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How Stanley Kubrick's HAL 9000 laid the blueprint for AI in film

On the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we trace the influence of the film through half a century of Hollywood sci-fi

Today marks half a century since Stanley Kubrick unveiled one of sci-fi cinema’s most celebrated characters: Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer. “But you can call me HAL”, the machine might say. The thing with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a landmark of the genre, is that everyone’s seen it, probably countless times – and yet, who can remember offhand the names of the actors involved? HAL 9000, though, immediately springs to mind. What’s more, if it’s lodged in your memory that one of the astronauts is called Dave, it’s because you hear it in HAL’s voice: “Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.”

As a reminder, HAL 9000 is the sentient software and “central nervous system” of Discovery One, a spaceship hurtling towards Jupiter. Voiced in a monotone by Douglas Rain, HAL performs duties such as monitoring the crew during hibernation, checking the vessel for potential faults, and outsmarting passengers at chess. But when Dave and Frank chat shit behind HAL’s hypothetical back, the computer lip-reads the exchange, and proceeds to wreak revenge.

So HAL is a user-friendly service that constantly asks what’s on your mind, offers a chess app to kill time, and then secretly eavesdrops on conversations in order to subsequently ruin lives – it’s the 20th century equivalent of Facebook. Kubrick not only predicted the rise of our obsession with artificial intelligence, he facilitated the generation of movie after movie exploring the subject. So to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and the fact that we’re all probably going to be replaced by robots in the near future), here’s a look at how HAL laid out the blueprint for AI in cinema.

A STAR IS PROGRAMMED

In 1968, Kubrick was already familiar with Alpha 60, the gravelly voiced villain of Godard’s Alphaville. But HAL was more ambitious; a serious statement about where technology was heading. So much so, the director hired IBM to assist with the creation of what was initially called Athena in the script. During production, the name switched to HAL – noticeably what happens when you shift the letters of IBM down a notch. That Kubrick denied any intentional dig at IBM means he’s either a hilarious liar, or it’s yet another aspect of 2001 spawned from someone’s subconscious.

WESTWORLD REINVENTED “THE HAL GAZE”

Before Michael Crichton dreamed up Jurassic Park, he wrote and directed Westworld (1973), a thriller set in a theme park populated with androids. Whereas HAL was just a lens and a glowing red dot, Westworld posited that software should be smart and sexy. So visitors can either fuck a lifelike cyborg or embark on shootouts with computerised cowboys. Different kinds of climaxes, you might say. Crichton noticed that Kubrick depicted HAL’s POV with a wide-angle lens, and so he reworked it; through the Gunslinger’s eyes, we view what the script calls “a bizarre, computerised image of the world”.

WALKING MACHINES TALK THEIR WAY INTO THE MAINSTREAM

George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1969), which included an android police force, never spawned an incredibly lucrative, boring franchise. That honour went to Star Wars (1977) and its harmless robo-buddy duo of C-3PO and R2-D2. Whereas HAL’s creepy behaviour supplies tension and foreshadows its eventual betrayal, the bumbling bots of Star Wars are clearly programmed into the script for little more than a fun distraction. Lucas praised 2001 as “hugely influencing” – just not on a challenging level.

ALIEN PREDICTED THAT ROBOTS WILL STEAL OUR JOBS

“I’ve never shaken it off,” Ridley Scott admitted, regarding the influence of 2001. In Alien (1979), the HAL figure isn’t just the spaceship’s computer system Mother (full name: MU/TH/UR 6000) but also Ash, the science officer, later revealed to be a humanlike machine and a goddamn backstabber. Are HAL and Ash bad, or are they just drawn that way? Just as Alien is really a slasher movie set on an interplanetary vehicle, the revelation that a co-worker could be a robot is akin to discovering the call is coming from inside the house.

BLADE RUNNER DEPICTED A LIVING HAL ON EARTH

The “what the hell, that Hollywood actor I recognise from other movies is actually an android” twist proved so effective, Ridley Scott returned to it for Blade Runner (1982). Harrison Ford’s job revolves around hunting down replicants, a task made trickier by their humanlike appearance. Their poker tell is deciphered through a “Voigt-Kampff” test – essentially a job interview, except instead of challenging the subject to sell you a pen, the interrogator attempts to provoke an emotional response. Like in 2001, the film’s most quotable lines are delivered by a machine.

ROBOTIC ACTING TOOK OVER THE SPOTLIGHT

With James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), the teachings of Stanislavski and Meisner went into the Recycling Bin. Instead, Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to excel as the T-800 through his naturally wooden mannerisms. Plus, the bots became overtly violent. Whereas HAL, like a radio playing Ed Sheeran, could just be unplugged, the T-1000 of Terminator 2 (1991) is nearly unstoppable. So how does Hollywood treat these mean, killing machines? Laugh it off with Verhoeven’s subversive witticisms and Arnie’s droll one-liners.

GHOST IN THE SHELL IMAGINED A POST-HUMAN EXISTENCE

Like Skynet’s T-800 in The Terminator, the Major in Ghost in the Shell (1995) represents an army of androids out on a mission. It’s the essential trope of AI movies: the future will eventually be every robot for itself. But Mamoru Oshii’s anime portrays 2029 as a world where cities are run like computers; poetic, wordless sequences soak in the ambience of a post-human environment. In the end, the Major merges with the Puppet Master, another AI programme, and it looks worrying simple. It’ll take more than a sketchy ScarJo remake to prevent the Singularity.

ROBOTS ARE HUMAN AND NEED TO BE LOVED JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE DOES

Kubrick started developing A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) in the 1970s, long before Steven Spielberg took over. So it’s safe to say that HAL 9000 exists somewhere in the DNA of David, a Pinocchio-ish Mecha played by Haley Joel Osment. David, basically, is an advanced Build-A-Bear with synthetic flesh; he’s programmed to love his owners (in this case, a mother with a sick child) and his unerring sweetness fuels his own downfall. You can see the progression. HAL was just a voice. A real kid like David, though, pulls at our heartstrings – or makes us glad Kubrick wasn’t alive to witness Spielberg sugar-coating his ideas.

HER CONFIRMED WI-FI SWAPPING IS YOUR FUTURE

The emotional resonance of Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), a rom-com between Joaquin Phoenix and an OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson, stems from the believability of the tech. Sure, we’re slaves to portable screens now, but at the time, the sight of pedestrians glued to their phones felt like a punch to the gut. Jonze even took inspiration from an IM service that used AI to generate conversation. After all, we waste so much time scrolling through garbage on Twitter, so why can’t our phones just ask us if we had a nice day? Just as HAL reveals its humanity by singing “Daisy Bell”, ScarJo accompanies Phoenix on a loving duet of “The Moon Song”. Shortly after, it strikes him she’s cyber-dating thousands of other users as well.

TURNS OUT EVERYONE IN HOLLYWOOD IS AS HORNY AS HAL

The casting of Rain as HAL, Kubrick explained, was because the actor had a “kind of bland mid-Atlantic accent”. The trend changed drastically when (white, male) filmmakers depicted fictional (white, male) scientists as geniuses realising they could fuck their creations. After Her, these androids all seemed to be young white women: Caity Lotz in The Machine (2013), Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015), Anya Taylor-Joy in Morgan (2016), and ScarJo in Ghost in the Shell (2017). Did the screenwriters just switch between Final Draft and Pornhub all day long, or is it how a male-dominated, racially imbalanced film industry expresses its sexual frustration?

ANDROIDS SAY THE FUNNIEST THINGS

Again reflecting how Hollywood works, the male computer models of the same era get to be the comic relief and keep their quirky clothes on. There’s Michael Sheen’s quick-witted electronic bartender in Passengers (2016); the little, squeaky, GIF-creating ball thing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); and then there’s Chappie in, uh, Chappie (2015). It’s a copy-and-pasted formula for people who found the Microsoft paper clip to be entertaining.

HUMANS ARE OBSOLETE IN A DIGITAL AGE

Last year, two AI-related blockbusters – Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 – introduced the idea of robot-on-robot romance. Okay, Michael Fassbender kissing himself is more about visual trickery, but with Ryan Gosling and Ana De Armas, it’s touching and tragic; the GozBot wishes to experience the highs of the human experience, but instead he’s lumbered with mankind’s inbuilt self-hatred. These AI characters are more fleshed out than most of their human counterparts.

Ultimately, sci-fi holds up a mirror to our societal anxieties. HAL simply represented Kubrick’s paranoia about technology during the Cold War. But nowadays, I think we see ourselves in these machines – just cogs obeying orders and ensuring the system flows smoothly. “I know I've made some very poor decisions recently,” HAL admits, “but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.” These are words I’ve uttered in my real life, too. Perhaps I, myself, am turning into HAL. If so, I just hope that somewhere out there is a HAL for me.

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