Also sprach Zarathustra, the starchild, it's all iconic. You don't need some punk kid with a blog to tell you that this is one of the greatest movies ever made. So yeah, this isn't a review or anything. I just wanted to talk about one scene.
I first saw this movie when I was in high school and of course it was all lost on me. As somebody who, at the time, thought the headiest movie ever made was V for Vendetta it was probably a tall order to expect me to really get such a slow and complex movie. Jump to the present day. I'm in the middle of a Kubrick kick right now so I thought hey, how about giving this one another chance? Let me tell you friend, it blew me away. An absolute masterpiece in every way. Yet I was wondering, besides just being too young to appreciate it, why I flat out didn't like it. I saw a lot of movies before I was able to really get them, like On The Waterfront and The Shining, yet even if I didn't understand what they were trying to say thematically I still appreciated them as movies.
2001: A Space Odyssey is different though. In a lot of ways, this movie breaks the boundaries of what we expect from a film and even from a story. In fact, if you aren't looking at this movie from a relatively scholarly point of view, it's going to be confusing to see what all the fuss is about. The story not only doesn't have a protagonist in the traditional sense, but also spans over thousands of years with little to no emotional stakes holding it together. The only characters who the audience really gets a feel for are Dave and HAL 9000, the onboard computer. Which is perhaps why his "death" is so heartbreaking.
Here's a clip of the scene, for those who want a refresher. If you haven't seen the movie yet, stop reading this, log off your computer, run to the video store and buy the movie so you can watch it a million times. Or you can just watch this too, though you'll be missing lots of critical context.
It's an interesting scene, almost comic in the beginning. It's hard not to laugh at the way HAL tells Dave that maybe he should just have a stress pill and relax, considering the computer had just tried to kill him minutes before. Yet the comedy turns to tragedy as the scene continues. In WALL•E, a movie that frequently quotes 2001, when the HAL inspired autopilot machine has to be deactivated it's done with the push of a button, a brief computerized nooooo, and that's it. Bye Otto. In the original, however, it's not nearly as easy.
HAL can't be turned off by flicking a switch, as that would shut off all computer functions. Instead, Dave needs to go inside the computer's logic center and take out his memory. This is a slow process, and the whole time HAL is trying to talk him out of it. His rational attempts to calm Dave down turn into emotional pleas, albeit with the same monotone voice. He tells Dave that he's frightened, he is scared to die. HAL's mind starts to go, reverting back to it's factory setting, singing a song as his voice starts to grow deeper and deeper, fading into oblivion. Then a video starts and we move on to the final act.
2001: A Space Odyssey, like most science fiction, is about humanity. From the opening on the Dawn of Man to the final evolution of the starchild, the movie is focused on where humanity is going. The monoliths represent that evolution and how some entity, be it God or extraterrestrials, has forced us to pursue this quest for enlightenment. The monoliths first gave that random troop of apes the ability to create weapons, the same weapons that have propelled us to the stars. Then the sentinel on the moon once again gave us direction, pointing us towards our next stage of evolution on Jupiter and beyond. Really, if you were to give this movie an arc it would be about the birth and death of humanity, and it's subsequent rebirth as the next dominant form of life.
But that's not the only evolution that happens. Don't forget that bone the ape picks up, what allows him to reach the stars. Technology and humanity go hand in hand, according to the film. That bone, that tool which allows one monkey to take down another, is the key to our success. That famous match cut of the bone to a satellite is indicative of that evolution. We were once primitive monkeys hiding from leopards in the shadows, now proudly reaching into that unknown void we once feared. Similarly, that simple bone which allowed us to temporarily take down a rival group of apes has turned into a complex piece of machinery, sending us into the wild unknown...in order to take out a rival group of apes. Remember, this movie was made in the height of the cold war. When a group of Russians strike up a friendly conversation with American Dr. Frank Lloyd, beneath the smiles is that threat of war. Any advance in technology, a bigger bone, will allow these enemies to best the other, to drink from that prize water hole while the other hides in their hovels. That's the very reason for the Jupiter mission in the first place. To discover the unknown, and promptly weaponize it.
But what does this have to do with HAL 9000? Well, HAL is a "character", for all intensive purposes. He shows just as much emotion as any of the humans in the film, if not more. He is clever, able to reason. He sees when he is threatened and actively plots to save himself from being destroyed. He can think. But he is also technology. Because of his emotional and rational side we see and think of HAL as an ancestor to the apes when, really, he has more in common with the bone. Ultimately he is a tool for the humans, made to help Dave and the crew. Yet why does he act the way he does? Humanity gave him feelings. They toyed and tinkered their bones until they could think and feel. They became God. More then that, they became the equivilant monoliths to the machines.
Think about it. It is strongly hinted that the monoliths were placed there by some outside force, one to help lead humanity out of the dark and into enlightenment, assuming the starchild is meant to be a force of good, which the movie leaves a little ambiguous. The monoliths gave us that drive. Similarly, humans helped mold our technology, like HAL, into something that was more then just the simple primitive object it once was. We gave him pride in his work. He is not just simply stating his perfect track record, but he is enjoying the satisfaction that comes with it. HAL is human, somehow. Yes, he just killed all the members of the crew in cold blood and tried to do the same to Dave. He's not good. But he is human in his own way because we made him like us, and like us he is neurotic, insecure, and afraid. The line between ape and bone is blurred. Dave thinks he is using HAL as a tool, HAL thinks he's using Dave. Dave deactivating HAL is not just a man rebooting his computer, but a murder. Dave is killing HAL with that same cold blooded efficiency as HAL did to his former crewmates.
Kubrick makes sure we feel this too. There is no joy to Dave's success, no triumphant swell of music, no dramatic cry for vengeance from HAL as Dave pulls the final plug. No, it is slow and deliberate. We hear HAL die, revert from human back to just another bone. He pleads not to go. He can feel it go and he tells us in long, agonizing detail. He reverts back to a childlike state, or the computer equivalent thereof. He feels no pain, but he loses his consciousness. He is no longer human, just that shadow of our image, singing his reprogrammed song. Daisy, Daisy.
The question becomes if we, who could create those who match our humanity, take away that gift, can those who created our humanity, whomever sent us those monoliths, do the same with us?