September 2017. Socorro County, New Mexico — It moved slowly, with a grinding of motors and gears, its focus drifting across a brilliant blue September sky. It took several minutes, and I stood transfixed by something that must, to so many, seem so mundane. When it finally clicked into place, I could only wonder what it was looking at, or searching for. Things billions of trillions of miles away. Or so I assume. I’m not good with numbers. Ancient outer space. It had companions, spread across the grassy plain of a flat valley surrounded by things too big for foothills but too small for mountains. As a unit they watched the skies, peering far beyond the confines of our solar system, even our galaxy. It was my second time at the Very Large Array, and I was as awestruck by it as I had been the first time.
New Mexico is a state that affords one ample opportunity to describe this wonder or that as “otherworldly,” but few things can prepare you for sheer surrealism of driving a two-lane country road — remote but by no means lightly-trafficked — winding through green hills and trees only to emerge suddenly on that vast, flat expanse and see those white radio telescopes pointed toward space. Twenty-seven of them, deployed in a Y-shaped array in a natural bowl that helps shield them from radio interference. Nothing else around. The strangest thing about our society’s most scientifically advanced endeavors is how rural most of them are, what primitive placement is demanded by secrecy and safety. Far from the polished, gleaming glass towers and white minimalist interiors with hologram computers that science fiction imagines as the home of great works of scientific inquiry, the real thing is done in dingy rooms littered with coffee cups, in places where one has to be wary of coyotes and rattlesnakes.
The American deserts are full of wonders and terrors, great ideas and horrifying follies. In New Mexico alone, a fellow armed with the proper music can drive from Los Alamos where they designed and built the atomic bomb, to the Very Large Array, to Trinity where the detonated the first atomic bomb, to White Sands and Alamogordo, where advanced drones and missiles and jets are routinely put through their paces. Oh, and of course there’s Roswell. Those are just the easy-to-find highlights. A drive across New Mexico reveals strange sights and curious entertainments quite unlike anywhere else in the country.
Of those scientifically mystic places, few entrance me like the VLA. Los Alamos and Trinity are unnerving. The atomic museums in Los Alamos and Albuquerque are fascinating but troubling. As interesting as the military and atomic history is to me, it comes obviously with a certain baggage. Roswell’s UFO museum is fun but difficult to take seriously unless you are a truly committed believer like that guy from the book The 37th Parallel. But the VLA represents a hard, scientific effort to expand the horizon light years beyond the horizon, to gather knowledge from points across the universe. It is a symbol of humanity’s quest to look beyond itself.
A sight so dramatic has obviously served as the backdrop for many films. Contact is the highest profile, and of course one I’ve not seen. There was a Bon Jovi video, too, and a car commercial. My favorite cinematic appearance of the VLA, however, is in the early scenes of 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a thoughtful and competent film that had the misfortune of being a belated sequel to what is considered perhaps the single most groundbreaking science fiction film of all time (even if you don’t care for it). 2010, rather than curse itself to being a pale imitation of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, eschews that film’s clean, remote design and instead elects to set itself — continuity be damned — in a 2010 that looks very much like 1984.
As a result, many found it easy to dismiss the film, but I always found it worthwhile. As a 12-year-old, give or take, when I saw it, I appreciated that it dealt in lofty ideals in a way more comprehensible to me than its predecessor, and that it spoke to me on a level that seemed much more immediate and relatable. Because it was about us and the Russians, the threat of nuclear war, and the unsurprising ability of people to work together once they are extracted from the poisonous tangle of politics and national identities. In 1984, and for a kid obsessed with space and, like many, a geopolitical situation that made nuclear war seem like a “when” rather than “if” scenario, that was a powerful message. 2010 may not aim for the rarefied philosophical airs or artistic acid trip of 2001, but it was a more meaningful film for me precisely because it handled itself in a more straightforward manner.
I’m not the first critic to say that there is something emotionally remote and cold in Kubrick’s work. Nor do I mean that as an insult. 2001 is a gorgeous work of speculative science fiction, and the fact that it maintains a clinical distance and never invites you to empathize with its characters is part of its appeal to me (I’m also a fan of films in which emotionally inaccessible Swedes stare at bleak landscapes for two hours, then die). It also doesn’t bother me that 2010 went a different route, with much more engaging characters, much more warmth and humanity. I care about 2001 because I am ensnared by the philosophical journey. I care about 2010 because I care whether John Lithgow is going to make it across that space tether.
And I care about 2010 because it is a film that, in a dark time, looked at the world and chose to embrace not dystopia and apocalypse and violence, but hope and humanity and cooperation. It chose to believe that — if we look beyond ourselves — we can be better.
There is a point at which the later film has to reconcile itself with the earlier. This comes when the joint American-Soviet team of astronauts transition from their own ship — crowded, cramped, looking much more like a real spaceship and influenced by the grimy, industrial aesthetic of science fiction films such as Alien — to that of Discovery One, the ill-fated ship from 2001, with its pop-art sensibilities and slick futuristic 1960s design. It should be a jarring jump from one style to the next. There are remnants of 2001‘s design in 2010, but they are buried under layers of very un-Kubrick disorder, as if humanity was striving for a gleaming city, fell from its perch, and landed in a crumbling urban environment. To go from 2001 to 2010 is to step from one level of technology to another. There are pieces of what once was, but they are not what they once were. Dr. Floyd and the team in 2010 are a bit like the descendants of a once-great civilization stumbling across the towering architectural achievements of their ancestors and wondering what gods could have built such impossible wonders. Somehow, however, it works, partially because the Discovery One is derelict and thus not as spick and span as it was in 1968 (or 2001), but also because 2010 asks us not to focus on the visuals and art design, but on the human characters.
Who knew that a scene of a hippie computer scientist bidding farewell to a formerly homicidal computer terminal could be such a tearjerker? 2010‘s final scene is, I think, mishandled and a bit ham-handed. But the scene between Bob Balaban’ Dr. Chandra and H.A.L. is beautiful and poignant and works much better as a bookend to a film that begins with an American and Soviet scientist at the VLA deciding to work together despite their two countries being on the brink of war. H.A.L.’s query “Will I dream” and Chandra’s response of “I don’t know,” is the perfect summary of an ambivalent time.
Who knew that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would come down, the Soviet Union would dissolve, and as in the movie, a new sun would shine on suddenly created new worlds?