Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Celebrate Cold War Week at The A.V. Club with some stellar movies about that decades-spanning conflict.
Before going any further, it’s essential to note that, in the entire history of movies, none has been less in need of a sequel than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Especially not the way 2010 does it. To put it very mildly, 2001 is as much about “a bunch of guys on a spaceship with a malfunctioning computer who kills a bunch of them” as life on Earth is about things getting eaten by bears. What’s more, the spell-everything-out literalism of 2010 is at odds with the original’s cosmic opacity. Artistically speaking, the sequel suffers quite a bit in comparison with its predecessor, but it’s not a bad movie per se, and one in many crucial ways pre-compartmentalized, making comparisons unnecessary. The most crucial is that 2010 is, with a typically mid-1980s lack of subtlety, a cry of hope for the end of the Cold War.
Writer-producer-director-cinematographer Peter Hyams—after establishing his film as a discrete entity through a pre-credits montage recapping and literalizing the late passages of 2001—opens 2010 with a scene of two men, one Russian and one American, attempting both physically and verbally to come to an agreement. The information conveyed, setting the plot in motion, is almost less significant than the wide shots of the two men, specks against the background of massive antennae pointed at the stars. “Meet me halfway?” asks the Russian. The American (Roy Scheider, as Heywood Floyd, played by William Sylvester in 2001) reluctantly agrees. The exchange is shot through a metal staircase, with the men standing apart for no discernible reason. They are only able to tell the truth within the pretense of it being a game. And ultimately, the Russian man leaves without telling the American the whole story, trusting him to figure it out for himself.
He does, being the former head of the National Council of Aeronautics (the in-world equivalent of NASA), and proceeds to Washington to jump through the diplomatic hoops necessary to cooperate with the Russians on a mission. From there, it’s off to Jupiter, to investigate what happened to the Discovery before it, in violation of the laws of physics (which take a beating over the course of the film, Io if you go full Neil DeGrasse Tyson on it), crashes into Io.
The process of pulling Discovery out of its (scientifically inaccurate but cool-looking) death spiral requires another collaboration between a Russian and an American: the affable, charming cosmonaut Max, and the American designer of the Discovery (John Lithgow), whose panic at the prospect of an untethered spacewalk toward a derelict spaceship with a possibly homicidal dormant computer while being bombarded by radiation from Jupiter is, well, normal. Then, when they arrive on the ship, the balance of comfort shifts and it’s the American engineer’s turn to ease the Russian’s distress. The shared vulnerability yields instant friendship, with them teaching each other relevant words from their respective languages.
None of this is subtle, but the film was released a mere year after a hair’s-breadth escape from World War III, and a year before Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the role of General Secretary Of The Communist Party and began implementing the reforms that led to the end of the Cold War (which were ultimately so effective that he himself was deposed). 1984, in other words, was every bit as dystopian a year in its own right as George Orwell’s novel imagined, and one in which entreaties to be peaceful and work together maybe needed to be loud and unmistakable. In that regard, 2010 is an essential text of the late Cold War.
Availability: 2010: The Year We Make Contact is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.