Night at the Space Museum: 10 Open Bars and Tons of Kubrick References


Nearby, Adam Wannamaker, who came down from Brooklyn, created one of the bigger spectacles during an evening full of them. He was dressed in a costume made entirely of 300 balloons — a representation of the monolith that appeared to set the events of Kubrick’s movie in motion.

“Once you start looking for anything existential and you start wondering about your own existence, you realize that it’s all pointless,” Mr. Wannamaker said. At one point, a security guard appeared from behind the costume to awkwardly double check whether there was indeed a human inside. A few seconds later, a woman approached Mr. Wannamaker and yelped, “Oh, I get it! The monolith!”

Photo

From left, Joe Quinn, Dave Vismer, Brandy Quinn and Virginia Vismer in tinfoil hats.

Credit
Amy Lombard for The New York Times

The costumes were as varied as they were numerous. And if you didn’t have one, the party was there to help, with a station that made tinfoil hats — a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of how space fans have traditionally been viewed. There were Star Trek shirts, lab coats, moon pajamas. Some people wore professional wrestling championship belts. (The wrestler Ric Flair’s theme song was from the Kubrick film.)

“It’s a celebration of science fiction and being able to be around like-minded people,” Mr. Wannamaker said.

It was perhaps not a coincidence that many of the people actually taking in the exhibits weren’t in costume, like David Hand, who said he’s been coming to the museum for 40 years. He said that even if people were coming just for the party, there was still a tangential effect of having them just in the building.

“You’re going to see this,” Mr. Hand, a 47-year-old pharmacist, said, pointing to an exhibit of artifacts from the Apollo missions. “You’ve got an engine from Saturn V. We went to the moon. People see that and all these other artifacts. It’s inspirational.”

But perhaps this wasn’t the night to educate. A late-night talk on Kubrick’s work in the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater between Glen Weldon, an author and an NPR contributor, and Chris Klimek, an editor at Air and Space Magazine, went sparsely attended.

Everyone else was partying.

Continue reading the main story

Happy 50th, HAL: Our Favorite Pop-Culture References to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’


Watching is The New York Times’s TV and film recommendation website. Sign up for our thrice-weekly newsletter here.

Like an ominous obsidian obelisk, the career of Stanley Kubrick towers over cinema history, and none of his films cast a shadow quite as long as that of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A revelatory picture in every way — in its rejection of logic for sensation; in its immersive vision of an advanced future; in its depiction of the perpetual antagonism between humanity and technology — it has left an indelible imprint on culture, high and low and in-between.

Originally released in 1968, Kubrick’s masterpiece turned 50 on Tuesday. To celebrate, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite references from the pop culture of the last half-century. Happy birthday, HAL.

‘WALL-E’

Scenes from “Wall-E” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Pixar — Disney; Warner Bros.

Along with “The Black Stallion” and “Never Cry Wolf,” the director Andrew Stanton screened “2001: A Space Odyssey” for his animators to provide them with inspiration while making this audacious sci-fi fable. Stanton has confirmed in interviews that the design of the primary antagonist — the onboard autopilot computer nicknamed “Auto” — came straight from the cold, unfeeling red eye of HAL 9000. In the streakless lens through which it monitors the characters, there’s both hostility and a complete lack of expression. (Stream “Wall-E” on Starz, rent it on Amazon or iTunes.)

‘Moon’

Scenes from “Moon” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Sony Pictures Classics; Warner Bros.

The director Duncan Jones has stated that Gerty 3000, the artificial intelligence unit programmed to manage the spaceship housing Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), is also a distant nephew of HAL’s. In addition to its smiley-face readout, Gerty has an all-seeing camera lens that exudes the same detached menace as HAL’s does, and the soft (though historically often subtly menacing) tones of Kevin Spacey’s voice grant Gerty a similar reassuring presence as well. Jones has also clarified that the homage is purely aesthetic, and in no way a reflection on Gerty’s function in the story. (Stream “Moon” on Netflix, rent it on Amazon or iTunes.)

0

‘The Simpsons’

Scenes from “The Simpsons” and “2001: A Space Odyssey (inset).Fox; Warner Bros.

The writing staff for this immortal sitcom never met a pop-culture reference it didn’t like, and the writers have returned to “2001” on multiple occasions. In the Season 3 episode “Lisa’s Pony,” an ape with Homer’s face causes a ruckus during a riff on the film’s “Dawn of Man” sequence after he reclines against the monolith — and tips it over. “Deep Space Homer,” from Season 5, sends Homer into orbit, where he gobbles potato chips in zero-gravity in a motion recalling the docking scene from “2001” (think “Blue Danube”). That same half-hour also swipes the often-imitated match-cut Kubrick created between a spinning bone and a spinning space station: In “The Simpsons,” the moment comes when Bart tosses a marker into the air that then cuts to an image of a satellite to conclude the episode. (Stream “The Simpsons” on FX.)

‘History of the World, Part I’

Scenes from “History of the World, Part I” and “2001: A Space Odyssey (inset).20th Century Fox; Warner Bros.

As the knowingly grandiose title suggests, the writer and director Mel Brooks sought to capture the whole of human existence with this comedy anthology, and there was no better place to begin than with Kubrick’s “Dawn of Man.” Brooks narrates the rise of a tribe of primitive, apelike creatures who experience their first sparks of intelligence — and then promptly use them for furious onanistic purposes. A sophomoric joke wrapped in a somewhat loftier reference, it succinctly encapsulates Brooks’s bawdy flexibility as a humorist.

‘South Park’

Scenes from “South Park” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Comedy Central; Warner Bros.

To provide context for any “South Park” reference means wrestling with a base minimum of insanity, and the Kubrick reference in “Trapper Keeper,” from Season 4, is no different. In this case, the “2001” nod is buried deep inside a plot involving a vigilante sent from the future (named … Bill Cosby) and a “Dawson’s Creek”-themed Trapper Keeper that will decide the fate of the universe. A formless blob sharing a consciousness with Cartman (don’t ask) speaks to Kyle in a recreation of HAL’s charged exchange with Dave, right down to the chilling and dispassionate line, “I can’t let you do that.” (Stream “South Park” on Comedy Central and Hulu.)

‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

Scenes from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Warner Bros.

In Tim Burton’s reimagining of the beloved novel by Roald Dahl, Johnny Depp’s whimsical Willy Wonka entreats his tour guests to join him for a technological breakthrough: the first-ever chocolate bar to be transmitted via television airwaves. To create an appropriate sense of momentousness for the occasion, Burton positions a towering Wonka bar in the place of the monolith from “2001,” on an outcropping of rocks surrounded by screeching primates. Much to his amazement, young Charlie Bucket can reach right into the screen and pluck it for himself, in fulfillment of what remains to this day an impossible dream. (Rent “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on Amazon and iTunes.)

‘Mad Men’

Scenes from “Mad Men” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).AMC; Warner Bros.

As part and parcel of his obsession with verisimilitude, the “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner sampled liberally from the pop culture of the 1960s, and the Season 7 episode “The Monolith” isn’t shy about borrowing from Kubrick. Technology and the rapidly changing world it represents frighten the ad executives of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and visual cues in the episode liken the sudden appearance of a giant computer to that of the towering black monolith of “2001” — it’s a harbinger of their creeping obsolescence. Their paranoia turns out to be not entirely unfounded: The computer drives one junior staffer to fittingly Kubrickian madness. (Stream “Mad Men” on Netflix.)

‘Zoolander’

Scenes from “Zoolander” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Paramount Pictures; Warner Bros.

The comic premise of this fashion-skewering comedy from Ben Stiller is simple but potent: Male models may be “really, really, really ridiculously good-looking,” but that doesn’t mean they’re intelligent. When Stiller’s empty-headed Derek Zoolander and the equally vacuous Hansel (Owen Wilson) are tasked with extracting files from a computer, they’re utterly stumped. They poke around searching for a power button, getting more and more agitated until they begin beating the console, at which point the unmistakable strains of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” creep in and just like that, they’re apes in the “Dawn of Man.” (Stream “Zoolander” on HBO, rent it on Amazon or iTunes.)

‘Community’

Scenes from “Community” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).NBC; Warner Bros.

Always dense with allusion, this meta-sitcom emulated one of the strangest and most surreal scenes of “2001” for its third season premiere. Greendale College’s resident smart-aleck, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), hallucinates that he’s transforming into the elderly pariah, Pierce (Chevy Chase). It’s a clear reference to Dave’s arresting confrontation with his withered future self in the blindingly white room. While the scene passes in under a minute, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, still made room for a shot-by-shot imitation of the series of claustrophobic color-inverted eyeball close-ups. (Stream “Community” on Crackle or Hulu.)

‘Magnolia’

Scenes from “Magnolia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).New Line Cinema; Warner Bros.

Paul Thomas Anderson likes to wear his influences on his sleeve, and for this staggering drama about crisscrossing lives in Los Angeles, he paid clear homage to Kubrick with a restaging of one scene from “2001.” While the infirm game show producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) lays on his deathbed moaning in agony, his compassionate nurse, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), paces about, trying to make him comfortable. Anderson’s composition follows that of Kubrick’s meeting between Dave and Future Dave, and the “Zarathustra” needle-drop drives the point home. (Rent “Magnolia” on iTunes or Vudu.)

0

‘Gangs of New York’

Scenes from “Gangs of New York” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Miramax Films; Warner Bros.

Another master synthesizer of his influences, Martin Scorsese looked to Kubrick’s vision of the future for one shot in this vision of the past. In it, he borrows a bit of iconography for a charged moment in which a butcher’s knife thrown in the air stands in for the bone lobbed by the apes during the opening of “2001.” The attention to detail is so fine that the rotations of the knife even match those of the bone, each edit calibrated just so. (Look for it at about 1 hour 46 minutes 50 seconds into the Netflix streaming of “Gangs.”) (Stream “Gangs of New York” on Netflix or rent it on Amazon or iTunes.)

‘Sunshine’

Scenes from “Sunshine” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (inset).Fox Searchlight Pictures; Warner Bros.

The director Danny Boyle recreated another “2001” sequence down to the tiniest detail in this film when he stranded three space travelers (including a still-green Chris Evans) in an airlock, their only hope of escape being a jump to an adjacent one. Their perilous jet to the next airlock may as well have been stenciled from a similar set piece in “2001” that forces Dave to scramble for his life outside the craft. The rhythm of the cuts, the careful contrasts of the scale of each wide and tight shot — it all comes from Kubrick’s playbook. (Rent “Sunshine” on Amazon or iTunes.)

Honorable Mentions:

In “Being There,” the use of Eumir Deodato’s funky rearrangement of “Zarathustra” when Peter Sellers’ plain-spoken messiah leaves the house pays homage to “2001.”

Kubrick playfully checks himself in “A Clockwork Orange,” placing a vinyl copy of the soundtrack to “2001” in a prominent location when Alex (Malcolm McDowell) goes to the record store.

Another in-joke: In Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22,” the “Zarathustra” theme plays to commemorate the first meeting between Yossarian and Luciana (Alan Arkin and Olimpia Carlisi), an odds-on nod to Kubrick’s having almost directed the film.

For the hallucinatory trip into the afterlife “Enter the Void,” director Gaspar Noé has claimed that he modeled the DMT trip after the Starchild psychedelic sequence.

Sillier parodies of the HAL 9000 appeared in Woody Allen’s sci-fi comedy “Sleeper” (in that instance voiced by HAL’s original voice-actor, Douglas Rain) and in the spoof “Airplane II.”

The Story of a Voice: HAL in ‘2001’ Wasn’t Always So Eerily Calm


Even when Kubrick was making the film, the director sensed HAL’s larger implications. He said in a 1969 interview with the author and critic Joseph Gelmis that one of the things he was trying to convey was “the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities that have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.”

So how was this particular creature created?

The “2001” historian David Larson said that “Kubrick came up with the final HAL voice very late in the process. It was determined during ‘2001’ planning that in the future the large majority of computer command and communication inputs would be via voice, rather than via typewriter.”

But artificial intelligence was decades from a convincing facsimile of a human voice — and who was to say how a computer should sound anyway?

To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. In August 1966, Balsam told a journalist: “I’m not actually seen in the picture at any time, but I sure create a lot of excitement projecting my voice through that machine. And I’m getting an Academy Award winner price for doing it, too.”

Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?”

Kubrick had heard Mr. Rain’s voice in the 1960 documentary “Universe,” a film he watched at least 95 times, according to the actor. “I think he’s perfect,” Kubrick wrote to a colleague in a letter preserved in the director’s archive. “The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting.”

Photo

Douglas Rain at the Stratford Festival in Canada in 1968. The year before, he recorded HAL’s voice for Stanley Kubrick.

Credit
Doug Griffin/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

In December 1967, Kubrick and Mr. Rain met at a recording studio at the MGM lot in Borehamwood, outside London.

The actor hadn’t seen a frame of the film, then still deep in postproduction. He met none of his co-stars, not even Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, HAL’s colleague turned nemesis. The cast members had long since completed their work, getting HAL’s lines fed to them by a range of people, including the actress Stefanie Powers. Mr. Rain hadn’t even been hired to play HAL, but to provide narration. Kubrick finally decided against using narration, opting for the ambiguity that was enraging to some viewers, transcendent to others.

It’s not a session Mr. Rain remembers fondly: “If you could have been a ghost at the recording you would have thought it was a load of rubbish.”

Kubrick was attracted to Mr. Rain for the role partly because the actor “had the kind of bland mid-Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part,” he said in the 1969 interview with Mr. Gelmis. But Mr. Rain’s accent isn’t mid-Atlantic at all; it’s Standard Canadian English.

As the University of Toronto linguistics professor Jack Chambers explained: “You have to have a computer that sounds like he’s from nowhere, or, rather, from no specific place. Standard Canadian English sounds ‘normal’ — that’s why Canadians are well received in the United States as anchormen and reporters, because the vowels don’t give away the region they come from.”

Mr. Rain had played an astonishing range of characters in almost 80 productions at the Stratford Festival in Ontario over 45 years, understudying Alec Guinness in “Richard III” in 1953 and going on to play Macbeth, King Lear and Humpty Dumpty. Sexy, intimidating, folksy, sly or persuasive, he could deliver whatever a role needed.

Mr. Rain had to quickly fathom and flesh out HAL, recording all of his lines in 10 hours over two days. Kubrick sat “three feet away, explaining the scenes to me and reading all the parts.”

Kubrick, according to the transcript of the session in his archive at the University of the Arts London, gave Mr. Rain only a few notes of direction, including:

— “Sound a little more like it’s a peculiar request.”

— “A little more concerned.”

— “Just try it closer and more depressed.”

Though HAL has ice water in his digital veins, he exudes a dry wit and superciliousness that makes me wonder why someone would deliberately program a computer to talk this way. Maybe we should worry about A.I.

When HAL says, “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal,” Mr. Rain somehow manages to sound both sincere and not reassuring. And his delivery of the line “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do” has the sarcastic drip of a drawing-room melodrama and also carries the disinterested vibe of a polite sociopath.

Kubrick had Mr. Rain sing the 1892 love song “Daisy Bell” (“I’m half crazy, all for the love of you”) almost 50 times, in uneven tempos, in monotone, at different pitches and even just by humming it. In the end, he used the very first take. Sung as HAL’s brain is being disconnected, it’s from his early programming days, his computer childhood. It brings to an end the most affecting scene in the entire film.

Scott Brave said the moment “is so powerful that you feel very uncomfortable; all of sudden HAL feels incredibly close to being alive and being human. You start to empathize with that experience, and you are responding to the death of a machine.”

For a character that’s been endlessly caricatured — in “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” television commercials — HAL has inspired a surprisingly rich range of adjectives over the years. He and his voice have been described as aloof, eerily neutral, silky, wheedling, controlled, baleful, unisex, droll, soft, conversational, dreamy, supremely calm and rational. He’s discursive, suave, inhumanly cool, confident, superior, deadpan, sinister, patronizing and asexual.

Anthony Hopkins has said it influenced his performance as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For the retired actor who spent decades at the Stratford Festival and turns 90 in May, the performance was simply a job.

A.I. voice synthesis can’t yet deliver a performance as compelling as his HAL, but it is becoming more … human. The HAL era is almost over: Soon, an A.I. voice will be able to sound like whoever you want it to. In Canada, even Alexa has a Canadian accent.

Continue reading the main story

The Story of a Voice: HAL in ‘2001’ Wasn’t Always So Eerily Calm


Even when Kubrick was making the film, the director sensed HAL’s larger implications. He said in a 1969 interview with the author and critic Joseph Gelmis that one of the things he was trying to convey was “the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities that have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.”

So how was this particular creature created?

The “2001” historian David Larson said that “Kubrick came up with the final HAL voice very late in the process. It was determined during ‘2001’ planning that in the future the large majority of computer command and communication inputs would be via voice, rather than via typewriter.”

But artificial intelligence was decades from a convincing facsimile of a human voice — and who was to say how a computer should sound anyway?

To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. In August 1966, Balsam told a journalist: “I’m not actually seen in the picture at any time, but I sure create a lot of excitement projecting my voice through that machine. And I’m getting an Academy Award winner price for doing it, too.”

Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?”

Kubrick had heard Mr. Rain’s voice in the 1960 documentary “Universe,” a film he watched at least 95 times, according to the actor. “I think he’s perfect,” Kubrick wrote to a colleague in a letter preserved in the director’s archive. “The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting.”

Photo

Douglas Rain at the Stratford Festival in Canada in 1968. The year before, he recorded HAL’s voice for Stanley Kubrick.

Credit
Doug Griffin/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

In December 1967, Kubrick and Mr. Rain met at a recording studio at the MGM lot in Borehamwood, outside London.

The actor hadn’t seen a frame of the film, then still deep in postproduction. He met none of his co-stars, not even Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, HAL’s colleague turned nemesis. The cast members had long since completed their work, getting HAL’s lines fed to them by a range of people, including the actress Stefanie Powers. Mr. Rain hadn’t even been hired to play HAL, but to provide narration. Kubrick finally decided against using narration, opting for the ambiguity that was enraging to some viewers, transcendent to others.

It’s not a session Mr. Rain remembers fondly: “If you could have been a ghost at the recording you would have thought it was a load of rubbish.”

Kubrick was attracted to Mr. Rain for the role partly because the actor “had the kind of bland mid-Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part,” he said in the 1969 interview with Mr. Gelmis. But Mr. Rain’s accent isn’t mid-Atlantic at all; it’s Standard Canadian English.

As the University of Toronto linguistics professor Jack Chambers explained: “You have to have a computer that sounds like he’s from nowhere, or, rather, from no specific place. Standard Canadian English sounds ‘normal’ — that’s why Canadians are well received in the United States as anchormen and reporters, because the vowels don’t give away the region they come from.”

Mr. Rain had played an astonishing range of characters in almost 80 productions at the Stratford Festival in Ontario over 45 years, understudying Alec Guinness in “Richard III” in 1953 and going on to play Macbeth, King Lear and Humpty Dumpty. Sexy, intimidating, folksy, sly or persuasive, he could deliver whatever a role needed.

Mr. Rain had to quickly fathom and flesh out HAL, recording all of his lines in 10 hours over two days. Kubrick sat “three feet away, explaining the scenes to me and reading all the parts.”

Kubrick, according to the transcript of the session in his archive at the University of the Arts London, gave Mr. Rain only a few notes of direction, including:

— “Sound a little more like it’s a peculiar request.”

— “A little more concerned.”

— “Just try it closer and more depressed.”

Though HAL has ice water in his digital veins, he exudes a dry wit and superciliousness that makes me wonder why someone would deliberately program a computer to talk this way. Maybe we should worry about A.I.

When HAL says, “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal,” Mr. Rain somehow manages to sound both sincere and not reassuring. And his delivery of the line “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do” has the sarcastic drip of a drawing-room melodrama and also carries the disinterested vibe of a polite sociopath.

Kubrick had Mr. Rain sing the 1892 love song “Daisy Bell” (“I’m half crazy, all for the love of you”) almost 50 times, in uneven tempos, in monotone, at different pitches and even just by humming it. In the end, he used the very first take. Sung as HAL’s brain is being disconnected, it’s from his early programming days, his computer childhood. It brings to an end the most affecting scene in the entire film.

Scott Brave said the moment “is so powerful that you feel very uncomfortable; all of sudden HAL feels incredibly close to being alive and being human. You start to empathize with that experience, and you are responding to the death of a machine.”

For a character that’s been endlessly caricatured — in “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” television commercials — HAL has inspired a surprisingly rich range of adjectives over the years. He and his voice have been described as aloof, eerily neutral, silky, wheedling, controlled, baleful, unisex, droll, soft, conversational, dreamy, supremely calm and rational. He’s discursive, suave, inhumanly cool, confident, superior, deadpan, sinister, patronizing and asexual.

Anthony Hopkins has said it influenced his performance as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For the retired actor who spent decades at the Stratford Festival and turns 90 in May, the performance was simply a job.

A.I. voice synthesis can’t yet deliver a performance as compelling as his HAL, but it is becoming more … human. The HAL era is almost over: Soon, an A.I. voice will be able to sound like whoever you want it to. In Canada, even Alexa has a Canadian accent.

Continue reading the main story

The Story of a Voice: HAL in ‘2001’ Wasn’t Always So Eerily Calm


Even when Kubrick was making the film, the director sensed HAL’s larger implications. He said in a 1969 interview with the author and critic Joseph Gelmis that one of the things he was trying to convey was “the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities that have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.”

So how was this particular creature created?

The “2001” historian David Larson said that “Kubrick came up with the final HAL voice very late in the process. It was determined during ‘2001’ planning that in the future the large majority of computer command and communication inputs would be via voice, rather than via typewriter.”

But artificial intelligence was decades from a convincing facsimile of a human voice — and who was to say how a computer should sound anyway?

To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. In August 1966, Balsam told a journalist: “I’m not actually seen in the picture at any time, but I sure create a lot of excitement projecting my voice through that machine. And I’m getting an Academy Award winner price for doing it, too.”

Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?”

Kubrick had heard Mr. Rain’s voice in the 1960 documentary “Universe,” a film he watched at least 95 times, according to the actor. “I think he’s perfect,” Kubrick wrote to a colleague in a letter preserved in the director’s archive. “The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting.”

Photo

Douglas Rain at the Stratford Festival in Canada in 1968. The year before, he recorded HAL’s voice for Stanley Kubrick.

Credit
Doug Griffin/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

In December 1967, Kubrick and Mr. Rain met at a recording studio at the MGM lot in Borehamwood, outside London.

The actor hadn’t seen a frame of the film, then still deep in postproduction. He met none of his co-stars, not even Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, HAL’s colleague turned nemesis. The cast members had long since completed their work, getting HAL’s lines fed to them by a range of people, including the actress Stefanie Powers. Mr. Rain hadn’t even been hired to play HAL, but to provide narration. Kubrick finally decided against using narration, opting for the ambiguity that was enraging to some viewers, transcendent to others.

It’s not a session Mr. Rain remembers fondly: “If you could have been a ghost at the recording you would have thought it was a load of rubbish.”

Kubrick was attracted to Mr. Rain for the role partly because the actor “had the kind of bland mid-Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part,” he said in the 1969 interview with Mr. Gelmis. But Mr. Rain’s accent isn’t mid-Atlantic at all; it’s Standard Canadian English.

As the University of Toronto linguistics professor Jack Chambers explained: “You have to have a computer that sounds like he’s from nowhere, or, rather, from no specific place. Standard Canadian English sounds ‘normal’ — that’s why Canadians are well received in the United States as anchormen and reporters, because the vowels don’t give away the region they come from.”

Mr. Rain had played an astonishing range of characters in almost 80 productions at the Stratford Festival in Ontario over 45 years, understudying Alec Guinness in “Richard III” in 1953 and going on to play Macbeth, King Lear and Humpty Dumpty. Sexy, intimidating, folksy, sly or persuasive, he could deliver whatever a role needed.

Mr. Rain had to quickly fathom and flesh out HAL, recording all of his lines in 10 hours over two days. Kubrick sat “three feet away, explaining the scenes to me and reading all the parts.”

Kubrick, according to the transcript of the session in his archive at the University of the Arts London, gave Mr. Rain only a few notes of direction, including:

— “Sound a little more like it’s a peculiar request.”

— “A little more concerned.”

— “Just try it closer and more depressed.”

Though HAL has ice water in his digital veins, he exudes a dry wit and superciliousness that makes me wonder why someone would deliberately program a computer to talk this way. Maybe we should worry about A.I.

When HAL says, “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal,” Mr. Rain somehow manages to sound both sincere and not reassuring. And his delivery of the line “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do” has the sarcastic drip of a drawing-room melodrama and also carries the disinterested vibe of a polite sociopath.

Kubrick had Mr. Rain sing the 1892 love song “Daisy Bell” (“I’m half crazy, all for the love of you”) almost 50 times, in uneven tempos, in monotone, at different pitches and even just by humming it. In the end, he used the very first take. Sung as HAL’s brain is being disconnected, it’s from his early programming days, his computer childhood. It brings to an end the most affecting scene in the entire film.

Scott Brave said the moment “is so powerful that you feel very uncomfortable; all of sudden HAL feels incredibly close to being alive and being human. You start to empathize with that experience, and you are responding to the death of a machine.”

For a character that’s been endlessly caricatured — in “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” television commercials — HAL has inspired a surprisingly rich range of adjectives over the years. He and his voice have been described as aloof, eerily neutral, silky, wheedling, controlled, baleful, unisex, droll, soft, conversational, dreamy, supremely calm and rational. He’s discursive, suave, inhumanly cool, confident, superior, deadpan, sinister, patronizing and asexual.

Anthony Hopkins has said it influenced his performance as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For the retired actor who spent decades at the Stratford Festival and turns 90 in May, the performance was simply a job.

A.I. voice synthesis can’t yet deliver a performance as compelling as his HAL, but it is becoming more … human. The HAL era is almost over: Soon, an A.I. voice will be able to sound like whoever you want it to. In Canada, even Alexa has a Canadian accent.

Continue reading the main story