June 14, 2011

[Kubrick] The Space Odyssey Is Worth Continuing in Peter Hyams' 2010

Previously published at Hope Lies.

Let's get this out of the way up front: 2010 is not 2001. It just isn't. It's not an artistic experience that challenges the mind while painting for people an amazing future that never before felt so real and raises questions about existence and creation and why are we here and what else is waiting outside the fence of our atmosphere that will make our greatest most miraculous achievements seem tiny in comparison. It's not a film that's more about an experience than a narrative, nor a film that redefines a genre, a style, effects techniques, hell, cinema itself for decades to come.

But it is a good film, a very good film, one that's been a personal favorite since I first discovered it and its predecessor in my early teens. It doesn't sweep me away as much as 2001, but it still captures my imagination and challenges me to think and ask, and gives me the drive to seek out the hard questions, but still know when the price of knowing an unknown might not be worth it.

2001: A Space Odyssey ended with a spectacular cosmic journey where astronaut Dave Bowman, the last survivor of his ship, dies and is reborn in an experience that elevates him to a new level of existence. It was spectacular filmmaking, but in the narrative of this fictional universe, Dave Bowman is the tree that falls in a forest when nobody is around. A sound is made, but it goes unheard as, back on Earth, everyone is left with years of planning and dedication flushed down the toilet as every report on the journey of Discovery ends in the word "UNKNOWN". What happened to HAL that made him kill the crew? Where did Dave Bowman disappear to after a final message of "My God, it's full of stars."? What does this have to do with the massive monolith floating in orbit around Jupiter?

Nobody knows. For almost a decade, they just sit and stew and go about their business while constantly going over what scant bits of useless data they have. At the heart of this is Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the now retired director of the original Discovery mission, whose peaceful life of rest with his young wife and son (and their swanky digs which include an oceanside pool full of dolphins) isn't enough to keep him on Earth when his Russian counterpart comes to him with a proposal. The Americans are already building a Discovery II to retrace the voyage of the first, but it seems the U.S.S.R. is going to get there first in their ship, the Alexei Leonov. And, furthermore, the original Discovery's orbit is decaying, so it won't be around long enough to wait.

As I'm sure we all remember, the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia was still alive and well during this film's production in 1984, so you can guess how things go. Since the Russians will get there first, but the Americans know what to look for when they get there, a deal is struck where Floyd and two other Yanks will tow along on an international exchange of sorts. This is all fine for Floyd, who's a practical man and doesn't care who he has to work with to get the job done, but the Russian astronauts are military, and the seeds of distrust are still strong. They don't like the fact that they have to care for and share information with people they've been trained to see as enemies. There's a great scene, shortly after Floyd is revived from hibernation, where they keep tossing glares and cold political news his way, but he doesn't even acknowledge it at first because, dammit, he just needs to know the data readings and all this other stuff is neither here nor there.

Still, tensions are high because the world is in the midst of another Cuban Missile Crisis involving battle ships and blockades and a few skirmishes that break out. At one point, after Discovery is back on line, orders are given that the crews need to divide to and remain on their sovereign territory. It doesn't last long, though, because the further one drifts from Earth, and the more alien worlds and moons and giant black rectangles fill the windows, the harder it is to become attached to a petty pissing contests on what's been reduced to a tiny blue dot. It starts with tension, but an intimacy is formed over time, reflected in the bond that grows between Floyd and Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren). There is an attraction there, both intellectual and physical, but it never gets romantic due to the bands on their fingers that remind them of spouses and children waiting back home. In a conversation over a smuggled bottle of whiskey, they learn the son of one and the daughter of the other are right around the same age, and joke about returning to a world where they could hook the two up.

And then there's Walter and Max (John Lithgow and Elya Baskin), the engineers of the two ships who strike up a chummy bromance. In the most visually impressive sequence of the film, the two have to float untethered through space to the adrift Discovery. It's constantly rotating, end over end, and the hull is a diseased shade of yellow, caked with sulfur from the blistering surface of Io that lingers beneath the astronauts' feet. On the way across, Walter breaks down in an agoraphobic panic attack, the calm space suit breathing of the first film now replaced by rapid hyperventilation. Max calms him and soothes him, and Floyd even tries to make up a joke involving a rabbi and a chicken. They get to the ship and attach, but they still have to scale all the way down the length of its spine to the pod bay at the bow, the rotations of the ship adding a little more weight with every step, and causing the view of the looming bodies of Jupiter and Io to swing around and around and around. Once inside the familiar pod bay, now powerless and dark, and slanted on its side due to the shift in gravity, Max tests the air and it's his turn for a panic attack when he catches the smell of decayed meat, and he fears the presence of corpses. When he calms, the two break into laughter. They've become brothers through their moments of spineless foolishness. It makes the moment all the more bittersweet when one of them is lost in a later scene.

The third American on the voyage is Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), the disturbingly calm computer programmer who created HAL. For years, he's dreamed of his creation and learning why it turned sour and killed four people. We first meet him shortly after he's been invited on the mission as he asks his latest computer SAL for permission to lobotomize her the in the same way as HAL in search of a way to put them both back together again. He's so desperate to restore his wayward son that he'll sacrifice his new daughter, and she agrees to it, asking a question we'll later hear from HAL: "Will I dream?" SAL receives assurances that she will because all intelligent life does. For HAL, it's an honest "I don't know."

In a move that I'm sure some find disappointing, but I'm personally fine with, we do learn the truth about why HAL turned on his crew. He was given orders to lie, to withhold information from the pilots about the monolith they were headed toward, which goes against his core programming of open honesty. As the little lies turned into big ones, and the threat of him being caught loomed strong, he panicked and did what he thought needed to be done to preserve the core mission parameters. Since he was programmed to carry on the mission himself should anything happen to the crew, he disposed of them. My one major complaint about the film is that Chandra casually erases HAL's memory of the incident. Wouldn't that be an interesting thing to explore: a computer stewing over and coming to terms with its own mistakes and limitations? It would have added even more impact to the marvelous climactic scene where the others need HAL to sacrifice himself and the Discovery to save their lives, and none of them believes he will. Chandra, who had battled to this point to make the others see HAL as a being deserving of equal respect and consideration, lies to him. And HAL sees right through it.

Faith plays an interesting role throughout this story, but faith that isn't blind, that still requires some form of convincing evidence. They put faith in HAL making the right choice because they have no other options if he doesn't. Dave Bowman (still played by Kier Dullea) sends Floyd a message of warning, which is brushed off, then physically appears to the man - in a great sequence using all of his stages of aging, including the Star Child - to make sure the warning, that everyone needs to leave Jupiter, carries weight. Floyd has no evidence to show to the others and sure as hell doesn't want to tell them where he received his warning, but then a massive dark spot appears on Jupiter that convinces them something's definitely up. In the end, the unseen alien force itself puts faith in a new message of peace to humanity, backed up by a cosmic alteration on their part that will change the sky itself. I won't say what happens, because I want you all to see it for yourself, but in the words of Dave, it's "something wonderful." In a final narration, Floyd ponders the day his son has children who will never know the sky as it was before.

This isn't a story of people being swept up and altered, both physically and mentally, by outside cosmic forces. It's about regular people bearing witness to something so profound and magical that the change comes from within as the best aspects of who they are come forward. As increasingly bitter messages arrive, one after the other, from the politicians on Earth who want to know what's going on and whether or not the imposed rules are being followed, we see the Russians and the Americans ignoring them as they work together. Just as they find it increasingly difficult to care about the conflict back home, home has no way of understanding what they're going through out in the depths of space.

This is a very good film and a reminder of the genuine auteur Peter Hyams once had the potential to be. Though they had their moments of clumsiness, films like Outland and The Star Chamber and Capricorn One showed he had a distinct and inventive cinematic voice. It wasn't as sweeping or meticulous as that of a filmmaker like Kubrick, but it was genuine and capable, and this film is a reflection of Hyams at his best. Unfortunately, it was a box office failure, and the rest of his career is a string of studio assignments. A few of them hold up decently, but none are as skillful as this tender and engrossing tale of people who set out to explain the unknown, and return with neither answers nor understanding, but appreciation, respect, and a grinning sense of wonder.

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