2001 was a masterpiece that transcended genre. 2010, on the other hand, is just a decent science fiction film. Kubrick’s film certainly didn’t need a sequel, and it has a perfectly ambiguous ending. But, Arthur C. Clarke had continued the story, so I guess you can’t blame MGM for commissioning this film. Someone decided, quite wisely, not to emulate the visual style of Kubrick’s film - Peter Hynes (future director of Timecop!) certainly should not have tried, so 2010 is much more conventional.
It is the distant future year of 2010 AD. I know it may be hard to imagine what life will be like in that far off time, but I’m sure this movie is quite close with its depiction of a manned Soviet mission to Jupiter. Okay, so this film fails pretty bad as futurism. It does feel a bit closer than 2001, as it lacks that movie’s super-clean space station and collarless future-suits. The computers look quite a bit worse though; a big step back from HAL, who looked like he could be an Apple product with his simple sleek design. It’s odd that they thought we would have a sophisticated AI by the start of the twenty-first century, but computer screens would only have a couple dozen pixels.
The plot connects a great deal to the first film. The Soviets and Americans are both launching missions to investigate the disappearance of Discovery (which obviously never reported back between HAL’s hijinks and Dave’s journey into the LSD-monolith). The Soviets have a head start with a mission commanded by Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren), but they agree to take on three Americans: Heywood Floyd (Roy Shneider), an expert on the ship named Dr. Curnow (an oft-hyperventilating John Lithgow), and HAL’s programmer Dr. Chandra (who’s supposed to be Indian, but ‘80s films didn’t take Indians seriously – see Short Circuit – so they cast Bob Balaban instead). They make it out to Jupiter and begin to investigate the fate of Discovery’s crew, HAL’s malfunction, and some odd occurrences on the icy moon of Europa. We already know the answers to the first two mysteries, so things can feel a bit pointless at times. But, there are some good effects - a nice spacewalk scene over to Discovery, for instance, and there is a great ending that almost makes It all worthwhile.
I haven’t mentioned yet that all ‘80s science fiction movies have to have annoying synthesizers in the score (unless Spielberg or Lucas is involved – they can get John Williams). We get it in Blade Runner, Terminator, and now 2010. You can imagine the though-process that went into this: “ooh, synthesizers sound like the future!” No, they sound like the ‘80s.
Hard sf films about space travel are pretty rare when you think about it, so I see why Hugo voters went for this one. It’s a decent sequel to an amazing film with some nice moments of its own, especially in the final fifteen minutes. In hindsight though, it’s pretty obvious that Terminator was more important, influential, and just plain better.