2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) - Part Two: HAL and the Faces of Machines

Welcome back. Before jumping into this conversation, be sure to read Part One by clicking here, then come back onto the porch and we'll talk some more. Ready? Then let's continue.

In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, like practically every aspect of life today, people are constantly interacting with machines. “Machine” at first means simple tools, such as Moon Watcher’s animal bones. Enter the second act, and we are inundated with satellites and shuttles and rotating skyscrapers in space. Man is master of it all, seen through cockpit windows and red-lighted control rooms. Machines are servants, mankind's tools. Everything begins to change, at first subtly, when Dr. Floyd’s shuttle leaves the relative safety (and familiarity) of Earth orbit and heads towards the moon. The machines around us begin to take on sentient qualities.

The ships themselves are a great example of this. The moon shuttle (then later the command module of the Discovery) is round with propulsion vents in the back, slotted windows fore-facing, everything appearing quite like a futuristic craft should. When it lands on the moon, as Blue Danube Waltz crashes to its conclusion, the shuttle is lowered slowly into an underground hanger. The roundness of the ship’s hull, the position of the lighted cockpit windows and one of the retro boosters used for steering set in the middle just above a small rectangular vent near the bottom work together to imply a face, cartoonish and non-threatening, almost amused. Suddenly this ship is given a personality. The viewer might notice this only subliminally, however.

Later, on the moon's surface, the music becomes more ethereal and haunting, hearkening back to the moment Moon-Watcher and his clan encountered the black obelisk millions of years before. Men in spacesuits examine a new obelisk which had been buried for millions of years under the surface of the moon. The moment of early man's push into evolution is brought full circle with a modern recreation of the same scene. Scientists circle the object, eventually laying hands on it while the frightening alien chorus wails in celebration or warning around them. The chorus grows louder and louder until suddenly the world around us explodes in an obnoxious high-pitched tone. The astronauts cover their ears to no avail since it is coming through their helmet speakers. I imagine many in the theaters also covered their ears. The sound continues, emanating from the obelisk as the sun creeps over the edge of the crater and makes contact with its black surface.

Once again humans are interacting with whatever this “other” race is.


We are suddenly thrust ahead eighteen months (welcome to 2001). A long, somewhat phallic spaceship is gliding slowly through space, moving across the screen in a way that may have inspired the opening scene of STAR WARS (1977). The spaceship Discovery is on its way to Jupiter. We have entered the portion of the film most casual viewers would recognize, including those who have never seen the movie save for glimpses in retrospective specials on A&E. The Americans have built a ship to travel to Jupiter, maintained by a skeleton crew of two men and one artificial intelligence (AI) computer while the rest of the crew sleeps out the journey in cryogenic pods.

What happened on the moon is not explained until the end of the movie. Like all good science fiction fans, we accept that the answer is forthcoming. The novel, however, explains better both now and in a message relayed to Bowman at the end. In short, the moment the sun rose over the edge of the crater (remember, a lunar day lasts twenty-nine Earth days) and strikes the monolith, an alarm goes off. And this is exactly what the sound is, as explained in the book:

"You hide a Sun-powered device in darkness - only if you want to know when it is brought out into the light. In other words, the monolith may be some kind of alarm. And we have triggered it."

It was buried under the moon's surface, waiting for humankind to evolve enough to find it. The alarm is a signal transmitted to Jupiter (in the book the destination is Saturn), which we decide to follow and see to whom it leads - hopefully the first intelligent life outside of Earth. Only the audience understands (perhaps) that mankind has also been given its next set of instructions and teachings, as our technology has advanced quite a lot in a mere eighteen months.

The awake crew consists of David Bowman (Kier Dullea, FAHRENHEIT 451, 2018, THE PATH TV Series), Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood, STAR TREK TV series) and HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain, who died only a month before I began writing this, ironically), the AI who runs the ship’s systems. HAL chats up the crew as they go about their day-to-day living inside a rotating tube, isolated from the rest of the sleeping crew, and also from each other, emotionally at least. The two men hardly speak until things begin to go wrong. I watched an interesting making-of documentary (the name of which escapes me but I imagine it can be found in any extended DVD or Blu-Ray edition) which highlights how every human character in this movie is almost emotionless. Every conversation, from Heywood Floyd skirting questions from the Russians, a conversation on the “moon bus” bringing scientists to the obelisk excavation site, to how Frank Poole and Dave Bowman speak to HAL and each other. Everyone has a dry, impassive personality. There is one significant exception: HAL, the AI computer (named, as most people know from fifty years of trivia games, after the company IBM, each letter shifted back one). Despite "his" steady, inflectionless speech, HAL has quite a personality, asking probing questions to the crew, and perhaps asking these aloud to himself – to the point HAL eventually goes a insane. This may have been caused by having to keep the secret of the mission from the crew for so long, or perhaps the realization that he made a mistake about an earlier mechanical problem (he is supposed to be incapable of mistakes). Humans, it seems, are devolving into emotionless automatons, while the machines they created are becoming more “alive.” Is this what happened to the species which initially planted evolutionary knowledge beginning with Moon-Watcher’s people? If nothing else, it's an interesting theory.

Throughout the movie, especially in acts two and three, the special effects still rival today’s films, and all were done without CGI. One of my favorite scenes is when Dave Bowman blasts himself out of a shuttle into the Discovery’s airlock without a helmet. For years, I would wonder how the effects crew managed this, only recently realizing that he was dropped into the set towards a camera which was facing up. He was wearing a bungee cord to simulate weightlessness. All of this, of course, speaks volumes to either the creativity of the filmmakers fifty years ago, or the dim-wittedness of your humble reviewer.

The internal sets are built to scale, especially the rotating crew quarters which always spins to generate gravity. It's located, one assumes, within the ship’s circular command module (looking externally much like the moon shuttle Heywood Floyd traveled in from the space station). The set itself must have spun, as we watch Frank Poole jogging around the ring, his steps slowed to keep time with rotation. Clever cuts make it seem David Bowman is sitting down eating his meal on one part of the ring while Frank runs above him. The crew moves from the artificial gravity of the ring into the “axle” to access other parts of the ship, such as navigation. When the actors do this, they are floating in zero gravity which must have been simulated via strings, but it’s not obvious. All of it feels authentic enough that the viewer stops questioning how some of it is being done, because the realism is expected by now. This likely makes what happens later so jarring, both to us and David Bowman.

This is not to say there are no continuity errors. I may be wrong, and welcome someone to explain if for no other reason than some closure on a question. The main quarters are in a ring rotating – one assumes – in the primary front section of the ship. There's no other obvious place it can be. Above this is the pilot station, visible through red-lighted windows like the moon shuttle. Along the bottom are round doors leading to a large bay where the space suits are found and two or three one-man shuttles. When it comes to scale, especially seeing someone in the pilot seat above and a shuttle disembarking from below, one would have a hard time imagining that large, rotating ring possibly fitting in between. Though this might seem like a small deal, it’s one that always struck me as off somehow.

One that whiny note, let's take a bathroom break, and come on back when you're ready so we can finish this tome of a review / discussion by clicking here.