It feels like HAL 9000 belongs in a different movie.
by MATT STOKES | SEPTEMBER 7, 2017
The portions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey centered around the HAL-9000 computer and its interference in the titular odyssey are probably the most widely-celebrated parts of the film. But I’ve always been a bit puzzled as to how the story of Hal and the astronauts aboard the Discovery One fits into the larger picture of what the film is trying to say. To me, 2001—one of my all-time favorite movies—is the story of the evolution of humans from primitive ape-adjacent creatures to their eventual next form symbolized by the star child at the conclusion of the film. But on viewing the movie for the first time in a decade or so for Load Bearing Beams, I found that my old hesitation about the Hal segments hadn’t gone away. Hal is the movie’s most memorable and sympathetic character, his storyline is suspenseful and exciting, and this section is literally the centerpiece of the movie and occupies the most screentime. It has the same tone and rhythm as the rest of the movie, and yet I never really feel like I’m watching the same film as I am in the first and third acts.
The specter of the monolith hangs over the entire first 54 minutes of the film. It is the centerpiece of the opening segments (“The Dawn of Man”) and the key point moving all the action leading up to the excavation site on the moon. The monolith returns as a plot device after Dave Bowman has dismantled Hal, and its existence motivates the remainder of the film. When I think of 2001, I think of the apes reacting to the monolith and then using bones as weapons, and I think of that bedroom at the end. The portions with the astronauts on the space mission doesn’t loom large in my memory. That’s in keeping with my read of the film as the story of the of humanity, from its origins to its next step of the journey that we can no more comprehend than a two-dimensional character in an arcade game can understand three dimensions. This is not a movie about space travel or artificial intelligence—it’s about evolution and the possible intervention of an alien or divineI)Or maybe they’re one and the same?) force in that process. Every other element within the movie is a diversion from that central theme.
And yet, because I know so much about Stanley KubrickII)Watch Room 237. , I know he would have rejected any individual interpretation of this film. His troubled collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke developing the screenplay centered mainly on how much explanation should be given. Clarke, one of the all-time great science fiction writers, was most interested in how science can help mankind reach toward utopia. Science involves rigorous explanation with supporting details, and Clarke thought 2001 needed to lean on this. His novel (Which he wrote during the film’s development; it was intended to be released before the movie but ended up coming out afterward, giving the impression that it was a “novelization” not unlike the kind we now see accompanying every blockbuster… it certainly was not.) is heavy on explanations, so we find out exactly what happens to make Hal act out, who the aliens are and what they plan, what happens to Dave Bowman, and what the star child means. Kubrick didn’t want any of this in his film, especially not Clarke’s idea for voiceover narration. It’s not that Kubrick didn’t personally believe in these as elements within the movie, but that he wanted audiences to detect them there but not know what to make of them.
Feeling bewildered is a big part of the experience of watching 2001. Kubrick uses the audience’s knowledge filmmaking techniques to disorient. The famous jump cut early in the movie between the ape’s triumphant bone toss and the orbiting satellite is jarring to see because of its suddenness. We expect massive leaps through time to call some sort of attention to themselves, but here it happens matter-of-factly. The message is obvious—the transition from apes using tools to humans traveling through space is basically nothing within the scope of the cosmos. Kubrick using the jump cut as a device brings it to the table as a tool to be deployed within the film; because we see it happen once, we know it could possibly be used again. That’s why I’ve always thought that the bedroom scenes at the end of the end of film don’t show Dave Bowman aging rapidly (as some people think), but aging in real time, with long jumps through time implied by each cut. Here again, though, Kubrick plays with the language of filmmaking to confuse the viewer. There’s a moment where Young Dave makes noises that Old Dave appears to hear and react to, but when Old Dave turns around to investigate, he sees nothing. To me, this always looked like a misdirect—we the audience heard the sounds, but Old Dave did not, he just coincidentally turned his head. In other words, Young Dave does make some noise, but he makes it 50 years before Old Dave turns his head to look.
And then, because history and art evolve, with each generation reading into them whatever ideas float are floating around at the time, I found it hard to escape the idea that Dave, Frank, Hal, and the apes are all part of a computer game or simulation run by the alien sentinels. Here, the monolith represents a glitch, a literal fault on a graphical interface that the characters within the game/simulation can detect. The apes see the glitch and are driven mad by it, except for the one ape who is inspired to take an omnipresent object—a bone—and find a revolutionary new use for it. Because of this, that ape gets to level up. It becomes a human. Next, Dave Bowman is challenged by his confrontation with HAL 9000. Maybe billions of simulations have been run up to this point, with humans never able to defeat the superior intellect of artificially intelligent entities. But Bowman is able to, and he gets to level up in turn. Suddenly, the importance of HAL 9000 is clear—he is a boss blocking entrance to the next portion of the game.
As Dave wanders through the bedroom and bathroom on the alien world at the end of the film, we hear bizarre groaning noises that sound unmistakably alien. It occurred to me that these are not audible to Dave, that these are being uttered by the creatures watching him at the zoo they’ve built to imprison him. But what if it’s not a zoo, but a screen? If Dave is part of a computer simulation, and he has accomplished something remarkable within that simulation, maybe the voices we hear are aliens gathered around to marvel at the achievement. When we watch movies, we know we’re literally looking at a screen—the movie or TV screen—but if Kubrick here added in another layer, and we are ourselves watching a screen within a screen, sitting alongside noisy theatergoers, it would fit in perfectly with his massive experiment in manipulating the language of filmmaking to addle viewers.
I know that my hypothesis is very wrong but also kind of right. It’s kind of right because every work of art, every movie, every book, every song, means exactly what you need it to mean, regardless of what the creator intended.
I’m wrong about this particular film because of who created it. Because it’s Kubrick, whatever you think is happening, isn’t.
What other movies have we been reconsidering?
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) | Directed by Steven Spielberg | Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr
Footnotes [ + ]
|I.||↑||Or maybe they’re one and the same?)|
|II.||↑||Watch Room 237.|