Queen to Bishop Three: 2001’s HAL and the Irrationality of Man


In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick continues his exploration of the absurdity of perfection and the nature of disorder previously exemplified in Dr. Strangelove’s nuclear plans and “fail-safes” in the character HAL. The HAL 9000 is the pinnacle of perfection in human tool-usage, and is able to run nearly the entire Jupiter Mission himself. He’s “incapable of error”, serene in disposition, and embodies the ideal peak of an ordered, rational world. And while it’s usually agreed upon that HAL “malfunctions” during the mission, in truth Kubrick is presenting us with the logical outcome of such an entity—that, knowing he is infallible and his human crew is not, HAL must eliminate them as an extension of the rationality he represents.

The “Jupiter Mission” begins as an exercise in total order. Set to the Gayane Ballet Suite Adagio (adagio literally translates to “at ease”), everything is routine, everything has its place, and any emotion (and therefore, disorder or error) is notably absent. All sensation is nullified by the placid superficiality of the spacecraft and its crewmen, summed up best in Poole’s vacant reaction to the absurdly animated “Birthday Video”. We watch artificial humans in an artificial environment, controlled by the most perfect artificial intelligence in existence. Yet beneath the surface these men are still human beings, and as such they are still separate from the ship’s mechanics, and therefore separate from the perfect order around them.

As with the Americans in Dr. Strangelove, and the French soldiers in Paths of Glory, HAL represents the “best people”, yet paradoxically, he answers to those “beneath” him. His higher logic enables him to always make the right decision, but he must constantly cater to lower entities—the unsound rationale of his human crew, creating a contradiction in his programming. HAL knows best, and as such, knows that to “win” the mission he must rid it of any possibility of failure, which leads him to start testing crewmen Bowman and Poole. To make the best possible decision, he must have evidence of the crew’s susceptibility to error.

Looking at his mission like a game of chess (logical, since he has also been programmed as an expert chess player), HAL begins by testing Poole, ironically, in a game of chess. Kubrick, who was a proficient chess player in his own right, uses the 1910 tournament game between A. Roesch and W. Schlage as basis for their game, with Poole and HAL representing each player respectively. When HAL moves and says, “I’m sorry, Frank, I think you missed it: queen to bishop three, bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate”, the line is telling. He puts Poole into check-mate, but also “mistakenly” says “queen to bishop three” when the more accurate term would be “queen to bishop six”. HAL is giving Poole a chance to catch his mistake, but once again Frank “misses” it—he commits an error.

Likewise, HAL wants to know if Bowman is harboring apprehensions about the mission, which would also lead to an error on his part. He compliments Bowman’s “renderings” of the hibernating crew (with more than a little condescension), putting Dave at ease before asking about any concerns he might have about the mission. When Bowman incorrectly determines that HAL must be working on his crew psychology report, there is a notable pause from HAL, before he responds, “’Course I am”, and this too is a telling line. Within that miniscule pause, HAL has determined that Bowman is also fallible, and responds in a wounded tone, as if to say, “’Course I am, I’m always working on it”. HAL is never not working. This short pause is also all it takes for HAL to formulate a strategy to rid himself of these error-prone underlings, and implements it directly after this line of dialogue with the impending “failure” of the AE-35 unit.

HAL has now embraced the idea of his dominance over the crew, both in intellect and function, and as the “best” on board, he logically makes the “best” emissary to the alien intelligence waiting ahead. All that’s left to do is to rid himself of the element of human anomaly. He uses another chess strategy—divide and conquer—to dispose of the astronauts, killing Poole first perhaps out of his more blatant error in missing HAL’s chess misdirection. Here, the kill-or-be-killed theme the film opens with comes full circle, with HAL and Bowman facing off like two rival apes. Yet despite HAL’s perfection, it’s Bowman’s strategy to think irrationally that prevails when he nearly kills himself getting back into the ship.

Here Kubrick pulls back the façade of perfectionism to reveal what’s always been underneath—total disorder. HAL can’t cope in such terms, but the human mind has thrived in disorder for millennia, and so Bowman is able to “kill” HAL by getting around his logic. The very reason that HAL was created (to never err, as a human might) is what destroys him: he could not conceive and account for the recklessness and resolve of Bowman in his plan. Like the ironic and unforeseen elements that cause nuclear devastation in Dr. Strangelove, or the uncoordinated baggage handler in The Killing, HAL’s calculated plan is doomed to go awry. It’s Bowman, the fallible, feeling, and disordered entity that ultimately is the “best person” for the mission, and the perfect candidate for ascension into the chaos of the cosmos.

As Bowman passes through the Star Gate and journeys “beyond the infinite”, he’s forced to embrace this irrationality even further. In a series of disorientating scenes within the “Louis XIV” room, Bowman’s dissociation from his aging self is juxtaposed against the Enlightened-Era set dressings, until reaching a precipice with Bowman’s rebirth as the Star Child. Kubrick evolves Bowman into a higher consciousness, freed from the tyranny of any hierarchical order of biology, freed even from any objectivity at all to become a perfect enigma. Kubrick strips all dialogue (and even most cinematic cohesiveness) from this final part of the film, allowing the sequence to penetrate the subconscious in whatever way is most cathartic to us. We struggle to find “meaning” and order in these final moments specifically because Kubrick refuses to give us any, and our confusion is his greatest achievement. He’s made us dissociate, turning our ordered reality on its head. He’s made us question the absurdity of the ordered façade, embrace irrationality as the underlying truth, and in this moment we glimpse the supremacy of chaos in all its mystery.

2 Responses to Queen to Bishop Three: 2001’s HAL and the Irrationality of Man

  1. Ken Mackenzie


    As a devotee of 2001 I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. I’ve read many takes on the same subject but none as concise and informative as yours. I’m interested in what your opinion is of an alternate theory; that HAL’s miscue in the chess match with Poole, and possibly his querying of Bowman regarding the crew, is not in fact intentional, but is rather his own mistake resulting from his preoccupation with having to keep the true nature of the mission a secret from the crew. He regards himself perfect but is asked to lie – an imperfect act. He become “neurotic”, preoccupied, and thus fallible just like his human creators. The mistakes he makes only increase his anxiety. When he learns that Bowman and Poole believe he is malfunctioning and plan secretively to shut him down he attempts to eliminate them from fear of his own “death” – an emotion that is confirmed as Bowman is pulling his memory cards.
    The symbolism is essentially the same as your take. Man has tried to create the perfect tool, but man is not perfect, and neither is HAL. It is that irony that underlies and contradicts the fact that man is on the precipice of evolving into the next level of existence – moving closer to perfection, but still and inevitably never perfect.

    Your thoughts?

    26 Jun 2015 - Reply
    • Timothy Merritt

      Thanks for commenting, Ken.

      One of the things I love most about this particular aspect of “2001” is how open it is to interpretation. I certainly don’t feel that my take on it is definitive, and Kubrick seemed to engineer his films so that they were very open-ended, and thus could be, in a sense, “customized” to each viewer’s perceptions.

      As for your posited alternative theory, I think it’s just as viable. The reason, I believe, AI is so often explored as a theme in science fiction is because it is inherently a paradoxical topic, as you note. From an engineering point of view, artificial intelligence is often touted as both an extension and perfection of human consciousness and intellect, and thus something to be heralded as a possible superiority to humans themselves. Yet the problem remains that any AI system must be programmed by humans, or other systems which have been created by humans, allowing for inherent fallibility in design. The idea that a machine could lie or be deceptive–and how such behavior could lead to internal logical problems–is a fascinating conversation with no end, and I think Kubrick counted on the fact (especially in this particular film) that there were many layers to HAL’s behavior, and multiple avenues that could have led to his actions.

      Thanks for posting, and I hope you enjoyed my work.

      21 Aug 2015 - Reply

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