Judged strictly on its own, as if it were an original production with no connection to '2001: A Space Odyssey', Peter Hyams' film version of '2010' is arguably one of the better sci-fi pictures to come out of the 1980s. Unfortunately, you really can't judge the movie on its own. Its existence is inextricably tied to Stanley Kubrick's legendary masterpiece. Any positive attributes '2010' may have are unavoidably overshadowed by comparison to its predecessor. There's just no two ways around it. As the direct sequel to one of the greatest motion pictures ever made, quite frankly, '2010' stinks.
The fault for that lies mainly with author Arthur C. Clarke. If a few of the sub-plots have been changed around a bit, the movie is a mostly faithful adaptation of Clarke's novel '2010: Odyssey Two' in all of its most important aspects. When Clarke and Kubrick collaborated back in 1968, the results were a fusion of each man's strengths as a storyteller: Clarke's background in hard science fiction and his grounding in plausible scientific speculation, with Kubrick's visionary artistry and mind-bending flights of imagination. The sequels (the author penned four books in the series) are purely Clarke's doing, and suffer from the lack of Kubrick's perspective.
That's not to say that Clarke was an inferior storyteller to Kubrick. In his prolific career, he wrote several legitimate classics such as 'Childhood's End' and 'Rendezvous with Rama'. The two men simply approached the material from completely different angles. Their collaboration on '2001' produced something beautiful and transcendent. '2010', on the other hand, just isn't.
At the end of '2001', the human race had encountered the single most important event in its history, and was quite possibly poised at the brink of an evolutionary jump forward. As '2010' picks up, we learn that basically nothing has happened in the following nine years. In fact, the mysterious monolith and the intelligence behind it don't seem to have much interest in Earth or humanity at all. The film opens with a stream of facts and data that recap the discovery of the monolith and the first mission to Jupiter. In this alternate timeline, the U.S.S.R. is still a major superpower, and the Cold War is still very much on. While their governments squabble over an escalating conflict in Central America, the American and Soviet scientific communities decide to launch a joint mission out to Jupiter. Their plan is to board the derelict spaceship Discovery and find out exactly what went wrong the last time. The Soviets can get there faster, but only the Americans can reactivate and repair HAL 9000, and so they need each other. Leading the expedition are Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider taking over from William Sylvester) and the Russian captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren).
While Kubrick embraced ambiguity, Clarke was a strict literalist. The brilliance of '2001' lay in its open-ended nature, the fact that it opened the door for ideas that each audience member would have to interpret for him- or herself. '2010' sets about to systematically deconstruct all of the mysteries left unresolved at the end of the first story. It attempts to provide rational, understandable explanations to the images and plot developments that were intended to represent concepts beyond humanity's comprehension. Do you need to be told, in easily-digestible terms, exactly what the monolith and the Star Child were, where they came from, what they did, and how they worked? Well, here you go. Personally, I find it more interesting to ponder those things on my own, especially when the explanations that Clarke comes up with are so simplistic and mundane.
If I haven't mentioned Peter Hyams much in all this, the director illustrates Clarke's story with workmanlike competence and efficiency. The film has strong performances from the cast and solid production values for an '80s sci-fi flick. The model and miniature effects are quite excellent and hold up very well. (However, the opticals have dated badly and some of the compositing work is downright terrible.) Hyams stages several moments of nail-biting suspense, including the aerobraking sequence and a breathless space walk between the Russian craft Leonov and the Discovery. I have to admit disappointment that he falls back on that old crutch of using sound in the vacuum of outer space (which Kubrick went out of his way to avoid). Nevertheless, I think it's safe to say that '2010' is the best movie that Hyams ever made, even if that's not much of a complement considering some of the dreck he's churned out in the years since.
For what it is, the film's script is intelligently written and has some thought-provoking ideas. The depiction of the future year of 2010 misses the mark in a few respects (like the Soviet Union still being around, or the preponderance of all those bulky CRT computer monitors), but is a fairly credible extension of the world created in Kubrick's film. Unfortunately, the movie lacks any real vision, which '2001' had in spades. On its own, '2010' is a decent enough sci-fi picture. But it's not a worthy follow-up to '2001'. Not at all.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video has made the odd decision to release '2010' on Blu-ray in 2009. You'd think they might wait a year to have a promotional tie-in with the movie's title date. I can't imagine there were really that many fans clamoring to see it on the format as soon as possible.
Like most Warner releases, the Blu-ray automatically begins movie playback without a main menu screen, and frustratingly defaults to the lossy Dolby Digital audio track. Although the case art references its longer promotional title, '2010: The Year We Make Contact', the movie's actual on-screen title in both the opening and ending credits has always been simply '2010'.
'2010' is not the revelation on Blu-ray that '2001: A Space Odyssey' was, but that has more to do with the nature of each movie than their respective high-def transfers. Unlike its predecessor, the majority of '2010' wasn't shot on 65mm film, just regular 35mm. Further, director Peter Hyams performs double-duty as cinematographer on all of his movies. His preferred visual style is dark and grainy. He favors source lighting and high-speed film stocks. You'll find a consistently drab appearance among most of his pictures ('Timecop', 'The Relic', 'End of Days', et al.).
The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is at the mercy of its source material. Presented in its theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the image is flat and hazy. Colors appear accurate, but aren't particularly noteworthy. Contrast wavers; a lot of shots had their exposure pushed in the lab, elevating black levels and grain.
Accepting that, the Blu-ray is certainly a substantial improvement over the DVD edition released with a cruddy non-anamorphic letterbox transfer back in 2000. Although fairly soft due to the lighting and use of photographic filters, the picture has a decent amount of detail and exhibits no signs of Digital Noise Reduction or artificial sharpening. The special effects footage (which was shot on 65mm by an entirely different crew than the live action scenes) looks terrific. The model shots are as sharp, clear, and well-lit as you could hope. If anything, the contrast between the two types of scene is a little jarring, but that's just the way the movie is.
The VC-1 encoding has a few minor issues. The grain isn't always well-compressed, and sometimes comes across noisy or blocky. I also noticed some color banding on the flat surface of the monolith. Still, overall, this transfer is about as good as I'd ever expect '2010' to look in high definition.
'2010' was nominated for a Best Sound Academy Award back in 1985. For its vintage, this is an interesting sound design, even if fidelity and aggressiveness aren't quite up to modern standards.
The Blu-ray offers the soundtrack in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats. Dialogue sounds a little flat, but the music (especially Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra) has nice body and depth. The movie features some very loud, shocking sound effects. The aerobraking sequence is an auditory highlight with pretty intense bass action guaranteed to get your subwoofer rumbling.
Even though the movie played in 70mm theatrical engagements with a 6-track audio mix, the 5.1 options on the Blu-ray are virtually devoid of surround activity. Whether that's inherent to the original sound design (it wouldn't surprise me) or an issue with the conversion to 5.1 configuration, I can't say.
Unfortunately, Warner has never felt any desire to lavish '2010' with the type of Special Edition treatment it has afforded to '2001'. The DVD edition had basically no bonus features, and the Blu-ray follows suit.
'2010' is a movie simultaneously underrated and not nearly as good as it should have been. If you can try to divorce your expectations from any comparison to '2001: A Space Odyssey', it's a solid '80s sci-fi adventure. Unfortunately, it is a sequel to '2001', and on that mark utterly fails. The Blu-ray looks and sounds about as good as the movie can look or sound, and is worth a recommendation.