My God…it’s full of candles! Happy 35th birthday to underrated sci-fi sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1985)

It may be 35 years old, and at least 9 years behind schedule, but the themes of Peter Hyams’ underrated sequel to Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi epic continue to resonate today. In pulling off the tricky task of continuing the story of 2001 without tarnishing it, Hyams and his cast deserve a great deal of credit, not least of all for delivering a thoughtful and idea-fuelled sci-fi movie which stands on its own merits even without its illustrious predecessor.

Nine years after the failure of the Discovery mission to Jupiter, international tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are reaching crisis point. Both nations are preparing missions to discover exactly what happened to the Discovery and its crew but when its discovered that the abandoned ship’s orbit is deteriorating, an uneasy truce is called and Dr Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider, replacing William Sylvester), the designer of Discovery, Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) and Dr Chandra (Bob Balaban), HAL 9000’s creator, join the Soviet mission under the command of Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren), as their ship is the only one which will be ready to launch in time. But something other than the derelict spacecraft awaits them in orbit of Jupiter: something…wonderful.

It may lack the archly artistic pretensions and satirical subtext of Kubrick’s original but there’s still substance to “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. Kubrick gave his blessing – in a way – to the movie, advising Hyams to go and make his movie his way and not to worry and so the director did, collaborating closely with Arthur C Clark over the then cutting edge technology of email. As a result, there’s a firm foundation of scientific accuracy and Clark’s trademark pragmatic, optimistic futurist vision at play. Being less prone to visual indulgence and flights of fancy, the film feels tighter and more kinetic than its forebear without resorting to the gimmicky action sequences which were the staple of sci-fi movies of the time.

Although your mileage may vary in respect of the film’s philosophical underpinnings, for me it provides satisfying and coherent explanations for the events of “2001: A Space Odyssey” while leaving many of that movie’s mysterious ambiguities intact. It’s also an impressive drama in that the peril is situational rather than confrontational and while there may be distant sabre rattling back on Earth, the story unfolds without an antagonist of any kind. The challenges are existential and the resolutions based on solid science and cooperation.

While perhaps less deliberately showy, the special effects are nevertheless first-rate, with great care being taken to adhere to scientific reality and even the musical score and sound effects are used comparatively sparingly during the space sequences. Scheider, Lithgow, Balaban and Mirren are solid in their roles and provide a more empathetic and relatable crew, although there’s no denying it’s a great moment when Keir Dullea’s enigmatic Bowman is reconciled with Hal 9000 (Douglas Rain).

More accessible yet no less cerebral than its predecessor, “2010: The Year We Make Contact” remains a rewarding and impressive watch even 35 years later. Although real technological progress has fallen further and further behind Clark’s lofty aspirations, Jupiter’s moons have lost none of their intrigue and allure for scientists and astronomers, although I certainly won’t be buying a ticket to Europa any time soon.