It's been nine years since the sudden and mysterious disappearance of the U.S. spaceship Discovery, and Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) still struggles with what happened. In charge of the mission that went deadly awry, Floyd was blamed for the debacle, but he may have a chance to redeem himself. American efforts are being made to investigate, sending a second ship to Jupiter and its moons (where Discovery disappeared), but he is approached by Russian agencies who are ahead of schedule and will get to Jupiter first. Undertaking a risky, even suicidal mission, Floyd and two other Americans (John Lithgow and Bob Balaban) join the Russian space expedition. What secrets do the moons, Jupiter, the Discovery and maybe space itself hold for the astronauts?
Highly respected and regarded as an all-time classic, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is far from a traditional movie. In fact, it's everything non-traditional about modern films. From director and writer Peter Hyams, '2010' is similar in its story matter and characters, but other than that, it is the complete polar opposite. It is a far-more traditional science fiction thriller, and a smart one at that. For lack of a better description, it is an easy movie to "like." Compare the two; 2001 is a movie to sit back and watch, to appreciate, but not necessarily enjoy. On the other hand, 2010 is far more easily digested. It's smart, but not condescending. Sure, it's not perfect. That's the risk that happens when a sequel is made for a movie that didn't need a sequel in the first place. It's worth it though, and a film I enjoyed significantly more than its predecessor.
So I wasn't much of a fan, but I can appreciate that 2001 does not require a sequel. Its unanswered questions are oddly perfect in that decision to remain unanswered. It allows viewers to wrap their head around the story as they so choose, not as the movie dictates. That's why I both liked and disliked this sequel. In the more traditional sense, 2010 builds a story in a far more linear fashion. We learn more about the HAL-9000, its background, and why it malfunctioned the way it did. Did we need those answers? No, but it's nice to see. We learn a little more about the mysterious monoliths popping up around the world. Did we need those answers? Nope once again. But necessary or not, they come around as worthwhile. It's nice to see the effort made as goofy as it sounds. I came away eternally frustrated with 2001, but I didn't have that same sentiment here in the least. Maybe that's a pity positive vote, but so be it, I'm sticking by my guns.
With a focus more on the space, science and mystery, the characters and their background can be a secondary thing here. The actors do their best to humanize their parts, but it's more a means to an end. We see how these highly trained, highly intelligent individuals respond in a hellish, life or die situation. Scheider does a fine job (as usual) as Dr. Heywood, a man looking for answers and to right a wrong. His recorded letters to his wife (Madolyn Smith Osborne) become a little tedious in an effort to humanize him, but that's a minor complaint. Lithgow plays Dr. Curnrow, the builder/designer of the original Discovery, with Balaban playing Dr. Chandra, HAL's creator, desperately trying to prove his creation did nothing wrong, the two other Americans on-board the Russian ship. Helen Mirren -- rocking an awesome Russian accent -- plays Capt. Kirbuk, the commander of the Russian ship, with Elya Baskin very good as one of the crew who bonds with Curnrow.
The moments that do work here are home runs knocked out of the park. With 16 years of improved technology, the special effects are very cool, if a little more understated than the original. Approaching Jupiter and its moons, Europa and Io, are some stunning sequences. The mid-space transfer from the Russian ship to the Discovery is similarly impressive, especially when you think about what's actually going on. '2010' has its moments of scares too, truly frightening. I've long said this in deep space reviews. You don't know what the universe truly contains. All sorts of things -- both good and bad -- are out there. Deep space could hide anything. Is it out there to help us or hurt us? The development of the monoliths certainly opens up that door. What is their ultimate purpose?
Maybe the biggest fear comes in a chilling, highly effective reappearance by Keir Dullea who played Dr. Dave Bowman in the original 2001, mysteriously disappearing in the end. His appearance halfway through the movie is genuinely startling, and the more we see, the creepier and more chilling it gets. His final line in 2001, "My God, it's full of stars!' provides much of the jumping off point here, and the impending changes his "being" implies set the tone for a genuinely creepy final hour. What awaits the rescue crew, and on a bigger level, Earth and mankind itself? I didn't love the ending, but I liked it a lot, especially the final scene. It's easier to judge these movies on a separate level. For me though, I liked the sequel significantly more than the original, even if it was vastly different movies.
2010 (1984): ***/****