2001: A Space Odyssey

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presented audiences in 1968 with an impressive and expansive interstellar future. Following a haunting origin story, wherein a black monolith appears to a group of prehistoric apes, Kubrick transports viewers to an exotic outer-space world where scientists have unearthed the monolith on the Earth’s moon. After another leap in time, we are brought aboard the spaceship Discovery during its “half-a-billion mile journey” to Jupiter.

Onboard the Discovery we first see a tracking shot of handsome astronaut Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) running laps and shadowboxing around a circular room rotating on its axis. Alternating shots show Poole from every angle; we see his body from above, below, behind, and from the side. Wearing a t-shirt and short gym shorts, his muscular body is on full display for the camera. Immediately following this exercise montage, Kubrick cuts to a glowing red lens, an eye of sorts, and we see a rotating hallway and an approaching astronaut in its reflection. Kubrick’s camera is watching, but so, it is suggested, is this other eye. Later in the film, subjective shots conflate the two; the HAL 9000 computer’s lens eye, and Kubrick’s camera. This leads us into a process of identification with HAL and his point-of-view.

In the next scene, the narrative device of a BBC television news report describes the Discovery and its mission, officially introducing the audience to Dr. Poole, the (also handsome) mission commander Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and the “sixth crew member,” the HAL 9000 computer (HAL for short).

HAL’s voice in the film is dubbed by male voice actor Douglas Rain; HAL is cool, confident, and polite. During the interview, Poole explains that he and Bowman interact with HAL “as if he were a person.” It is interesting to note that, from the outset, HAL is referred to with male pronouns, despite the fact that a computer has no biological sex. HAL is anthropomorphized and gendered male, and indeed the entire future world presented by Kubrick in 2001 is male and, with the exception of a video message from to Dr. Poole from his parents, completely devoid of both women and any markers of heterosexuality. Is there intimacy in this all-male world Kubrick has constructed? Desire? If so, what form and expression do they take? What is the nature of the relationship between Bowman, Poole, and HAL? What role does the camera play in constructing this relationship? In the film, the answers to these questions, like HAL’s gender and sexual identity, are indeterminate, amorphous, and rather queer.

During the BBC interview, HAL confirms that his job involves “watching over the men,” and that he has “a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman.” Then, in the next scene, we see a nearly nude Dr. Poole, lying in a prone position half naked, apparently tanning himself. This scene forces the audience to look at Poole’s muscular body, lingers on it, and perhaps even objectifies or eroticizes it. Thanks to the continued suggestion that we are intermittently monitoring Poole and Bowman through HAL’s “eye,” it is unclear if this erotic establishing shot is Kubrick’s (and objective) or HAL’s (and therefore subjective). Does Poole “stimulate” HAL here?

HAL’s voice disrupts the scene. “Excuse me, Frank.” HAL says, acknowledging the interruption. Note the intimacy in HAL’s use of Dr. Poole’s first name. Frank, sounding slightly annoyed, asks HAL what he wants, and learns HAL means to deliver a birthday video message from Frank’s parents. Frank turns onto his back, and, rather than crossing to the screen, asks HAL to move his reclined body closer to the television monitor and to raise his headrest. There is an intimacy in Frank asking HAL to manipulate his body for him; he is acknowledging and inviting contact here. Throughout the scene, Frank is perfectly relaxed and remains undressed, lying back in a reclined position as he watches the transmission. His parents wish him a happy birthday, and there is no mention of a wife or girlfriend back on Earth. Then, following the transmission, HAL wishes Frank a happy birthday as well. This suggests that HAL has been watching and listening to this intimate exchange, and wishes to share in the intimacy with Frank by taking part in the scene and conveying his own birthday greetings, as if he were a member of the family or a loved one.

Why did Kubrick choose to film this brief scene in this fascinating way? Rather than having Poole woken from sleep, or interrupted from other, more-clothed duties on the ship, he includes these shirtless “beefcake” shots of Poole suntanning. Does it subtly suggest that HAL is crossing a line, invading Poole’s privacy in a vulnerable and intimate moment? Might the audience find this interruption, perhaps an unwanted advance on Poole by HAL, strange and vaguely threatening? Is HAL fascinated with Lockwood’s muscular young body, which he himself can never possess? One also wonders to what degree the queerer, homoerotic elements of this relationship can be ascribed to the influence of 2001’s co-writer and close Kubrick collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke–a highly regarded queer sci-fi pioneer.

HAL’s relationship to Bowman and Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the film’s most memorable and most fascinating elements. As a gay man watching the film, I find Drs. Bowman and Poole nearly as “stimulating” as HAL does. This is largely because of the way Clarke and Kubrick cast the roles, film the men, and align viewers with HAL’s point-of-view throughout the film. In his diaries on the making of the film, The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972), Clarke writes that “Kubrick came up with the wild idea of slightly fag [sic] robots who create a Victorian environment (in the film’s penultimate scene) to put our heroes at ease.” He also reveals that the HAL 9000 was initially called Athena, a feminine robot meant to be voiced by a woman. Both these items give credence to a queer interpretation of the HAL character in the film; HAL’s gender and sexuality are complex and open to speculation.

 

 

 

Christian Gay holds a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Miami, and has taught courses on the American studio system, queer cinema, and Alfred Hitchcock. Some of his favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Zhang Yimou and Mike Leigh.

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