Top critical review
A review from an Arthur C. Clarke fan...and a Kubrick fan...
on 4 December 2015
Well, where to begin? I should point out that I am an ardent fan of Arthur C Clarke's novels, from the first time I read "A Fall of Moondust" and the soon/never-to-be-made-movie "Rendezvous with Rama" and all point between. But I am also a huge fan of Kubrick. And this duality leaves me conflicted over this movie.
Let me point out that I won't give a synopsis or any plot spoilers: you can read the summary and other reviews for that information. Instead I'll confine myself to the merits of this movie, my likes and dislikes.
As a straight telling of an Clarke novel, it has much to commend it. The dialogue has that familiar ring that I know from his novels, and this movie's pedantry around the science (the air-braking scene; the "La Grange Point" between Jupiter and Io, where Discovery is "parked"; the scene where the astronaut's weight increases as they move closer to the extremities of a tumbling Discovery) belies a desire to stay true to the novel. If you are truly a fan of Clarke's novels, I think you'll find this movie highly satisfying.
If only because it is the only true Clarke novel ever to make it to film.
However, therein lies the problem: this movie would never had been made if it were not for "2001: A Space Odyssey". And yet, if "2001" was just another Clarke novel, I'm guessing that too would never have been made a movie. After all, why had none of Clarke's outstanding canon of work ever made it to the screen? Even today, with the credentials of "2001" and the stellar backing of no less than Morgan Freeman, Clarke's outstanding "Rendezvous with Rama" has yet to make it to the big screen, with "script" problems being cited as the major stumbling block.
The truth is that in reality, "2001" must really be considered not a book, but a movie script commissioned by Kubrick, who ever true to his perfectionist calling, drew upon the talents of Clarke to help him faithfully craft an epic saga that held true to science, but yet crafted a tale with a grand vision that poses huge existential questions.
Thus, "2010" lies uncomfortably between two shores. On the one hand, one has the ardent Clarke fans, like me, who are simply hungry to see first class science fiction brought to the screen. Such people should, ostensibly, be happy with a competent rendition of a Clarke story. Indeed, Roy Scheider is not embarrassing and even manages at time to channel his erstwhile predecessor in the original movie, matching his pedantry in speech (although that could simply be a function of Clarke's writing). John Lithgow and co (including a relatively youthful Helen Mirram) also put in the creditable, committed performances that will mark them out as future acting giants. The use of model-based animation of the "2001"-to-"Star Wars: A New Hope" generation are very well presented here, although some fledgling CGI, used to represent the climactic events on Jupiter work far less well. For these reasons, this is a movie I enjoy even today.
However, it lies in the shadow of its giant older sibling, and here is where the divide is made plain. Whereas "2010" is pure Clarke, "2001" is pure Kubrick, with only the bare mechanics of Clarke's writing used t support it. Having seen both movies, all of Kubrick's, and read all of Clarke's books, I can truly understand how painful a process this must have been for Clarke. "2001" is a masterpiece of art, whereas "2010" is merely a really good science fiction story.
Kubrick had a higher purpose in mind for his work, an existential examination of man's place in the universe. To tell this story, he naturally wanted the authenticity of one of the three greatest Sci-Fi minds of the time (Asimov and Heinlein being the other two). But it is clear, from the lack of dialogue and narrative in the movie, that he didn't want their style. For Clarke to have been involved in such an endeavour, and cede so much ground to Kubrick must have been tortuous. Clarke would have loved to have fully described the Sentinel, the Star Gate, and other matters. Not that Clarke was a compulsive "plot spoiler": "Rendezvous with Rama" provides adequate evidence of his ability to leave his audience high and dry on explanations, if only to reflect the all-to-often reality that discovery does not necessarily lead immediately to complete understanding.
The upshot of this all is that "2010" talks a completely different language from "2001". For that reason, I can understand "2001" fans being grievously disappointed by this movie: sure, the special effects are great and the story continuity makes sense, but the fans who were drawn to the eerie and timeless sounds of Ligeti's score (so well chosen by Kubrick), the presentation of synchronised space flight as ballet, the ascetic vision and the daring use of avant garde visual art techniques to depict flight through the star gate, will be disappointed by the relatively pedestrian vision displayed here. This is only compounded by the relatively conventional photography, action-movie editing and more matter of fact scripting and sometimes amateurish editing. Even the incidental music let's things down, with its stock "single guy on a synthesiser" vibe which does not even bear comparison with the genius of Ligeti.
Even worse is that for the "conventional" mainstream Sci-Fi fan, there is little here: no aliens, no action and little suspense. True, the scenes above Io are tense, but not nearly tripping the action Richter-scale for "normal" mainstream movies of the "Alien" or "Predator" ilk.
The result is something that is neither fish nor fowl. For those non-Sci Fi people, entranced by the vision of "2001", seeking some further enlightenment, this movie may seem simplistic, pedestrian and a "junior college brass band" end to symphony of rare and profound beauty. For the average Joe Sci-Fi (read "Space Adventure" fan), there is simply not enough to hold the attention.
But of course, to a true fan of Clarke's work, this is finally a chance to see one of his works as he might have wanted it to be produced. I like this movie. I really do. But to be frank, and despite how much I hate myself for saying this, it helps me understand why so many other of his great works have never made it to the screen.