Movie spaceship of the day: Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov

, | Features

“The catch is, a boat this big doesn’t exactly stop on a dime.”

The Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov has three things going for it that made me immediately fall in love with it the first time I saw 2010 in a theater in 1984. First, it is massive. I love a massive ship in space, just as I gravitate to the largest ships in water. There is something comforting about an aircraft carrier, or even a cruise ship. A couple years ago I was on a cruise ship out in the Atlantic and that sense of being out in the middle of the ocean was awe-inspiring. I would sit for hours out on the tiny little stateroom balcony and just stare out at the ocean and the horizon and the unfathomable expanse of what was before me and feel this amazing sense of relaxation slowly move in over me like a tide. Having been on a small boat out of sight of land, I have to say that bigger is better. It just feels like so much can go wrong out there on a small boat, and if it does…well, let’s just say my imagination was fertile as a young boy, and this was decades before I would see the movie Open Water. I had already seen Jaws.

After the jump…it’s also the motion of the ocean

I can imagine that sense of awe, balanced with fear, would be magnified in space, because isn’t being in space just being in a massive, essentially infinite, ocean? Who wants to be in a cabin cruiser out there? Or worse yet, a short-range fighter? Nope. Give me a huge space cruiser any day. What’s more, let me hear that cliched bass rumble of the ship as it slides past the camera. It calms and excites me at the same time.

The second thing the Alexei Leonov has going for it is that awesome rotating mid-section. That design element just does it for me. It is also an absolutely vital visual for the movie. The rotating section ensures that the Alexei Leonov won’t look like a big dopey offensive lineman when it shares a camera shot with that ballerina Discovery near Jupiter. Spoiler alert.

Let me just say that I like the Discovery just fine. I’m talking about Discovery I from 2001, of course, not Discovery II, which is mentioned at the beginning of the sequel but never seen since we are told in a horrible Russian accent at the beginning of the movie that it lags more than a year behind the Alexei Leonov in construction. Which is why the Americans decide to hitch a ride on the Soviet ship in spite of the escalating turmoil in South America due to a Cold War crisis. Don’t ask. It was 1984. At any rate, the thing about Discovery I is that I was never comfortable figuring out the layout of the ship. I have trouble spatially anyway — I have to physically move the furniture before I can figure out the room — and I can never quite wrap my mind around the inner ship spaces of that giant space lollipop. However, when the ship from the sequel reaches it, Discovery is rotating end-over-end, and framed against the beauty of Jupiter it just looks so elegant in its movement. It is undeniably pretty, and strangely fragile in its beauty. If the Alexei Leonov did not have that rotating section, the Soviet spaceship would just look like a giant slab of metal in the foreground, and really, don’t we have enough giant slabs in 2010 and 2001?

John Composite

In actuality the Alexei Leonov shouldn’t even look like that. That massive perpendicular section amidships? That thing rotates to provide artificial gravity, of course. If the Russians who originally designed it had their way that part of the ship wouldn’t even exist, because as Arthur C. Clarke wrote them, they saw providing gravity on their spaceship as a luxury they could do without. Oh those Russians and their austerity. Thank the heavens Peter Hyams and Syd Mead — the director and the ship’s designer for the film, respectively — didn’t feel that way. Because they decided at some point that the Russian ship in 2010 would have to have some form of gravity, designing the rotating center section of the Alexei Leonov turns it into a thing of pure beauty for me. It not only lends visual interest to the ship moving through space, but it mimics the motion of Discovery in the distance, reminding me how Stanley Kubrick made space travel feel so much like a dance in the first movie.

The third and final thing the Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov has going for it is familiarity. That’s what really hooks me. The inside of the ship, especially the command center, reminds me of a submarine, and I love that. Now when I say it reminds me of a submarine, I mean a movie submarine, of course. Specifically my favorite movie submarine, the Red October, coincidentally (or maybe not so much) also a Soviet vessel. There is way too much space inside most movie submarines, or at least I imagine that from my memory of the tight spaces of Das Boot, which I suspect is a more authentic vision of what life in a boat under the water is like, and I am fine with that. Just as I am fine with the decision to bring gravity into the environment of the Russian ship in the movie, I think the command center of the Alexei Leonov has just enough space to let the actors move through the scenes, while maintaining some of that sense of claustrophobia inherent in being submerged in a pressurized container.

The other element of familiarity this spaceship provides, in a weird sort of retroactive way, is that it heralds the eventual coming of the Omega-class destroyers of Babylon 5. Yes, that is a different universe, but all movie spaceships move through the universe of my mind without any discernible boundaries. I love having watched all of that superlative television series, recognizing those destroyers and immediately loving them and not knowing quite why, then doubling back to watch 2010 again and having that, “Ah ha!” moment when I see the Alexei Leonov for the first time.

Say what you will about the wisdom of a movie critic who prefers a Peter Hyams movie to one made by Stanley Kubrick, but I would rather contemplate the ocean of space from the safety of the big bulky ship than constantly worry that an asteroid was going to snap my pretty ship in half without warning. I will take the massive familiarity of the Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov over that lovely flying Q-tip any day of the week.