Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: 2010: The Year We Make Contact
Some believe the thirty-year-later sequel is a recent invention, but a spate of twenty-five-year-later sequels emerged in the 1980s. In a way, it makes sense as sequels were finally a fiscally legitimate move thanks to Star Wars, Star Trek and Rocky. Funny how those film series keep coming up in our discussion of cheesy movies. The impulse at the time, as it is now, was to rekindle warm feelings audiences had for the original films while trying to pump new life into the characters and their situations.
One of these was Martin Scorsese’s 1986 picture The Color of Money. It is a direct sequel to 1961’s The Hustler with Paul Newman reprising his role as “Fast Eddie” Felson. Tom Cruise also stars in the film, which is why I cannot speak to its quality as I refuse to support that actor financially or philosophically.
Curiously, both The Color of Money and this weekend’s cheesy movie, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, share a peculiar trait in common: both are based on books written decades after the initial novels the preceding films were based on. The Color of Money was published in 1984 and 2010: Odyssey Two was published in 1982. But that is, of course, where the similarities end.
The plot of 2010 concerns Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the disgraced ex-chairman of the National Council for Aeronautics; the agency author Arthur C. Clarke devised in 2001: a space odyssey in lieu of using the actual NASA marks and structure. Held accountable for the deaths of the Discovery‘s crew, Floyd faded into relative obscurity. Eight years on, the Discovery is in a decaying orbit between Jupiter and its volcanic moon, Io. As the ship will crash into Io long before the US can gets its new Discovery-class ship out there, Floyd uses his remaining connections to get himself and two other Americans placed aboard a Soviet (note the word choice) spaceship, the Leonov, which will arrive near Io before Discovery‘s orbit decays completely.
A year or so later, the Soviet cosmonauts, led by Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren), wake Floyd up early from cryogenic sleep to witness a startlingly discovery on another of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. There, they find evidence of chlorophyll, suggesting a complex form of life may be buried under the ice. Sadly, their trajectory does not allow them much time to study the phenomenon.
Approaching Io, the other Americans, Dr. R. Chandra (Bob Balban) and Dr. Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) are awakened to fulfill their tasks on the mission. As the lead designer of the Discovery, Curnow must get the ship ready for a return journey to Earth. As the lead developer of the HAL 9000 computer, Chandra must determine if HAL can be trusted to assist the Americans in their trip home.
Oh, also, there’s a large floating Monolith hovering between Io and Jupiter that intrigues both the American and Russian space agencies.
And if the whole things feels less magical than the events of 2001: a space odyssey, that’s part of the charm. In returning to the Odyssey setting, Clarke was more interested in the tale of Americans aboard on a long-distance Soviet spaceship than answering any lingering questions about the original film — in fact, the journey to Jupiter is far more interesting in the novel than any of the material devoted to the continuing mystery of the Monolith.
Writer/director Peter Hyams adapted the novel to more closely resemble 2001 and confront some of its questions. He also went out of his way to recreate ships and sets 2001 director Stanley Kubrick had destroyed for fear the materials would end up in low budget B-pictures. But in slavishly recreating elements from one of the most groundbreaking science fiction films in cinema history left Hyams with far less room to maneuver. The more “modern” space suits, though accurate to actual gear used by NASA, look less advanced the suits devised in 1968 for 2001, for example.
A sequence in which Curnow and Cosmonaut Maxim Brailovsky (Elya Baskin) journey to a spinning Discovery is a fitting metaphor for the difficulties Hyams faced in creating his film. It employs some truly outstanding mid-80s model work, but Lithgow hams up Curnow’s first spacewalk. Also, the entire sequence is paced at the speed of tar while an electronic dirge fails to find the cosmic wonder of the waltzes used in 2001. The sequence ends with a strange horror fake out as Max smells some bad meat in the galley and assumes Discovery astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) returned to the ship to die. Instead of suggesting the state of the characters, the sequence repeatedly goes out of its way to tell you where they are and how they feel. Which is an incredible misread of what makes 2001 work and illustrates 2010‘s greatest flaw: its belief that answering mysteries is as good as creating them.
Shortly after Curnow restores power to the Discovery, Chandra learns the truth behind HAL’s murderous in 2001. Ordered by the National Security Council to withhold the true nature of the Jupiter mission from Bowman and co-pilot Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood in 2001), the conflict with his primary mandate — the unadulterated dissemination of information — created an imbalance within the advanced computer and a state neurotic state within HAL and disastrous consequences.
Though this is the underlying answer presented in 2001 if you pay attention to mission briefing Bowman uncovers near the end, 2010 spells it out in a way which if far less stimulating.
And yet, for giving the otherworldliness of 2001 such mundane answers, Hyams manages to create an credible vision of the year 2010 — well, from the perspective 1984 — and marry it with Kubrick’s mid-century take on the year 2001. He also assembles a great cast. Scheider and Mirren appear effortless in their roles. Lithgow, despite hamming it up in the spacewalk, is rather subdued for much of the film; clamping down most of comedic instincts. And Balaban is always great, even if it is strange to see him playing a part Clarke envisioned as an Indian. Baskin, the only other cosmonaut with significant screentime, offers a charming performance as well before his character faces the Monolith. With these dependable actors and a solid design aesthetic for both space and spaceflight, 2010 is certainly not a difficult movie to watch.
So where is the cheese? Within the core concept of making a sequel to one of the most influential science fictions films of all time. It might be more of an academic style of cheese, but nonetheless worthy of recognition. The film is not entertaining for any of the reasons Hyams might want. Namely, as a worthy direct 2001 sequel. Instead, it entertains by making all the mistakes a studio would make in attempting to mount such a project twenty years after the original film without the original filmmaker involved.
Then there’s also the odd effect of watching 2010 in the year 2010 or anytime after. At the time Clarke wrote Odyssey Two, few believed the Soviet Union would dissolve before the end of the 20th Century. Because of this, the films adds a nuclear standoff back on Earth to ratchet up the tension. But with the Soviet Union defunct by the beginning of the 1990s, the film looked strange seven years after its release and at this point, seems misguided in regards to the power structure on Earth and the spacefaring technology available to both countries. The end result is a cheese accumulated from years of history and, strangely enough, the lack of technological progress.
2010: The Year We Make Contact is worth watching at least once for anyone interested in the Odyssey sequence — though, honestly, Clarke’s novels are more interesting except when he address the Monolith mystery or brings back Bowman — and for those who want to see the wrong way to do the decades-later sequel. By recreating 2001‘s imagery, but not the tone, the film never establishes its own identity nor a compelling reason to revisit the world. While not a laugh riot as some of the other films we’ve profiled here, it still offers an unusual slice of cinematic cheese.
2010: The Year We Make Contact is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It is also available as a budget-priced Blu-ray wherever disc media is sold.