A tribe of apes scratch out a marginal existence somewhere on prehistoric Earth. They have a bad day; one of their number is killed by a predator, then they are driven from their watering hole by a bigger, more aggressive tribe. They fall asleep in a small crater, and when they wake up they find a black monolith looming over them. It is a perfect rectangle, unnaturally straight, featureless — purposefully so. At first, the apes freak out. Then they touch it, explore it, and, when it doesn’t do anything, ignore it.
While playing in a spot where some other animals have laid down to die, one ape has an epiphany. He curls his fingers around a long bone, picks it up, brings it down. Other bones scatter and break. At first, you’re not sure if the ape realizes what he’s stumbled upon, but as the music swells he begins to slam the bone again and again with more purpose and vigor. From there, his tribe kills animals for food and successfully drives off this other tribe from their watering hole. Overjoyed, the ape flings the bone high into the air. Cut to a space station, a long white cylinder with knobs on the end that makes it look sort of like a bone.
So this is how 2001 opens, bridging the dawn of Man as we know it with the beginning of Man’s end. We learn soon enough that another monolith has been found on the Moon, and as soon as the astronauts who study it take a picture they’re paralyzed by a high-pitch radio screech apparently sent to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the Discovery One is sent to investigate.
The Discovery One is manned by only two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood), and an artificial intelligence named HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is one of the most memorable (and earliest) AIs in film, and his breakdown is legend. Concerned by the conversation of the astronauts about his fitness to remain operational, HAL kills Poole and attempts to exile Dave to deep space. Since this is the part of the film with the most dialogue and action, this is the part that most of us remember.
But HAL’s section of the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What does HAL’s sabotage of the astronauts mean in the broader scheme of the narrative? What are we supposed to take from it? It’s a huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s only a piece. From what I’ve read about the film, Kubrick invites the audience to take what they want from it, so here we go. This is my stab at it.
One of the things that sets man apart as a sentient life-form is his use of tools. The movie notes this with the opening sequence by marrying the rise of primitive apes with the arrival of the Monolith; soon afterward, the ape discovers that a bone could be used for something. And it’s used immediately for violent ends — the ape goes on to kill an animal for food, and kill the leader of a rival tribe for resources. That stamps the template for man’s use of tools through thousands of years of evolution; almost everything we make is for the purpose of controlling our environment and eliminating our rivals.
In the far-flung future of the movie, we’ve done great things with our tools — but they’re only going to be as good as we are, and it’s clear that we’ve reached the pinnacle of our development. The HAL series is a tremendous AI, capable of managing a vast array of processes and calculations. Yet we expect it to be absolutely perfect. At the first sign of error, Bowman and Poole have a serious discussion about shutting down HAL for the rest of the mission — in effect, killing him. Is it possible for an imperfect being to create something completely without error? I wouldn’t think so. In addition to the huge burden of keeping Bowman, Poole and the other astronauts in stasis alive, HAL is expected to monitor and even predict any possible breakdown of equipment.
In an interview with the BBC, Bowman and Poole posit that HAL seems like it has emotions, yet there’s no way to know for sure. I’d argue that it does — any creation of ours with sufficient complexity is bound to behave like us. Perhaps an advanced enough AI will begin to exhibit signs of human emotion in addition to intelligence as we understand it. Would we understand where and how that emotion developed? Of course not. Most of us barely understand our own emotions, and it’s all but impossible to understand those of our fellow human beings. It’d be no different for an artificial intelligence with a tremendously complex make-up.
That being said, anyone given enormous power, responsibility and expectation is bound to crack under the strain of it. I imagine that HAL simply had a breakdown caused by a consciousness that it was never equipped to deal with. When it says that any mistake it makes is the cause of “human error,” I’m inclined to believe it. Even if the error originated with HAL, it’s because of our frequent inability to understand the tools we use.
The ape at the beginning of the film barely understood what it was doing with its bone — it only knew that it could use it to eliminate threats and preserve itself. Perhaps this ancient instinct was instilled in HAL as well. When faced with the impossible task of being perfect at the cost of its life, it used any and every tool at its disposal to eliminate a threat and preserve itself. Constructed by humans to manage an enormous amount of control, it proved better at doing that then Bowman could have anticipated.
Of course, Bowman survived; HAL was disabled and humanity turned back the challenge of its dominance. But the danger is plain. If this happened with HAL, it would almost surely happen with subsequent AI. The flaws of humanity would continue to be present in the tools it made, and as those tools grew more powerful, the chances of catastrophic failure proved to be too great to ignore. It was time for another change.
Bowman was the first to receive this mammoth kick-start to humanity’s evolution. Just as the ape with the bone transferred knowledge to its brothers that shifted the paradigm and sparked thousands of years of progress, Bowman alone walked into unknowable territory, experienced wonders and terrors, and came back to spread the knowledge of what he had seen to the rest of his tribe. One cycle closed, and we saw the glimpse of what came next.
2001 is a fascinating film to me. Kubrick’s direction is sparse, spare and dry; the sets are bare, almost austere, and every moment feels expansive, almost mythic in nature. I’d like to think of it as a reaction against A Clockwork Orange, which was the film he directed right before it — tired of the trash and noise of dystopian London, he wanted to spend time in vacuum-clean rooms, mute people and grand ideas. It amazes me that it feels like he’s at home in the Discovery One as well as Alex DeLarge’s tiny, messy room.
It’s easy to be frustrated and bored with the movie. Kubrick strips out everything except for his themes, then stretches out that theme over more than two hours. Each sequence is so atmospheric it’s hard to take a high-level view, to think of it as a part of a whole, to imagine how it relates to what’s come before and what comes afterward. It’s interesting that he encourages us to focus on what’s in front of us without then pushing us to consider what it all means in a grand sense. The music cues us to when something grand or unsettling is taking place in extremely effective ways. The sudden appearance of the monoliths are always creepy because of the discordant, nervous music buzzing in our ears. The swell of music during the ape’s discovery of bone as tool and Bowman’s return to Earth as the Star Child links those moments thematically, bookending the movie quite nicely.
2001 might be a little more fun to talk about than to watch, but it’s definitely worth the viewing. Just…be sure that you’re prepared for a very long, quiet experience.