Over the years, fans and critics have had fantastic things to say about Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (mostly after its theater resurgence as “the ultimate trip”). However, the Peter Hyams’ sequel, 2010: The Year we Make Contact, has never received similar accolades from critics or moviegoers. And this is a shame, because 2010 is one of the best serious science fiction movies, and movie sequels, that Hollywood has ever pulled off.
Obviously the major reason for 2010‘s being so overlooked by posterity has been the incredibly large shadow cast by 2001. Co-written by Stanley Kubrick and master SF author Arthur C. Clarke, and featuring Kubrick’s incredible vision, impeccably-created set pieces and ground-breaking visual effects, 2001 was perhaps the first science fiction movie to be considered the equal to movies of any other genre, worthy of Academy Award status (and winner of 9 awards in various categories from multiple awards presenters, including the Academy).
Despite that massive shadow, director Peter Hyams set out to make a movie that would be uniquely his, and be able to stand on its own beside Kubrick’s film. One way 2010 stood apart was with its stellar cast, featuring Roy Scheider, Hellen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, Elya Baskin, Oleg Rudnik, Natasha Schneider, Dana Elcar, James McEachin, Candice Bergen as the voice of the SAL 9000 computer (which I didn’t know myself until I saw the cast list), and Kier Dullea and Douglas Rain reprising their 2001 roles as astronaut Dave Bowman and the HAL 9000, respectively.
2010 had a very different vision of the future compared to 2001: Whereas 2001 presented us with completely fictional and absolutely impeccable space-faring technology before Man had actually reached the Moon, 2010 was released in 1984 and had the benefit of over 15 years of manned experience on the Moon and in regular orbit around the Earth. 2010‘s pastiche was intentionally designed to integrate the look that the public had seen from actual space technology, including the Apollo and Skylab missions, with the more fanciful tech of 2001‘s iconic spacecraft Discovery. The resultant look of 2010‘s sole new spacecraft, the Alexei Leonov, was more realistic in outside appearance and interior functionality, but still futuristic enough to satisfy audiences. Ultimately the Leonov would take its place beside Discovery as representative of realistic ship designs for future movie designers to emulate.
Most of the human activity in 2010 seemed much more realistic than that of 2001, which was renowned for its rather dry and stoic characterizations: In 2010, there was early distrust and animosity, later growing to respect and camaraderie, between American and Russian crews being forced apart by an impending war on Earth; tension and fear during the dangerous aerobraking maneuver around Jupiter; and confusion and excitement over the apparent signs of life detected on Europa. Scheider’s character, Heywood Floyd, carried immense guilt over the fate of the five-man Discovery crew that had lost all hands on its mission, plus anger upon discovering the real saboteurs of that mission; and Balaban’s character, Dr. Chandra, felt betrayal by the engineers that had reprogrammed the HAL 9000 computer, causing it to finally malfunction and kill the Discovery crew. And just as two American and Russian engineers began to develop an honest friendship, one of them was lost investigating the giant monolith in orbit over Jupiter, devastating both sides of the crew.
And let’s not forget the downright creepiness of Floyd meeting Dave Bowman’s “ghost,” walking through the Discovery and warning the crew to vacate the area because something “wonderful” was going to happen… followed soon thereafter by the fear that HAL might refuse to destroy itself to help them escape, and Dr. Chandra might side with HAL, dooming all of them. 2010 featured real, and raw, human emotions that were leagues beyond those of 2001‘s characters (with the possible exception of the early hominids of the opening sequence). These were characters that audiences could identify and empathize with, which made the message and impact of the movie that much more potent.
Finally, whereas 2001‘s climactic element was Bowman’s lone “trip” through hyperspace, culminating in his incarceration in an alien “zoo” until being transformed into the Starchild… in 2010, we see the giant monolith turn into millions of tiny monoliths that proceed to consume Jupiter and ignite it before the crew’s eyes… creating a new sun in the solar system, designed to warm the primitive life forms on Europa and allow them to develop… in much the same way that the monolith in 2001 gave early man the knowledge of weapons use, allowing them to develop into their modern counterparts. At the same time, the event (and a mysterious message left for Mankind) brought a halt to a nuclear war that would have ended Mankind’s existence—and, maybe significantly, all of the 2001 monolith’s work—bringing a powerful coda to both movies.
As incredible and groundbreaking as 2001 was, 2010 brought a much-needed human-centric theme to the saga, better balancing emotion against intellect. As opposed to 2001‘s showing us men who were totally out of their element when their reality was threatened by alien technology (giving us the embodiment of Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), 2010 showed us humans coming together in the face of the unknown, accepting the reality and adopting to it, as humans inevitably do. As such, 2010 gave us a more positive message, with less of the unbelievability that might have served to dilute that message, leaving audiences with a more realistic and satisfying experience than even the “ultimate trip” provided to 1960s audiences… and not incidentally, winning it the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1985.
Does all this mean 2010 was a better movie than 2001? Maybe not in terms of artistic creativity or cinematography… and hey, 2001‘s classical music soundtrack was so much better than 2010‘s synthesized music… but I’d say, in some other ways, yes: 2010 was as well-produced, and I’d even say better-acted, than 2001; but more importantly, 2010 was also more realistic, more accessible, more human and more unambiguously positive in its ultimate message about humanity and life in the cosmos. Whichever way you side with the question, 2010: The Year we Make Contact is an excellent movie in its own right, and deserves to stand tall among the best serious science fiction movies ever made.