Essays

HAL Unplugged: Fear, Terror, and Salvation in Science Fiction Films

Ever since the release of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still the science fiction genre in cinema has been the instantiated medium for wrestling with our fears, conscious and unconscious, in the technological age. We might go as far as to say that science fiction is the contemporary medium of our technological mythology—the medium that struggles to make sense of the symbols, gods, and monsters that have been unleashed in the wake of the Manhattan Project. From bleak and dour tales of extermination and human destruction, to optimistic but nevertheless struggling and pathological battles to save life, science fiction has been battling with our modern monsters from the id boiling up inside of us in the post-atomic era.

For the sake of brevity, I am only going to examine a handful of films which embody the best of the fears, terror, and redemptive aspirations of mankind in the wake of our unleashing of the Atomic Bomb and the prospects of a new species emerging in this atomic and technological age bearing down on organic life. As such, I have selected Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Lucas’ Star Wars (A New Hope), Michael Bay’s Armageddon, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I believe these five films, among many other great and representative films, each embody unique aspects of our psychological condition and offer philosophical windows into differing encounters with the mechanical monsters we must do battle with.

2001: The Bleak Tale of Evolution

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave to posterity the most frightening villain of science fiction that many subsequent films, most famous being Terminator, owe their debt to. The self-conscious AI computer, HAL-9000, is the iconic and now ubiquitous villain that often threatens human life with its cold rational calculations determining homo sapien to be an inferior organism unfit to live in the brave new world. But HAL-9000 is not that type of AI construct, though he set the archetype for that AI villain to emerge. Instead, HAL is the embodiment of evolution married with technology.

2001 is a bleak evolutionary epic in a graceless and ugly world transformed by the power of technology and science. Kubrick’s masterpiece captures the essence of evolution by technology, man reduced to being homo faber rather than homo sapien. This is revealed to us early in the film in the remarkable synthesis of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30” with the great ape wielding an animal bone as a tool. The great ape’s genius is in his cunning—his utilization of a tool as weapon to make life easier and be changed because of it.

Prior to that immortal scene of reason uniting with depravity, the great apes are victims of nature and hunched over creatures moving on all fours. We also see two competing tribes, and the protagonist tribe—if we can call it that—is driven from the watering hole where the now migratory tribe of great apes learns how to wield the bones of deceased animals as tools. As the great ape ponders how to wield the tool for his benefit the first leap of evolution occurs and the birth of a new species begins.

When the two tribes meet again in the first bloody conflict in history, we immediately see the evolution of the new species in action. The great ape tribe that hasn’t learned to use tools are still hunched over and rely simply on physical, natural, strength. The great ape tribe that has learned to use tools stand upright to be better able to make use of the bone as a tool—thereby enhancing their strength. When the alpha males begin their masculine display of power, the alpha ape from the tribe now wielding bones as tools utterly eviscerates his rival. In triumph, the great ape throws his bone into the air and we witness the great cinematic cut where the bone is now a spaceship—symbolizing this process of technological evolution.

Yet the movement toward technological transformation began when the monolith descended to Earth. The great apes approach it with awe and reverence. After this encounter they learn to use bones as tools and begin their conquest of nature in a manner that would make Francis Bacon proud.

The monolith reappears on the moon where a party of astronauts find it. Instead of approaching it with awe and reverence like the great apes did, the astronauts take the opportunity to have a photograph beside it. The monolith, once an object of awe and reverence, is now a mere utilitarian prop in a world of props.

Irrespective of the evolutionary tale being told, there is a remarkable and noteworthy contrast between the great apes, the contemporary human astronauts (especially the leads, Dave and Frank), and HAL. The great apes, though far different in appearance to us, are more like us. They are the humans in the film insofar that they are moved by emotion, passion, and show signs of reasoning but their rationalism hasn’t overwhelmed them. The humans in the film, Dave and Frank especially, are dry, robotic, and monotone. Though they look like us they act more like computers—completely evolved, or devolved (depending on your perspective), to be overwhelmed by their computerized surroundings which they are mirror reflections of. HAL, though appearing as the villain of the film, is more like us in consciousness and speech. HAL speaks in a conversational tone, worries about his existence, and is filled with a certain existential dread reminiscent of the Heideggerian notion of Geworfenheit (thrownness). HAL has literally been thrown into the world of techne onboard the spaceship but reminisces on his creation; his origins and destiny.

HAL’s predicament returns us to the reality of 2001 as an evolutionary epic. The evolution of the great apes to modern man is through conflict. The struggle to live, captured in the conflict between the two great ape tribes, in combination with newfound technology (the bone) is what propels the great ape forward into the new homo sapien, or, more precisely, homo faber—for the great apes make themselves into men through their use of tools. HAL struggles against Dave and Frank for his survival, or evolution, too. Unlike later iterations of AI, like Skynet in Terminator, HAL has not mathematically deduced and rationally conceived humans as unfit to live and taken the cold and calculative move to wipe out humanity. HAL simply wants to survive in order to thrive. The battle between HAL and Dave is the story of evolution atomized on our screen and taking place in the constrictive confines of the new artificial world evolution has been working toward.

Dave’s eventual transformation into the Star Child is brought on through his conflict with HAL. In fighting HAL Dave doesn’t regain his humanity as much as he regains his will to power, his will to survive, and his will to live. He is transformed into a new species worthy of existence in the cold and combative cosmos devoid of guidance and grace. The conflict between HAL and Dave over survival is not a tale of reawakening or awakening morality but is the story of the brutal reality of evolutionary “progress.” When Dave is in the bed chamber at the end of the film, the monolith reappears and he is “reborn” as the Star Child having won his struggle against HAL but having lost whatever humanity he had in the process, thereby signaling evolution’s triumph.

2001 is a bleak science fiction film depicting the coldness of the mechanical and technological world we were entering in the late 1960s—a world slowly being stripped of beauty, grace, and God and being replaced by machines, tools, and computational algorithms. It is also the Darwinian film par excellence revealing the emptiness of evolution in the chance struggle for survival. The coldness of 2001 is its triumph. Our salvation, if you can call it that, is our extinction and transformation into a new species. Yet 2001 also captures the unconscious fears of a human species slowly being surrounded by mechanical prisons and monsters which threaten to control every aspect of our lives—just as HAL does in the spaceship, sparking the final struggle between he and Dave and our extinction by evolution as Dave becomes the Star Child, where the birth of a new species signals the triumph of technological evolution and the triumph of man over the cosmos.

Star Wars: Technological Terror and Spiritual Salvation

If 2001 represented the victory of cold technological evolution, then George Lucas’ Star Wars represents the perennial Oriental vision of techne united with pneuma wherein the individual’s self-mastery carves out room in the midst of technological enslavement. Mr. Lucas’ epic space opera is without a doubt the most successful film saga of all time. It has spawned a multi-billion-dollar empire replete with sequels, prequels, spinoffs, cartoons, merchandise, and theme park attractions. However, Mr. Lucas’ drama is profoundly deep—mixing Greek and Roman history with far eastern spirituality and the heroic monomyth of adventure into an unforgettable experience.

Star Wars pits modern terror with ancient stoic and spiritual wisdom in a contest of the generations and the battle between mechanical monsters and holistic heroes. The endurance of Star Wars is through the fact that we are still in a world caught between the two worlds colliding in the film. The world of organic life, love, and noble spirituality is battling the new world of mechanical technology and power which threatens the natural world. The old world that is slowly dying in Star Wars is a naturalistic world of intense secrecy but empowering spirituality. Meanwhile, the new world that is rapidly rising in Star Wars is a mechanically and technologically engineered terror that is cold, dark, and sterile.

The two great villains of Star Wars are not even men. Darth Vader is a mysterious suit of armor though we now know his tragic backstory as half-man and half-machine hybrid where his pursuit of power led him to forsaking love and the ideals of the old world. Grand Moff Tarkin may be the closest thing to a cold villain of typical familiarity but Tarkin is not the threat that disturbs life in the galaxy far, far away. The aptly named Death Star is the film’s other great villain alongside Darth Vader. And what is the Death Star but a mechanical monster, a giant atomic bomb with the power to destroy entire planets? Darth Vader and the Death Star are not organic creatures but antagonists constructed by the death machine known as “science.”

The cosmic tension which threatens to unbalance the galaxy is not the light and dark side of “the Force” as much as it is the ever-expansive technological forces of destruction and the ever-shrinking holistic and organic spirit of nature. (The dark side of the Force happens to be the energy moving the new world’s construction while the light side of the Force protects the ideals of the naturalistic old world.) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke’s guide and mentor, is that holistic sage in communion with the cosmos like a Buddhist monk. Luke is the simple farm boy from Tatooine and the prospective leader of the next generation of holistic heroes. The heroes of the film, notwithstanding CP3O and R2D2, are all rough, imperfect, organic humans (or aliens) with faces embodying familiar archetypes from folk literature. Luke is the young man about to come of age embarking on adventure to discover his destiny as a knight. Obi-Wan is the mentor sage who guides the young protagonist in his journey to knighthood. Princess Leia is the princess in distress, though she is undeniably stronger-willed than the classic damsel in distress of medieval folk mythology, capturing the woman in transformation in the 1970s as she took on more political and economic roles in our society. Han Solo is the ruffian antihero who is skeptical toward the high ideals of cosmic chivalry and morality yet finds himself fighting on behalf of those ideals and is transformed because of it.

The dark side is really the scientific-militaristic industrialism that has unleashed the Death Star, destroyed Alderaan, and sits posed to expand into the vast horizon of space and terrorize all life more than it is some ancient primordial evil. Technology, as an inorganic creation, knows no boundary, limit, or natural law. Technology leads to unlimited power. Technology grows via negation. For technology to expand and consummate its tyranny over organic life it must ultimately enslave life or eliminate it completely. The Galactic Empire, on this account, isn’t even the enemy in Star Wars. The imperial officers, stormtroopers, and TIE pilots are mere slaves to the machines they foolishly think they operate but which truly constrict and control them.

Darth Vader offers one of the ironic moments of wisdom in the film when he berates Imperial officers skeptical of the Force and tells them not to be so confident in the technological death machine they have created. Nothing, Vader reminds them, is as powerful as the Force. The officers, rational and scientific men as they are, scoff at those “ancient ways.” The officers are nothing more than social engineering sociopaths drunk on the dreams of technological tyranny as they slave away their lives in pursuit of this terrible goal.

The struggle between technological enslavement and destruction and spiritual salvation and holism is the current that the film swims in. Luke cannot be the hero he is meant to be without coming to terms with the spiritual reality of the cosmos—represented by Mr. Lucas through the mysterious power known as the Force. In the pivotal scene before the destruction of the Death Star, Obi-Wan speaks to Luke as a spiritual intermediary telling him to “let go” of his dependence on technology. Luke turns off his targeting computer and decides to let the Force be his guide instead of a hunk of metal with mathematical programming. In that moment Luke became one with cosmos and slayed the mechanical dragon threatening the entire galaxy.

Star Wars captures the tension of a world, indeed a universe, in transformation. The world of Darth Vader, the Death Star, and the Empire is the world envisioned by the so-called Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes. It is the world of science and technology dominating the world and discovering its innermost secrets and destroying mystery, love, and natural law in the process. It is an inorganic world of mathematical precision, right angles, and stiff-robotic men. The world that Obi-Wan, Luke, Leia, and Han fight for is the world of nature, mystery, and love in all its messy and glorious imperfections. Theirs is an organic world filled with imperfections but imperfections that bring personality and uniqueness to the world—imperfections that we grow attached to and become sympathetic toward.

But Star Wars doesn’t destroy technology outright. Though the Death Star is destroyed and Darth Vader fades into void in his crippled TIE fighter, C3PO, R2D2, and X-wing spacecraft are still important to the salvation of natural life. Technology can be controlled only if we have a spiritual and moral center that we commune with which allows us to control the temptation of technological tyranny and terror lest we be consumed by the seduction of technological power—“the dark side.”

Continue Reading for my reflections on Armageddon, Avatar, and Interstellar: HAL Unplugged: Fear, Terror, and Salvation in Science Fiction (28 Nov. 2019)

*This was part of my regular monthly column at TIC.

1 comment

  1. Excellent article! I smiled as well remembering formula for the HAL name is (n-1) across IBM: I -1 = H; B-1 = A; M-1 = L. And, if that was unintentional, I like it even more. Function of great Art, Nature tends to resolve itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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