Thursday, February 14, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: 2010

First things first: the Writer's Strike has ended, I'm reasonably pleased with how things turned out, and I will blog about that later. I've got a bit of a content backlog forming, so bear with me.

The sad passing of Roy Scheider earlier this week at age 75 prompted me to go and revisit one of his movies. An odd kind of character actor turned star, Scheider accumulated an impressive body of work during the seventies and eighties, and I had a lot to choose from, but being in a sci-fi kind of mood I decided to go with this. 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT is a solid, intelligent science fiction adventure which benefits greatly from Scheider’s affability and apparent ease in front of the camera. I’m not actually sure I should call it underrated, since it got decent reviews (though RT has it at the cusp of rottenness), but it’s always naturally been in the shadow of its predecessor. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is one of the most important films of the genre and a milestone of the cinema in general, 2010 is simply quite good. But I’ve decided just now (and for lack of a better category since this isn’t really a random review) that this kind of obscurity is fair criteria for inclusion in the Academy, and here we are.

Years after the ill-fated Jupiter expedition which left the Discovery spacecraft drifting in orbit around the moon of Io, and its psychotic computer HAL deactivated whilst Dave Bowman went beyond the infinite, both the US and USSR (in this future they still exist, just go with it) are planning missions to find out what happened. The Russian spacecraft, the Leonov, will be ready first, but only the Americans know how to access the information on the Discovery, whose orbit is quite suddenly decaying. A Russian scientist (Dana Elcar in a brief but memorable role) approaches Dr. Heywood Floyd (Scheider), one of the original directors of the Discovery mission, with an offer to take a few Americans on board the Leonov and make it a joint venture. Despite growing tension between the two superpowers over a conflict in Central America, Floyd is able to persuade NASA to okay the expedition, and he boards the Leonov along with Dr. Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) and Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), who programmed the HAL 9000 and hopes to be able to fix him. On the way, the Russian crew finds evidence of something stirring under the frozen surface of Europa, and though restarting the Discovery turns out not to be so hard, there’s still the mystery of the giant monolith hovering over Jupiter to contend with. Through it all, the American and Russian crewmembers are affected by a steadily worsening situation at home.

In some ways, making a sequel to a classic movie may actually be harder than just remaking it. Instead of retelling a good story, you’re setting out to continue it, and 2001 has its specific pitfalls, namely that it wasn’t so much a narrative to begin with as a visual symphony built around a narrative. Shifting from science fiction art film to just plain sci-fi is a bit of a thematic shock, and screenwriter/director Peter Hyams (working from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, who shows up not once but twice in the picture) is not one to dwell on the artsy side. Moreover, this film purpots to explain some of what we saw in 2001, which to fans of the original is a bit of a blasphemy since part of 2001’s appeal is that there is no set explanation.

However, just because the film is more straightforward doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down. It’s an intelligent story in the vein of traditional pre-New-Wave science fiction; smart protagonists going into the unknown and using their smarts to tackle its mysteries. 2001, at its base, was very similar, and apart from caving to audience expectations of having noise in the vacuum of outer space, 2010 shares the original’s grounding of near-mystical transcendence (beings with technology that, as Clarke set down, is sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic) in hard science fiction, and both the film’s plot and its visuals reflect the clunky difficulties of space travel and the role of the hideous bitch goddess that is the laws of physics. There’s a particularly good aerobraking sequence when the Leonov enters Jupiter’s atmosphere to slow itself down, and though the film isn’t as consistent about interior gravity as 2001 was, the special effects are remarkably convincing.

What’s really surprising and impressive is just how well this movie works on the human level. Scheider is a huge part of it; he has a way of delivering all of Floyd’s dialogue as though he just now thought of it. He’s basically a character actor in a leading man role, and brings a distinctive personality and warmth to the part. Seeing him paired with Lithgow and Balaban is a treat, to say nothing of Helen Mirren counterbalancing them as the stern, dedicated Russian captain. Prolific Latvian actor Elya Baskin also has an entertaining turn as Max, a cosmonaut who befriends Curnow when the two have to take a harrowing spacewalk over to the wildly spinning Discovery. Even HAL, voiced again by Douglas Rain (and try figuring out who plays his Earth-bound counterpart without looking on IMDB), is given a character arc that’s oddly satisfying and may even leave you a little misty-eyed. The script has some great dialogue, and the alternately serious and trivial exchanges add a real authenticity to all that happens. Hyams’ unshowy direction turns out to be an asset in this way as well, and David Shire’s score is similarly restrained.

Though the film never matches the sheer epic beauty of Kubrick’s cinematic tone poem, it has to be said that it does capture an emotion intrinsic to the science fiction genre, the oft-discussed “sense of wonder” wherein we confront the beauty of things that are fantastic but also may well exist, where we realize just how amazing the universe can be. In that if nothing else it does justice to its predecessor, and though some aspects of the picture are dated most of it holds up remarkably well. And as we remember Roy Scheider, we can mark this as one of many small triumphs. And one that shouldn’t be as obscure as it is.

From a novel by Arthur C. Clarke
Written for the Screen and Directed by Peter Hyams

Grade: B+

2010 can theoretically be found by clicking on the image above, though it's an OOP disc and you're at the mercy of Amazon re-sellers.

No comments: