Nine years after the failure of the Discovery One mission to Jupiter in 2001, in which four crewmembers died and Mission Commander David Bowman (Keir Dullea) disappeared, two ships are being prepared to visit Jupiter to find out what happened. The Soviet spacecraft Leonov will be ready before the American spacecraft Discovery Two, but the Soviets need Americans to board the Discovery and determine how the computer HAL 9000 caused the disaster, because Discovery will soon crash into Io, and despite tensions between the governments, a joint mission is sent.
The fired head of the National Council for Astronautics, Doctor Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the designer of the Discovery, Walter Curnow (John Lithgow), and the creator of HAL, Doctor Chandra (Bob Balaban) join the Soviet Mission. When they arrive in the Jovian System, they detect signs of life on Europa. They send a probe, but it is destroyed. Floyd thinks they have been warned away. After braking in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, they find Discovery drifting over Io. Curnow wakes up the ship and Chandra wakes up HAL, and there is a giant monolith in the sky. An attempt by Cosmonaut Max Brailovsky (Dana Elcar) to approach it causes his pod to malfunction. It is shot into Jupiter.
On Earth, Dave Bowman, incorporeal as a ghost, appears to his dying mother. Chandra discovers that the National Security Council had ordered HAL to conceal the existence of the monolith on the moon, and thus the real purpose of the mission, from the crew. A contradiction with HAL’s basic programming of open, accurate information processing had given him the computer version of a paranoid mental breakdown. Floyd had no knowledge of this and would not have allowed it.
Back on Earth, the Soviet Union and the United States start to rattle sabres at each other. The two crews are ordered to return in separate ships, as the Discovery is now space worthy. The ghost of Bowman appears to Floyd and says they cannot wait for the launch window and must leave in two days. Leonov’s Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren) is sceptical.
But the monolith disappears, and a black spot appears on Jupiter. The two crews decide to leave immediately using the Discovery as a booster rocket, though the ship and HAL will not survive. No-one is sure how HAL will take this. The black spots are multiplying monoliths and Jupiter is shrinking and changing its chemical composition. HAL suggests they stop and study this phenomenon. Chandra tells HAL what they are doing, and he agrees, thanking Chandra for being honest.
As they depart, Jupiter ignites and becomes the small second sun it almost became at the beginning of the solar system. As the Discovery is consumed, HAL hears Bowman’s voice telling him they will soon be together. The last transmission to Earth reads, “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there. Use them together. Use them in peace.” American and Soviet leaders begin talking. Icy Europa becomes a humid jungle planet. A monolith stands in the swamp, waiting for intelligence to evolve.
The film was produced and directed by Peter Hyams, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1982 novel 2020: Odyssey Two. The twin computer back on Earth, SAL 9000, was voiced by Candice Bergen under the name of Mallsnerd, a combination of her husband’s name Louis Malle and her father Edgar’s dummy’s name Mortimer Snerd. Arthur Clarke plays a man feeding pigeons in the park, the US President is portrayed by Arthur C. Clarke and the Soviet Premier by Stanley Kubrick. Peter Hyams got the blessing of both before taking on the directing job. He communicated constantly with Clarke in Sri Lanka via e-mail, a new technology at the time. Reviewers admitted the movie suffered by comparison to the iconic 2001, but it was still a thoughtful and exciting space opera. It was nominated for three Saturns, won the Hugo, and was nominated for five technological Oscars.
The model of Discovery had to be rebuilt from pictures because Kubrick had all the models and sets from 2001 destroyed. The only part of the ship not rebuilt because it was too expensive was the centrifuge area which had been used for the impressive jogging scene. Roy Scheider uses a briefcase-sized Apple computer, which was pretty much brand-new technology. The Russian ship Leonov was the inspiration for the Omega-class destroyer in the Babylon Five series. This was Helen Mirren’s first American film. She speaks some Russian because that was her father’s birthplace. Part of the zero-gravity toilet instruction sign from 2001 appeared, too small to read on screen. The phrase “The Year We Make Contact” does not appear on the screen at any time and was probably added during publicity to make the film more understandable, something Stanley Kubrick did not worry about.
One wonders if Max Brailovsky is alive in the sense that Bowman is alive, or whether he received the death penalty for his human curiosity. I get the distinct impression that the good Monolith Aliens expect us to kill each other off eventually, so we can be replaced by the Europans.