Cold War Interrupted: The Promise of ‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’

Recollections / August 1, 2019

2010 leonov and discoveryIn late 1984 I encountered a film that would become, with the benefit of hindsight, the sine qua non experience of my 1980s sci-fi movie-going childhood. No, it wasn’t Dune or The Terminator or Ghostbusters, but a now little-remembered sequel to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s immortal cinematic classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2010: The Year We Made Contact was released in December 1984 to a great deal of publicity, but did lukewarm business at the holiday box office. To most critics at the time, it was an unnecessary sequel to one of the most historic films ever made, a futile attempt to explain away the sublime mysteries conjured by Clarke’s prose and Kubrick’s visuals. But to nine-year-old me, it was the on-screen fulfillment of every one of my early childhood dreams about space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as well as a window into a possible post-Cold War future founded on peace and understanding rather than mistrust and war.

2010‘s pedigree is solid; while Kubrick deferred participating in the screen adaptation of Clarke’s 1982 novel, 2010: Odyssey Two, writer/director Peter Hyams petitioned Clarke and Kubrick for the director’s chair. Hyams was used to grim and gritty sc-ifi; he wrote and directed two of the late ’70s/early ’80s greatest conspiratorial science fiction thrillers: Capricorn One (1979) and Outland (1981). So the plot of 2010—a joint Soviet-American mission to salvage the U.S.S. Discovery from 2001 and find out what happened to the crew at the hands of paranoid shipboard computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain)—seemed right in Hyams’ wheelhouse. He directed, adapted the screenplay, and acted as director of photography for 2010, and enlisted the great Syd Mead to design the Soviet spacecraft Leonov, with its trademark rotating center section (designed to simulate gravity) and interiors more than a little reminiscent of the Nostromo in 1979’s Alien.

2010 mirren rudnik leonov sick bay

Dr. Vasily Orlov (Oleg Rudnik) and Capt. Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren) in the sick bay/hibernation chamber of the Leonov.

2010‘s plot is pretty straightforward: the American team assigned to the Leonov (Roy Scheider playing the role of Heywood Floyd from 2001, originally played by William Sylvester; John Lithgow as Discovery engineer Walter Curnow; and Bob Balaban as HAL’s creator Dr. Chandra, a role whitewashed from Clarke’s novel, where he was a character of Indian descent) must hurry to the Lagrange point between Jupiter and Jupiter’s inner moon Io, where the Discovery‘s orbit is decaying rapidly for unknown reasons. The Russians have a spacecraft ready to go and are the only ones who can reach Discovery in time. In the meantime, the giant monolith that acted as the “Star Gate” for Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) mystical transfiguration in 2001 hangs nearby, eerily overlooking the proceedings.

With Cold War tensions ratcheted up thanks to a proxy war in Central America, the Americans and Russians must plumb the mysteries of HAL, the monolith, and strange happenings on Europa, Jupiter’s second moon, while, back on Earth, the two superpowers seem on a collision course for nuclear war. The performances are solid, the use of an all-Russian crew of actors for the Leonov adding a great deal of verisimilitude (Helen Mirren, who plays Tanya Kirbuk, the tough and no-nonsense captain of the Leonov, is of partially Russian descent). And the special effects were mindblowing for 1984, with lighting tricks and changes in film gauge that lend the practical spacecraft models a distinct layer of realism. Early computer-generated imagery complements these practical effects, providing the sinister swarm of black monoliths in the third act of the film that consume Jupiter, turning it into a second sun for the primitive plant-based life forms living under the ice of Europa and signaling to the Earth that humanity will need to work together from here on.

2010 is more overtly political than Kubrick’s film, its space adventure themes played less ironically, its metaphysics ultimately far less obscure. However, what made the sequel so unique among all the science fiction films I consumed as a kid, what made it powerful enough to become my personal obsession for months after seeing it in theaters, was that very blend of hard science, science fantasy, and real-world politics.

2010 very large array

The Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico in 2010‘s opening scene.

The Science

Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction has always been informed by progress in real-life scientific research; despite all the suprahuman alien intelligences in his books, his grounding was always in what was possible and probable in terms of future science and technology. The design of much of 2010‘s human exploration of the solar system takes into account what was current in 1984, both practically and theoretically, into consideration. The Leonov‘s method of reaching an orbit point between Jupiter and Io, aerocapture (erroneously termed “aerobraking” in the film), was and still is theoretical, but the use of relatively cheap inflatable modules to help cushion a spacecraft’s orbital approach (or touchdown) was memorably used by NASA during Mars missions in the 1990s and beyond. The probe which the Leonov sends down to Europa, calls to mind in both its physical design and target, of the Voyager missions to Jupiter in early 1979. These first up-close looks at the Jovian system were a mere four years old when 2010 was being shot, and, like many Americans, I first caught a glimpse of these alien worlds thanks to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS (specifically Episode 6, “Travellers’ Tales,” with its in-depth visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena) and the full-color reproductions of Voyager images in the accompanying book.

Speaking of Sagan, the opening scene of 2010, where Scheider’s Floyd meets with a Russian academician played by Dana Elcar, takes place at the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, another site intimately familiar to me at age 9 for its presentation in the Cosmos series as a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (it would also feature prominently in Sagan’s 1985 novel and 1997 film Contact). Given the fact that Floyd is one of the only men in the world to know of the existence of evidence of alien life—the Tycho crater monolith—it makes sense that his post-Discovery mission remit would be here. But Scheider’s character is not only meant to evoke Sagan; in the scenes of his home life, we see Floyd’s home (noted as being in Hawaii in the novel) is also home to friendly visiting dolphins. While the reference was lost on me as a kid, this is a clear evocation of John C. Lilly and his work with Sagan and early ETI researcher Frank Drake in their “Order of the Dolphin” days and Lilly’s time living and working with dolphins in the Virgin Islands.

2010 monoliths in jupiter atmosphere

A swarm of self-replicating monoliths, viewed on a monitor aboard Leonov, begin to turn Jupiter into the solar system’s second sun.

The Science Fiction

Of course, it was Arthur C. Clarke who brought us the famous aphorism, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and in both 2001 and 2010, Clarke makes clear that the monolith-makers are quintessential examples of that statement. In both novels, these galactic elders are clear to mention that they were once beings of flesh and blood, but have now become pure “Mind.” While the precise mechanisms of their ability to manipulate matter and energy are never quite detailed—in other words, their ultra-advanced technology on some level remains “magic” throughout both 2001 and 2010—it’s clear in 2010 that the monolith-makers’ abilities have transformed Dave Bowman, the poor soul who witnessed the Jupiter monolith’s “Star Gate,” into something other than human. In a memorable scene with Floyd, Bowman returns to the pod bay of Discovery, discussing the need for the Leonov crew to evacuate the Jupiter system immediately, all while transforming from his young self, to middle-aged, to elderly, to Star Child, just as he did in the mystifying final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The monolith-makers are classic “ancient astronauts” on the most obvious level, but instead of being colonizers of primitive worlds, as von Däniken postulated, the monolith-makers foster intelligence, giving species the tiny leg up that they need to achieve their potential. For Earthlings, this push came in prehistoric Africa, as seen in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001. In 2010, the monolith-makers understand that the primitive Europans will never realize their evolutionary potential while Europa remains a frozen moon orbiting a cold gas giant, and so they render judgment on both humanity and their distant cousins by turning Jupiter into a sun, making the solar system into a binary star system. Again, Clarke here uses theoretical science popular during the Cold War period (namely, mathematician and Manhattan Project scientist John von Neumann’s idea of a self-replicating machine) to provide the monolith-makers with a way to grow Jupiter’s mass rapidly until its atmosphere ignites in nuclear fusion. Jupiter as a “sun that failed” was yet another then-current theory given space in Sagan’s Cosmos, as are the imaginary races of atmospheric creatures theorized by Sagan and Cornell colleague E.E. Salpeter who are described then destroyed in the solar ignition of Jupiter in the novel version of 2010. The monolith-makers dispassionately exterminate these beings because of the environment in which they evolved: “Consciousness would never emerge here; even if it did, it would be doomed to a stunted existence.” Maybe, then, the monolith-makers really are colonizers after all.

2010 clarke and kubrick on time

A sly tip of the cap to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, used as models for the U.S. President and Soviet Premier on the cover of an imaginary 2010 cover of Time magazine.

The Politics

It is in the monolith-makers’ final message to humanity that their awareness of our headlong rush to self-destruction becomes apparent. The transmission, which (somewhat hypocritically!) orders humanity to stay away from the Europans, also orders the Earthlings to use the other worlds together “in peace” (this bit did not appear in Clarke’s novel; perhaps it was a sop to the presumed intelligence of a movie-going audience and the more overtly political themes of the film version of 2010). Throughout the film, the specter of war between the US and the Soviet Union hovers. But ultimately, the two sides are brought together by forces much greater and more spectacular than their respective nuclear arsenals. An awareness that humanity is not alone in the universe brings Earth’s warring tribes together in concord and peace. This concept is, of course, an old and familiar theme in science fiction of the Cold War period, so much so that even President Reagan fervently believed an alien invasion would act as an expressway to the end of the Cold War.

The bi-national crew of the Leonov acts as our proxies for this global village at war, as they too learn to work and make decisions for the benefit (and survival) of the collective. Helen Mirren’s character comes off as a stuffed shirt towing the Kremlin line at the beginning of the film, but as the blended crew experiences danger, mystery, and loss (crew member Maxim Brajlovsky, played by 1980s Russian character actor mainstay Elya Baskin, dies while exploring the giant Jupiter monolith), she soon shows that she is not merely a doctrinaire Soviet but a captain who values the lives of her individual crew members. It’s also interesting that the Russian crew of the Leonov exudes a kind of confidence that the American characters don’t. The Discovery mission in the original 2001 failed because the programmers of the HAL 9000 computer told it to keep the true mission top secret; when the Jupiter system was reached, its contradictory orders caused HAL to try to kill the entire crew. As Balaban’s Dr. Chandra tries to reactivate HAL and find out what went wrong, Floyd and Curnow do not trust Chandra’s ability to restore sanity to the paranoid computer. Curnow installs a dead man’s switch that will kill HAL’s higher functions in case of signs of the mental collapse that ended the original Discovery mission. The Russian crew works together, taciturn and business-like, while the three members of the American crew conspire against each other and their own computer—as good a précis of Cold War-era politics as one could hope for and a suitable topic for Hyams after the political paranoia of both Capricorn One and Outland.

2010-monolith-messageIs the ending a bit pat? Perhaps. It calls to mind another great Cold War parable of my youth, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986-1987), the shocking ending of which features a fake inter-dimensional invasion designed to short-circuit the madness of Cold War escalation (Moore of course would be the first to admit he cribbed this idea from an episode of The Outer Limits, “The Architects of Fear,” as he gives that episode a shoutout in Watchmen‘s final issue). But the most important fact here is that 2010 differs radically from almost every film made in those very scary few years from around 1983 to 1985, when the old guard at the Kremlin and reactionary Reagan were making increasingly warlike noises at each other over nuclear proliferation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and American interference in Central America. 2010 came out right in the middle of seemingly endless terror-filled tales of global nuclear war or a Communist invasion of America, and it posited a new path forward, one united by scientific achievement and a sincere desire for peace. The Soyuz/Skylab missions during the very brief period of 1970s détente were long past, but 2010 offered an imaginary second chapter to that brief period of joint space exploration. And while many films in the 1980s used science fiction to explore the Cold War and the desire for peace—1985’s Enemy Mine, for instance, or even the immediate post-Cold War parable of 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country2010 did not use metaphors about relations with alien races to do so. These Russians were human, just like us.

By age nine, I’d spent night after night fearful of the visions of slow death depicted in Testament and The Day After (both from 1983) or any number of other bleak portrayals of the seeming inevitability of nuclear war (some of which were admittedly courtesy of Carl Sagan’s frightening vision of a nuclear winter in Cosmos). But 2010 got me curious about Russian culture, Russian space science, and especially the Russian language for the first time. On all the drawings I made of the Discovery and Leonov I wanted to include inscriptions in Cyrillic, just like the interiors in the movie. So the next time I went to Hammett’s school supply store in Boston with my parents, I had them get me a set of Russian flashcards and a simple Russian language textbook. I can only imagine the weird looks that got them. But ultimately 2010 solidified my interest in the “evil empire” as a real place, with real people with hopes and dreams and even spacecraft all their own. (I also have New England schoolkid Samantha Smith, who would tragically die in a plane crash in August of 1985, to thank for much of this willingness to go beyond the standard 1980s narrative of Soviets as alien monsters.) 2010 pointed the way to an end to the Cold War that existed in my mind throughout much of my early childhood. The film short-circuited the endless repeating fantasia of nuclear horror and mutual suspicion that tainted my hopes of ever seeing adulthood, and it did so by lionizing science as an instrument of peace and understanding.

2010 two suns over parisThroughout the Leonov‘s multi-year journey to Jupiter, Heywood Floyd dearly misses his young son, Christopher, a character right around my own age. Before going into hibernation for the long trip back to Earth, Floyd sends his son a missive meant to sum up what the new sun means to life on Earth:

The President of the United States looked out of the White House window, and the Premier of the Soviet Union looked out of the Kremlin window and saw the new distant sun in the sky. They read the message, and perhaps they learned something, because they finally recalled their ships and their planes.

As we see scenes of the sun’s new distant solar companion in the sky over world landmarks, we hear the hopes of a father for his son to grow up in a world that recognizes its special, precious place in the universe, and which doesn’t squander that gift: “You can tell your children of the day when everyone looked up and realized that we were only tenants of this world. We have been given a new lease… and a warning from the landlord.” That sort of wisdom, sadly, has not been imparted by the stars to our world. Even though our Cold War ended a good two decades before 2010‘s, we’ve still not learned to use our single world together, in peace. I think that’s one of the reasons 2010 still speaks so strongly to me: because this promise of peace and understanding, prompted perhaps by the recognition of an existential threat, remains so desperately unfulfilled. One wonders if it was just wishful Hollywood thinking from the start.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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