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December, 2009 : Essay:

The Future is Now

Although George Orwell wrote 1984 before I was born, I remember the frisson people felt as the real calendar year approached. The specter of Big Brother had been with us for years, 1984 having become synonymous with the concept of a totalitarian dictatorship. Of course for those of us in the western world—even with Ronald Reagan in the White House and Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street—Orwell's nightmarish vision of a Stalinist society had not come to pass. In fact, it can be argued that Orwell had helped prevent that future with his cautionary tale.

The next year we "knew" long before it arrived was 2001. Back in 1964 filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke began collaborating on creating what Kubrick called "the proverbial good science fiction movie." Four years later the result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably one of the greatest of cinematic achievements. Like 1984, it remains so despite its "failure" as a predictor of the future. They couldn't even convince people that the 21st century wouldn't start the year in the year 2000. Today the actual year is remembered for 9/11, rather than the landmark movie.

In late 1984, a bumper crop of new science fiction movies arrived. I know because I was completing my first year as a film critic and I ended up doing a round up of five major feature films opening that season: Dune, Le Dernier Combat, Runaway, Starman, and 2010. (Luc Besson's 1983 Le Dernier Combat arrived in the States a year later.) The first four films will have to wait for future essays. Our focus is the arrival of 2010 which was considered a major event...and then a major disappointment. Twenty-five years later, with the real 2010 just around the corner, it was time for a fresh look.

The rap on the film is that it couldn't possibly be any good because director Peter Hyams is not Stanley Kubrick. One doubts that Hyams would dispute it. (Hyams, who wrote the script, is also not Arthur C. Clarke, but he did have Clarke's novel to adapt.) Kubrick is one of the few filmmakers for whom the word "genius" is not inappropriate. His 2001 is a film that continues to be debated precisely because while his storytelling is straightforward, his meaning is obscure. A mysterious monolith appears in prehistoric times, and gives a group of apes a nudge into learning how to wield tools. Thousands of years later, spacefaring Americans find a monolith on the moon, which sends a signal off to Jupiter. After a series of misadventures involving the HAL 9000 computer and the death of nearly everyone on board the spaceship Discovery, astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) discovers yet another monolith orbiting Jupiter. He leaves the ship and disappears—at least as far as folks back on Earth are concerned.

We see him go into the monolith and through some sort of space warp, eventually being transformed into what would be known as the "Starchild," which many have interpreted as the next evolutionary step. As with the apes learning to use tools, mankind was now being nudged forward again. The final image of the film, of the Starchild contemplating Earth, raised all sorts of questions. Now here was 2010 to answer them.

In fact the answers prove to be the least important part of the movie. Considered as fanfic, though, 2010 is much more interested in exploring the details of the Kubrick/Clarke universe than in solving its mysteries. As with much SF, its predictive value is minimal. We still don't have any moon bases, and Pan Am is still defunct. The most obvious thing the film gets "wrong" is that its main conflict is an impending showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. (Let's take a moment as younger readers Google "Soviet Union.") This reflects the fears of 1984, where it seemed President Reagan was ready to heat up the Cold War with his Strategic Defense Initiative which was popularly known as "Star Wars."

There are all sorts of references that reflect when the film was made, including a scene where Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) is trying to convince his successor as head of the space program to allow a joint US/Soviet mission to the abandoned Discovery. When Floyd offers the argument that if the Americans don't join in, the Russians will get there first by themselves, it's noted that having American "spies" on a Russian mission would appeal to the unnamed reactionary president. (The idea that we would have an African-American moderate Democrat in the White House would really have been considered science fiction back in 1984.)

What stands out watching the film now is that Peter Hyams stepped up his game, knowing he would never be able to withstand comparison to Kubrick's original but trying to do it justice anyway. Hyams has done numerous genre movies, some of them decent, like Timecop and some of them horrendously awful like A Sound of Thunder. Along the way there were also movies like Capricorn One, Outland, and End of Days. Hyams is an ambitious filmmaker, often writing, directing, producing and serving as cinematographer, and one wishes the resulting films were masterworks rather than disposable entertainments. However, with 2010 the very look of the film is different from a typical Hyams effort. The lighting is softer and more diffuse, with characters often appearing backlit. The sets are not as austere as in the Kubrick film, yet great efforts were made to recreate the pod bay of the Discovery, the original set being long gone. Watching 2010 you are not conscious of this being a recreation.

In 2001 we knew little about the characters. We had a few details, like Dr. Floyd leaving a message with his young daughter via "picture phone," but most of the conversation was small talk and arguably the most "human" character in the film was the HAL 9000 computer. Now a decade has gone by (in film time) and Dr. Floyd has remarried and has a young son, briefly mentioning his grown daughter in passing. By making him the central character and casting Roy Scheider, we know we will learn much more about him. He pretty much disappears from 2001 after the lunar monolith sends its signal towards Jupiter, but now we see that he was so wracked by guilt over the death of the crew—Bowman is presumed dead as well—that he has left the space agency and taken a position with a university. It is the opportunity to find out what happened that motivates him when his Soviet counterpart comes up with the offer of a joint mission. The Russians have the means to get there first, but the Americans have the knowledge of what happened and the ability to restart the Discovery. In a sense, Floyd will get the chance to see that the men he sent off into space did not die in vain.

The film wisely avoids giving us any explanation as to what happened to Bowman. Keir Dullea appears as Bowman at various ages, clearly manifestations created to convey messages to humans who could not comprehend his present form. However other than warning the Russians and Americans that they must leave the space around Jupiter sooner than they had planned, he is basically there to promise us that "something wonderful" is about to happen. It might seem as if he was thrown in to foreshadow the film's climax for viewers who need lots of explanations, but one might just as well consider that the transformation of the solar system for humankind's benefit would need a lot of preparation if people were not to assume it was the end of the world and go stark raving mad.

Besides Floyd and Bowman, there's one other character from the original who needs to be redeemed, and that's HAL (voiced, once again, by Douglas Rain). The computer expert Chandra (with an oddly cast Bob Balaban in the role) treats HAL with respect and sympathy, as if HAL is a colleague and not simply a collection of hardware and software. Chandra spells out for us what went wrong with HAL's programming. When the computer is "awakened," it has no memory of the event. Instead HAL is given closure, told by Chandra that its mission was successful.

2010 could not hope to match 2001's landmark status for cutting-edge special effects, nor could it hope to provide another deep dish statement of the human condition. On those points it was doomed before it began. Knowing that, Hyams goes with Clarke's message that scientists can reason together in ways that politicians cannot. (In a nice little in-joke, we catch a glimpse of the cover of Time magazine with, presumably, the Soviet and American leaders depicted, bearing a striking resemblance to Kubrick and Clarke.) Where Hyams makes his most daring break with 2001 is in wanting us to care about the people in the story. In one scene the Russian ship is braking to a halt near Jupiter, using a process that works fine in theory but has never been tested. Floyd has no role to play and huddles for safety with a Russian—a young female, naturally—who also is not needed. The easy thing would have been to have a scene where they share their fears and hopes. Instead, lacking a common language, they merely hold each other. At the end of the scene she kisses him on the cheek before going off. It is a moment that provides an ironic echo of the apes in the cave in 2001's opening "Dawn of Man" sequence, who also lacked verbal communication but huddled together.

Likewise when ship designer Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) nearly loses it during a space walk from the Russian ship to the Discovery, both Floyd and one of the Russians talk a lot, but what they're saying can be reduced to "There, there." They're trying to distract and comfort Curnow, who isn't really prepared to be an astronaut but is crucial to the mission. For all the talk in the movie, there is a real effort not to reduce this to the level of a mere thriller. Even the Russian commander (played by a 39-year-old Helen Mirren) isn't treated as the "heavy" of the story. Like Floyd, she's trying to negotiate the scientific mission during extremely troubled political times.

Watching 2010 now, away from the hype of it being the long-awaited 2001 sequel, one sees a decent movie made by a filmmaker whose SF efforts have not always been jewels of the genre. Yet here Hyams does some of his best, most serious work. No, it's not 2001 but it is no more unworthy of being part of the post-2001 conversation than Clarke's three sequel novels (2010, 2061, 3001). And while I hesitate to criticize a film that, at this writing, I have not yet seen, I suspect 2010 has a lot more to say to us as we enter the real year of 2010 than 2012 will have to tell us about the real or imagined end of the world.

Copyright © 2009, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.


Dec 11, 05:54 by IROSF
Please comment!
Dec 11, 17:37 by T. S. Miller
A very nice retro review, thank you -- you helpfully called attention to the film's successes without heaping undue praise on it.

Dec 11, 20:57 by Nader Elhefnawy
Agreed; a good, balanced review of a film that occupies a strange place in the genre's cinematic history-and the title of which has made it oddly timely.

Dec 15, 17:09 by
I totally agree. I haven't seen the movie in a while, but from what I remember--and I'm about to lapse into a probably not inappropriate Rapture metaphor--it was about those of us left behind, trying to make sense of what had happened in 2001. Bowman went off into a condition that, almost by definition, humanity could not understand. I'd have been disappointed it they'd tried.
Oct 6, 18:13 by Richie
The Future is Now! is one of those quest-for-enlightenment inspirational films that comes along every few years in which the viewer's attention is torn between the breezy philosophical chat and a sense of awe at the filmmakers' travel budget.

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