28 Jan 2016

Sympathy for the (Red-Eyed)-Devil in 2001: A Space Odyssey

By Vincent M. Gaine

2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)
Some time ago, Peter Krämer posted some initial thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film ripe for philosophical discussion. As something of a continuation of Kramer’s piece, I offer some thoughts inspired by discussions about the film, especially in relation to other viewers’ negative responses.

2001: A Space Odyssey regularly appears on greatest films of all time lists, including my own (nascent) list, as I (arbitrarily) believe it is the greatest piece of cinema ever made. This is a nonsense position of course, because the number of films I have not seen vastly outnumbers those that I have, but I do regard Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction opus as a truly breathtaking piece of specifically cinematic art. By specifically cinematic, I mean that 2001 expresses its themes and transports the viewer through the features of mise-en-scene, editing, cinematography and an exquisite balance between these visual features and its use of music and sound effects (including silence during the space sequences). These features are far more detailed than the more “literary” features of plot and character, and herein lies a major issue for the film’s detractors. The plot of 2001 is simplicity itself – dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species – so those looking for complex narratives had best look elsewhere. The other issue is character, that eternal element that for some is of paramount importance.

I have written here previously about my general lack of concern over character and my bafflement over the criticism “I didn’t care about the characters”. In the case of 2001, I do understand the criticism even though I would not make it myself. The principal characters of the film are Dr Heywood Floyd, Dr David Bowman, Dr Frank Poole and the computer HAL. If you insist, we can include Moon-Watcher in the opening sequence, but both he and Floyd disappear fairly quickly, leaving us with Bowman, Poole and HAL. The criticism I have come across time and time again is that Poole and Bowman provide no character to engage with, leaving HAL as the most sympathetic character by default. This is apparently a problem because HAL is a computer and has an unfortunate tendency to kill people, so the film has no sympathetic characters and therefore viewers feel disengaged.

I suggest that this character arrangement is not only a narrative strength but also key to the philosophy of 2001. The famous opening scene features hominids learning to use bones as weapons as well as using them to kill prey and rivals, a sequence that ends with a bone being thrown into the air before the longest temporal match-cut in cinema history replaces the bone with a nuclear bomb orbiting the Earth. This concern with weapons runs through the whole film, and what is HAL if not the culmination of humans’ obsession with violence and killing? The later film Dark Star (1974) may have actually featured a sentient bomb, but HAL’s homicidal actions are consistent with the dangers of technology. Therefore, it seems entirely significant that HAL is the most sympathetic, identifiable and memorable character of the film. He undergoes development and demonstrates at least the facsimile of emotions such as ambition, ego, fear and regret. Small wonder he is more engaging than the unwavering and unchanging astronauts who accompany him.

But what is the effect of the film engaging our sympathy with this machine? If the viewer feels sympathy for HAL, despite his ostensible status as the film’s villain, then the danger he poses is even greater than his ability to kill. He replaces the astronauts from their mission – the most important mission in human history, now supplanted by humanity’s creation rather than humanity itself – and he also replaces the humans from their role within the film. In doing so, HAL becomes the ultimate nightmare, making humans redundant both as narrative devices and as objects of audience engagement. Much as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) supplants humanity by imitating both our form and fluidity, HAL replaces us in narrative and dramatic function. 
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, dir. James Cameron (1991)
Thus 2001 is not only a space odyssey but a human odyssey, because en route to the birth of the Star Child, the film treats us to humanity’s replacement by our own creation. This is not only the Frankenstein notion of creations rising against us, but the supplanting of humanity within the relationship between text and reader. Therefore, the peculiar arrangement of sympathetic characters is integral to the film’s philosophy as it plays upon audience expectations and manipulates us to care about that which makes us unnecessary. What purpose do humans have in the advance of humanity when we do not even care about those who do it? None, the tools we construct for our purposes have purposed us out of the purpose itself.

2001’s lack of engaging characters is therefore a vital element of its philosophy, as humanity triumphs over its creation. Significantly, this is by literal deconstruction, as Bowman takes HAL apart piece by piece, HAL attempting to prompt empathy by singing “Daisy, Daisy.” If the viewer weeps for HAL at this point, HAL has won – we now feel for our dying nemesis. Only once HAL is removed from the picture can Bowman encounter the extra-terrestrial intelligence of the monolith, and evolve into the new life form of the Star Child. For humanity to evolve, the film suggests, we must move away from our creations, and that includes being cautious of how we feel about them.
2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Kubrick (1968)

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