"2010" is a one-man tour de fizzle, a yawnfest so plodding it seems to have been made by the famous monolith itself.
Everything that was beautiful about Stanley Kubrick's "2001" is tawdry in the sequel; director-producer-screenwriter-cinematographer Peter Hyams has appropriated the symbolic paraphernalia of the original in a display of infuriating self-righteousness and hold-your-nose hokum. Aren't there laws against this kind of vandalism?
"2001's" portrait of space travel brought audiences into a world that was strange and wondrous then, and at the center of the American imagination (it opened more than a year before the first trip to the moon). After "Star Wars" and its sequels and imitations, in an era when the comings and goings of the space shuttle excite little more interest than Amtrak, a movie has to do more than show us large objects strolling through space -- and "2010" doesn't.
The near insuperable challenge involved in making a sequel to "2001" was to tell the "after" story of a movie that, drawing on the ineffable imaginative power of its symbols, was as complete and unrevisable as a dream. Nine years have passed since the crew of the USS Discovery encountered one of those symbols, the inscrutable monolith, as well as the murderous computer HAL; in the interim, the head of NASA at the time, Dr. Floyd (Roy Scheider), has been cashiered and has withdrawn to the cloisters of academe. Guilt ridden over sending those men to their deaths, he grabs the chance to tag along on a Russian spaceship that zips off to investigate. Relations among the binational crew are strained by events back on Earth: a reactionary president has blockaded all of Central America (neat trick, that), the Soviets decide to challenge him, and Doomsday rears its ugly head.
In the opening scene, Floyd and a Russian scientist literally meet each other halfway; the film is full of musty pieties about international cooperation and the spirit of scientific inquiry -- for Hyams, people don't kill people, governments do. Such profundities are lost on the bellicose earthlings, though, until the monolith itself chimes in. "All the worlds are yours," it tells them. "Use them together. Use them in peace."
That's what that darn monolith is -- a Hallmark card!
Hyams patronizes his audience by spelling everything out in long expository sequences and voice-overs of the messages Floyd transmits home to his wife; even when he allows that Kubrick's symbols are inexplicable, he insists on pointing that fact out to us. He's a sort of high priest of the obvious. From the stabs at pathos (the obligatory quiet moment when the Russian captain, a woman, shares some American whiskey with her counterpart and asks, "Yahr vife -- vot iss she lahk?") to the balky attempts at humor (an engineer has to spacewalk and, wouldn't you know it -- he's afraid of heights!), there isn't one genuine moment in the movie.
"2010" assembles a talented cast, only to cast them adrift. Scheider reprises his likable no-nonsense briskness, but he can't save lines like "We are only tenants of the world -- we have been given a new lease, and a warning, by the landlord." Bob Balaban brings a nerdy poignance to the role of the ship's computer expert who becomes HAL's friend, but that's precisely what's unconscionable about the role -- making HAL friendly splatters Kubrick's marvelous portrait of technology run amok. And the fine character actor John Lithgow just seems embarrassed as the acrophobic engineer.
Considering the jillion-dollar budget, the special effects and production design look pretty cheesy. And Hyams, who fought with the cinematographers' union to get his credit as director of photography, has shot a movie as fuzzy as its ideas. Those who haven't seen the original will encounter a sci-fi movie that makes the very genesis of the universe seem routine; fans of "2001" will be enraged. According to the Hollywood rumor mill, MGM/UA president Frank Yablans has staked his job on the success of "2010." Send flowers. "2010," opening today at area theaters, is rated PG.