If you’re a long-time reader of this site, you know that 2001: A Space Odyssey had an enormous impact on me growing up. My dad bought it on Betamax and I would watch it out of the corner of my eye, far too young to understand it. As a result I’m terrified of giant eyes (as represented by the pod starkly rushing at the screen from a great distance, HAL and many other visual cues), I have a love of slow-moving moody science fiction, Futura and Microstyle Extended Bold, and I’m fascinated by the idea of machine intelligence. (Indeed, the monoliths of the Directorate were equal parts 2001 and Neon Genesis Evangelion.) 2001 was a science fiction movie, but it was mostly an art film, all visual poetry and evocation of feeling and exploration of spaces instead of space. It’s a movie you have to experience, not just watch. I like to believe that the bleak, high-contrast cinematography and the oppressive pacing were intended to put you in the place of the astronauts and their rapidly-disintegrating mission to Jupiter.
The set design in 2001 was amazing. It’s unavoidable that some material looks dated — basically the furniture and hairstyles seen in the casual rotating space station — but the filmmakers show remarkable restraint for the majority of the movie. The entirety of the Discovery‘s design is as effective today as it was 42 years ago. HAL’s computer monitors were hand-drawn, as there was no such screen technology at the time, but there is a wonderful deliberateness and class to those scientific read-outs. One of my favorite scenes is when Frank and Dave are standing over the retrieved AE-35 unit, prodding it with a logic probe, and watching the selected circuit flicker on-screen as HAL identifies it, tests it, finds nothing wrong, and when the logic probe moves on, the highlighted route fades as the screen flashes alternates — sort of like Google Earth zooming down from a great height. Amazing!
Anyway. 2010: The Year We Make Contact was made in 1984. It’s not an art film; it’s sci-fi and corny at that. Notably, where 2001 chose to remain silent, 2010 crams in the dialogue. Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd has voice-over narration all over the movie, to the point where it sounds more like a DVD commentary. But where 2010 really fails is in its futurism. This is an enormous shame because designer Syd Mead was involved (at least with the design of the Russian ship Leonov). I don’t think it was the direction, but the year it was filmed in and the over-reliance on technology of the day. I give you the following:
Where 2001 showed us a glimpse of a circular, centrifugal-force gravity chamber, flat-screen monitors and astronauts eating their meals out of futuristic little palettes of sponge, 2010 gave us Roy Scheider laying on a beach, reading a copy of OMNI (the magazine died out in 1995), sitting next to a “portable” computer the size of a microwave oven with a Coke-bottle 320×200 monochrome screen. Don’t wow me all at once, guys. Save some of that magic for the real 2010.
Of course the only real enjoyment to be had in 2010 is the return to the Discovery for a little more time with HAL (voiced again by the original Douglas Rain) and Keir Dullea back as Dave Bowman, who in the almost two decades between movies looks to have aged only 30 minutes. 2010 feels like overcooked fanfic, but I’m grateful for a few extra moments with HAL anyway.