By Andrew Francois
A black screen and a soaring overture. In prehistoric Africa, two tribes of primates vie for control of a watering hole. One tribe discovers a mysterious monolith in their midst. They learn how to use tools and kill the other tribe.
A transition. Millions of years later, a Washington bureaucrat travels to the American lunar outpost. A monolith has been excavated on the surface of the Moon. It was buried there, deliberately, four million years prior. It is approached, and emits a screech as the sunlight hits it.
A spacecraft on its way to Jupiter. The nature of the mission is obscure. Five men are aboard: two conscious, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, and three in suspended animation. Their only other companion is a computer, HAL-9000. The astronauts become suspicious of HAL’s decisions. They agree to disable his operating system should he make another incorrect calculation. He lip-reads their conversation. He kills Poole during a spacewalk, and the three in hibernation by cutting their life support. Finally, Bowman is able to shut the computer down. A NASA recording plays, and it is revealed that the crew was sent to investigate extraterrestrial radio signals.
A sweeping shot of Jupiter. Bowman, alone, finds a gargantuan third monolith orbiting the planet. “My God, it’s full of stars!” It pulls him into a vortex of colored light. In brief flashes, his face is visible, mouth agape, eyes squinted in terror, neck twisted. Finally, transported to a bedroom, he finds himself, older and older. One final monolith, and he is made incorporeal.
The narrative just described may, at first, not seem like a narrative at all. But most film critics will name this story as at least the second greatest film of all time, if not beating out Citizen Kane and being placed first.
It is 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s revolutionary 1968 science fiction epic. To watch the film is an ethereal and deeply uncomfortable experience, and that’s what makes it so incredible. To say that the film is exceptional is an understatement, and to say that just about everyone should watch it at some point in their lives is putting matters mildly.
But what does a movie released five decades ago set in a year that passed two decades ago have to do with the world today? After all, our society hasn’t progressed as Kubrick portrayed it.
While that’s true, the prophetic themes in the film are more relevant today than they could have ever been when it was released. HAL, the machine who develops a consciousness independent of his programming, is the embodiment of fears surrounding artificial intelligence. In Kubrick’s world, man has convinced himself that machine remains subservient, when in reality machine has superseded him.
It may be that our world is more similar to Kubrcik’s than we would care to believe. On February 25, 2021, the United States carried out airstrikes against Syrian militants, likely using the MQ-9 Reaper Drone. The constitutionality of these strikes is another topic altogether, but overarchingly they offer a good occasion to point out the utterly blind trust we have placed in our killing machines.
The typical military drone, though in theory controlled by an operator, relies heavily on its programming to make calculations and decisions. And then we set them loose to slaughter. Perhaps this is why close to one in every five victims of a drone strike will be an innocent civilian. In the rapid progress of this technology from the Cold War to the present, have we ever stopped to reflect upon the power—tangible power over human lives—that we give to computers?
Perhaps some lessons could be learned from Kubrick’s film. Bowman and Poole too were assured that HAL was a completely logical, indefectible entity. He could never be mistaken, they were told. Is this not the exact assurance we give ourselves about our drones?