I first learned about 2001 through a reading module in my first-grade advanced reading class. I was fascinated by this story of astronauts sent into space with an intelligent computer that goes haywire and starts killing the astronauts. A few years later, I finally got to see it, and I was pretty blown away by it. I didn’t quite know what to make of its starkly different prologue, main story, and epilogue, but I liked it enough that I kept coming back to it again and again over the years. At this point, it’s easily one of the most re-watched of any of the movies I have ever written about. This movie is the collaboration of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, two of the most brilliant minds in cinema and science fiction, and it’s about a whole lot more than a murderous computer. It’s about intelligence itself.
There are really four stories in this movie. The first story begins at the dawn of time, with a tribe of hominids living a hard life between being preyed upon by great cats, and being pushed around by a larger hominid tribe at the local watering hole. A mysterious black obelisk appears, and one of the hominids touches it and suddenly experiences an awakening in brainpower, conceiving of the use of tools. Of course, it then turns a bone into a weapon, and begins to prey on other animals with it, as well as to commit murder at the next waterhole altercation. Victorious, the hominid throws the bone in the sky until…
…we see a vaguely bone-shaped satellite in space. The year is 2001, in a version of the world that never lost its taste or sense of urgency for space exploration, and now has multiple bases on the moon, regular travel between Earth, orbital space stations, and the moon, and even the means for major manned expeditions to Jupiter and beyond. Dr. Heywood Floyd, on behalf of the U.S. government, travels to the moon to do spin control over the discovery of a huge black monolith, clearly of alien design. Heywood suits up, puts his hand on it, and the monolith sends a powerful radio signal of some kind. Cut to 18 months later…
…and we see Discovery One, a manned mission to Jupiter. The voyage has three scientists in cryo sleep, to be revived once the ship is in Jupiter’s orbit, two live astronauts—Dr. David Bowman, and Dr. Frank Poole—as well as HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence that runs most of the ship’s systems. We spend a lot of time watching the fairly dull routine of life on the ship, until HAL seems to malfunction, which leads Poole and Bowman to decide to take the computer offline just to be on the safe side. HAL learns of their plans and kills all of the people on board the ship, except for Bowman, who manages to deactivate HAL just in time to learn the true purpose of the mission. It’s not just to explore Jupiter, it’s to investigate the radio signal that monolith on the moon sent out, And now that Bowman has arrived…
…he gets in a small external an EVA pod, sees the monolith floating out in space, makes contact with it, and becomes the subject of an extended mind-bending sequence through space and time in which Bowman is transformed from homo sapiens to the Star Child, an infant iteration of a newly evolved form of humanity, whose superior intelligence can understand the secrets of those who built the monoliths. Or something like that. It’s…trippy.
My favorite part of the movie is also the most straightforward part—the drama on board the Discovery One. I actually quite enjoy those long, boring sequences of the astronauts eating dinner, and exercising by running around the circumference of their habitat, or playing chess with HAL, or getting vapid video mails from home. There’s something about that which speak to what I imagine the real trial of space flight to be: even if everything run perfectly, there is an awful lot of down time. How do you keep your wits and skills sharp? But when HAL goes sideways, things get interesting, and the manner in which he disposes of the humans on board is as chilling an examination of robotic murder as you’ll ever get. HAL has not one iota of guilt. Nor of anything we’d consider malice. He just figures the mission is much likelier to succeed by removing humans from the equation.
There is an extremely tense sequence when Poole is killed while on a spacewalk, and Bowman goes out to get him back, only to find that HAL has locked him out of the ship. Bowman, like any astronaut is supremely calm, cool and collected. Panicking under pressure is simply not in his profile, and there is this incredible moment when Bowman is trying to get HAL to open the doors, and HAL won’t do it for him. HAL uses the kind of gentility to refuse Bowman that we’d expect from a supervillain, and for a brief moment, we see Bowman’s demeanor crack. But, his ingenuity wins out, and he gets back in the ship, and goes on the offensive. He dismantles HAL piece by piece, and the moment of truth here is listening to HAL try everything it can, from logical appeal to emotional manipulation to outright pleading to get Bowman to stop. At last, HAL is reduced to its first memory, singing a song called “Daisy,” and hearing HAL slow down and slur its words as it dies is, in its own way, as chilling as any of the other violence committed beforehand. Snuffing out an intelligence is snuffing out an intelligence, no matter if it’s human, machine or otherwise.
I have often thought about the HAL portion of 2001. Humanity was called to Jupiter as the final test of its uplift evolution. It created an intelligence of its own to do it. And along the way, we must ask ourselves, is surviving the inevitable rebellion of our own creations part of the test? Or is it merely a matter of happenstance which intelligence got out to the Jupiter monolith? If intelligence is intelligence, it might never have mattered if HAL managed to kill Bowman, too, and make contact. Given HAL did with its intelligence, we might think that a chilling prospect, to see it elevated so far. But given what we have done with our own, perhaps Bowman’s evolution is the scarier outcome.
One thought on “2001: A Space Odyssey”
“Snuffing out an intelligence is snuffing out an intelligence, no matter if it’s human, machine or otherwise.” Beautifully said.