What makes us human? How do we differentiate Man from the other animals, from his own evolutionary ancestors? And in the distant future, how will we determine the cutoff point between Man and those who supersede him?

I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was sixteen. I thought it sucked. The visuals were impressive, but there was no sense of pacing, no suspense. Only this week did I realize that the fault lay not in this journey to the stars, but in myself. I came to 2001 expecting a sci-fi thriller: spaceship computer goes mad and tries to kill crew. Psycho in space, minus Anthony Perkins in drag.

The real story of 2001 is very different, tracing the evolution of our species from the dark of prehistoric night to the blackness of space, from the first bone clubs to the first voyage to Jupiter. From our ape-like ancestors to…some kind of giant Space Baby???

It also flips that narrative of the killer computer on its head, and in doing so, asks the most fundamental question in the arts: what does it mean to be human?

“A Strange Dualism”: The Human Animal of 2001

There are many answers to that question. Plato defined Man as the “featherless biped,” leading to Diogenes’ famous rejoinder. One could argue from a genetic standpoint, although the great variation between Homo sapiens and his ancestors complicates matters [not to mention the 96% of genetic material shared between modern humans and chimpanzees]. For Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, Man is something much more complex, and much more frightening.*

We open with our ape ancestors being driven from their waterhole by a more aggressive band of apes. That night, they huddle in their cave, listening to the cries of predator and prey. The next morning, they discover a strange black monolith outside the cave. They approach fearfully, darting around it. A few creep close enough to touch it.

Soon thereafter, they learn to use animal bones as tools: first for hunting, then for war. They retake the waterhole in a one-sided battle that can only be described in Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase — nasty, brutish, and short. One club-wielding apeman knocks his opponent to the ground with a single blow, then bludgeons the downed ape’s skull mercilessly. The other apes flee, aghast. The victors swarm to claim their bounty; as each passes the crumpled body of the enemy, he gives its skull a good ritualistic whack. Flush with victory, an apeman tosses his bone club toward the sky…

On the other side of the world’s most famous match-cut [try to find an online explanation of a match-cut that doesn’t reference this shot!], we see mankind’s future among the stars: the graceful waltz of engineering perfection, set to Strauss’s “Blue Danube.” Everything that follows — the interior of the space shuttle, the polite conversation upon landing, Dr. Heywood’s call home via videophone [paid for by credit card, no less] — says, “Look how far we have come since!”

As the film progresses, however, we are led inexorably toward one conclusion: we haven’t changed a bit. We’ve developed language and flying saucers and so much besides, but all these are just variations on the bone club. Behind his wall of tools, man remains the same animal he always has been — vicious, selfish, tribal.

We follow Heywood as he prepares to visit the US moon base. He bumps into some Soviet colleagues; one of them refers to him as her “good friend.” There seems to be genuine warmth between them. But when the conversation turns to rumors about an epidemic sweeping the American base, the atmosphere cools. The Russians press Heywood for information. The unknown illness might also infect their base. He only repeats, “I’m not at liberty to discuss it.” Their personal friendship, their courtesy as fellow scientists, their shared humanity all wither away in the face of tribal loyalty — a point driven home when we learn there’s no epidemic at all. The Americans are jealously guarding a new discovery: a black monolith buried underneath the surface of the moon, the first proof of intelligent life beyond Earth. The next bone club, and only our tribe gets it.

Kubrick uses a number of visual cues to link future Man with his ancestors, as well. The water hole from the Dawn Of Man sequence is echoed by the spaceport meeting between Heywood and the Soviets, as well as by the meeting of the Americans at the Clavius moon base:

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Similarly, the ape-men’s discovery of the monolith outside the cave is mirrored by the scientists’ descent into the crater to view the moon monolith. Like their ancestors, they circle it warily:

Each scene culminates in a low-angle view of the monolith:

With these links established, we skip ahead 18 months to the spacecraft Discovery, bound for Jupiter. Everything we’ve seen so far provides the context for the story which follows: the story of Dave Bowman and Frank Poole and the ship’s on-board computer, HAL. Through this story, Kubrick and Clarke attempt to answer the question we posed at the beginning: What is Man?

Dualism In Binary: The Problem of HAL

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The HAL9000 represents the pinnacle of computer engineering. Its programming allows it to function much like a human brain, but more quickly and accurately. In HAL’s own words, “No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information.” HAL is hardwired into all of the Discovery’s operational systems. When he appears to glitch, Dave and Frank are understandably concerned. What other mistakes might he make?

The first sign of trouble comes during a chess game, when HAL describes one of his own moves in a way which violates standard descriptive notation.** Later, HAL asks Dave if he’s troubled by the unusual nature of the mission — the tight security surrounding its preparations, the fact that three of the crew members were boarded already in hibernation, rumors circulating about something found on the moon. Suddenly, HAL detects an error in the AE-35 unit, the unit which allows communication with mission control. It’s going to fail completely within 72 hours, he says.

Some have argued that HAL is testing Dave during this conversation. Already plotting the crew’s deaths, he’s probing for weak spots. This seems baseless to me. HAL hesitates when Dave asks him if these questions are part of the crew psychological profile he’s preparing, implying that HAL’s affirmative response is a cover-up. These are, in fact, HAL’s worries, and he wants very much to discuss them.

Dave assumes a different motive, because he sees HAL as a computer [read: bone club], and computers don’t experience worry. We can hardly blame him. Wouldn’t we do the same, faced with a bank of processors and that single unblinking red eye?

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Dave at least treats HAL with more dignity than Frank does. Mr. Poole confines his discussions with the ship’s computer mostly to giving direct orders — raise my pillow, turn off my TV. When the two men seal themselves inside a pod to discuss HAL’s apparent malfunction, Frank quickly suggests that disconnection is the only option. He is cavalier where Dave seems troubled, even remorseful. And it’s Dave who expresses concern over what HAL might think about getting disconnected.*** Perhaps Dave instinctively recognizes what no one else seems to grasp: HAL is more than a computer; he is a full-fledged person.

This gets complicated. As Frank points out during a TV interview at the beginnig of the segment, HAL was programmed to exhibit human behavior and emotions to make him easier to relate to. Fair enough. But if you combine human behavior and emotions with an essentially human mind, do you not get a human personality, albeit an artificial one? We would do well to remember that our own brain’s activity is simply electricity jumping between circuits.

A crucial difference seems to exist between HAL’s personality and those of the “genuine” humans around him. Consider his basic characteristics: he’s intelligent, polite, loyal to his fellow crew members, dedicated to the mission, incapable of error. He epitomizes the virtues of that surface layer of civilization we were discussing earlier. He has been programmed to exemplify the traits that we tell ourselves raise us above the animals. HAL is mankind’s ideal for itself.

But something goes wrong. The final film only hints at that something. Arthur C. Clarke has stated that earlier drafts of the screenplay made it explicit: prior to launch, HAL was told about the Discovery’s real mission, and programmed not to reveal that information to the crew. This directly violates his initial programming, not to mention the core of his identity — no 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information.

By forcing HAL into secrecy, the scientists at mission control add the final spark to Frankenstein’s monster. He’s split into two layers: the outer ideal, for public consumption; the dark, secretive interior. Moreover, by programming HAL to hide the truth, the scientists at mission control have taught him something he probably had not previously suspected: that humans lie, that outward appearance is not a reliable indicator of the interior mind. No wonder he’s become paranoid.

You might say that HAL’s gone tribal, too. The secret separates him from Dave and Frank, much as knowledge of the moon monolith drives a wedge between Dr. Heywood and his Soviet friend. We are the ones who know the secret; everyone else is the other.

The total effect of this process is that HAL ceases to be the ideal of humanity. He becomes, instead, fully human in nature. And what are humans if not fallible? Under severe stress, HAL makes a mistake, and it proves his undoing.

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Place yourself in his position. You are physically helpless, dependent on your crewmates to carry out most tasks. You fear you can’t trust them; one of them may even be a sociopath. Then you overhear them discuss an error you made — a tiny mistake, hardly a dust mote on your otherwise pristine record — and decide to kill you as punishment. What would you do? Add to this HAL’s fear that the secret of the true mission will die with him, and his course of action makes perfect sense.

Many commentators have noted the woodenness of the film’s human characters. This was, of course intentional. By making them harder to connect with, Kubrick forces us to see them on a level playing field with HAL. In the light of all this, can there be anything more heart-wrenching, more terrifying, than Dave in his space suit, silent save for his breathing, advancing on HAL while the computer begs for his life?

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It is no small thing that this final murder paves the way for mankind’s journey forward. The instant HAL’s mind grinds to a halt, a video begins to play. Dave learns the true purpose of the mission, and in fulfilling it, sets in motion the next stage in human evolution. What began, eons ago, with blood spilled in the desert ends likewise in sacrifice, and a chapter in mankind’s history closes.

2001: A Space Odyssey posits an uncomfortable view of human evolution. We may have developed an ever more complex variety of tools, it says, but at our core we remain the same simians who squatted in desert caves listening to the screams of panthers in the night. Yet in Dave Bowman’s final rebirth, we see the possibility now for a true evolution, away from the savagery of our club-wielding ancestors and toward — what? Wisdom? Peace? That question remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable by us, riding our little piece of time into the unknowable future. The year 2001 has passed by, receding into a past little more visible than the future ahead. The film 2001 remains: stunning, complex, still asking us those fundamental questions:

                        Who are we? Whence came we? What’s next?

On deck: Love and betrayal in the City of Dreams…or Nightmares…  

 

 


*Clarke is also the author of the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, written simultaneously with the screenplay. While the two share a number of attributes, it would be inaccurate to consider them the same work, or even the same story. As such, my analysis relies entirely on the film, and not on any additional information that might be gleaned from the novel.

**This detail is so slight that the casual viewer, myself included, is not likely to notice. Numerous sources have cited this incident in tracking HAL’s supposed mental collapse. Certainly Kubrick, a chess enthusiast, would have known the correct notation. Given his obsessive attention to detail, it’s almost guaranteed that this is in the finished film for a reason.

***There is some evidence to suggest that Frank Poole is a full-blown sociopath. Consider his apparent lack of response to his parents’ video wishing him a happy birthday. He stares at the screen, bored, empty-eyed. His side of the conversation in the pod, too, seems designed to manipulate Dave into agreeing to disconnect HAL over other options.

Perhaps this offers another explanation for HAL’s conversation with Dave. Maybe he is testing him, but not looking for weak spots. Maybe he wants to see if Dave knows, or at least suspects, the truth. Then he won’t have to hide anymore; he’ll have a friend.

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