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2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros., 1968)
Stories & Ideas

Sun 01 Nov 2020

2001: A Space Odyssey – Can’t

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We focus on an iconic moment in cinema history: 2001: A Space Odyssey's "I'm sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that"

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the HAL 9000 “heuristically programmed algorithmic” computer, a forerunner of Siri whom one addresses as “Hal”, oversees all the operations of the massive Discovery One spacecraft. He’s also programmed with a personality (and a gender) so he can offer company to two astronauts leading a mission to Jupiter and beyond.

Big mistake!

All we see of Hal is a series of impassive red lenses distributed throughout the spacecraft, but what we hear from him is unforgettable. Whether beating Frank at chess (“Thank you for a very enjoyable game”), complimenting Dave on his artistic talents (“That’s a very good likeness”) or slipping into paranoid psychosis (“Can I ask you a personal question?”), he manages with his soothing cadences to render bland clichés and innocuous courtesies as fascinating, unsettling and creepy.

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he calmly intones to Dr David Bowman who is locked out of the spacecraft. Hal has just wreaked mass murder upon four of Bowman’s colleagues and intends to doom him, too, to a slow death by asphyxiation. But with a passive-aggressive eloquence worthy of Hannibal Lecter, he apologises for his violence with intimacy (“Dave”) and impeccable manners.

Anthony Hopkins has admitted that HAL 9000 was a major role model for him in developing his performance as Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs and it shows. Both characters are listed in the American Film Institute’s list of cinema’s greatest villains: Hal at no.13, and Hannibal at no.1. But unlike Hopkins, who went on to award-winning glory, Douglas Rain who voiced Hal allowed his creation to eclipse him.

Rain, who never saw the entire script of 2001, and reportedly never saw the finished film, spent a mere 10 hours working on the project, recording Hal’s lines in a studio over a day and a half before returning to his Shakespearean stage career in Ontario, Canada. He later agreed to voice another evil computer in Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi comedy Sleeper, a role for which he was not credited, and, more importantly, voiced Hal again for the 1984 sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, but there can be few actors so influential who slipped so quietly from public view.

Hal’s dialogue and Rain’s voice live on, however, in countless tributes, parodies, and samples. The cat memes alone are worth checking out – there are zillions of them and they are truly evil! – but Hal has also been quoted on media as various as South Park, The Colbert Report and Roger Waters’ Perfect Sense. Rubics has produced an exquisite track called 'HAL 9000' that begins with “I’m sorry, Dave…” and spins off into electronic nirvana. But if you really want to take a ride, check out Eric Raps Battles of History: Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates where Hal experiences a spectacular final triumph over all!

Russell Walsh

This essay was written for Edit Line, an interactive experience in our centrepiece exhibition The Story of the Moving Image.

Reorder, rearrange and remix some of the most iconic moments in film and TV

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