How was HAL9000 portrayed as human in 2001: A Space Odyssey?


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The most significant character in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” is HAL 9000, the super computer in charge of the spaceship Discovery on its Jupiter Mission.  HAL is introduced at the beginning of the Discovery sequence in a television interview aboard the ship.  The words of the news anchor when describing HAL are the first subtle indication of the computer being regarded as a human.  First the news anchor states that HAL is the “6th member of the Discovery crew” and that his functions allow him to “reproduce most of the activities of the human brain.”  In the first part of the description HAL is portrayed to be another “member of the crew” just like Frank and Dave and the other 3 hibernating astronauts.  It is also stated that he can reproduce the same activity of a “human brain”, signifying that HAL was programmed to act and think like a human only with “greater speed and reliability.”  Towards the end of the interview Frank tells the anchor that “you can think of HAL as just another person.”  Kubrick uses these subtle hints like calling HAL another member of the crew or seeming to be just like another person in between the anchor explaining how powerful of a computer HAL is to create an image of HAL as a human.  The astronauts converse with HAL casually while at the same time HAL is in complete control of the success or failure of their mission.  This contrast of HAL’s power and humanity are typical of Kubrick’s narrative style.

Kubrick not only uses narrative clues to show HAL as a human but also uses simple composition to portray HAL’s human qualities.  A close analysis of the Discovery sequence shows that there are 27 Extreme Close Ups of HAL.  Close Up’s are defined as “framing in which the scale of an object is shown relatively large, most commonly a person’s head.” Close Up’s are also used to convey an identity or emotion in the subject.  Although HAL is just a lens with a red light in the middle, Kubrick gives HAL a face and an identity by using several close ups throughout the Discovery sequence.  Kubrick however, takes it a step further than just showing HAL in close up.  It is when and how he is shown in close up that makes it so significant.  Throughout the Discovery sequence HAL has several long conversations with both Frank and Dave.  Just as you would see in any other film, when two subjects are having a conversation they are shown in a shot-reverse shot sequence.  This is to give the audience the point of view of each person involved in the conversation.  While talking to either Dave or Frank, Kubrick lets us see HAL in close up while he is talking as well as a reverse shot of whomever HAL is talking to.  HAL is given a point of view just the same as his human counterparts.

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The climax of the Discovery sequence comes when HAL murders all of the crew members besides Dave, forcing Dave to counter and disconnect or “murder” HAL.  When HAL murders Frank and the hibernating astronauts, it is done very mechanically.  We never get to see any pain or emotion from the dying astronauts.  The hibernating astronauts are shown in close up, however, they never change their expression.  They die in their sleep.  In contrast, Kubrick allows HAL to beg Dave to spare him.  When Dave goes to HAL’s Logic Memory Center, even before he enters the room HAL begins to plead with Dave.  As Dave begins to disconnect HAL’s brain, HAL repeatedly begs Dave to “Please Stop.”  At this moment the audience knows that HAL’s pleas are futile and that Dave is going to kill HAL before HAL kills him.  With his final dying words HAL sings a sentimental love song called “Daisy Bell.”  Now it is portrayed as a feature of HAL’s program from when he was manufactured but Kubrick uses it to give HAL an emotional farewell, a type of “swan song” before dying.    These techniques used by Kubrick are what make HAL such a fascinating and interesting character.  Some would say more interesting than his human counterparts.

The best summation of HAL’s humanity comes from Kubrick’s Playboy Magazine interview when he stated:

“Eventually we will have to share this planet with machines whose intelligence and abilities far surpass our own.  But the interrelationship-if intelligently managed by man-could have an immeasurably enriching effect on our society.”[1] 

One can relate this quote to the crew’s treatment of HAL.  The crew did not trust HAL and thought he was just a machine that was malfunctioning and their instinct was to disconnect/or destroy the machine.  Although they originally saw HAL as “the 6th member of the crew” they immediately turned on him when he was disagreeing with them about the condition of the AE-35. This egotistical attitude of man is what ends up dooming the entire crew aboard Discovery. 

[1]  “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick”-The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey: Edited by Stephanie Schwam

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