2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

Stanley Kubrick is my Favorite Director Because I am Unoriginal

I’m not smart or insightful enough to say anything about this incredible film that hasn’t been said before. It’s one of my favorites of all time, and it’s the first movie I ever watched that got me to think about the art and science of filmmaking. So instead of trying to offer some new interpretation or analysis that probably doesn’t exist, I want to talk about one of my favorite aspects of the film, which is the way Kubrick gets us to sympathize with a computer and think of it as a person.

A lot of movies have robots with human characteristics. Star Wars features C3-PO, Ex Machina is all about robots convincingly masquerading as people, and Lt. Commander Data is a character who for decades has shown us what it means to be human as we watch him try to figure it out. All of these characters have human-shaped bodies and faces, and the second two examples are played by actual humans wearing robot makeup or CGI. In other words, they look and seem like people.

You also have characters like Wall-E and R2-D2 that are more machine-looking. Wall-E is made of metal, but he moves fluidly like an organism, recoiling when startled and shaking when afraid. R2-D2 is more rigid, but he also wobbles down a staircase like a child or animal at one point, and he hops with excitement when Luke is recognized for his heroism. Crucially, both of these characters have cutesy, emotive voices, even if they don’t speak in words. (Does Wall-E say anything other than his name, Pokémon-style? I actually haven’t seen the movie, so I could be off here.) R2-D2’s beeps and whirs are highly emotive, to the point where no one could possibly be confused about his feelings when he speaks.

Hal 9000 possesses none of these qualities except a human voice. And even there, his voice is flat and monotone, completely devoid of feeling or emotion. He has no singular physical body; you could argue the ship is his body, but that’s certainly not the shape or size we associate with a human. The primary visual representation of Hal is a black rectangle with a red lens in it. This is not a welcoming, familiar face. If anything, it’s creepy as hell.

And yet, I am certain that I am not alone in feeling deeply sad when Bowman is forced to kill Hal. I use the word “kill” advisedly here, because Hal is undoubtedly a conscious being, even though he’s made of circuits and glass rather than cells and fluids. I would argue that Kubrick sees it this way as well, based on how he depicts Bowman in this sequence. When he is locked out of the ship by Hal, and realizes his fears have come to fruition, Bowman adopts the famous “Kubrick stare.” This of course is when the actor tilts their head forward and angles their eyes upward, creating a deeply unsettling visage. Bowman’s stare is much less extreme than that of Private Pyle, Jack Torrance, or even Alex from A Clockwork Orange, but in all four cases, the stare means the same thing – murderous intent. For comparison, I did not adopt the Kubrick stare when I disconnected my computer a couple weeks ago to replace it.

So how do we come to sympathize with a machine even though he looks nothing like a living creature, even though he’s cold and unfeeling, and even though he’s a treacherous murderer? Well, I want to argue that it comes down to Hal displaying two of the most important qualities of consciousness: intentionality and self-awareness.

Hal primarily displays intentionality through lying. He first does this in a subtle way that I never would have noticed had it not been pointed out to me by a youtuber. When Hal is playing chess against Poole, he claims that Poole is about to be check-mated in a few moves, so he might as well resign, which he does. For years I took this to simply mean that Hal is highly skilled at both chess and understanding how future events are likely to unfold.

But observant chess players have pointed out that Hal is not telling the truth about the state of the board. The match they are playing is a reproduction of a specific game in a well-known chess manual (fitting for Kubrick, a practiced chess player), and Hal does not in fact have Poole completely cornered yet. But by convincing him that he does, he wins outright. This little lie presages Hal’s much bigger lie later – that the AE-35 unit is malfunctioning. This untruth of course sets off the entire story.

Hal displays self-awareness in a number of ways. He is proud when the journalist is interviewing him, showing that he wants to be seen in a good light – something all normal humans desire. He is defensive when the veracity of his analysis of the AE-35 unit is questioned, again showing that he understands how he is perceived by others. And he is paranoid when he eavesdrops on Poole and Bowman’s conversation about disconnecting his cognitive functions. This paranoia arguably drives him to kill the astronauts out of a basic survival impulse. (By the way, there’s a great detail in this scene, which is that the space suit behind Hal has its helmet separated from the torso, representing Hal’s potential “beheading.”)

These subtle indications of Hal's inner workings show us that he possesses a consciousness beyond that of a mere supercomputer. Thus Hal’s death scene is so gut-wrenchingly intense. This is not unplugging a vacuum cleaner. This is not throwing away an old toaster. This is the painful endeavor of putting down “the sixth member of the crew” because he has lost his mind and become a threat to the others. This is killing your own friend.

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