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With the shock of the paralyzing radio voice of the Monolith still ringing in our ears, we are abruptly taken a year and a half into the future to the spaceship Discovery. Unlike the emergency situation that existed at Clavius, life here has settled into a normal routine. We are introduced to the central characters, Frank Poole and Dave Bowman. The first one we come across is Dave, jogging along the centrifuge of the ship to keep in shape. This part of the ship is spinning, creating enough centrifugal force to maintain a normal- gravity state here. There is no ceiling and no floor, because the room is always turning; this is how Dave can continue jogging nonstop in such a small area.
A BBC news broadcast flashes across one of the view panels of the ship, and it is here that we learn of Discovery's mission, of Dave and Frank, and of the hibernating scientists on board. They're being kept in a state of suspended animation, and they will not awaken until Discovery reaches the planet Jupiter.
We are also introduced to the caretaker of the ship: the HAL-9000 computer, or Hal. Hal, we are told, keeps the entire ship working and operational. He also takes care of Frank and Dave, so that they do not lose their sanity on the long voyage. In fact, Hal has such complete control of the ship that Dave and Frank themselves have very little to do. They're little more than caretakers for Hal. It seems possible that if some accident were to befall the crew, Hal could conduct the entire mission on his own. All too soon, however, we learn how true that statement actually is.
When Frank receives a birthday message from his parents, he seems passive and uninterested. This may have to do with his perspective: from eighty million miles out in space, events on Earth – even other people – might seem distant and unimportant. It also has to do with the roles that Frank and Dave are playing. They have nothing to occupy their minds for long, and they are lapsing into a dull routine. They have become so passive in their life aboard the ship that they are almost machine-like (which once again brings us to the recurring theme of man's similarity to his machines). They are, quite simply, bored to death.
Here again the central theme of tools becomes apparent: Hal, the computer, is another tool built by Man to insure his survival - in this case, on the voyage to Jupiter. He maintains all life support, keeps the ship running, and serves as travelling companion to Dave and Frank. Hal is, in fact, the ultimate tool: he is so advanced that in conversation, it is practically impossible to tell that he a machine and not a human being. The similarity of man to his tools has reached its peak in Hal, a tool similar to a man.
But, like all tools, Hal is as dangerous as he is useful. He is sustaining the lives of the astronauts, in the same way that the bone clubs and knives sustained the lives of the man-apes; but if Hal were to malfunction then he could easily kill everyone on the ship. Of course, safety measures and failsafe devices have been built into the ship to prevent this from happening – but despite the best safety features, the threat of catastrophe is always there. In fact, it arrives in the very next scene.
More evidence of the crew's ample spare time and boredom: Dave is drawing a picture of the hibernating scientists. As he is showing his artwork to Hal, however, the computer asks "a personal question:"
"Well, it's rather difficult to define…perhaps I'm just projecting my own concern about it…I know I've never completely freed myself of the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this mission."
Dave, however, does not seem to share Hal's suspicions. He has obviously never considered the matter before, and he does not seem to think it of any importance. Just then, Hal reports that a real emergency is about to arise: the AE-35 unit is about to fail. (The AE-35 unit is explained in the novel 2001: it controls the ship's antenna and keeps Discovery in constant contact with Earth. If it were to fail, all communication with Earth would be lost.)
This scene, the conversation between Dave and Hal, may be the most important scene in the entire film. Its importance is only realised later in the movie, however, when it's revealed that there is a secret purpose to the Jupiter mission, that even Frank and Dave do not know about - and Hal does.
But if Hal knows the mission's true purpose, then he would not have any reason to be suspicious of Mission Control's actions. If he knew what was going on, then why did he bring the subject up at all?
The answer to this question comes later in the film.
After receiving permission from Mission Control, Dave goes down to the pod bay and takes a "space pod" outside the ship to remove the AE-35 unit. He follows a standard procedure, taking his time and not rushing things. This is little more than another routine in life aboard Discovery.
But things begin to go askew when Frank and Dave look the AE-35 unit over, performing different tests on it, and they find nothing wrong with it.
As the AE-35 unit is being checked, however, something else is taking place. Hal is watching the astronauts - and Frank is watching Hal. Clouds of suspicion are beginning to form. Something is not right here.
"Well, Hal, I'm damned if I can find anything wrong with it."
The missing piece of the puzzle, however, comes in the next message from Mission Control. Hal, it seems, has done the impossible – he has made a mistake.
Hal's response to this is nothing less than extraordinary: instead of looking for some sort of mechanical fault, or hypothesizing that there might be something wrong with the equipment used to check the AE-35 unit, he suggests that this might somehow be the result of human error. After all, he insists, he is a machine and not a human – and machines don't make mistakes. Dave seems ready to buy Hal's story, but Frank still seems suspicious. So the two of them head down to the space pod bay, to supposedly work on a minor mechanical problem.
The real reason for Frank and Dave entering a space pod is to talk in complete privacy, away from Hal's prying microphone; they test Hal to make sure he can't hear them. Only when they're certain that the pod offers complete safety do they voice their suspicions of Hal.
However, Frank and Dave are not safe. Hal may not be able to hear them, but he can read their lips.
At this point, 2001 becomes unique in film history by being the only cinema epic to signal its intermission with complete silence.
Now, Frank knows that if Hal could make a mistake with so trivial a matter as the AE-35 unit, then he could just as easily make mistakes with more vital areas of his control, including life support for the crew. Even worse, a faulty AE-35 unit means that there would be no contact with Earth if a major problem were to arise. If Hal is malfunctioning, then, his mistaken diagnosis of the AE-35 unit is only a symptom of deeper problems. Therefore, as Frank sees it, there would be no alternative but to disconnect Hal completely.
This inevitably leads to the question on everyone's mind: what caused Hal's breakdown?
In the end, it is pride that leads to Hal's downfall. As the BBC reporter noted, Hal knows that no 9000-series computer has ever made a mistake, and his hubris will not let him break that perfect record. Rather than admit that he made a mistake with the AE-35 unit, he attempts to remedy the situation without admitting to error in the only way he can think of: he removes Frank Poole and tries to kill Dave so that they will no longer suspect him, question him, or force him to admit that he is wrong.
But even above his ego, Hal's prime directive – his raison d'etre – is the Jupiter mission. Hal knows that if he were to malfunction, then the mission would be endangered. However, at the same time he does not want to admit to making a mistake. He is at an impasse. How is he to solve his dilemma without endangering himself or the mission?
This is where Dave's conversation with Hal – his last before the trouble begins – is vital to the story. Now, later on in the film it is revealed that Hal knew all about the secret purpose of the hibernating scientists from the beginning. He knows the true purpose of the mission, so why should he be suspicious of the other scientists being kept apart from Dave and Frank? In the novel, and in the movie 2010, it is stated that here Hal is told to lie to Dave and Frank about the purpose of the hibernating scientists, but this does not make any sense. It is Hal who initiates the conversation with Dave; both Dave and Frank are so machine-like from their boredom that their curiosity has been dulled. Therefore, Hal must be trying to reveal the true purpose of the mission to Dave, by making him suspicious of Mission Control. If Dave were to start pondering the question of why the other scientists were kept apart from himself and from Frank, then doubtless he would have investigated the matter further, and possibly discovered the true purpose of the Jupiter mission on his own. By uncovering the secret of the Monolith, Dave would realize that Hal is not allowed to reveal the purpose of the mission to him. Furthermore, if Dave discovers this fact himself, Hal would not be breaking any of the orders given to him by Mission Control.
But unfortunately, all this is not to be. Before Dave has a chance to think the matter over, Hal announces that the AE-35 unit is faulty.
Why did Hal initate the conversation with Dave in the first place, then?
It may be that Hal KNEW about his impending breakdown. Hal's pride would not allow him to admit that he was faulty, but he knew that he would be jeopardizing the mission if he were to malfunction. Therefore, his way out of the dilemma was to drop a hint to Dave that there were problems, by trying to make Dave suspicious of the mission's true purpose. But because Dave had practically been reduced to the level of a machine himself by boredom, he missed Hal's clues completely - and thus Hal had no other choice (in his point of view) but to rebel.
If Hal had merely reported that he was malfunctioning, the tragedy could have been averted. This brings a true sense of irony to his statement: "This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been attributable to human error." Ego is purely a human trait, and by gaining an ego himself, Hal has proven himself to be more of a human than his makers. This raises the question again: Is Man greater than his tools? For if Hal is more human than Dave and Frank are, then it becomes hard to tell where the machine ends and the human traits begin.
2001 resumes with that most human of sins: murder. We are in outer space again, working on the faulty AE-35 unit. Frank is outside the ship this time. As before, we hear his breathing and the ventilation of his spacesuit as he works.
But this time, something else is happening. As Frank concentrates on the ship's antenna, his space pod slowly begins to rotate of its own will - or rather, from Hal's control. It extends its arms menacingly, and slowly it begins moving towards Frank…
Abruptly, all is quiet. Dave looks at the viewscreen in shock as the space pod floats lifelessly away from the ship - and also moving away, frantically trying to get a grip on his lifeline, is Frank Poole. Once again, Mankind's tool has been used as a weapon of destruction. And once again, Kubrick has effectively used silence to enhance the film's effect: instead of a typical Hollywood musical chorus, the transition from sound (Frank's breathing) to silence is a complete shock.
Dave rushes down to the space pod bay. He knows that he does not have a second to lose if he wants to save Frank, so he does not bother putting on his space helmet as he enters the pod. Hal willingly tracks down Frank and guides the pod on course - because doing so means that Dave will have left the ship, and Hal will be free to remove the last dangers to his survival.
Now comes the most chilling scene of the entire film – and once again, the sounds contribute to the impact on the audience as much as the picture on the screen. The ship is quiet, humming patiently away, as the hibernating scientists continue dozing in their chambers. Then the words "COMPUTER MALFUNCTION" flash across the screen, and a blaring alarm sounds. Within the space of one minute, the message goes from "LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL" to "LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED." The alarm stops. The remaining members of Discovery's crew are dead. But except for the flashing lights on their hibernation chambers, there is no way to tell the difference between life and death. The ship is humming silently again, and the figures in their frozen chambers do not look any different now, when they are dead, then they did when they were merely sleeping. This may be the ultimate statement of Man stripped of his humanity by his tools.
The ship continues quietly on its course. Nothing at all seems wrong - the silent ship seems as normal as it had been when there were living people aboard. This is a harsh display of Mankind's dependency on tools: Frank and Dave were indeed little more than caretakers for Hal. Now that Hal has gained complete control of the the ship, with no humans present to endanger his survival, he is now free to continue the all-important mission on his own. He is obviously confident that he can do so himself, without any aid from others - but before he can proceed with the mission, the silence of the ship is shattered by a voice.
"Open the pod bay doors, Hal."
Dave's voice resounds over the ship's speakers. He has returned, and he is carrying the lifeless body of Frank Poole in the space pod's arms.
But Hal is unresponsive. He knows that Dave is not going to fall for his charade again, and thus he knows that if Dave were to succeed in returning to the ship, he would be disconnected. He informs Dave that he knew about the conspiracy to disconnect him, and when Dave hears this he is speechless. His mouth opens and closes wordlessly a couple of times, but then he regains his wits and orders Hal to open the pod bay doors again.
"Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye." With that, communication is cut and Hal has won. Or so he thinks.
For a minute or so, the space pod just sits there. Dave is at an impasse. He cannot get back onto the ship without his space helmet - but if he remains here, out in space, he will eventually die.
Suddenly, the pod begins to move again. It turns itself around, and once again Frank's body floats away into the void. Dave watches as it fades from view.
The next two scenes contrast each other, and together they build up to one of the most exciting, suspenseful sequences in all of movie history. Dave has figured out a way to get into Discovery: he turns the space pod around, and activates his explosive bolts. As he prepares to be jettisoned into the airlock, the machinery makes all sorts of alarm sounds, adding to the tension as he takes a deep breath…and the door explodes, forcing him down the airlock, where he closes the door and lets air flow into the airlock again.
The loud alarms of the space pod suddenly switching to the total silence of vacuum is a shocking moment. (Once again, Kubrick uses sound to enhance the effect of the picture.) This is the ultimate battle of man versus his tools: Dave is using his intelligence to overcome Hal. By thinking of a creative solution to his problem, and not by merely acting like a machine, Dave succeeds in escaping Hal's trap. The cost has been high, however: the hibernating crew members are dead, and Frank is gone. Even though Dave is back on the ship, he is not safe yet.
Now wearing a different space helmet, Dave begins his demarche on Hal. Kubrick's masterful use of sound is displayed here, as we hear nothing except Dave's breathing. In contrast to the slow breathing that served to calm the audience during his routine spacewalk when the AE-35 unit was first removed, the sound here increases the tension of the situation. Dave has survived Hal's best attempts to kill him; it is the man's turn to strike back against the machine. He moves swiftly and deliberately through the ship - and as he does so, Hal speaks again. He tries to engage Dave in conversation, so as to slow him down. But Dave is not buying Hal's ploy. The web of deceit has been broken, and Hal's treachery has been laid bare. Despite Hal's pleas that "it's going to be all right again," Dave can never again trust Hal - and in this life-and-death situation, the ship is not big enough for the two of them.
Hal has been programmed to always speak in a calm, soothing voice, and even now he keeps his monotone. But his words reveal that he is panicking: "Stop, Dave. I'm afraid." Dave will not stop. He enters Hal's memory center and proceeds to disconnect him.
As Dave works, his breathing increases, and we can feel his panic and his fear. Some people have said that the acting in 2001 is wooden and stoic; anyone who thinks so should take another look at this particular scene.
Hal's mind is going. He regesses back the first days of his existence, singing the song "Daisy," and slowing down as he sings. Finally, he comes to a complete stop.
Hal is silent forever.
Then, suddenly, a different voice speaks. For a moment it seems as though Hal is still talking, but then the camera shifts and a small monitor screen comes into view. It is none other than Dr. Heywood Floyd! He is speaking a prerecorded message, made a year and a half ago before Discovery had left Earth.
With this message, we realize at last the connection between the discovery of the Monolith on the Moon, and the voyage to Jupiter. Eighteen months ago, back on the Moon, "the first sign of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered." This is why Dr. Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski were trained separately and placed into hibernation; this is what Hal had been hinting at in his conversation with Dave. They knew that there was something out here, something that Dave and Frank had not known. Hal has known about the true purpose of the mission from the beginning, but he could not tell Dave about it.
There is one fascinating note about this sequence: Of all the messages and data stored in Hal's memory, it would be this particular message that is played when Hal passes away; furthermore, a message of this sort would most likely be played over the regular monitors in the livng quarters of the ship, and not in Hal's central nervous system. The odds against this particular message being played, in this area of the ship, when Dave happens to be there for the first time, are too great to be a mere coincidence. It can only be assumed, therefore, that Hal has played this message especially for Dave, so that even after all that has happened, the mission could continue. For Hal, the mission was everything – even more than Hal's existence itself, the mission must continue. So, in a final act of faith, Hal reveals the true purpose of the mission, and Dave learns the truth at last.
Dave's return to Discovery and Hal's death are two of the most dramatic scenes of all time. But despite all this, the question has been asked: "Just what does all this have to do with the movie?" In the beginning, the man-apes were taught to use tools by the Monolith; then the Monolith appeared once again on the Moon. What do Hal's acts of murder and subsequent death have to do with all this?
The answer is: Everything! The Dawn of Man had the ancestors of Man learning to use tools; the journey to the Moon and discovery of the Monolith shows that Man still uses tools, and he is dependent on them for his survival. Hal himself was just another tool; he kept the crew of the Discovery alive, and he maintained every facet of the ship's operations. But these tools have always threatened to destroy Man, as well. The man-apes used their bone weapons to murder other man-apes. Nuclear satellites orbited the Earth in the year 2001. And Hal, the most advanced of all Man's tools, tries to murder his makers. All throughout the movie, tools have been used to sustain life – and to destroy it. But Dave has survived Hal's attempts to kill him. MAN IS INDEED STRONGER THAN HIS TOOLS. In this film, Hal's rebellion was Dave's baptism of fire, his ultimate test of intelligence. He has shown that Man is resourceful enough to survive without tools. The man-apes needed tools to survive, but Man does not. He has evolved. He has indeed become an intelligent being, able to exist on his own without any help from tools.
Man is ready for the final step. The Aliens have been waiting for this moment for four million years. The final act begins.