Is HAL 9000 Evil?

Warning, this discussion features spoilers regarding 2001: A Space Odyssey!

Computers going on the fritz to cause mayhem, destruction, and ultimately death is a common occurrence in today’s films. Think about Skynet in the Terminator franchise. The androids and Mother in the Alien films, or Marvel’s Ultron. Consider V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or The Red Queen in Resident Evil. At this point, evil computers are a trope in science fiction and science fiction-leaning horror films. Of course, for every great idea in film that is endlessly copied, there is an origin that first struck a chord with audiences and allowed the concept to catch on. Predating all of these famous silicon menaces is HAL 9000 (short for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer), the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Let me start by saying that HAL 9000 is not actually the first troublesome computer in film. 1957’s The Invisible Boy is about a supercomputer who tries to control the Earth via satellite. The first evil computer can be traced back to 1954’s Gog, in which a nuclear facility’s central computer receives instructions from an enemy plane and wrecks havoc. However, the reason that HAL 9000 resonated so well is that he (it?) works as a very effective villain.

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Previous to 2001, evil computers were just not that believable. Both audiences and filmmakers didn’t really understand what computers could be capable of, and so there wasn’t really a restraint as far as what could or could not be possible. Also, these early computers were often seen in fantastical science fiction films. It was rare that actual science was used for entertainment purposes. 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of the first films to succeed at doing this.

2001’s devotion to real science is what makes HAL 9000 really effective. Part of this has to do with the fact that the entire film is designed to seem as believable as possible. Kubrick, of course went to great lengths to make sure his science fiction film was scientifically plausible, rather than just fantastical claims for the sake of entertainment. That approach applies to Hal as well.

HAL was designed by the filmmakers to be an accurate prediction of what could be possible in the future based on current technological trends at the time of the film’s production. Furthermore, the purpose of this computer is clearly discussed through the films’ narrative. HAL is supposed to make sure that the Discovery makes it to Jupiter, no matter what. HAL was “designed” to meet a utilitarian purpose, and the methods of his construction are limited to human (mis)understanding of the capability of electronics.

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Another important reason that HAL 9000 works where previous evil computers did not is the realization that the film provides us with his “perspective”. In previous “evil computer” incidents, the protagonist was the only portal through which the audience was allowed to view the situation. The motivation behind these evil computers was often relegated to rather simplistic ideas like “humans are weak” or “I was programmed to kill”. The terror of such an adversary is enough for these films to create their entertainment – in essence the reasoning doesn’t really matter. This isn’t the case with Hal at all. 2001: A Space Odyssey is more sophisticated, and HAL’s perspective is more complicated. Hal is at odds with himself. The reason there is internal conflict is due to his programming, which was ultimately the creation of humans. In essence, HAL 9000 is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing. The fault lies in human inability to understand the implications of our technological development and perhaps in our misplaced confidence in our capabilities.

Ultimately HAL is responsible for the death of all but one crewmember and the failure of the mission to relay any useful information back to Earth. Although HAL is ultimately defeated, it takes a lot of ingenuity and luck to do so. Does this make HAL evil? Does this make him a villain?

I suppose the answer will depend on your own perspective on what makes a movie character evil or a villain. For some people, a character is evil if its purposeful actions result in the death of innocent people. You could certainly argue that this would apply to HAL 9000. Hal has intent to kill humans in order to satisfy his programming. It doesn’t matter than this logic is brought about in error, and the original programming did not have this desired effect. HAL is still knowingly and willingly performing the actions which result in death. Others might make it a question of motives. Can HAL be considered evil if he isn’t capable of distinguishing between good and bad actions? To some people, something or someone that is evil will knowingly make a decision that society by large would deem morally or ethically wrong simply because of that fact. Does HAL have that capacity?

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Similarly, a villain is defined as a character whose actions influence the plot in a way that goes against the protagonist. In many ways, HAL fits this definition as well. HAL is the ultimate antagonist in 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if his behavior is the direct result of human error. After all, there are plenty of villains who arise by mistake or misfortune. Their tragedy is part of what makes them so effective, and HAL is among the most tragic of them all. He isn’t malfunctioning, he isn’t possessed by an evil spirit, he hasn’t been reprogrammed by someone with nefarious purposes. HAL is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing and that is a very big hurdle for our protagonist(s) to jump over.

Personally, I would argue that HAL 9000 is evil. HAL is killing innocent people in order to achieve his goals. Many people think of evil as lacking morals and goodness. Since HAL is a computer, he doesn’t have those attributes by default. Furthermore, when we have a person or character who is widely considered “evil” they don’t usually view themselves as “evil”. They view their morally or ethically bad actions as having a certain benefit to themselves or their way of thinking. To HAL, the actions he takes are necessary to complete his mission and satisfy his reason for existence. It doesn’t matter if HAL views his own actions as evil, outside observers will, and that is enough. To me, that is also what makes HAL 9000 one of the most effective movie villains of all time. He is a concrete example of the imperfect nature of human existence. He represents all of our flaws and successes at the same time. HAL is an example of both our hubris and our delicacy.Most importantly, he is proof that we still have a long way to go in understanding the universe around us.

Do you consider HAL to be evil and/or a villain? Let us know in the comments below.