Friday, January 22, 2010

2010 vs. 2001

Last night I watched the movie 2010, in honor of the fact that the futuristic setting of the film has become contemporary. Throughout my life I have made it a habit to read or view science fiction works at the actual times they are supposed to take place, whenever this has been possible. For instance, I read a Reader's Digest condensed version of 1984 on the two days in April 1984 when the action was supposed to have occurred. On New Year's Day 2001, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, and during the year I read the novel. I had seen 2010 in the theater when it came out back in 1984, but, despite my regular habit since the mid-90's of watching old science fiction movies, I had never seen it since. In general, science fiction movies since Star Wars haven't excited me as much as older ones (with a few notable exceptions like Blade Runner), and 2010 became in my mind one of those mediocre 80's sci-fi movies that I just didn't care enough to revisit. However, since it is now the namesake year of that film, I decided to watch it again just out of curiosity, to compare its vision of the year 2010 with the reality.

Many people who have seen 2010 have pointed out that it has become much more dated than the older (1968) film to which it is a sequel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is true. The computers, for instance, look pretty much like PCs from... well, 1984. However, there is one brief shot of the main character, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), sitting on a beach using a laptop, which is interesting. The two home interiors that are glimpsed look like very mild versions of 1980's futurism (think Omni magazine or EPCOT, toned down). The movie is also dated politically, since it assumes the continued existence of the Soviet Union (with whom we are on the brink of a nuclear war... how 80's can you get?).

In other ways, though, the movie's predictions are way too advanced (artificial intelligence on the level of HAL 9000, manned spaceflight to Jupiter), but these are elements it borrowed from 2001, which, after all, posited the existence of such things nine years ago.

So why does 2010 date so much more than the older 2001? This is an interesting question, and I think it has an interesting answer. 2010 dates more, I think, because it is more realistic. That is, its vision of the future was based on the reality of 1984, with some reasonable guesses as to how things might change over the course of the next 26 years. The fact that these educated guesses about the world of 2010 were so cautiously "realistic" is precisely what has made the movie seem like a product of its time rather than a timeless masterpiece like its predecessor. 2001, while one could argue that its vision of the world 33 years hence was also reasonable given the rapid advances in space exploration in the 1960's, was not so constrained in its imagination. Stanley Kubrick's classic film dreamed big... it was a movie of vision. It was notably realistic in its details of space travel (no sound in the vacuum of space, for instance), but it was not "realist" in its imaginative scope. By "realism" in this sense I mean the sort of pragmatic, sober-minded outlook that rejects the grand visions of romanticism. 2001 is romantic in its bold imagination, its epic grandeur, and its mystical, transcendent yearning. 2010 possesses none of these qualities, but is instead a much more pedestrian affair. Where 2001 is magical and mysterious, 2010 attempts to demystify it, to explain the unexplainable and to convert the poetic myth of 2001 into bland literalism.

The very aesthetics of the two pictures attest to these vast differences in vision. The world of 2010 is actually much more realistic than the futuristic fantasy of 2001, but that is precisely the problem. 2010 presents us with a mundane vision, barely different from the reality we know. 2001 showed us something magnificent, inspiring, and wondrous. The interior of the Russian spaceship in 2010 looks like every other depressing, workmanlike spacecraft interior in 1980's science fiction films (something like the inside of a submarine), a far cry from the pristine white minimalism of the interior of Discovery in the earlier film. The interiors of the space shuttle and space station share this stylish futuristic aesthetic, which has the effect of making the imagined world of 2001 seem like a wonderful place. It is of course an idealized vision, but this is exactly what makes it inspiring. We are not inspired by imperfect realities, but by ideals.

All of this is not to say that 2010 is a bad movie. It's actually a decent, if not particularly memorable, science fiction film. The problem is that it suffers in comparison to its predecessor. Granted, 2001 is one of the high achievements of 20th century art and it would be unfair to expect any sequel, even if it had been done by Kubrick himself, to match up to it. But if you're going to touch a classic, the stakes are high. Disappointment is inevitable unless you really, really know what you're doing, which doesn't mean having a big budget or the most sophisticated special effects, but in having vision. And in any artform, that is one of the hardest resources to come by.

One last difference to point out: in 2010, there is just too much talking.

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