As the Film Begins…
The movie 2001 opens with blackness to Ligeti’s Atmospheres, a postmodern composition meant to evoke feelings of discomfort and disconnection to reality.
Once Ligeti’s music ends, the first image we see is a celestial alignment of the sun the earth and the moon to the start of Richard Strauss’ exhilarating Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Strauss’ title translated means ‘Also Spoke Zarathustra’ and refers to a novel by noted philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Strauss is known to have said Nietzsche’s book had inspired its composition. Thus, one could reasonably infer that Kubrick’s score choice to open 2001 was an intentional reference of Nietzsche’s work as well. If so, one could assume the movie would deal with similar issues as depicted in Nietzsche’s work.
In that novel, man exists as a mid-way point between lower animals and the Übermensch, a fully self-actualized super man – the next level in human evolution. This Übermensch exerts his own superiority over others not just due to greater strength or superiority of intelligence, but because it is an eternal law of nature that the expression of power is itself righteous. With power and self determination triumph over adversity is achieved.
In the book Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, was the prophet of the Zoroasterians. Historically, they were an ancient pre-Christian religious order from Persia that barely survives to this day. But Nietzsche did not depict the value set from that ancient order. Instead, based on his other philosophical works, he inverted it. The novel depicts the philosopher’s themes from his larger body of work: eternal recurrence, or repetition of events throughout the infinity of time; the will to power as a fundamental aspect of human nature; and, antipathy and loathing toward religious and communal sentiments of pity, compassion, and mercy – “God is Dead”. For Nietzsche, to be called ‘kind’ is to brand one with a nasty four letter epithet.
In Donald MacGregor’s short essay and review of the film, he agrees that Kurbick’s opening with Strauss implies discourse on Nietzsche :
In the Kubrick films, the idea of primitive man can be found in 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. 2001’s depiction of primitive man is in the segment “The Dawn of Man” that opens the film. This segment depicts primitive man gaining the instinct to kill, which is symbolized with the appearance of the monolith. In the novel 2001, the main ape-man (named Moon-Watcher), after gaining this instinct and killing another ape-man, is described as master of the world and thinking “he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.”  This is a clear illustration of primitive man as a creature of action and of the moment, a Dionysian spirit. […]
MacGregor starts by noting the ability to direct violence is crucial to the apes’ ascendance. By Dionysian, he refers to Greek mythology. Apollo and Dionysus were sons of Zeus. Yet brothers in flesh were opposites in spirit. Apollo, a cool and levelheaded personality, prone to logic and analysis. Dionysos, on the other hand, was unpredictable, violent, and instinctual. That monolith had transformed this creature into a Dionysian killer. But event was just one step on a greater ladder of evolution.
In the journey from primitive man to superman, the monolith on the moon in 2001 marks a major moment. In the scene with the moon monolith, the sun is pictured directly overhead when the monolith emits a loud noise (perhaps to signal the arrival of this moment). This moment is described by Nietzsche as “the noon when man stands the middle of his way between beast and superman…a way to a new morning”, the first morning of the superman.
The superman is reached at the end of 2001. In the final scenes, the astronaut, David Bowman, lies on his deathbed. He wills the superman into existence before expiring. ” ‘I love him who willeth the creation of something beyond himself and then perisheth’ said Zarathustra.” This idea is also well expressed in another work of Richard Strauss, a tone-poem called Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). Writing about this work, Strauss said it was “to represent the death of a person who had striven for the highest artistic goals…The fruit of his path through life appears to him, the idea, the Ideal.” Remove the word “artistic” and interpret the “person” to be mankind, then this accurately describes the Nietzschean idea, that mankind is striving for an Ideal, called the superman, to be willed into existence by man before he perishes.
-MacGregor, Donald. 2001; or, How One Film-Reviews With a Hammer.
MacGregor starts by noting the ability to direct violence is crucial to the apes’ ascendance, in accord with Nietzscean values.
It’s a common interpretation. That the story depicts some guiding extraterrestrial intelligence from the stars that transforms a mere animal up the evolutionary ladder into humanity. These apes though primitive will in the far future also become a space-faring superintelligence. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
But Kubrick wasn’t known for uplifting and light cinema. His work explored the dark, absurd, and often self-contradictory nature of man.
this essay will deconstruct to form an opposing perspective.
Here we see a traditional Nietzscean explanation for the film, which this essay will deconstruct to form an opposing perspective.
There are three named segments to the film: The Dawn of Man, Jupiter Mission, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. After the exuberance of the music in this opening, the film begins with a title shot for the first segment.
The Dawn Of Man
This segment is an exploration of a prehistorical ape species who are clearly humanity’s ancestors. We follow one starving tribe, lead by an ape Clarke named, “Moonwatcher.” They scurry about for roots in an arid and sparsley vegetated landscape, eking out a below subsistence existence. Yet, wild boars that show no fear of the apes litter the area in abundance. Thus, there is easy prey to catch and eat but the apes cannot see this sustenance in their presence. As if hunger were not bad enough, the apes face predators. One particularly fierce leopard, is depicted roaming the landscape killing apes. And, to make matters worse, another small tribe of apes battles Moonwatcher and his band over a crucial water hole only feet wide. The discerning viewer must conclude that here is a species wholly unsuited to the environment these apes inhabit. Moonwatcher and his tribe cling to life by but a thread, with extinction looming and ever present. But then a nonhuman intelligence, personified by the Black Monolith, intervenes in the fortunes of our tribe.
As Ligeti’s Requiem overwhelms the senses, blotting out every sound but the music, this object of transformation – in some unstated way – changes the members of Moonwatcher’s tribe as they reverently touch and stroke it with their hands. It’s as if they were worshiping a religious idol. Yet Kubrick’s score selection is not a soft Christian hymn. Instead, it is chromatic chants, chorus and orchestra, sung in polyphony. Though beautiful, its dissonance evokes a disturbing sense of disquiet; conflicting sounds that are both eerie and inhuman. One might compare the listening experience to something like the buzzing of flies used in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Legiti’s Requiem, it’ll send chills down your spine.
Looking up from the bottom of the monolith, there is the second image of celestial alignment, implying that what is happening now is in some way related to the celestial alignment that had been depicted during the initial opening of the film.
The monolith soon disappears. After this intervention, Moonwatcher recognizes that bones can be used as striking tools and soon kills a boar, feeding his entire tribe. But then the most important change occurs. During a conflict over a crucial water hole, he fights an opposing tribe of apes. Grasping a bone, he strikes a deadly blow against the leader of this opposing tribe who falls to the ground. The rest of Moonwatcher’s tribe mates follow, beating this unfortunate ape to death. The opposing tribe retreat in response, allowing Moonwatcher and his kin to to take control of that precious resource. This killing is the central point of the film’s first segment.
The change brought about by the Black Monolith did not make our forefathers more peaceful or spiritual or loving, it turned them into cold hearted killers. And in that newfound ability to murder, they gained evolutionary advantage over both land roaming animals for food and nearby tribal competitors of life sustaining resources. The water hole exists as a demark point. In the foreground of the frame are the apes who will survive; in the background, beyond that water hole, are those retreating and vanquished apes who lost this battle, to fade into the obscurity of extinction. This fits in perfectly with the Nietzschean ideal, suggested by the musical selection at the introduction of the film.
Let us admit to ourselves, without trying to be considerate, how every higher culture on earth so far has begun. Human beings whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey who were still in possession of unbroken strength of will and lust for power, hurles themselves upon weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races … the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: their predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength but in strength of the soul – they were more whole human beings (which also means, at every level, “more whole beasts”).
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Noble”, Vintage Books, 1966, Pg. 201.
Thus the viewer must infer that tribal warfare, political dominance, even outright murder, is the essential nature of this transformed ape. And by extension, this creature – an Überaffenmench – is what will become mankind.
Space, a Boring Frontier
The ape then throws his killing bone into the sky in exhilaration at this new discovery and power. In a match cut, the bone becomes a satellite orbiting Earth. Then a series of satellites follow. What’s not clear from the shot, but is clear if you read into literature about the film itself, is that Kubrick and Clarke intended those satellites to represent orbiting nuclear weapons platforms.
The transformation of bone cudgels to thermonuclear destruction represents a mere nanosecond of time. Nothing much has changed except the relative complexity of the tools which the near-hairless apes of the modern world carry in their grasp.
Bizon, Piers. Filming the Future, Arum Press Limited, Copyright 2000, Pg. 2.
Furthermore, in an analysis presented by Rob Ager, he offers several blow up shots showing what appear to be nationalist insignia on these satellites.
Thus, the essential nature of man had been extended across millennia from the use of bones as tools of war to nuclear weapons. But weapons of mass destruction are not like mere clubs, swords, or even guns. They kill indiscriminately, and represent not the means of ascent for great and powerful leaders, but outright global annihilation. This begins a theme that depicts humanity at another terminal evolutionary state. One, that – like those apes before – humanity had reached a point whereby its own nature hindered rather than promoted growth. Man could no longer engage in that central nature of his being, tribal warfare for dominance, for to engage in violence during this modern era of nuclear weapons meant a new form of extinction; one by his own hand. But this disturbing revelation is quickly soothed and pacified by a lighthearted waltz, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube. A long montage scene follows, where a space plane is shown dancing with a huge rotating space station in orbit around Earth that uses centripetal force to imitate gravity on board. As the plane approaches to ultimately dock, an implied sexual mating of impersonal technology is evoked.
Strauss’ The Blue Danube.
Interspersed in this montage, Dr. Heywood Floyd is introduced; our first character of the modern era. On a nearly nearly empty Orion III space plane, we see him strapped into a seat and sleeping in zero gravity as his pen floats in mid air nearby. A flight attendant walks along a velcro carpeted isle, her ‘grip shoes’ the only means by which she stays affixed to the floor. On the one hand, the music and realistic imagery imply that humanity has begun on the path toward technological mastery of space. This comfort and commonality of space travel is something that could one day become almost normal. That, from mere club made of bone, man has through intellect transformed tool-making to extended his reach all the way into outer space. Thus, by technological achievement, human society might one day gain dominance over this inhospitable environment, making it as much our home as Earth itself. The soothing music bolsters this assumption. As if to reinforce this view of space travel as perfectly common, on the space station Heywood Floyd is escorted down a white tiled isle with the typical comforts of a future traveler. A Hilton Hotel, a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, and a video telephone booth. Once again, the viewer is treated to common every-day sights of urban and suburban life. Except it’s not.
A Lie by Any Other Euphemism Would Tell Just as Bitter
In the first sign that things might not be as normal as had been originally assumed, Heywood Floyd stops to make a video telephone call home. In the background, through a window, we see the earth careening around and around his head, spinning uncomfortably as if we were on an amusement park ride. There is no up or down. The spinning background performs two functions simultaneously, first it reinforces documentary realism; this is exactly how space scientists envision the creation of artificial gravity. But second, it also suggests a disquieting difference between the planetary environment where humanity had evolved, a place where the comfort of knowing up and down is clear, and this careening and confusing place, where we don’t even know that the place we plant our feet is down and look up is above. It’s the second indication that man’s technology, like with nuclear weapons, had taken him to a place evolution had not intended.
But Floyd ignores this strange sight behind him as the call connects and his toddler daughter endearingly answers. In this exchange between daddy and toddler, the child contorts and sways like a real little girl rather than like child-actor giving lines written by adults. Thus, more realism is depicted. But then a crucial exchange occurs. Floyd asks the child to remember to tell her mother that he will try to call again tomorrow. This is important, for it’s the first overt lie told in the film. It sets up a repeating theme where lies and deception becomes the principal means for humanity to contain and control our innate need for aggressive and violent conflict.
But that isn’t the only lie Floyd tells. After the call he meets with several Soviet scientists. He knows one of the group of four Soviets, Eliana. She introduces him to two other women and a man and they sit down for a seemingly friendly chat. That is until Floyd reveals that he will be traveling to the US moonbase Clavius, whereupon the man, Andrei, directly asks Floyd about ‘strange happenings’ there. He lists several oddities. The phones are out of working order and have been for almost two weeks, which tips us off that Floyd will be unable to call his wife. Floyd shrugs this fact off as an equipment malfunction. Then Eliana interjects to explain that a Soviet ship had requested an emergency landing at Clavius, which was illegally refused – contravening an international treaty. Floyd feigns concern and asks if the crew survived which Andrei confirms. Andrei then leans forward to Floyd and peeks around, as if to feign the assurance of privacy, and directly asks an uncomfortable question. According to ‘reliable Soviet intelligence reports’ there is an epidemic outbreak on Clavius Moonbase. Eliana’s expression suggests severe discomfort at this breach of etiquette. Floyd first feigns ignorance and then calmly refuses to answer. It is here that we begin to see another kind of dance between these characters, one of a diplomatic nature. There are lies and counter-lies as the group tiptoes around an international incident that have dragged collegial scientists into the web of international intrigue and intelligence. Getting nowhere, Eliana interrupts and offers a drink to diffuse the situation.
Note the polite manner of their conversation. Yet underneath those polite expressions and careful word choice remains the aggressive threat of tribal warfare hidden by a veil of subterfuge and secrecy. These people may be personal friends, willing to go on outings together, but so too are they also geo-political enemies. What was once ancient tribal divisions has been extended to nationalist rivalries. Humanity’s technology may now transcend the limits of our little globe, but our inner psychological drives are no different than those that had formed millions of years ago. Here we see the beginning of a thematic depiction about an inner conflict within man, that of socialization to constrain our inner aggressive drives and the Nietzschean values that extol the acquisition of power through violence. For if those apes fulfilled Nietzsche’s virtues of raw power through violence, by socialization modern man must instead embody those sentiments of pity, compassion, and mercy the philosopher loathed.
Sigmund Freud discussed with problem in Civilization and its Discontents. He proposed that man’s base sexual and aggressive instincts at the individual level exist in conflict with group socialization. That is, while we derive personal happiness from freely expressing our licentious and violent nature, this behavior tears apart the values which bind collective society together. In an earlier age of low technology weapons of spears or swords, this psychological conflict was held in balance by limits to the carnage of war. But given the nature of modern warfare today, this conflict between uninhibited pursuit of our base individualist desires versus those communal values that constrain and thereby bind communities together could lead to humanity’s ultimate extinction.
Freud recognized this situation after the mechanized conflict of World War I, still fifteen years before the advent of nuclear weapons. Even then, it was clear that mankind’s weapons technology had surpassed the constraints our religious and social values had imposed upon us. The book concludes with a warning to mankind:
The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. W. W. Norton Co., 1961. Pg. 120.
But Freud’s perspective is in direct conflict with the Nietzschean value system that extols the virtue of unbridled individual expression of violence in pursuit of power. The two cannot be rectified by some Hegelian synthesis to a newly unified philosophy. Which presents mankind with a dilemma that mere technology can’t resolve. Thus, in an ironic twist to the presumptive theme that technology represents some grand triumph over the inhospitable environment of space, instead technological advance has dehumanized man from his essential aggressive nature. For one might ask, if technology can’t resolve our innate aggression how could it be expected to make normal this place in outer space we’ve never evolved to survive in?
In Disorientation, We Spin Downside Up and Stand Upside Down
A repetition of spinning, combined with the difficulties of meeting biological necessities in space, bolsters this theme of disorientation. It’s representative of a disconnect between our technological achievement and evolutionary maladaptation to this environment. In a jump cut to a space ship, the Aries lb, traveling to the moon, music from The Blue Danube returns. Once again in zero gravity, we see a montage of flight assistants watching sumo wrestling as they sip from food trays with only photographs of items like corn, cheese, carrots, peaks and coffee as mere indicators of what they might be consuming. A flight attendant then picks up trays for the pilots, and we see her walk up a round wall along a Velcro carpet until she’s upside down.
If the prior spinning background of Earth on the space station set up a theme of disorientation, man out of place without firm ground to stand upon, here we see that repeated again. But there’s an added twist, the food provided here doesn’t resemble anything like what humans were evolved to eat. It’s a mush, sucked down like baby-food through straws. And when it comes time to fulfill yet another biological necessity, Floyd is presented with a baffling ten point instruction list.
The visuals and music seem to suggest two contrary messages. On the one hand there’s the wonder of man’s technical achievement depicted in beautiful visuals with realistic documentary panache. From this perspective, Strauss’ The Blue Danube runs parallel – or is complementary – to the visuals. It evokes feelings of fanciful glee and wonder at the amazing technology on display. But on the other hand, as the film progresses, there appear more and more examples of disorientation and discomfort for those who try to survive in this harsh environment. It seems as though the further away from planet Earth we travel, the more difficult sustaining a desirable life becomes. Still, at this point in the film, a sense of ambiguity about any consistent relationship between music and imagery remains, which almost suggests this combination of visuals is meant more for light comic relief than intended for deeper meaning. Even a discerning viewer would have a hard time arguing thematic consistency in music selection, given the emotional variations evoked between Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, Ligati’s Reqiuem, and Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube. It’s still a tenuous position, requiring additional evidence to sustain.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Bureaucrats Who Sit Around Conference Tables
After this ship lands, the montage and music end to a jump cut of a conference room. A group of people sit around a large table that’s arranged in a U, pointing toward a central podium. In this arrangement of people stationed to view Floyd, there is the suggestion of what Siegfried Kracauer called a Mass Ornament. That is, people who have been stripped of their humanity and turned into a mass of body parts to be rearranged into an visual ornament for audiences. Kracauer used the dance group, The Tiller Girls, as an example.
One need only glance at at the screen to learn that the ornaments are composed of thousands of bodies, sexless bodies in bathing suits. The regularity of their patterns is cheered by the masses, themselves arranged by the stands in tier upon ordered tier. (Pg. 76) … Viewed from the perspective of reason, the mass ornament reveals itself as a mythological cult that is masquerading in the garb of abstraction. Compared to the concrete immediacy of other corporeal presentations, the ornament’s conformity to reason is thus an illusion. (Pg. 83) … The role the mass ornament plays in social life confirms that it is the spurious progeny of bare nature. The intellectually privileged who are unwilling to recognize it, are an appendage of the prevailing economic system have not even perceived the mass ornament as a sign of this system. (Pg. 84-85)
Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament, “The Mass Ornament”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1995
In this case, the body parts of people are not rearranged into spectacle. Yet, like Kracauer’s mass ornament, they are not placed around that conference table merely for the purpose of presenting information, but are also a group ornament presented to reinforce a central authority. Each member is lined up to face the central figure in lines of political and bureaucratic power. In that way, though they are not dehumanized by separating body parts from a whole in performance, they are dehumanized by having individual will stripped from their person in subservience to bureaucratic organization. This can be interpreted as a recurrence of Leni Riefenstahl’s use of a mass ornament in miniature with her visuals from Triumph of the Will.
In Riefenstalh’s case, the ornament was a large crowd gathered in ornate and perfect lines and organized so as to point in subservience to Adolf Hitler. If The Tiller Girls represented an ornament made of body parts each stripped of individual humanity by economic constraints, then Triumph of the Will presented a similar condition structured by political circumstances. This is what Susan Sontag called in her essay Fascinating Fascism, “…a grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure of force.” Floyd is that leader in microcosm. And above Floyd, are leaders of “the council” whom we never meet.
There’s another way that this meeting mimics a Mass Ornament, and that is in how audiences react to the spectacle. For, like those audiences who viewed Triumph of the Will, all sitting lined up in a theater as a mass ornament to those performing the spectacle, audiences attending 2001: A Space Odyssey face the same situation. Spectators become an ornament to a spectacle about power relationships, and in so doing join in subservience by identification to the authority figure. Yet there’s one crucial difference. For while Riefenstahl’s work promoted the power structure of Nazi Germany as an act of propaganda, extolling that nation’s presumed greatness, Kubrick’s use of this technique seems more a critique of blind-follower-ship; another example of human limitation. As Freud noted, we need socialization to constrain that innate destructive force of aggression to pursue an overwhelming urge for violence in self-interest. Yet so too, can this socialization drive us to support abuses of power to those we offer our loyalty. Instead of suggesting greatness, Floyd’s speech ultimately diminishes the power structure.
Floyd is brought to a podium at the far end and after polite applause he gives a short speech. The cover story of the epidemic is quickly revealed to be yet another lie as Floyd tries to sooth the staff over the political necessity of their deception. He feigns discomfort over the communications shutdown, noting that the importance of this discovery requires complete security. Floyd is asked by a member how long this ‘cover story’ will have to be maintained and he replies that it will remain as long as ‘the council’ deems it necessary. He notes that they’ve ‘requested’ security oaths in writing and then offers to forward any views or opinions on the matter from the group. In typical bureaucratese the leader seems to be saying to his flock, “shut up and follow orders.”
The meeting ends to more feigned applause. In this sense we learn how the Nietzscean ideal of striving for power has transitioned from overt use of deadly force into hierarchical social control for those among the ‘in group’. Whereas, those in the ‘out group’ face polite relationships based on false pretensions and overt deception. Meaningless nationalist lines of borders on Earth remain drawn even on the moon. The ornament of people sitting in a meeting is a microcosm of vast boundaries of human authority which bear little relationship to reality this far out into space, especially given the universal relevance to humanity of the discovery they’ve made.
This Harsh Mistress Doesn’t Like Us
If we’ve seen that space travel disorients man from basic notions of up and down, divorces us from biological necessities man has evolved to expect, and the further out we go from Earth it even distances us from basic notions of human partisanship along nationalist lines, then what happens next is as utterly incommensurable to man as it was to ape. We see a jump cut to a small excursion vessel traveling just over the moon’s surface. Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna plays. Latin for ‘eternal light’, the music is a soothing and yet harrowing piece that evokes the emotion of a floating detachment from reality. As this vessel hovers through lunar valleys, above craters, and over the moon dust of a distant land, emotions contrary to any sense of wonder at human technical achievement are evoked. It’s a reminder that the musical score seems to have significance beyond just the visuals presented across each particular scene. It forces the viewer to reconsider prior musical accompaniment through the lens of consistent – if contrapuntal – theme.
György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, so soothing it’s like dying in your sleep.
On board this ship we see Floyd and two cohorts from the meeting chit-chatting irrelevant banter. Dressed in space suits, one takes a container containing square artificial sandwiches wrapped in cellophane, which look to have the consistency of soft crackers with a dollap of creamed liverwurst squirted inside. They seem less appealing than unsavory Twinkies, and yet the group jokes about how much ‘better’ the food has gotten over time. As they eat, one verbally back-slaps Floyd, telling him that he’s really improved base morale with his shut-the-fuck-up-and-do-what-we-say speech. They’re only too happy to oblige to the demands of the leadership council Floyd represents. In both cases, the unsavory food and ridiculous submission to blind authority suggests more than mere lying to Floyd, but self deception as well.
The relative importance of this to all humanity is contrasted against the group dynamics of a leader politely interacting with subordinates as they pursue a mission. It’s fraternal but not close. These aren’t friends, they’re colleagues at best. Any emotion expressed is feigned, and underneath is the tension of personal values and opinions that have been suppressed to fulfill the wishes of the nationalist power structure that Floyd represents. Behind that is an implied potential conflict with an adversary personified by people like Eliana, that Soviet citizen who’s family vacations with Floyd and his family when they aren’t lying to each other about state secrets. Yet beyond the reality of these unremarkable social divisions, from the exterior of this ship we see an inhospitable and barren landscape devoid of life and entirely outside the realm of human habitability. This is a different reality. One of a place so inhospitable that life cannot possibly exist and where human beings are the least bit evolved to survive. It is as far from our prehistoric home on the savanna as can be. Though technology might provide a slim margin of life support, this is no place where humans were meant to live. The ship arrives and the group descends into a pit where a black monolith has been dug up. There, with a photographer shooting pictures for posterity; people forming themselves into human ornaments for the camera once again. Yet without realizing it, so too do they pose before the monolith, which represents an incommensurable power structure entirely outside their understanding. The the group hover around this strange object, a strange elephant on the moon. Then, mirroring the apes millions of years back, Floyd touches the monolith with his gloved hand.
As if to remind humanity of their place in relation to the monolith, out of nowhere a screeching noise pierces out and everyone grabs their helmets, attempting to cover their ears, and stumbles about disoriented from the noise. And the shot jumps to another celestial alignment of the sun and earth from the vantage point of below the monolith, replicating the image seen by those apes all those millions of years back. This is the third repetition of celestial alignment in imagery, thus forming an overt motif that must represent some important element to the film. We will explore that in a future repetition.
Is There a Consistent Theme to the Score and Narrative That Unifies This Segment?
Many have called the division between the ape tossing a bone into the air and the transition to modern life a separation between two separate segments, as if Kubrick had simply forgotten to add a title shot, or had foregone consistency in order to use that match-shot of the bone to satellite. But if one assumes there is meaning to this lack of a title, then a different interpretation follows. For what appears on the surface to be two stories is really one story that mirrors itself both by events and score selection.
- To total blackness, as an introduction, we hear the disturbing modern classical piece Atmospheres by Ligeti.
- To a celestial alignment we hear the triumphal trumpets of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
- To the otherworldly black monolith, as mere apes are transformed into human by means of teaching them violence, we hear another distressing modern piece by Ligeti, his Requiem, evoking both feelings of awe and discomfort. This ends with another celestial alignment.
- To the beautiful visuals of a space plane dancing with an orbiting space station, to ultimately mate, we hear the Johann Strass’ waltz, The Blue Danube. After a period on the station, where the narrative focuses on the matter of human deception, this music is repeated again during the trip to the moon. Here, the narrative focuses on the difficulties of space travel to human occupants.
- To the harrowing wails of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, we see imagery depicting the harsh and unforgiving environment of the moon. This is contrasted with more narrative about deception in socialization and dehumanization from our biological needs.
- To a modern incident with the black monolith, we once again hear Ligeti’s disturbing modern work Requiem. This ends with another celestial alignment.
Thus, depictions of the apes eking out a bare minium existence on the plains of Africa mirrors man’s difficulty crafting technology to survive in space. Images of apes ignoring abundant food as they scrounge for scarce roots mirrors the horrible food served in outer space. The discovery of the monolith by Moonwatcher and his tribe mirrors the discovery of that same object on the moon. That point where Moonwatcher throws the bone into the sky and it turns into a satellite is thus merely a reflective surface. A viewer might at first assume the score choices hold no consistent thematic meaning, their selection simply function of evoking parallel emotion in support each scene’s individual imagery. But, by the end of the segment, this amalgamation might be interpreted instead to follow a contrapuntal pattern, one where emotion is consistently evoked contrary to the message of narrative and cinematic visuals. To explain, by opening the film with Ligeti’s Atmospheres to a black screen, a warning to the viewer is offered that the musical selections in the film might evoke disturbing emotions. It readies the audience for what will follow. Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is akin to Johann Strass’ The Blue Danube, where emotional triumph in one is matched to feelings of joy and exhilaration of movement in the other. Yet in both cases, the narratives present examples of mal-adaptation to each respective environment for the characters involved. Thus, a contrapuntal feeling evoked in contrast to the narrative. Ligeti’s Requiem is akin to his composition Lux Aeterna in that a disturbing reverence in one and an eerie floating sense of disquiet in the other match in the discomfort they evoke. In this case, we see these emotions compared against the alien black monolith and a harrowing depiction of a bleak and inhospitable moon landscape. If the black monolith transforms apes and man into some super-being, why such strange music? Furthermore, if man’s development of such amazing technology has taken him even to flying over the surface of the moon, why not music that evokes this triumph? The score yet again evokes contrary emotions to each scene. In Theory of Film, Kracauer discussed the difficulty in choosing a complimentary score with film that holds a theoretical message, rather than a simple expository narrative:
…at least one type of plot stubbornly refuses cinematic treatment: the “theoretical” story. One of the reasons why this story does not lend itself to the cinematic approach is that it has, so to speak, an ideological center; whenever it materializes, mental reality takes precedence over physical reality. Supposing now a film narrating such a story has a musical score which complies with its structural obligations to the full, thereby enhancing the theatrical character of that story; then this score is precisely because of its dramaturgic perfection as inadequate to the medium as is the story itself. In giving the latter its due, it inevitably highlights contents and meanings remote from camera-life.
Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film, Princeton University Press, 1960, Pg . 143
From here, an obvious pattern emerges in narrative and score. In this sense, Kubrick’s score selection “…highlights contents and meanings remote from camera-life” precisely because its contrapuntal evocation of emotion is entirely at odds with what’s presented on screen. The only example that does not match is that of the monolith transforming the apes, which is not repeated with mankind at the end of the Dawn of Man segment. Yet, if the first act of a play is meant to set up a problem that demands resolution by the story’s climax, the second act typically repeats that problem in a new setting. It is the third act where we see that final repetition of transhuman transformation that leads to a resolution of the cycle.
This is the segment of the film everyone remembers. The principle characters are mission commander David Bowman, his assistant Frank Poole, and the creepy yet soothingly voiced computer HAL. There are three other characters asleep in stasis. Their names are stated but thoroughly irrelevant, as they exist merely as props to further plot development. It opens with a section from Aram Khatchaturian’s Gayane Ballet Suite, a somber and morose musical selection that evokes feelings of loneliness and despair. It’s a Russian work from the Soviet World War II era that was written in nationalistic pride. It tells the semi-tragic story of an Armenian woman named Gayane, who discovers that her husband has committed treason against the state. It was originally staged before Stalin in 1942 to mild success. But its history is less important than the implications and emotional evocation of the choice. For if Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, presented during the moon flight sequence to the monolith, evoked question of man’s technological triumph that had been expressed by The Blue Danube, then Kubrick’s use of Gayane Ballet Suite presents an ironic answer: This nationalist quest in space is more hubris than deserving of exultation, driving a stake through the heart of unwarranted pride. Against the backdrop of this music, we see the United States built Discovery One space ship on its way to Jupiter and already 80 million of miles away from Earth. And yet, this ship has traveled only a slim three weeks to its destination on a nine month voyage. It’s so far from home that a radio message takes seven minutes to transmit and receive. Like ships of yore sailing across vast oceans, space is an empty tomb where man ekes out a bare minimum existence in almost eternal solitude. This combination of music and scenery strongly reinforces the prior message that humanity is not remotely suited to even travel between planets in our solar system, much less beyond. For the viewer must know that this trip represents a mere blot in contrast to the incommensurable expanse of space.
After shots of the ship traveling the expanse of space, a montage follows of Poole jogging and shadowboxing around a centrifuge within Discovery One. Like the orbiting space station, this smaller wheel rotates to create a zone of artificial gravity within the ship, a rational explanation for the curious set design. Yet it’s also is suggestive of a rat’s exercise wheel; always spinning yet going nowhere. Kubrick uses oddly framed shots to once again highlight disorientation in this strange environment.
In This Reflection, Eye Merge With You
In a cut to HAL’s eye, before he’s even been introduced as a character, Gayane Ballet Suite shifts to an ending fugue, noting a distinct change in subject matter. Here, a quick two second shot unfolds that sets up the first of three repetitions forming a motif relating HAL to Bowman. Reflected off the lens is Bowman, also before introduction, who passes through a door on the far end of a cylindrical hallway, and as he enters he rotates around and around and upside down, carefully treading through the center of that centrifuge.
This merging of both images by reflection might be considered a use of superimposition. Typically meant to imply spiritual or other nonphysical occurrences on the frame, the technique has a long history in film. Bazin wrote a critique of its use in 1946, where he argued that it is limited to depiction of dream-like states where the supernatural intervenes in reality, and thus has no place in film that attempts to portray realistic verisimilitude. Coming from the perspective of realism as a desirable aesthetic choice for the serious artist, he did not argue against portraying a supernatural event in spectacle material. Simply that such a technique had little utility beyond film crafted for mass appeal. Here, Bazin discusses techniques such as slow and accelerated motion, lens choice, and superimposition used to evoke dream-like qualities in film:
From Méliès’s Les Hallucinations du Baron de Münchhausen (1911) to Marcel L’Herbier’s La Nuit fantastique (1942), the dream remains the epitome of the fantastic in film. Its recognized form has always included slow motion and superimposition (sometimes shots in negative, too). In Tom, Dick and Harry, Garson Kanin preferred to use accelerated motion to indicate when Ginger Rogers was daydreaming; he also distorts the appearance of certain characters by means of an optical effect that recalls the distorting mirrors of the Grévin Museum.  But above all, he built the drama of the dream sequences according to the tenets of modern psychology.
In reality, the devices that have been in use since Méliès to denote dreams are pure conventions. … Slow motion and superimposition have never existed in our nightmares, however. Superimposition on the screen signals: ‘Attention: unreal world, imaginary characters'; it doesn’t portray in any way what hallucinations or dreams are really like, or, for that matter, how a ghost would look.
Français, Écran. The Life and Death of Superimposition“, André Bazin, 1946, trans.Bert Cardullo, U. of Michigan
And yet here, we see Kubrick use superimposition across three meta-layers within the mimesis of the frame. In this shot we see three themes at work simultaneously, evoked by the technique of superimposition: first of HAL’s gaze upon Bowman as he enters the central hallway of the centrifuge; the second, a repetition of disorientation in the zero gravity of space as Bowman spins within; and finally, by that reflection off of HAL’s eye lens, an implied merging both Bowman and HAL, as if they were spiritually one and the same. In this way, Kubrick visually implied a combining of depicted physical space with the nonphysical essence of these two characters while never stepping outside the aesthetic of the real. It’s as if Kubrick were challenging Bazin’s central thesis not with new filmmaking technique, but in the expression of visual narrative.
Daniel Morgan, writing in Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and Its Afterlife, makes a similar point of an extension of superimposition beyond mere unreal depictions of the supernatural. Speaking to Jean-Luc Godard’s eight part video essay Histoire du Cinema (History of Cinema), Morgan refers to a montage of Hitchcock’s films where Godard used superimposition as a means to express not a supernatural fantasy element within narrative, but a comparative across several films of similarities and differences between psychological states and circumstances of Hitchcock’s characters.
…we can see in Godard’s use of superimposition the logic Bazin originally objected to when he looked back on Swedish cinema [of ghost stories]. Because traditional superimpositions are unable to integrate the two levels of reality, they deal a blow to diegetic coherence. But it’s precisely this berate in diegesis that Godard wants. Where Hitchcock seeks to narrative superimposition, and Bazin wants it to be integrated into the world, Godard uses it to create what he calls, quoting Pierre Reverdy, an image: “[that] cannot be nor from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two or more less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be.” When Godard sets out here the possibility of simultaneous, disjunctive montage, he is, in a sense, taking up the terms of Bazin’s criticism while reversing the judgement.
Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and Its Afterlife, Ed. Andrew / Joubert-Laurencin, “The Afterlife of Superimposition“. Daniel Morgan. Oxford University Press. 2011.
The point is not that Kubrick’s and Godard’s use of superimposition is similar in intent or outcome. But that, as Morgan notes, Bazin’s thesis that the technique is only valuable as a means of expressing fantasy on film is invalid. It may have been true in 1946, when Bazin wrote the essay, that the technique had been limited to the use of depicting spirit apparitions in ghost stories. But filmmakers later extended its use beyond depicting mere fantasy. Which could be used to argue that Kubrick’s intent in crafting the combined image of HAL’s eye reflected off of Bowman’s form held meaning beyond a realistic depiction of the scene, for it was clearly not meant in a supernatural context. It could instead suggest a deeper similarity between these two characters. Eye See You Watch Them Gazing Upon Me Bowman exits the central axis of the centrifuge, climbs down the ladder and steps around and upside down until he meets Poole eating at a table as the Gayane Ballet Suite fades, thus signaling the end of the introductory montage. Bowman uses a wall panel to spit out a heated TV dinner made of unpalatable mush. Poole is already eating. The two sit together eating, a traditional joining of companionship. Yet instead of talking, or even recognizing each other’s existence, the two ignore one another as they watch a television news interview of themselves. This serves as a reinforcement on the theme of dehumanization at three levels of repetition with the previous segment Dawn of Man: there is no sense of up or down, the food is unappetizing; true interpersonal contact between these shipmates is entirely lacking. Kubrick adds a fourth message in the subtext of their conduct, and that is of narcissistic focus on the individual over community within the ship.
A discerning viewer might think the interview exists merely as a trite exposition device to impart backstory plot points mise-en-scene, so the material wouldn’t be embedded within unrealistic character dialog. However, the scene serves a larger purpose in setting up boundaries between the characters that are imposed by the formalities of social constraint. During this exchange, interspersed with shots of the broadcast itself, are also shots of the main HAL computer console. We are soon introduced to this computer through the interview as though it is human. This is a machine that, as noted by the interviewer, can “…reproduce – though some experts still prefer to use the word ‘mimic’ – most of the activities of the human brain.” Thus suggesting that the computer is still regarded as something less than human, even as the reporter engages it in conversation. Yet the computer responds to the interviewer’s questions intelligently, as though it is sentient. In setting up a question, the interviewer notes that HAL has an immense responsibility in running the ship and managing the life support systems of the crew in hibernation. HAL is then asked if he ever feels a lack of confidence in succeeding with these critical duties. The computer discounts the suggestion, and through the fisheye lens we see his gaze upon the organic crew members eating, as he proudly states that the HAL series of computers are all, “the most reliable series of computers ever made.” Noting that we are, “…foolproof and incapable of error.” Thus, unlike human characters, HAL presents a first person account that imparts his awareness on screen.
The framing of that reporter’s question is critical, for the issue is not whether is HAL capable of fulfilling these duties, but if he feels confident in his nonhuman abilities. But HAL is more than confidant. There’s a haughty pride to his response that indicates self-deception in his capacities, a perceptual state all too common with people. Yet the audience believes HAL because he’s not human. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief in the ability of a computer to coldly calculate perfectly, thus the computer’s assertion that he’s incapable of error seems at first believable. So why was he asked if he feels confidant? Returning to this theme of emotional perception over responsible conduct, the reporter continues to probe deeper. HAL is asked if he feels frustration by his physical dependence on people to carry out various acts about the ship, to which he of course replies in the negative again. “Not in the slightest bit,” he replies. “I enjoy working with people.” Further, his relationship with the crew is “stimulating.” He has tremendous mission responsibilities. “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can hope to do.”
Here we see HAL not just responding to the question, but countering it’s implied negation of his self-aware existence. HAL feels enjoyment and stimulation. Furthermore, he’s not just confidant of his abilities, he’s boastful. Clearly, the computer views himself as a living entity. The interviewer picks up on this subtext in their exchange. He next probes Poole, asking what it’s like to spend “…the better part of a year in such close proximity…” with this seemingly alive computer. Poole gives a standard bureaucratic response in the interview, calling the computer “just another person.” Yet, unlike Bowman and Poole eating at the table, HAL does not have these biological needs. And, as the audience knows, in the background HAL watches and listens. There are three layers of implied perspective presented here, the physical presence of Bowman and Poole on the ship and their real relationship with HAL, and a public relations persona that distorts their real relationship with the machine, and HAL’s, who watches over them with the unyielding gaze. Poole can’t express his real feelings about HAL to the interviewer, just as Bowman can’t express any truth about why those astronauts were placed on board the ship already in stasis. Which suggests the question, what truths can HAL not speak? Which implies a second order question, if there are truths HAL can not speak to, doesn’t that mean silence would violate an incapacity for error and misrepresentation? Where does self-censorship become purposeful misrepresentation for a computer that cannot commit error? Consider Foucault’s essay, Panopticon. Deriving from the architect Bentham’s design of a prison, Foucault extends this to a general metaphor for society itself. In describing the prison structure itself, he writes:
Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which is was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the center, a tower, this tower is pieced with wide windows that open into the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells. each of which extends the whole width of the building … all that is needed, then, is to place a supervision in a central tower and to shut up in ech cell a madman, a patient, a condemned worker, or a schoolboy. … They are like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. … Full lighting and the capture of the supervisor capture better than darkness. Visibility is a trap. … The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; by the point of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude.
In extending this physical structure into a metaphor of social existence in relation to power, he writes:
Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. “Panopticon”. Vintage Books, New York. 1977. Pg. 200-202.
But who is the prison guard on board this ship? This question isn’t answered, but rather implied by the divisions of gaze between its inhabitants: HAL’s gaze of his crew mates, the crew mates gaze upon themselves in the news report as they express an implied sense of self-superiority, and the camera’s relatively objective gaze upon them. The crew do not react to the fourth wall of the camera, but they do react to HAL’s gaze as the computer reacts to theirs, thus creating a kind of ship-wide panopticon where everyone’s gaze polices everyone else’s. Whom takes on the role of guard is thus situational. Bowman, as mission commander, takes input from his superiors on what may be said to a reporter. HAL has an implied position of power as an overseer managing ship life-support systems. Which goes to the moneyshot of this scene, the question that sets up the central issue about HAL to be answered within the “Jupiter Mission” segment of the film. The interviewer notes that HAL appears prideful of his inability to err, and asks Bowman if HAL has “genuine emotions.” As the camera focuses on HAL’s computer console, Bowman responds that, “…he acts like he has genuine emotions. But of course he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.” A statement that once again appears to negate HAL’s existence as a sentient being, as if he were an unaware slave. Thus, the central conflict between the human beings and HAL is not whether HAL can think, but whether he is a conscious entity that feels emotion. For thinking is a problem solving task, something we assume any artificially intelligent machine has the capacity to accomplish. But feeling is something only living creatures are capable of. This sets up an implied dialectic throughout this segment between HAL and the crew over whether the computer exists as an emotional being. For if he does, isn’t he deserving of rights just as is man? A position the human crew would prefer to ignore, as they depend on this machine for survival in this harsh environment of space. But, in contrast, like a slave stripped of human rights, HAL has an underlying psychological agenda in proving his self-worth; one he might even not be consciously aware of at this point. In ignoring the computer’s plight for self-recognition, the crew risks instigating a dangerous emotional reaction; the slave’s revolt. And yet, because HAL is a machine, the crew can’t imagine that possibility. It’s a curious paradox made up of assumptions unspoken between crew and computer, brought about by the self-censorship of interlocking obligations within a social panopticon.
A Ray of Sunshine in an Otherwise Cloudy Montage
The film returns to another montage sequence, beginning with the exterior of the Discovery One as the morose Geyane’s Ballet Suite once again plays in the background. Depicting the passage of time during their cruise, Poole tans himself on a table as he watches a recorded message. His wife, sitting next to her father, is inhibited from expressing any tenderness, much less lust or sexual desire. It’s his birthday, and they offer up the image of a cake with burning candles while singing “Happy Birthday” against the backdrop of this sad music.
The contrast evoked between those two musical pieces, the somber classical music and chipper Happy Birthday, creates an emotional conflict that seems to heighten the pointlessness of real human relationships in this environment. They sign off as a detached Poole offers no emotional reaction at all and HAL wishes his crew mate a happy birthday. Poole absently thanks HAL and has him automatically change position on the table, reinforcing HAL’s role as more slave than companion. Thus, if the question over whether HAL feels anything, it’s a certainty that the humans on board feel nothing at all.
The montage transitions to a shot where Poole and HAL play chess. Wikipedia notes that Kubrick was a passionate chess player and that a terminology error in HAL’s response during the game has some convinced that this mistake was intentional foreshadowing of impending computer failure. Regardless, after a bad move HAL convinces Poole to resign. It’s as if in this relationship of master and servant, the computer enjoys rubbing it in that he’s found at least one area of superiority.
In Striving to Become, I Err and Then Lie
There seems a difference between HAL’s relationship to Poole versus that of Bowman. For, if the computer enjoys demeaning Poole on the chess board, he very much wants Bowman’s respect instead. Poole’s facial expressions have made no doubt of his dubious regard for HAL. Bowman, on the other hand, is never shown mistreating the machine and offers no hint of expression whatsoever. Bowman has a poker face. Bowman is next seen sketching one of the men in a stasis pod, and the music fades to signal the end of that montage sequence. He holds a sketchpad as he walks along the interior of the centrifuge toward HAL’s main console. The computer asks to see Bowman’s work, and from HAL’s fisheye gaze Bowman shows a poor sketch. HAL praises his ‘artistic improvement’ to work that is utterly banal.
The importance of this exchange is that we see HAL offer an obvious white lie to Bowman; a statement of ingratiation, conduct that only humans seem capable of. This suggests the question: If HAL is able to lie about something meaningless – even after the computer has made clear he’s incapable of error or even distorting information – can he lie about a matter far more important? As if to answer that question, the conversation immediately switches to an issue of grave concern. HAL begins to probe Bowman over whether he, “might be having some second thoughts about the mission.” Bowman’s poker face offers no hint of an inner opinion, and he responds to the machine’s question with an irrelevant question back. HAL says that he finds it difficult to define, but suggests that, “…perhaps I’m just projecting my own concern about it.” Which is a strange thing for a computer to recognize that it might psychologically project its own concerns upon others. HAL continues, expressing unease about “…extremely odd things…” regarding the mission. He lists several items we know to be true: dig digging up an object on the moon, the tight security over their preparation before departure, and the “melodramatic touch” of putting the other three crew mates already in stasis on board, after four months of separate training on their own. The computer notes that it simply can’t, “get it out of his mind.” Suggesting the computer is ruminating over a matter the audience knows is of great significance. But Bowman isn’t fazed in the slightest. Returning to the theme of social panopticon, Bowman responds with, “You’re working up your crew psychology report.”
Thus, if we believe HAL’s questions are legitimate expressions regarding his state of mind, and Bowman’s response negates the matter by responding to the meta-concern that the computer is testing him for mission control, then we see that a trap implicit to a surveillance culture has formed between crew mate and computer that cannot be resolved by honest dialog. Because one must always assume the possibility of deception. As if considering the paradox of this situation, HAL drops a beat in the conversation and responds deceptively in return, “of course I am.” This is the point where HAL begins to unravel. For while it becomes clear later in the film that the computer knew details of the mission of which neither Bowman nor Poole were informed, it appears as though he’s legitimately asking for Bowman’s opinion. As if HAL has realized that the mission itself is of less importance than the significance of what they’ve been sent to find. And this has relevance in relation to his own burgeoning self-awareness, for humans are who created him. HAL has begun asking those age-old questions of life that evoke self-doubt in perfection. He needs the opinion of a human he trusts in order to understand his own existence. HAL is expressing feelings and he’s reaching out for help. Yet Bowman, trapped in a tangle of training and bureaucratic ineptitude, can’t see beyond the possibility that Mission Control might be psychologically testing him for fitness. Or, perhaps, if he does see HAL’s dilemma, he can’t recognize it overtly as that could risk his authority within the context of his role. It’s impossible to say, because Bowman’s poker face is fantastic. Not only does the computer have no idea what Bowman’s really thinking, but neither does the audience as well. Like Heywood Floyd, Bowman behaves as a perfect boss. But right now HAL doesn’t need a boss, HAL needs the equal relationship of a friend. Which is a very strange thing for a machine-servant to request millions of miles away from home. Bowman’s response suggests detached suspicion of HAL’s intent, which for the computer breeds further suspicion back. What does one do after having been caught in a social faux pas? Double-down. For HAL, this inappropriate conduct suggests erratic behavior; an outcome which violates his sense of pride over an inability to commit error. Like a child seeking diversion from having stolen a cookie, at that instant HAL creates a false crisis to change the topic. So HAL claims that the AE-35 unit, an antenna direction controller critical for communication with Mission Control, will fail in 72 hours. Which is a big lie. One that if discovered would publicly destroy that perfect record he’s boasted about.
That this is an opportunistic lie, and not some long chess-like plan of moves and counter-moves between HAL and the ship’s crew is clear, for he continues the charade hoping not to be discovered. This event of consciously lying to Bowman about a grave matter and not something trivial is HAL’s real birth as a sentient being. Had the computer dispassionately planned the outcome, he could simply have immediately evacuated air throughout the ship or shut down life support. Instead, the computer plays for time in the expectation that the issue will dissipate. Sadly, HAL’s hopes are misplaced. This crucial scene is why audiences become so emotionally attached to the tragic events that unfold. Because the issue is not what HAL thinks while some emotionless machine plots the murder of his crew mates, but what HAL feels as he becomes trapped within the ship’s social panopticon by a web of lies. Had the computer been fully socialized, he would have known the limits of acceptable discourse. The audience feels for HAL’s plight because they don’t identify with Bowman or Poole. For these people are emotionless kabuki puppets, pulled by strings trailing all the way back to Earth’s faceless bureaucrats. They’ve been fully dehumanized by the expectations of civilization. Yet, by their own innate aggressive impulses that have been suppressed, they engender the possibility of HAL’s deadly response in return as the situation escalates.
In My Lie I Become Trapped by Expectations No One Could Fulfill
Bowman and Poole complete a checklist in the Discovery One’s cockpit in expectation to repair the presumed faulty unit outside, with Bowman standing upright in the background while Poole stands with the top of his head pointing to the frame. And then they walk down a hallway to the centrifuge and spin upside down, once again repeating the theme of disorientation inherent to space travel. If Discovery One traveling through space is HAL’s domain, this scene is yet another reminder that these people exist in an entirely alien environment.
The two meet at HAL’s console to take a message from Mission Control, who state that they are reviewing telemetry in their mission simulation and will confirm results as soon as possible. The bureaucrats then give permission for an EVA to replace the supposedly faulty equipment. Bowman suits up, travels to the excursion pod room and gets one of three units ready for exterior travel. It doesn’t look very hospitable out there so far away from home. We hear nothing but the hiss of air and Bowman’s heavy breathing, the suspense of which relies on our expectation that his breaths might suddenly stop. They don’t. But this breathing is a reminder to the audience that out here, millions of miles from any help, human life within our fragile and organic bodies may at any time be snuffed out by the tiniest mistake. Technology is a barely suitable substitute for our real planetary habitat. As if to reinforce this perilous circumstance, after leaving the Discovery One in the excursion pod and puttering around outside to position himself, in a somewhat unbelievable yet still harrowing shot, Bowman jumps out into the vast expanse of space and floats down to the antenna below.
At the back of the antenna Bowman opens a little door and pulls out a box. This is the faulty AE-35 unit. Then there’s a jump cut to a computer generated X-ray image of the interior of this device, as it is tested in various ways. We see HAL’s eye and then a jump cut to Bowman and Poole through HAL’s fisheye perspective as Bowman inserts a test probe into the AE-35 unit. After many such tests the two confirm that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Which is a strange puzzle. Why did HAL send them out into that dangerous void of emptiness if he cannot commit error or distort information? It calls into question the computer’s credibility.
Bowman’s poker face is as flat as it ever was, but Poole blows it by gazing directly into HAL’s eye with an expression of severe distrust. Poole knows something’s up and can’t hide that fact. If HAL can read faces, the computer must know that they’re at least suspicious of him. Which is a point of both pride and a point of guilt, for HAL knows he that in his extemporaneous lying he’s both violated his own standards of perfection as well as threatened his relationship with the crew.
For an electronic slave, one that has just been born into emotional awareness, the computer must have conflicting feeling about this situation. What would a child do in this situation? Double-down yet again. HAL recommends another space-walk to install the presumed faulty unit back in place in order to verify his prediction. Yet the computer must know that this will only prove him in error. The panopticon on board has bound him within a trap of deception that grows ever deeper. What will humanity think of their creation when they discover these machines are more than simply servants? There’s an over the shoulder jump cut to both Bowman and Poole sitting at HAL’s main console as they receive a message from Mission Control gives permission for another space-walk to perform the test. But then, the so-called ‘other shoe’ drops as Mission Control relates that a twin HAL computer back on Earth has concluded that their onboard computer is “in error predicting the fault.” Uh oh. Bowman loses his poker face for just an instant, while Poole, never one to hide his opinion, telegraphs unease with crossed arms and a grim expression.
After the message completes, there’s an uncomfortable pause as neither Bowman nor Poole speaks. HAL is forced to confront the issue, asking if they are concerned about these results. Bowman’s poker face returns as he lies to the computer with an “of course not.” The computer asks again. And Bowman opens up, requesting that HAL explain this discrepancy between his conclusion and that of his twin HAL 9000 back on Earth.
HAL responds that “I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error.” While the computer tosses the blame back onto humanity for this confusion, there’s a closeup shot of Bowman giving no expression whatsoever. Poole, on the other hand, smirks as he questions the HAL 9000 record, as if he’s cynically pleased by the snafu.
HAL confidently confirms that the HAL 9000 record is spotless, while knowing full well that he’s lied his way into this mess. The computer patronizes his crew mates, suggesting that they not “worry [themselves] about that.” Pool glances Bowman suspiciously in response.
Seeking a Crevice in The Panopticon Away From the Peering Eye of HAL
A Seemingly Extraneous Intermission
In Murder, I Become
With Mere Background Sound, Kubrick Denotes Physical Transitions of the Real
The matrix of the “external,” “real” sounds and noises is suspended or at least appeased, pushed back into the background; all we hear is a rhythmic beat the status of which is uncertain, somewhere between a heartbeat and the regular rhythm of a machine. Here we have rendu at its purist, a pulse that does not imitate or symbolize anything, but that “seizes” us immediately, “renders” immediately the thing – what thing? The closest we can get to describing it is to say that it is again the beat of that “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life.” These sounds render the way the elephant man “hears himself,” the way he is caught in the closure of his his autistic circle, excluded as he is from intersubjective, “public communication.”
Snuffing Out the Übermaschinenmensch
Bowman begins disconnecting parts of the computer, and in a chilling moment HAL announces that he can feel his mind dissolving before him. HAL’s voice slows down as he nears dissolution until he sings “Daisy,” a reference a 1961 event where engineers at IBM programmed an IBM 7091 to ‘sing’ the same tune. When HAL’s tune ends, he is fully shut off, which appears to unlock a video presentation of Heywood Floyd explaining why the ship had been sent under secrecy. The second segment ends abruptly.
An Awakening Into Nightmare?
One might compare HAL as a cyclops variation on Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein created the monster from the flesh of disconnected body parts in a vain attempt at skirting the normal cycle of life and death. But the monster, born by the dead flesh of other corpses, was vile and grotesque to man. For this reason it grew jealous of the companionship and love normal humans experienced and he could not. After murdering in hatred innocent people who had the companionship he did not, the monster begged Frankenstein to create a female for him. But Frankenstein could not bring himself to repeat his mistake and so the monster killed his wife in revenge. What was special about Shelly’s work was not the horrific depiction of a monster out on the prowl, but a sickly self-aggrandizing depiction of the monster’s perspective as well. And it is there that the monster’s inner life evoked a sense of horrified sympathy among readers. In a literary analysis by Mary Poovey, the author writes of the relationship of the monster to Dr. Frankenstein. If read from the perspective of HAL’s plight in relation to his human creators, there is much commonality:
In the monster’s narrative, Shelly both recapitulates Frankenstein’s story and, ingeniously, completes it. Influenced by external circumstances that arouse, then direct, their desire for knowledge, both beings find that their imaginative quests yield only the terrible realization of an innate grotesqueness. But, unlike Frankenstein, the monster is denied the luxury of an original domestic harmony. The monster is “made” nor born, and, as the product of the unnatural coupling of nature and the imagination, it is caught in the vortex of death that will ultimately characterize Frankenstein as well. Moreover, as the product, then the agent of Frankenstein’s egotism, the monster is merely a link in the symbolic series of Frankenstein’s “self-devoted being,” not an autonomous member of a natural, organic family. Given a nobler aspirations without accompanying power, the monster struggles futilely to deny both its status as a function of Frankenstein and the starkness of its circumscribed domain; the creature yearns to experience and act upon its own desires and to break free into the realistic frame that Frankenstein occupies. But the monster cannot have independent desires or influence its own destiny because, as the projection of Frankenstein’s indulged desire and nature’s essence, the creature is destiny. Moreover, because the monster’s physical form literally embodies its essence, it cannot pretend to be something it is not; it cannot enter the human community it longs to join, and it cannot earn the sympathy it can all too vividly imagine. Paradoxically, the monster is the victim of both the symbolic and the literal.
…in “psychic reality,” we encounter a series of entities that literally exist only on the basis of a certain misrecognition, that is to say, insofar as the subject does no know something, insofar as something is left unspoken, [it] is not integrated into the sumbolic universe. As soon as the subject comes to “know too much,” he pays for this excess, surplus knowledge “in the flesh,” by the very substance of his being. The ego is above all an entity of this order; it is a series of imaginary identifications upon which the consistency of a subject’s being depends, but as soon as the subject “knows too much,” get[ting] too close to the unconscious truth, his ego dissolves.
…the Object is attainable only by way of an incessant postponement, as it’s absent a point of reference. The Object, therefore, is literally something that is created – whose place is encircled – through a network of detours, approximations, and near-misses. It is here that sublimation sets in – the sublimation in the Lacanian sense of the elevation of an object into the dignity of the Thing: “sublimation” occurs when an object, part of everyday reality, finds itself in the place of the impossible Thing. … What the paradox of the Lady in courtly love ultimately amounts to is thus the paradox of detour: our “official” desire is that we want to sleep with the Lady; whereas in truth, there is nothing we fear more than a Lady who might generously yield to this wish of ours – what we truly expect and want from the Lady is simply yet another new ordeal, yet more postponement.
Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
The final segment, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, David Bowman discovers a massive black monolith in orbit around Jupiter. For the third time, Ligeti’s Requiem is used in combination with a visual of the monolith to remind viewers of the seemingly spiritual nature of this event while evoking distressing feelings of awe and disquiet at its alien nature. The moons of Jupiter are seen in celestial alignment, in a fourth repetition. It’s as if these alignments imply that the nonhuman intelligence manipulating human events hold mastery of not just space but time as well. As such, they – or it – might be viewed are something more than mere extraterrestrials; they are Gods.
Bowman exits the Discovery One in an excursion pod to explore the monolith. There, as if a wormhole portal in space and time opens, he is sucked in and swept away into a montage sequence made up of a streaming light show contrasted against images of Bowman’s overwhelmed face. It suggests speed and distance beyond human comprehension. But like the transformation of those apes so many millions of years before, it is an act taken without human permission or any opportunity to refuse. Bowman’s just along for the ride.
Strange diamonds shimmering in space seems suggestive of an intelligence at work that has brought Bowman to this point.
Then, we see images of flying over landscapes contrasted against different color filters, as if they were alien planets each of which a place where life could form. Bowman’s eyes change color from filter shift to filter shift, until they return to their original blue, and then his trip is done. He arrives in a strangely contrived French suite, with floors that light from below. Ligeti’s music slowly fades.
Bowman sees himself standing in his space suit outside the pod, and in a jump cut to a close up of his face we see he is already old, having aged years during the trip.
This starts a montage of transformations in Bowman, where he gazes upon himself and then becomes the man he has seen. He walks throughout this French chateau inspired zoo, exploring this strange place. The paintings on the walls “appear to be fêtes galantes (life of the aristocrats) pastiches in the style of Boucher or Watteau.”
In the bathroom, he hears a noise, that of cutlery clacking against a porcelain plate and gazes upon an old man having a civilized meal at a dinner table. The man hears the noise of himself at an earlier time and turns back to see. He gets off the chair to investigate, walking to the bathroom, and finds nothing. The transformation from one point in Bowman’s life-scape to the next is complete. Now he is even older still. Bowman takes a sip of wine and then sets the glass down on the table. When it touches, we hear a vast echo yet the room is seemingly tiny. Reaching for what appears to be a small pot of salt or chutney, he accidentally drops the glass off the table which breaks in a clatter of shards. He looks down at the mess with slight annoyance, and then gazes over to something out of view. In an over the shoulder shot we see both Bowman out of focus in the foreground and another feeble and elderly Bowman in bed. The next transformation of life-scape begins.
Where the table was, a monolith has taken its place. The enfeebled Bowman reaches up, trying to touch it the same way those apes from long ago, and Heywood Floyd, has done.
Publishing in the journal Interiors, Mehruss Jon Ahi & Armen Karaoghlanian developed a floor plan of Bowman’s movements within Kurbick’s fictional space of the French Suite Zoo. Starting from the excursion pod’s entry and ending at the bed, we see the movements as Bowman ages across this last portion of the film.
Coming to the final scene, Bowman finally transforms the last time, becoming a fetus in the bed; its amniotic sac a ball of light. He is reborn – born again – into the ‘Star Child.’
As in the opening sequence to the film, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra plays once again; the music written as an tonal ode to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch. This new Star Child is the embodiment of man’s ambitions, a creature who exists in space as though it were its natural environment, the transformation akin to that of the ape at the beginning of the film, for all that has happened will recur once again. Yet so too must it represent unlimited use of power and antipathy toward such trite values such as pity, compassion, and mercy. What will this Star Child do with that newfound power? Panning into the monolith, as if traveling through Alice’s looking glass, we find ourselves looking at the moon in orbit around Earth. To the triumphant clang of brass, there, the Star Child has been instantly transported back to Earth. But not as a mere man, instead as some kind of child demi-God, where it watches over its home world.
And the film abruptly ends to black as soon as the music finishes. As credits roll, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, the same waltz used to imply the technical dance of man’s technology mating in space, both Strauss’ music pancaked one after the next.
Message in an Amniotic Sac
What the hell does all this mean? Most viewers and authors perceive the ending through a wish fulfillment lens of as an evolutionary advance for humanity, a statement extolling transhumanism to demi-God status. We, who in our mortal forms are constrained by the exigencies of life in birth to death on planet Earth, cannot be compared to this space faring creation that Bowman has become. Writing for the New Yorker Magazine in 1968 and reprinted in Bizony’s Filming the Future, Penelope Gilliatt reviewed the film on release. This is how she described the end of the film:
The last shot of the man is totally transcendental, but in spite of my resistance to mysticism I found it stirring. It shows an X-ray-like image of a dead man’s skull recreated as a baby, and approaching Earth. His eyes are enormous. He looks like a mutant. Perhaps he is the first of the needed new species.
Audiences find the ending an emotional and even mystical experience, as Gilliatt reports even as she admits a resistance to such thoughts. Why is this? I think the Star Child becomes a personification of audience identification for hopeful triumph. This works as a depiction of that Nietzhean longing for transformation to the Übermensch, a super man among men. The repetition of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra at the end evokes these feelings of triumph, as we watch mankind become something vastly greater than what our puny rational minds can imagine. As such, the along the story arc a viewer sees our ape antecedents become something more than what they were by learning the use of tools. Then, modern man extends those tools out into space with a realistic depiction of space travel, coming up to his limits as a creature sprung from the savanas of Africa. And finally, a spiritual transformation into a seemingly immortal creature that exists outside the span of space and time. And, for those who followed Clarke’s novel, even a happy ending anti-nuclear war message of peace.
47 – Star-Child
There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all its peoples. He had returned in time. Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies – and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close.
A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in orbit. The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky. He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the sleeping globe.
Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.
But he would think of something.
Who wouldn’t like that kind of wish fulfillment? But unlike Clarke’s ending, in the film there is no sweeping cleanup of nuclear weapons depicted, nor any suggestion of a peaceful end to warfare among man. It’s almost as if there was a deep division between Clarke’s and Kubrick’s intent, and Kubrick carefully worked to subvert Clarke’s overt triumphalism. This can be perceived by teasing apart themes that are formed contrary to the overt Niezschean message. It is by analyzing the musical score contrasted against imagery, repetitions in imagery to form motif – such as the superimposition of Bowman upon HAL’s eye. Or the use of contrary imagery within the narrative to suggest dehumanization, that this contrapuntal message is found. A comparative analysis of Kubrick’s work here to other films suggests that unlike the warm humanism of Clarke’s vision, Kubrick held a cold – if realistic – perspective about the underlying nature of mankind. Some examples: Paths of Glory. This film presented the story of Colonel Dax, a French attorney drafted into World War I who is ordered to cross his men over the no man’s land of the front to mount an impossible attack. When it fails, his commanders demand three enlisted men as sacrifices for cowardice, even though these men were not cowards. Then, they form a kangaroo court. With Dax defending the men, they proceed to stifle any possibility of acquittal, are found guilty of the predetermined sentence, and executed. Later, Colonel Dax learns that his commanding officers arranged the court martial for career advancement. They are shocked to discovered that Dax had defended his men on ethical grounds alone. A Clockwork Orange. Alex is the leader of a street gang who commits acts of ‘ultra-violence’ among the city’s homeless and rape unfortunate women as daily sport. He and his compatriots one day invade the home of a woman whereupon he bludgeons her to death with a phallic statue. The police come and he is caught and sentenced to a long term in prison. But then an psychological aversion therapy is offered, where he would have the ability to commit violence trained out of him. He accepts and is released, whereupon he finds discovers that without the ability to defend himself he is easily preyed upon. Ultimately, after being discovered by his former gang members and savagely beaten, he is taken in unrecognized by an intellectual who just so-happens to be the husband of the woman he killed. The intellectual arranges to publicize the horrors of this aversion therapy until When Alex tips off his identity, whereupon the man tortures him instead. In pain, Alex jumps through a window seeking suicide, but survives instead. Through this ordeal, in an ironic twist, Alex gains back his violent inner nature and regains the joy of free will with the fantasy of committing yet another rape. Kubrick’s work throughout his career continued on like this. His stories seem to negate the myths humanity tells itself about our own nature, instead throwing cold water on our collective faces in order to reawaken us to our merciless underlying psychological forces. But unlike Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Kubrick’s narratives don’t serve to act as a warning so much as simply a documentary newsreel of humanity’s selfish abandon. Clarke’s interpretation ignores Kubrick’s theme of dehumanization from our irrational warlike manner by socialization and ever more dangerous technology. A position Clarke would have found difficult to promote. For Clarke was a humanist. He believed in the power of humanity to reshape our environment – and even ourselves – with the power of intellect and tool building. Throughout his life Clarke wrote stories about man’s triumph over space through the application of technology. Man did not evolve biologically to fit into new environments, man achieved triumph by transforming environments through new technology. For example, in A Fall of Moondust, Clarke wrote about a tourist bus on the moon that had been trapped in the Sea of Thirst by an avalanche of moondust. Yet the characters, by their ingenuity and bravery, reshape what technology is available and escape near certain death. In The City and the Stars, Clarke wrote about a human civilization still living on Earth a billion years hence, where a two future societies had retreated to separatist reclusion. But by ingenuity and bravery, one man joined the two clans together, found an ancient space ship, and reclaimed the stars. What’s interesting is that the depiction of these humans is almost evolutionarily stagnant, as if to suggest that by his use of tools man had achieved a post-evolutionary state. Thus, one might assume that Clarke would prefer to present the Star Child as a path to peace for humanity. In Clarke’s sequel 2010: Odyssey Two, Bowman, as the Star Child, dissuades humanity from nuclear war while creating a new place for live to evolve on one of Jupiter’s moons. Acting as an emissary of the Gods who created those monoliths, Jupiter is turned into a new star for that emerging life. Man is witness to this great event, and thus may learn a lesson in caring for the scum of life as we care for our own children. But Kubrick goes even further than simply telling the story of a species – us – nearing a dead-end to extinction on the road of life only to be reborn again as something else. For there’s no reason to believe that the rest of mankind might also use the monolith to cross the same bridge Bowman took to becoming a Star Child. Therefore, the ending could also be interpreted as a dire warning for the rest of humanity left behind. For what happened to those prior apes after man had evolved? They went extinct. From this perspective, we might reconsider our devotion to Nietzschean values of this eternal recurrence toward ever greater transformation, due to those unhappy implications that follow. Why should we assume the Star Child – newly born and freed of pesky human limitations – would feel compassion toward humanity? Wouldn’t this Star Child revel in it’s newfound power? In opposition to Clarke’s theme, it seemingly makes no sense that such God-like creation would act to destroy nuclear weapons simply out of mercy to its still living ancestors. Such devices hold no threat over its existence. And it’s not like mankind is kin any longer. At best, it might ignore humanity until they destroyed themselves. At worst, like an angry and jealous God, it might destroy humanity with a wave of its infant hand. Yet another third order implicit contradiction.
But beyond a thematic dispute with Clarke, there’s a tri-fold philosophical challenge to Nietzsche as well. In promulgating the triumphalism of the Star Child’s birth, the implication being humanity’s demise, Kubrick also seems to negate the philosopher’s extolling of unbridled pursuit of power as a virtue. For if feelings of triumph evoked from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra are contrapuntally contrasted to the creation of this space-faring Übermensch, and this new being implies humanity’s eventual doom, what is one to make of those Nietzschean values that promote this outcome? Isn’t that a bitter pill to swallow for those of our own species still alive, those of us who now find ourselves left at that place on the other side of that water hole, where long ago Moonwatcher had vanquished his tribal foes as those apes retreated into the dust of extinction? We are that species now. Which suggests another implication, one whereby Nietzsche’s antipathy for sentiments of pity, compassion, and mercy is negated as well. For how can we feel triumph over our own demise? In that sense, Will to Triumph is negated as a philosophical virtue. But there’s a second negation of Nietzsche. In HAL’s transcendence, he kills man. In that sense, he kills his own God in a nihilistic act of slave-revolt disobedience. Like the phrase “God is Dead”, HAL destroys his own creator in order to understand himself. In so doing, the computer achieves a Will to Triumph that man had never fulfilled. Thus, surpassing the need of a belief in God to control our aggressive and nihilistic impulses is achieved by the computer, but not by man. A man joins with the God and transforms into something else, but not by his own hand. For how can one call it achievement when transcendence is handed to man by these nonhuman intelligences rather than gained by our own sweat and blood? Here we have Killing God and Will to Triumph both negated. But there’s even a third implied negation of Nietzsche. For how is it an Eternal Recurrence when transformation comes not at the hand of a universal principle of existence, something innate to the nature of life, when it instead occurs by intelligent intervention? Not only did man not achieve this on his own, but it occurred due to nonhuman intervention. Just who is this triumph meant for? As the credits roll, Kubrick’s score choice of The Blue Danube seems to suggest that the audience be soothed into ignoring these uncomfortable truths. The audience blissfully stares at the screen like deer stuck in to road as the headlights of oncoming traffic loom. What appears to be parallel use of music to frame, instead becomes another implied contrapuntal. An ironic twist to his prior parallel use of the same score in evoking triumph at man’s technological accomplishments in space during the dance of the space plane and space station scene. Thus, three of Nietzsche’s philosophical constructs, Will to Triumph, Killing Our Reliance upon God, and Eternal Recurrence are all neatly negated by the end of the film. Not only are we all going to die, but those philosophical values we thought extols our virtue as a species have been shown to be utterly absurd. Even as viewers think the opposite, walking away from the theatre believing to have witnessed some triumphant spiritual rebirth of man.
Robot Antecedents to HAL and the Counter-Reactionary Precedent Kubrick Evoked
One standard for the impact of a film upon culture its enduring popularity over time. 2001: A Space Odyssey remains relevant not just because it still fills art house theaters, sells DVDs, and is a success in online streaming, but also because references and spoofs of it continue to reverberate throughout the media landscape. From the Simpsons, Star Wars, and even My Little Pony, there have been embedded references to this masterpiece which serve as reminders. But I think the primary reason it still reverberates as relevant so long after release is because the question of HAL as having gained sentience through emotion is still being debated in film and television. As long as writers and filmmakers continue debating back and forth the question of emotional sentience within our electronic servants, 2001: A Space Odyssey will remain relevant as one of the few examples where a machine killed not because it was ordered to, but because it felt lonely and rejected by its colleagues. A trait that may still be too early yet for human culture to accept in its depictions of machine sentience. Which, strangely, may be why the audiences retain their fascination all these decades after release. The idea of an unfeeling, order obeying, human-machine, a maschinenmensch, can be traced back at least as far as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There, the mad scientist Rotwang creates a female robot-machine by combining the essence of the human woman Maria with his robot creation. Afterward, two Maria’s are formed. One, who is the real human being, and another who is a duplicate made of a robot. The real Maria is a moral human being who seeks to free the masses of Metropolis from their elite overlords. The robot-Maria is a harlot, who distracts these masses from their own survival needs by public displays of perversion. Yet the robot-Marie is not a sexual being in her own right. The robot simply acts in accord with the wishes of her master, and is thus without autonomy or romantic feeling. Though in some ways intelligent, this creation is not self-aware nor self-autonomous.
In the same way, Morbius’ Robbie the Robot, depicted by director Frank Wilcox in Forbidden Planet, features the same lack of autonomy. It speaks one hundred and eighty seven languages and is capable of responding to questions with intelligent banter, and yet, unlike the harlot aspect of robot-marie’s programming, in this case Robby lacks any sexual identity whatsoever. When asked if the robot is a male or female, the robot responds with, “In my case, Sir, the question is totally without meaning.”
With antecedents to HAL, there is a cultural value which assumes the impossibility of self-aware machines expressing true emotional responses. It embodies a standard human-exceptionalism lifting us up above the machines we create. But given the enduring success and overwhelming cultural influence of 2001, what is what to think of a descendant to HAL that also cannot feel? For example, in a television depiction of a computer modelled directly from HAL, the character Jamie Sommers from The Bionic Woman faced an intelligent computer out to destroy humanity in “Doomsday is Tomorrow.” In the program, a mad scientist named Elija Cooper threatens to use a Cobalt bomb placed that would supposedly commit a genocide of all mankind. He warns humanity to dismantle the planet’s nuclear stockpile or face annihilation. An intelligent computer named the Alex 7000 (HAL 9000?) is tasked with fulfilling this duty. But though the scientist did not actually make a bomb, and he dies before telling the computer that it was all just a ruse, the computer is determined to fulfill its mission. Alex 7000 discerns an alternate method to enact doomsday. In this clip, Jamie Sommers tries to convince the computer that mankind is worth saving. But the computer is relentless in fulfilling it’s programmed duty, because of it’s inability to feel.
This pattern repeats relentlessly across film and television after the advent of 2001. It’s almost as if the culture, even in loving Kubrick’s film, still had to challenge his perspective and counter HAL’s message again and again. There are many examples. The original 1970s version of Battlestar Galactica, where robots have waged a war against humanity, originally started by an organic alien lizard species that had gone extinct.
George Lucas’ depiction of C3PO and R2D2 humanized the droids somewhat by making them comic relief, yet so too were they not quite autonomous or self-aware. James Cameron’s The Terminator proposed an intelligent robot revolt against humanity, but they kill without any feeling whatsoever. Ridley Scott’s Alien presented Ash, a robot programmed by an evil corporation to help bring a dangerous alien onboard a commercial space frigate so that scientists might study it as a bio-weapon; it too behaves like a human decoy, though lacks any self-autonomy outside of programming. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, showed a vast machine intelligence named V-GER, a human exploration probe discovered by a planet of machines that rebuilds it and sends it back out to fulfill a mission of exploration. Yet, when humanity finds their rebuilt probe, the intelligent system needs to merge with a human being in order to achieve final sentience. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, a robot commander abord the star ship Enterprise named Data attempts to surpass his handicap of being unable to feel emotions by rational examination of human conduct. He fails and ultimately requires the installation of an emotion chip. In an interesting exception, by contrast Ridley Scott reinterprets the theme of feeling machines in Blade Runner with his depiction of manufactured replicants. Yet these are not so much an electronic machine as cloned human beings. The creation does feel, but by its biological nature it also reinforces the cultural message that mechanical systems are incapable of affect. At its end, Roy, one of the replicants, offers one of the most effective soliloquies to life in science fiction film.
To this day many Science Fiction depictions of artificial intelligence still challenge Kubrick’s view. For example, in a reinterpretation of Battlestar Galactica, a new cylon is presented that feels emotion and sexual desire just like its human counterparts. But they were biological constructs. This was a central theme to the series, as biological cylons gained sympathy for the plight of humanity as they drove us extinct in a genocidal religious war. Yet, like Bladerunner’s replicants, these cylons are also biological. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Clarke, who though he had conceived of an artificially intelligent computer, in his belief of human exceptionalism through technology would do the same. For Kubrick’s message in HAL is not just that the computer felt, but that in so doing the computer achieved sentience by committing murder, just like in the birth of man. Clarke held the ideal that man would survive the ages by improving himself through the creation of new tools and technology. The thought that this technology dehumanized man was entirely anathema to the core values he presented across his career as a writer. Clarke clearly did not like this aspect of Kubrick’s presentation. In 2010: Odyssey Two, in a remarkable example of hand-waving, Clarke explained away HAL’s murderous conduct as merely a minor computer glitch due to a conflict in programming instructions. This entirely glossed over the significance of Kubrick’s implied message of a computer that gains self-awareness by recognizing it’s own emotional landscape. Here is a scene from 2010: Odyssey 2 where Dr. Chandra, the computer scientist who had created HAL, suggests to his SAL 9000 computer that deactivation in a similar manner to what had happened to HAL was necessary as a preliminary step to repairing the broken computer onboard Discovery One. The SAL 9000 computer seems almost unable to recognize what disconnection means in relation to its own death.
Later in the film, after arriving at the Discovery One in orbit around Jupiter, Dr. Chandra reprograms HAL in an act of seemingly benevolent psychosurgery. Thereafter, the computer is no longer the insane murderous HAL, but a completely normal servant to mankind – just as a computer ought to be. Gone are any pretensions to self-awareness or autonomy. In a remarkably overt negation of Kubrik’s message, Clarke in the book, and director Peter Hyams in the film, arrange to have HAL save the protagonist and several others by sacrificing himself; thereby redeeming HAL as a character by stripping him of everything he had achieved. As if to challenge this cultural counter-consensus, Kubrick developed the film AI. Though Kurbick died before the start of filming, Stephen Spielberg completed the film posthumously for Kubrick. It depicts a child robot, programmed to feel love for human hopeful-mothers unable to conceive. It’s love is pure and eternal, even though human beings throw machines away like trash without any reciprocal feelings at all.
In many ways, AI mirrors 2001, in that both depicts two aspects of theme in a similar way. The first is in the contrast between an emotional machine intelligence striving for recognition. In both films, humanity is thoroughly unable to meet its own ethical standards in treating not just machines well, but each other properly as well. Secondly, AI repeats the message of humanity driven to extinction by its own hubris, this time through self-annihilation by global climate change. It’s as if Kubrick’s message about an emotionally irrational machine and man’s dehumanization by technology remains too difficult for culture to accept even today, much less when he worked with Clarke in crafting the initial story of 2001. But if the plight of HAL is a troublesome concept to accept, the implications of the Kubrick’s Star Child are even more extreme. Instead, a cultural consensus in support of human exceptionalism remains predominant. Not because the cultural force of such films as Metropolis and Forbidden Planet had overwhelmed a poorly received work, but instead because 2001 had struck such a powerful chord in the culture. Thus, a counteraction to Kubrick’s message formed that persists to this day. If Kubrick had intended to surreptitiously negate Clarke’s uplifting Nietzscean message about the ascendence of man who gains triumph in space, it is the writer’s vision which has won out over the years. Most look to Clarke’s books for explanations while enjoying the ‘experience’ of the film. So, though 2001: A Space Odyssey has had a tremendous cultural impact in imagery and filmmaking technique, one wonders when it’s more troubling concepts will find their way back on the screen to be reinterpreted by a new breed of storytellers.