Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey casts a long shadow: there is probably not another philosophical, "hard" science-fiction film ever made that can't be measured against its achievements and found wanting. And not just weaker genre films, like the resolutely scientific and hideously boring Destination Moon, but even damn good things like the recent Sunshine and Moon can be dismissed as "not as good as 2001", if you have the inclination. Christ, I'd go on record as saying that Tarkovsky's phenomenal Solaris is "not as good as 2001", though at that point we've hit the nitpicking stage.

All of which is to say: 2010, a 1984 film written and directed by Peter Hyams, is one of a fairly large number of philosophically ambitious sci-fi pictures that can be accurately and rightly found lacking in comparison to 2001, and my whole point was that if you try to compare every sci-fi movie you ever see to 2001, that's a whole hell of a lot of really fine movies you're going to be throwing out with the bathwater. It's like saying that a musical can only be worthwhile if it's at least as good as Singin' in the Rain. Except that Hyams's film begs for the comparison more than most. Because, as comes as no surprise if you've ever heard of it, or even if you just noticed the poster up there, 2010 is in fact a sequel to 2001, based upon Arthur C. Clarke's 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two (that book was much more a sequel to the Kubrick film that Clarke co-wrote than it was to Clarke's first novel). So comparing the two is even that much easier, even if it's still not tremendously fair. Surprise, surprise, 2010 comes up short. How could it avoid that fate? Hyams, who would eventually find himself making such charming little amuse-bouche as The Relic and A Sound of Thunder, was certainly not a craftsman at the level of Stanley Kubrick, and Clarke's source material didn't give him much to work on: the writer was fairly notorious for the dreadfully low quality of his sequels, with 2061: Odyssey Three doing even more to crap on the first novel's merits than 2010.* In the Odyssey series, and even more in the increasingly unreadable sequels to Rendezvous with Rama, Clarke made the dramatically fatal mistake of trying to answer every question raised in the first book, not realising (or more likely, not caring; he was a hard sci-fi man through and through) that nothing he could possibly say would be up to the demands of the haunting mysteries he raised initially.

All things considered, Hyams's adaptation (which sometimes goes by the name 2010: The Year We Make Contact) is pretty close to the novel, which means that he inherited all of that exposition, and perhaps that was even the point: not having been quite conscious enough in 1984 to pay attention to movie ad campaigns, I don't know either way, but I'd not be surprised if some of the energy was focused on the idea, "At last, 16 years later - Find out what the hell the floating baby was all about!" Because let's be honest: love it or not (plainly, I love it), 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a film that parts with its ideas very freely (the novel was far more straightforward). It is the rarest of all rarities in American cinema: a bona-fide mainstream art film, not in the debased way that "art film" has come to mean "a movie with a depressing plot and a famous actress showing her breasts", but literally a work that functions more as fine art than as a narrative cinematic experience. A good part of the appeal is in the sheer visual majesty of it, the balletic spaceships, the like-nothing-else collage of lights and roaring sounds in the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence, the inexorable slowness that gives you a chance to meditate and be lulled into a trance, or at least gives you plenty of time to get good and high.

And so it is that people who put a premium on incident and plot tend to walk away from 2001 grousing about it's lack of concrete meaning, and its slowness and lack of incident. 2010 certainly does address the first of these, and if by "slow" we mean, "long stretches without dialogue", it addresses the second as well, although there's still not very much that actually happens. It's just that people are talking as it fails to happen in this one.

Nine years after the mysterious failure of the U.S.S. Discovery One, the National Council on Aeronautics is still trying to puzzle out exactly what happened to make the HAL 9000 sentient computer go berserk and kill nearly everyone, and what happened to Dave Bowman, the last surviving crew member, after his final transmission, "My God, it's full of stars" (an iconic, atmospheric line that isn't actually spoken in the 1968 movie). Nobody is more anxious to answer these questions than former NCA director Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider, replacing William Sylvester), who we first see at a large array in the desert, entertaining a most interesting proposition from a Soviet scientist named Dimitri Moisevitch (Dana Elcar): the Russians are planning a manned mission to Jupiter to investigate the ruins of the Discovery, and find out what they might about the giant monolith orbiting the Jovian moon Io, right near the spaceship. But it would be of exceptional value to them if they could have some American experts who know the ship and HAL. Knowing that the Americans are several months behind, Floyd manages to convince the government - Red-haters all, especially the trigger-happy president - to let him and two others fly out on the Alexei Leonov: Dr. Walter Curnow (John Lithgow), an engineer, and Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), the computer scientist who created and taught HAL. Floyd's proof that the Discovery's orbit has been compromised by unknown phenomena is enough to get this joint mission approved, despite a low-ebb in Cold War relations.

Out they fly: the Americans, along with the Russian captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren), and a whole host of mostly interchangeable Soviets (the most prominent of whom is played by the fairly-recognisable Latvian character actor Elya Baskin). As they pass by Europa, another Jovian moon, strange readings force the Russians to remove Floyd from cryo-sleep, meaning that he gets to watch as the Russian probe is destroyed by a burst of energy that might be a natural event - but Floyd has his doubts. Arriving at the Discovery, the other Americans are taken out of hibernation, and Chandra gets to work restoring HAL (voiced once again by Douglas Rain), while Curnow tries to get the ship back in running order, and everybody else pretty much just sits around with furrowed brows, trying to figure out what's going on - including visits from a presence claiming to be Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea, also returning, and looking not that much older than he did in 1968).

Not for one moment does 2010 hold up in comparison to its magnificent forebear, but it's not really all that bad for a good long way, even as a sequel. Basically, it's a much slicker, studio-friendly job than the first one was, with its much more famous cast, and its easier aesthetic - there are no endless stretches of slow-moving spaceships here, nor the same intense negative space on the soundtrack. One of the most noteworthy elements of 2001, even today, is Kubrick's striking, bold choice to treat the vacuum of space as a vacuum, meaning that there is absolutely no noise outside the ship. Hence the long passages where the one and only thing we hear is the sound of breathing, for example; and 2010 pays tribute to this in one of its two honestly great sequences, in which Curnow starts hyperventilating during his first spacewalk, and his frenzied breathing overwhelms every other sound. But in the main, 2010 does not play so hard in this regard as 2001: things explode in space, and the score is noticeably absent any otherworldly atonal choral pieces, although David Shire's original music at least pays tribute to the original classic soundtrack.

On the subject of sound in space, 2010 simply doesn't have the same incredible fixation on science fact as Kubrick insisted upon: the interior of the Alexei Leonov looks an awful lot like any random high-tech interior, and despite the occasional insistence here and there about the high or low gravity of any given location, people seem to walk rather like it's flat ground in the middle of California - so much that in one scene where Floyd illustrates a point by hovering pens in the zero gravity environment, I was quite taken aback to be reminded that it was a zero gravity environment. Put flatly, there's just not as much care taken to get everything absolutely right.

But even so, for a 1984 science-fiction film 2010 is remarkably low on crazed fantasy, keeping things in the neighborhood of realistic as much as possible. The script emphasises the mechanics of long-distance space travel like few other movies would dare, and that alone would be enough to put 2010 in the conversation for good hard sci-fi movies of the last thirty years. It's not, all things considered, a totally asinine follow-up: the over-emphasis on Cold War politics, embellished considerably from the novel, might date the film terribly, but it gives it a human-sized dimension that makes it a lot friendlier than the first movie but in a sufficiently plausible, low-key way that it's not worth getting worked up over. And Hyams clearly loves the first movie, which he is careful to reference in small ways that are fully motivated (there's also a cute cameo for Kubrick and Clarke on the cover of Time magazine). He never does this better than in the film's other great sequence, as Chandra re-boots HAL: shot in almost exactly the same way as Bowman's deactivation of the computer in 2001, with Rain's voice on the soundtrack going from indecipherably garbled to clear in just the opposite way that he went from smooth and plaintive to droning and slow and incoherent in the first film.

Everything goes to hell at the 70 minute mark, though, and here's what happens: Chandra announces that he knows what happened to break HAL. To be fair, his explanation is straight from the 1968 novel, but: really? We need an explanation? The whole damn point was that we, as a species, did such a good job re-creating ourselves in that sentient computer that we gave him our weakness and fragility as well: HAL went insane because a person in his situation might have done the same thing. He is both human and machine, and combines the worst elements of both: as a human, he has the limitations that come from having identity and personality, and as a machine, he is inclined towards destruction and the disruption of natural order (that, in turn, is the whole damn point of the "Dawn of Man" sequence, and arguably that justly famous cut from bone to spaceship). The first mistake 2010 makes is assuming that any explanation is needed; the second is to make that explanation grounded in HAL's computer-ness, thus depriving him of his curious but unmistakable position as the only legitimate human character in 2001.

And from that moment on, the explanations just keep on coming. The intelligence that created the monoliths and turned Bowman into the Star Child? Has the same exact motivation as the aliens in James Cameron's The Abyss. What was implied before to be a species of God-ish energy beings with some anthropological interest in humanity is now a standard-issue Jesus Alien race, insisting that we lay down arms and be peaceful, or else... The rampant illogic of that race's master plan for Jupiter, and the explanation for why the probe was destroyed when it approached Europa,I will not even mention, save to say that one of Clarke's few huge gaffes as a science writer is kept intact, concerning what would happen to our solar system if- ah, why spoil it? Someone out there might want to see it, someday.

The mystery of the unknown is invariably more compelling than the fact of the known, especially if the known is prosaic. This is not the only reason why 2010 is a flimsy follow-up to 2001, but it is an important one. And I recognise that all of the narrative problems in the film were ported over from the book; but then, why not just avoid filming the book altogether?

Still, plenty of fault must lie with the film as a film. Hyams is no Kubrick, as I've said, and despite newer, snazzier effects, his film is not as poetic, beautiful, nor as haunting. 2001 is a film that stays with you for years and years, if not its strange and maybe philosophically questionable themes, then certainly it's groundbreaking mixture of image and sound. For as long as there is cinema, ships drifting in space will always remind us of "The Beautiful Blue Danube"; and not all the CGI advances in the world will ever improve upon the streams of light and reversed-negative, color-tinted visuals that Bowman finds inside the monolith. And there is absolutely none of that in 2010, not even the failed attempt to re-create it. It's ultimately a functional movie, separated from I don't know how many other '80s sci-fi pictures by being about thoughts rather than lasers and explosions. Unfortunately in filmmaking, a thought is only as good as the skill with which it is executed visually, and 2010 is a slack piece of filmmaking: the crowded, unimaginative sets filmed indifferently and cut with not a trace of the perfect timing in the Kubrick film. And it is this, rather than its bald-faced narrative, that makes 2010 a truly disappointing sequel: it follows one of the most visionary movies in history with the approximate style of an under-lit, big-budget telefilm.