This is the sequel to the film that needed no sequel, the cinematic equivalent to painting legs for the Mona Lisa. It seeks to explain things best left to the individual viewer’s imagination. For these reasons, I hate it.
But is it a good movie? Judging by the standards set by 2001: A Space Odyssey, the answer is no. By the standards set by what tends to call itself science fiction these days, it’s ok, but not great.
The setup is pretty simple. Nine years later, two missions to investigate what happened in 2001 are being planned, one American, one Soviet. The Russians will get there first, but only the Americans have the know-how to get the Discovery, the ship from the first movie, working again. When it turns out that the Discovery will crash into Jupiter’s moon Io before the Americans get there, it is decided to send the American crew along on the Russian mission.
This is one of the places I think the film goes wrong. Director Peter Hyams adds an element not in the book when he sets the story against a backdrop of escalating Cold War tensions in Central America. I’m sure this seemed quite topical in 1984, but less than four years later, the rise of Gorbachev and Glasnost quickly made this film seem dated. Today, with the Soviet empire in ashes, it seems almost quaint. To be fair, Hyams had no way to predict the incredible changes that would come into the world over the next few years. Still, his insistence upon the Cold War setting seems at odds with the first film, which seemed to imply very cordial relationship between the U.S. and Russia. It was easy to imagine 2001 taking place in a world where the Cold War has ended.
Another problem is with the casting of Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd. I realize that William Sylvester was probably too old to play the part, and they probably wanted a better-known actor for the role, but Scheider seems like exactly the wrong choice to play this character. Floyd is a bland bureaucrat who speaks in unctuous pleasantries, while Scheider plays a rather demonstrative and eccentric academic. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but it is jarring when held up against the original, like bringing in Eddie Murphy to play Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars movie. If they had just not called the character Heywood Floyd, I would not have minded so much.
They also screwed up by letting Floyd off the hook for HAL going bonkers. It is revealed that conflicting orders caused the computer to interpret them by deciding he didn’t need people to run the mission. In 2010, Scheider-as-Floyd pleads ignorance, but in 2001, Sylvester-as-Floyd is clearly shown toward the end of movie saying things that indicate he knew exactly what was going on. Apparently, in 1984 Hollywood, you can’t have your main character be a bad person in any way. However, if the two films are to be consistent, Scheider-as-Floyd is clearly lying.
My other problem with this scene is a too pat explanation for HAL’s psychosis. It makes perfect sense and is thus emotionally unsatisfying in light of the first film.
Overall the acting by the rest of the ensemble is fine, but John Lithgow overacts shamelessly at some points, screaming at the top of his lungs when a little more subtlety would have been so much better.
The first movie was famous, in part, for its overly optimistic predictions about space travel in 2001. The sequel’s problem is that it appears that technology has slid backwards to a decade behind what it was in 2001. Everything in 2010, from the ships to the spacesuits, look primitive compared to those in the first film. You can’t write it off to being on a Russian spacecraft, because the American spacesuits don’t look any more advanced than the Russian ones do. Certainly, the suits and technology look more “realistic” by 1984 standards, but this movie doesn’t take place in 1984, it takes place in 2010, nine years after the boldly futuristic designs of the first film.
As a technology predictor, 2010 fails in the opposite direction as its predecessor. We already know that huge crewed ships will not be headed to Jupiter in either 2001 or 2010, so we have to look to the small things. A lot of the technology in 2010 looks primitive even by today’s standards. The computer technology looks especially klugey. Scheider-as-Floyd is shown using a big klunky notebook computer at one point that must have looked so futuristic by 1984 standards. In the “Pan Am space plane” failed-economic-predictor department, 2010 shows us a copy of the now-defunct magazine OMNI.
Again, 2010 is not a horrible movie, but given the legacy it has to live up to, not being horrible is simply not enough. The Lakers today may not be a bad basketball team, but compared to the Showtime era of the 80’s, they suck. The problem is that 2010 is very much a regular movie in the traditional Hollywood mode, done as a sequel to a masterpiece that thumbed its nose at every convention of that tradition. To their credit, Hyams and Company did resist the temptation to totally surrender to Hollywood convention. Scheider and Russian commander Helen Mirren do not sleep together, and there is no crazed saboteur threatening both ships. 2010 also defies the fashion of the time by predicting a reasonably optimistic future. Sure there are still nuclear bombs and a Cold War going on, but at least it’s not Blade Runner or Escape from New York.
On the whole, however, when set against the original film, 2010 is a competent failure.