.

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