Saturday, July 5, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part III

Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

Sorry about the delay,Geekers. I had meant to have this posted by early June, but what with  publishing my latest book, a collection of Sci-Fi and Fantasy short stories, I fell a little behind.  So let's get right into it, shall we? Up for review this month, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.


I first have to confess that while I enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am not a fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film. I will agree that it is a creative milestone, not only in terms of science fiction film, but in cinema in general. The film looks terrific, even by standards of today's visual effects,and the set and costume designs are incredibly realistic (Though the business attire worn in the films opener evokes a bit too much Austin Powers). The story is engaging and the acting is passable. The problem is that the film is so dang slooow. Kubrick's love of meshing his visuals with classical music is inventive, but slows the pace too much. I don't need a five minute sequence just watching a spaceship dock with a spaceship and seeing a space-stewardess walk the entire circumference of he space-liner in zero gee. It draws the viewer out of the story.

By contrast, Peter Hyam's 1984 sequel, does not fall into this trap. Also, ironically, is one of those rare films that actually better than the novel it is based upon. The plot, picking up years after 2001, deals with Dr. Heywood Floyd, the man responsible for sending the spaceship Discovery on its mission to Jupiter, searching for answers as to what went wrong. Hitching a ride aboard a Soviet spaceship, Floyd and a small team will reactivate the derelict Discovery and its dormant control computer system HAL, and investigate the mystery behind the disappearance of astronaut David Bowman after encountering the enigmatc Monolith orbiting Jupiter.


While the novel that the film is based upon is a fine piece, the story lacked the tension to really engage a film audience. The Soviets in the book act like old friends to the American crew and everyone goes about their duties without conflict. In the film, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are escalating and the two superpowers are on the brink of  launching World War III. These tensions carry over to the crew of the Soviet spaceship Leonov, who view Floyd and his crew with suspicion and animosity at first, but as the film progresses, the two crews must work together to solve the mysteries within and find a grudging respect and friendship for each other.

What really makes this film work are the performances of the stellar cast. Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd , leads the American crew which consists of Bob Balaban as HAL creator Dr. Chandra, and the always excellent John Lithgow as engineer Walter Curnow. Helen Mirren plays the captain of the Soviet crew, and Keir Dullea reprises his role as David Bowman, and Douglas Rain returns to voice the enigmatic HAL-9000.

There is an honesty to this cast that makes all the fantastical happenings seem all the more real. Whether the characters are discussing the mystery of  what is happening with the Monolith, the events that are taking place on the Jovian moon of Europa, or simply discussing what ballpark makes the best hot dogs, the viewer feels that these characters believe every word they are saying. Of particular note is the friendship struck up between Lithgow's Curnow and Russian-crewman Max, played by Elya Baskin, and the banter that plays between them is fun to watch.

In particular, this is one of my favorite Roy Scheider roles.Whether he is playing a scientist, a small-town sheriff turned shark-hunter in Jaws, or a submarine commander on Seaquest DSV, his portrayals are always that of the approachable favorite teacher or uncle, and we cannot help but root for his character. And though heard as HAL but never seen, Douglas Rain gives such life to the character that when HAL finally accepts the fact that he may cease to exist if Discovery is destroyed, we truly feel pity for him.

The only classical music used in this film is Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, heard over the opening and closing sequences. The rest of the score was composed and conducted by David Shire. The visual effects by The Entertainment Effects Group are believable and effective.

 Author Arthur C. Clarke has a cameo as the old man on a bench outside the White House, feeding pigeons, and he also appears on a cover of Time magazine, along with 2001 director Kubrick as the U.S. and Russian leaders.

Though a bit dated, as all films about the future tend to be, 2010 still holds up remarkably well. Clarke penned two more sequels, 2061 and 3001: The Final Odyssey. As of this writing, I have no knowledge of any plans to adapt these to film.

Next destination for the Way-Back machine, the 1984 horror-comedy Ghostbusters.


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