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Film

Stanley Kubrick once explained the purpose of HAL in '2001: A Space Odyssey'

@Russellisation

The American director Stanley Kubrick has long-fascinated cinephiles across the world thanks to his meticulous approach to the filmmaking craft, holding an existential magnifying glass up to each and every project he created. Creating a filmography suffused with questions of morality such as in his war drama Paths of Glory, as well as ponderous explorations of our purpose in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick transformed the way we appreciate modern cinema in his 48 years working as a filmmaker. 

Whilst the likes of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Dr. Strangelove remain celebrated contemporary works of art, it is his 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey that has retained a remarkable existential grip, even 54 years after its original release. A visionary journey through the timeline of humanity that deconstructs the eternally mysterious questions of religion, regeneration and technological endeavour, Kubrick’s film is a cinematic science fiction marvel that set a visual and narrative benchmark that is yet to be crossed by any budding filmmaker since.

Inspiring the likes of Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve and many more, the true beauty of 2001 is in its inherent mystery, with the filmmaker famously tight-lipped as to the true meaning of the intricacies of his work. Whilst Kubrick flirts with humanity’s first contact with an alien lifeform, we never actually see an alien in the traditional sense, nor are we given any explanation for the story at hand that follows a group of astronauts and a sophisticated technological system named HAL 9000 on a mission to Jupiter. 

As the astronauts edge closer to their destination, the mission is injected with turmoil as HAL begins to dictate the ship and its inhabitants with his own thoughts about the nature of the mission. Often thought to be the film’s most fascinating character, Kubrick explained the purpose of the supercomputer in a revealing interview with Joseph Gelmis upon the release of the iconic film in 1968.

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As Kubrick told Gelmis, “the computer is the central character of this segment of the story,” making reference to the final act of the film that features HAL as a major antagonist. Explaining his stance further, Kubrick explains, “One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings”. 

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL” astronaut Dave Bowman tells the supercomputer, only for it to eerily respond, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that…this mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it”. Taking on human consciousness, Kubrick explained, “we wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures,” wishing to reflect what the director saw as an “inevitable” reality. 

In Kubrick’s eyes, it is merely a matter of time before artificial intelligence develops “an equivalent range of emotional reactions — fear, love, hate, envy,” with HAL being present in the film to reflect such mortal quandaries. Concluding his thoughts on the matter, Kubrick added, “Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown — as HAL did in the film”.

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