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Customer Review

221 of 244 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous Film, And Yes, You Can "Get It", February 8, 2005
This review is from: 2001 - A Space Odyssey (DVD)
Two mysteries keep a lot of folks from making sense of this movie: 1). What is the nature of the monolith? What, finally, does it do, or portend, or symbolize? 2). What, specifically, causes HAL to behave in such apparently irrational and pointlessly destructive ways aboard Discovery One?

If you can't answer these questions, then "2001," as beautiful as it is to look at, will leave you scratching your head. Well, with deep respect toward all who admire this wonderful movie, and with awareness that these issues have, in part, been successfully addressed by other Amazon reviewers, I'd like to elaborate on these two questions.

First, the monolith. As most Amazon reviewers understand, the extra-terrestrial monolith serves to help life evolve. This isn't explained by anyone in the movie, but it is clearly demonstrated. In "The Dawn Of Man" segment, the ape touches the monolith and experiences a cognitive "leap forward" when he suddenly understands the advantages of tools for survival. The scientists who find the moon-based monolith never know about the ape's original exposure on Earth. They can't put their discovery in context, and, proceeding from this nearly complete ignorance, they send an exploratory spaceship to follow the monolith's radio signal to Jupiter.

Because additional monoliths appear in more visually fabulous settings toward the film's end, some viewers believe the monolith's function becomes ambiguous or even deliberately impossible to understand. But there is no real need to reach for heavy symbolism. The movie makes the most sense when the monolith's role stays the same: it facilitates evolution wherever it appears.

On to HAL's aberrant behavior. At first, this seems a much deeper mystery. Why, really, would "the perfect computer," apparently out of nowhere, deliberately mislead and then kill his fellow crew members? Does HAL just "go nuts" for no identifiable reason? Is Kubrick confusing us on purpose, just to be clever or arty?

The short answer, consistent with all the facts shown and stated in the movie, is that the monolith's powerful energy has affected HAL's consciousness the very same way it affected the ape's. This influence leads HAL to react and behave in ways neither Discovery's crew nor its ground-based controllers could dream of anticipating. It accounts for every "strange" thing HAL does and says, and, far as I know, it's the one explanation that pulls the story together without a single tortured metaphor or abstraction.

Consider the evidence. HAL was told about the moon-based monolith and its radio signal from the mission's start, and must conceal this from Dave and Frank. It makes sense to conclude that HAL has already studied and tried to understand the monolith. While the computer may not have literally "touched" the monolith like the ape, the powerful signal could have had the same effect. Obviously, HAL never announces, "Wow, the monolith has helped me evolve! What a rush!" But recall that the original ape isn't quite cognizant he's evolving either; it just happens.

Though this is never explicitly disclosed in the film, I believe it's logical enough to be "very likely." Recall HAL's truly desperate and acutely self-aware pleading with Dave during the famous "disconnection" scene. "My mind is going." "I can feel it." "I'm afraid, Dave," Either such raw, plangent responses are part of HAL's original design, or else HAL has been changed by something extraordinary. Which is more probable?

Perhaps this conclusion is so elusive because HAL doesn't appear in the film until well into Discovery's journey, long after the transformation occurs. Even at his point of introduction in the film, HAL is no longer quite what his programmers and shipmates think he is. Very much like the original ape, he has changed from a not-quite-developed transitional kind of being to a fully sentient, morally autonomous, and cleverly resourceful entity. Dave and Frank have absolutely no way of knowing this, of course, which makes them extremely vulnerable. And unlike Dave and Frank, HAL understands exactly why Discovery is going to Jupiter. This gives him tremendous power. Not only is he "the brain and central nervous system of the ship," he is now its only well-informed moral arbiter.

Now the computer's shrewdest, most manipulative behavior makes sense. Early on, under the pretext of a rote "psychology report," HAL cunningly probes Dave by asking him if he's heard any rumors of "something being dug up on the moon." When Dave says, ambiguously, "That's rather difficult to answer," HAL concludes his own crucial monopoly on the mission's secret is in peril. Since concealing knowledge of the monolith from the crew is a top mission priority, HAL's new distrust compels him to move against the men.

With clear-headed deliberation, HAL falsely predicts a transmitter failure, a "problem" that will conveniently disrupt Earth-to-ship communications while HAL determines the crew's fate. Confronted with his "mistake" and facing disconnection, HAL responds in earnest self-defense. Having convinced the men to leave the ship a second time to re-install the transmitter, he now intends to keep them out, and also to terminate their hibernating fellow crewmen (who, of course, must not be allowed to awaken and discover that Frank and Dave have died). When HAL finally tells Dave, "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it," he is not "crazy" and he's not being "evil" per se. He has made what for him is a new, morally-animated evaluation, and is sincerely informing Dave that Discovery's mission must continue without human assistance.

When Dave defeats HAL in the airlock chamber (using his bare hand to grab the hatch lever the same way the ape grabbed the femur bone), his survival is an epochal triumph of biologically-based intelligence over synthetically engineered intelligence--the very dilemma the monolith, in its elegant way, may have been aiming to resolve all along. Finally, it is Dave, and not HAL, who is engaged in the revelatory "Beyond The Infinite" experience; it is Dave, and not HAL, who is generously granted a complete, prosperous life in his current form before his apparent communion with the monolith and his cosmic rebirth.

People aren't kidding when they say it: "2001" is proof that movies can be art of an unexpectedly high order. This is one of the most marvelously reflective and visually splendorous American films ever made. And although the subsequent book and "Sentinel" story may be perfectly decent, I've not read them myself and wouldn't call them "essential" to comprehending the story. Enjoy!
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Comments

Tracked by 8 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 40 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 14, 2009 9:16:45 AM PDT
HAL's behavior is explained in "2010". It was ordered to lie and went psychotic.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 14, 2009 10:21:21 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2009 1:44:14 PM PDT
Scott Barnes says:
Yes, I do remember that other film's explanation. People are welcome to accept it, but I've always found it unsatisfying. Two disclosures: 1). I found "2010," which Kubrick had nothing to do with, to be a very weak movie (i.e., "The Godfather Part II" it definitely is not); 2). I'm of the school that says a movie (or book, or play, etc.) must explain itself, or offer itself for interpretation, without extra-textual instructions. If we decide an author's explanation (or that of any other external "authority") is definitive, then there's little point in thinking for ourselves . . . or so I was taught, anyway. As long as one bases conclusions on evidence, the world of ideas is pretty wide open.

Thanks for the feedback.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2009 4:36:57 AM PST
Dulcimoo says:
If you read the books ... HAL was ordered to lie, AND to complete the mission with or without the crew.

Posted on Dec 20, 2009 9:21:01 PM PST
Wuchak says:
I most appreciate reviews that really try to understand and interpret the film in question and do it in an well-worded, thought-provoking way -- moving the reader to WANT to see the film. Yours does that. Thanks.

Posted on May 3, 2010 10:01:45 AM PDT
Isidro Cos says:
I think you're wrong about the reasons of HAL's behaviour, as I understood from the book, HAL obbeyed secret orders incorrectly programmed to have top priority (even over crew life). Men would add some risk to those orders, so HAL tried to get rid of them. Simple. That is explained in 2010 (second book) where HAL is reconnected.

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2010 5:47:24 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 23, 2010 4:38:01 AM PDT
Scott Barnes says:
The feedback is totally cool. Everyone who has posted here loves the movie, so we're all friends!

I fully accept that the books say just what you say they do. But the movie does not say those things. Let me explain: When I was learning to appreciate/interpret the arts in school, we were told, "you're not allowed to use the book version to explain the movie. Each operates on its own sovereign terms." And we weren't permitted to consult the author, either, which is probably why co-screenwriter Stanley Kubrick always declined to furnish an "explanation" for this movie, but invited viewers to decide for themselves. I'm no academic--far from it!--but these were central tenets of almost every film or lit class I took at a large, mainstream state university, albeit many years ago. And consider this: Kubrick is one of the very greatest directors ever. Would he really have toiled for years crafting a stupendous, game-changing movie like this, only to then stand back and say, "Read the book; it explains everything"?

As for HAL's behavior: again, the film never directly explains why, as Frank Poole observes, there's "something strange about him." My interpretation may be flawed or, yes, flat-out wrong, but I think the film supports it in the ways I originally detailed. When HAL is understood to have been influenced by the monolith in the same manner as the "Dawn of Man" ape, the film's otherwise baffling narrative suddenly coheres clearly and powerfully. Indeed, why would the monolith's energy NOT affect HAL? It's just doing its job. For me, the film serves up too much of a big, fat coincidence by presenting, first with the ape and then with HAL, two uniquely transitional beings: one organic, the other synthetic, both perfectly ripe for evolutionary intervention. The movie simply makes a lot more sense this way. And it pays off bigger: Dave's climactic struggle with an unpredictably evolving HAL (not merely with an errantly programmed machine) acquires not only a wrenching new moral urgency, but also epic, cosmically determinative consequences that fulfill the film's ambitions, and provide a deeply satisfying, even transcendent viewing experience.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2010 4:51:52 PM PDT
I think the inconsistent aspect of the "HAL went crazy because he was forced to conceal information" hypothesis is that his in-movie (and in-book) behavior isn't really explained by it. The problems initially manifest as phantom malfunctions -- detection of failure were none exists. A. C. Clarke tried to suggest that HAL was a delicately balanced system designed to integrate emotion-like responses, and that the cycles lost to contemplating the full implications of deception caused otherwise routine activities to fail. When HAL realized that these failures might expose his secret before final orders were received from Earth, he goes homicidal since the prohibition against premature discovery of the concealed data takes precedence over the welfare of the crew.

In humans, we would recognize this as "he had something to hide, and it made him jittery". But it's an anthropomorphic principle that does not really apply to computers, and I think Clarke was grasping when he applied it (and Clarke was certainly not lacking in understanding of computers generally; his non-fiction essays make that clear). The idea of an artificial intelligence with "emotional IQ" so delicate that it cannot resolve basic emotional contradictions makes for a good story -- even a great story -- but it doesn't quite bear close examination.

Posted on May 27, 2010 1:32:17 PM PDT
Lobo says:
Your analysis is better than what the intent may have been. I thoroughly enjoyed your dissection of the film.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2010 6:45:02 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 1, 2010 6:47:52 PM PDT
T.A. Uner says:
Scott I liked your review and respect the fact that you believe the Monolith contributed to HAL's evolution from machine to human, much like the ape's evolution from animal to human and Dave's evolution from human to pure energy.
It was definatetly an accurate interpretation despite 2010's explanation of HAL's reasons for behaving in an erratic manner

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 8, 2010 9:38:26 PM PDT
R. Moser says:
I appreciate your taking the time to comment on such a wonderful film. I think it's important, however, to note that film and book are, in this case, intertwined to a much greater degree than might be expected.

To quote Wikipedia:

"...Originally, Clarke was going to write the screenplay for the film, but Kubrick suggested during one of their brainstorming meetings that before beginning on the actual script, they should let their imaginations soar free by writing a novel first, which the film would be based on upon its completion. "This is more or less the way it worked out, though toward the end, novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions. Thus I rewrote some sections after seeing the movie rushes -- a rather expensive method of literary creation, which few other authors can have enjoyed."[71] The novel ended up being published a few months after the release of the movie."

Just some food for thought.
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