Today is the 22nd birthday — or maybe the 17th — of a now classic fictional “character.” That’s HAL 9000, the computer that plays a central role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In both the movie, co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, and Clarke’s book, HAL tells astronaut David Bowman that he “became operational” on January 12. In the movie, released first, that day is placed in 1992. In the novel, however, the birth year is 1997.
Regardless of the year, HAL became essentially a cultural icon upon the movie’s release in 1968. Thanks to artificial intelligence, “[t]hroughout the film, HAL talks like a person, thinks like a person, plans — badly, it turns out — like a person, and, when he is about to die, begs like a person.” In 2003, in fact, the American Film Institute ranked HAL 13th on its list of the top 50 film villains of all time.
HAL’s discussion of its origins comes when Bowman shuts it down by removing various hardware modules from HAL’s large central core (microprocessors were still on the horizon). Ultimately, though, it turned out HAL wasn’t dead. It would appear in each of the three sequels Clarke wrote but only one of those would have a film version.
We’re long past HAL’s birthday, whichever year it was, and even further down the road from HAL’s appearance on the big screen. But HAL is remains an indelible character.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave.
HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey