The Empty Balcony: 2010

The year 2010 has come and gone, and with it, a milestone in the calendar of science fiction. First, a quick explanation. The calendar of science fiction is an informal mental tabulation I keep of events in fiction that took place in the future when the material was originally released. I keep note of plots and dates of noteworthy films, television series, and novels to see just how far away from reality the storytellers drifted once the actual year is reached. For example, Escape from New York, John Carpenter’s dystopian vision of Manhattan Island as a maximum security prison, took place in 1997. That year came and went, and while New York City didn’t have the greatest reputation in the world at the time, it did feature a steadily falling crime rate and no landmines on its bridges. In short, not a prison.

There was also Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. That gem was made in 1968. The bulk of the film takes place in 1999 and 2001. In it, we see a rotating space station with artificial gravity serviced by commercial flights from Pan Am, permanently occupied moon bases, and a supercomputer that was supposedly incapable of making an error. And it was first booted in 1992. That’s a long time to go without a restart. Maybe that was the problem with HAL all along.

For those keeping track, like me, we have no rotating space station with artificial gravity, Pan Am went out of business in 1991, no one has been to the moon since 1972, computers make errors constantly, and anyone who goes more than a few days without restarting their machine is begging for trouble.

But 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic. It’s one of the best films ever made. No work of fiction, no matter how visionary, is going to get everything about the future right. Indeed, we should have gigantic space stations and moon bases by now. We should be exploring the deep reaches of the solar system with manned missions. The fact we haven’t left low-earth orbit in almost forty years is due to a lack of will, not a lack of ability. HAL, on the other hand…that type of reliability is unattainable. 2001: A Space Odyssey was bold in its predictions, and reality failed its vision, not the other way around.

Then there is the sequel, 2010. Coming more than a decade after the original, the pedigree of its predecessor was such that director Peter Hyams had little to no chance of making a worthy sequel. The shadow cast by 2001 looms so large that it is impossible not to compare 2010, unfavorably, to Kubrick’s film. 2001 left so much unfinished and unanswered, embraced the sublime and immersed the viewer in the design of the future world to such an extent that only by feeding the audience psychedelics could Hyams live up to expectations.

The look and feel of 2010 owes much to one of Hyams’s previous films, Outland. There, Hyams embraced the blue collar look of the future popular at the time in sci-fi, done to such effect in films such as Alien. It was gritty, dirty, and the sets were jumbled and cluttered, the exact opposite of how Kubrick filmed 2001. Also, 2010 is a straightforward film in its plot. The only thing left to the imagination is the nature of the intelligence that either created or inhabits the monoliths. Everything else is linear and uncomplicated.

The story begins nine years after the final events portrayed in 2001. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union(!) are high. Despite this, the two nations launch a joint mission to the Jovian moon Io to investigate the fate of the derelict spaceship Discovery and her crew. The Americans are led by Dr. Heywood Floyd, a character that appeared in the second act of 2001, in this film played by Roy Scheider. He is joined by John Lithgow, as an engineer charged with powering up the Discovery, and Bob Balaban as Dr. Chandra, the eccentric genius who created the HAL-9000 computer and does nothing to hide his anthropomorphic attitudes towards his creation.

On the other side, as it were, are the Soviets, mostly played by whatever Russian actors the casting director could round up in Hollywood. One of them, Elya Baskin, is given just enough lines for the audience to develop some empathy for him before he departs the film. They are led, however, by an English actress, Helen Mirren, putting on a more than passable Russian accent.

Of all the cast members, Balaban stood out. There was vulnerability and depth in his portrayal of Dr. Chandra. He is bewildered at the actions of his fellows. Where normal people see machines, Chandra sees thinking, feeling beings. Chandra is at the whim of unqualified and ignorant people, and his patience is tested. One thing odd about him is just how far he stands out from the other crew members. All of them are on a scientific mission to deep space, all seemingly have PhDs, perhaps multiple ones, yet Chandra is the only eccentric among them. But, he’s mostly on the periphery of the film.

Scheider’s character is the clear focus of 2010, but he shouldn’t have been. The plot of 2010 was such that making the film a character driven tale seems to have missed the point. A film that explores the creation of life and the influence of otherworldly intelligences has far larger potential. It didn’t help that Scheider read his lines as if he were channeling Casey Kasem.

But what a viewer cannot get past, no matter how hard they may give 2010 the benefit of the doubt, is that it is a sequel to 2001. It is impossible to consider the film on its own merits. With that in mind, the filmmakers took a huge gamble in making the film at all, much less in choosing to produce rather standard Hollywood fare. This movie did not need to be made, but by choosing to do so, so inelegantly, only compounded the error.

2010 is not a bad film, it’s just worth wondering whether it should exist.

So, in the calendar of science fiction, another year has passed — 2010. In that year, the Soviet Union still existed, OMNI magazine was still published, human space exploration had progressed to the point where a second manned mission to Jupiter was possible, and “something wonderful” happened out there. The next significant year on the calendar is 2015, when a DeLorean will appear out of thin air carrying emissaries from the year 1985. While visiting, they will discover that Detroit is doing a brisk business in flying cars, Nike’s line of self-lacing high tops is an interesting application of smart technology, and floating skateboards are a big hit among the youth.