2001: A Space Odyssey's predictions, 50 years on
Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinatory sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released 50 years ago, but its themes of human evolution and our obsession with technology are as fresh as ever
The release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 50 years ago this week was a moon landing. From the film’s opening sequence set to Richard Strauss’ bombastic Thus Spake Zarathustra to HAL 9000’s glowing red eye, 2001 has become a milestone for film and culture, influencing 50 years of sci-fi, special effects, computer technology, and Simpsons parodies.
2001 has a simple plot. A spaceship called Discovery is sent on a voyage to Jupiter after a mysterious monolith is discovered. On board are two scientists – Dr. David Bowman, or Dave (Keir Dullea), and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) – accompanied by HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the ship’s computer and artificial intelligence (AI), who is supposedly “foolproof and incapable of error.” As the space odyssey progresses, HAL’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic and the men suspect that the AI has taken on a life of its own.
Although it's easy to describe 2001’s story, what the film is actually about is a little harder to figure out. The film’s famous jump cut – a bone thrown in the air after apes discovered that they can use it as a weapon cuts to a spaceship orbiting above Earth – suggests that 2001 is about evolution. From ape to millions of years in the future, humans have only evolved and survived through the creation of weapons. While the technology of a bone has become the technology of AI and spaceships, it is no less destructive.
HAL and Dave's standoff in 2001: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
The great showdown of the film is between Dave and HAL. After HAL kills his crewmates, Dave decides to essentially lobotomise the AI. As Dave begins to disconnect HAL and remove its memories, the AI pleads for its life in the film’s most human moment. After disconnecting HAL, Dave discovers that the AI wasn’t becoming sentient as the crew suspected, but instead was the only “crewmember” given the true objectives of the mission by the commander. When Dave and Frank threatened the mission by suggesting to disconnect HAL, the AI was simply stopping the men from harming the voyage’s purpose, by any means necessary. There was no malice – HAL was simply doing its job.
While 2001’s central theme is often cited as man versus machine, there’s no versus on the machine’s side. The film suggests that technology won’t gain sentient awareness that will turn it against its maker, it’ll simply be weaponised by humans to turn against other humans. HAL, then, is a modern Frankenstein’s monster: created in the image of flawed humans, the AI is a reflection of our own anxieties and mistakes. The allegory of 2001 isn’t about the destruction of man by machine, rather it’s the destruction of man by man via machine.
2001 predicted correctly that, in the new millennium, we would be addressing and attempting to answer questions about the ethics of technology. While humans might have the capacity to create life, do we have the right to? What are the ethical implications of playing God? With designer babies, sex bots, and Siri, our present is as dystopian as 2001’s futuristic world.
HAL's traumatic deactivation
Since 2001, sci-fi has been used to ask these same questions of ethics. Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise and Blade Runner, Spike Jonze’s Her, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and recently Alex Garland’s Annihilation have tapped into a conversation 2001 started. As we race towards space, the future and progress, what do we forsake in our odyssey? 2001 asks more questions than answers and the film’s ambiguity was the reason why audiences, unsure of what they were seeing, walked out of initial screenings.
2001 is a cautionary tale about evolution and the end of humanity, and is perhaps more relevant today than it was 50 years ago. As we’re increasingly discovering, technology might have no sentient purpose or agenda, but humans do. Just imagine what Kubrick could have done with hacked elections, Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica.
2001: A Space Odyssey was released 50 years ago this week, on 2 Apr 1968