The Case For HAL's Sanity

by Clay Waldrop


Some viewers of Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey" have theorized that HAL, the computer genius turned villain of the spaceship Discovery, went mad during the Jupiter mission. However there is an alternative theory: that HAL acted rationally and logically, indeed with cold, calculating precision befitting a machine of his intelligence. This alternative theory will be presented here, with supporting evidence.

Before proceeding, let us acknowledge that Arthur C. Clarke, in his sequel novel "2010: Odyssey Two" says (in effect) that HAL went mad due to conflict in his programming. However, the 2001 novelization and its sequels differ in many respects from Kubrick's movie, so I will exclude them from my examination, and refer exclusively to the movie for evidence

The Chess Game

The first piece of evidence arises from the chess game between Frank Poole and HAL. The initial position shown on the computer screen is:

Playing white, Frank's "Queen takes Pawn," HAL counters with, "Bishop takes Knight's Pawn," and Frank plays "Rook to King One." HAL then makes a 'mistake' in announcing a forced mate (i.e. checkmate) when he begins by saying "Queen to Bishop three" instead of the correct "Queen to Bishop six."

In descriptive notation, ranks are always given from the point of view of the side making the move. Kubrick, having played chess extensively in his youth, is well aware of this. Being a chess enthusiast and a film perfectionist, I wouldn't think he would allow such a gaffe to crop up in a film of his. Moreover, I have recently been informed by Gerrit Bodde that this game was taken from a master game, Roesch vs. Schlage, (1) played in 1913, and reported by the German news magazine "Der Spiegel." This makes it exceedingly unlikely that this is a gaffe.

No chess-playing machine could possibly make a mistake in reporting a chess position. So HAL says "three" deliberately. Why does he do this? Perhaps to test Frank's suitability for carrying out the mission. Does he conclude that Frank is not suitable? He doesn't seem to be a very worthy opponent, he did not even pick up on the computers simple 'mistake, ' which costs him the game. With his inexorable machine logic HAL might view Frank as flawed and therefore a risk to the mission. Indeed, HAL makes it perfectly clear that he considers all human beings to be error-prone, while he is, "foolproof and incapable of error," and later he will attribute a discrepancy between himself and a twin HAL 9000 computer back on Earth to "human error."

Of course, HAL might not have attempted a deliberate mistake, as it posed a grave risk of being caught, but perhaps he chose to do this because the moves in the game were not being recorded, except possibly by himself.

Crew Psychology Report

In the next scene, HAL indirectly questions Dave Bowman about the mission. He is circumspect with his questioning, careful not to arouse Bowman's suspicion, but they certainly seem like strange questions for a computer to be asking. Perhaps unwittingly Bowman supplies the excuse for his strange behaviour, HAL is preparing his crew psychology report. The computer determines that Dave knows nothing about the real purpose of their trip to Jupiter. He also observes that Dave's artwork is very child-like, showing only modest talent. During the course of their conversation, he deliberately misleads Dave, by concealing his own privileged knowledge of the mission directive. We only find out the truth of this concealment after HAL has been disconnected, in Dr. Floyd's video briefing to the crew of the Discovery.

Why does HAL choose to question Dave instead of Frank? Perhaps he reasons, if the mission commander doesn't know, then surely his deputy wouldn't either. There is however a more sinister possibility that involves eye color. Dave has light-colored eyes (bluish-grey), whereas Frank's are dark brown. Later in the film, HAL reveals that he has the ability to lip-read, so is it much more of a stretch to assume that he can also read levels of anxiety by watching out for tell tale signs like pupil dilation and rapid eye movement. This technique is commonly used by CIA agents in their interrogations. But it is more difficult to do with dark eyed people like Frank Poole, because dilation of the pupils is harder to detect. There is also a CIA connection to HAL in the film, in that HAL's teacher was Mr. Langley, and Langley, Virginia is where the CIA headquarters are located. Also, the CIA is an agency whose business is to extract or conceal information--the weapon of modern man--and this is precisely the business HAL is in too. Why does HAL ask Dave to get closer to his Cyclops-like eye during their conversation? To look at his drawing? Perhaps also to get a better look at Dave's pupils. We should also note that eyes of all sorts--HAL's, Dave's, Frank's, the pod's, the eyes of jack-o'-lanterns--play a prominent role throughout the film. Isn't Kubrick dropping hints that such things are important?

If we assuming that HAL has determined to rid himself of the human crew by this point in the film, it is logical that he, being a creature of information, would want to extract from his victims all the information he can before killing them.

Fault in the AE-35 Unit

Near the end of this same conversation, HAL interrupts himself by saying, "Just a moment. Just a moment. I've just picked up a fault in the AE-35 unit..." Is HAL telling the truth (as he knows it) or is this a deliberate lie? I contend that it is an outright lie, a ruse to rid himself of the human crew. Assuming this is indeed a ruse, why did HAL choose the AE-35 unit? There are several reasons for doing so:

a) An astronaut has to leave the ship to replace the unit, and this leaves him vulnerable to the vacuum of space.

b) The grapplers on the spacepod are too clumsy to permit replacing this unit, so the astronaut will have to leave the safety of the pod and do this by hand.

c) Replacement instructions (presumably on the hardcopy) call for parking the pod a decent distance from the antenna to avoid drift and possible collision with the ship, and turning your back on the pod for the subsequent spacewalk.

d) Without the unit, which provides azimuth control for the communication antenna, contact with Mission Control on Earth is impossible to maintain.

This last point is important because it answers the obvious question. If HAL wanted to murder the Discovery crew, why didn't he just let out all the air? There are two main reasons why it would be risky to do this:

a) In the time it takes to drain the ship of air, the crew might be able to take evasive action, by putting on space suits, or invoking some emergency manual override procedure.

b) Mission Control would be aware of Hal's actions, because the Discovery would remain in contact with earth the whole time, via the AE-35 unit, which would still be in operation.

When you examine the evidence the choice to replace this particular unit seems less and less arbitrary. When playing chess, a skilled player ties to make 'forcing' moves, to narrow down an opponent's options. Mission Control is obviously a wild card, he would like to eliminate from the game. If we take the traditional view and assume that HAL made an error predicting the fault in the AE-35 unit, due to oncoming madness, isn't the timing of the fault an amazing case of serendipity, in view of what has been discussed above?

Divide and Conquer

Just what kind of plot has HAL devised to rid himself of the crew? Basically, he follows the tried-and-tested strategy of divide and conquer. HAL is more or less forced into adopting this strategy by circumstances onboard the Discovery because:

a) The established shipboard routine calls for at least one astronaut to be awake at all times, and it would be exceedingly risky to kill one crewmember in the presence of the other.

b) Rules also require one astronaut to stay aboard and awake during EVAs of the other, except possibly in case of emergency.

c) HAL has to kill Pool and Bowman one at a time, preferably without the other suspecting foul play. The best way to do this is while one of them is outside the ship, as he has no other means--a fact that not only may be literally true, but applies in any case to disposal of the body and the murder weapon, which is essential if HAL is to avoid being disconnected, severely jeopardizing the mission.

Replacing the AE-35 Unit

The first AE-35 unit is exchanged for a backup unit but after bench testing is found to be in perfect working order. HAL remarks that "It's puzzling" and suggests putting the first unit back and waiting for it to fail.

Why the puzzling remark? Dave and Frank are intelligent people. Such people tend to be curious and want to get the bottom of mysteries, is HAL is trying to pique their curiosity so that they will take the required action to fulfil his murder plan.

And why the replacement suggestion? Naturally, because HAL wants another the astronauts to take another space walk.

For that matter, why didn't HAL murder Dave on the first EVA? Here are some possibilities:

a) HAL has to be extremely careful before committing the first murder. It is possible that he wasn't entirely familiar with the EVA procedure, it being one of the few tasks on board the Discovery that does not require his participation. Perhaps he needed to observe a dry run to study the astronaut's actions and calculate when he would be most vulnerable.

b) Perhaps on Bowman's first run he was unable to tell precisely when dark-eyed Frank was looking at Dave's EVA on the monitor in the Discovery's control room, and therefore would not have been able to choose the best moment for killing him.

c) Perhaps he considered Frank the more dangerous of the two, and wanted to murder him first. If this is a suspicion that is later borne out in the conversation between Bowman and Poole in the pod.

d) Perhaps he thought it would be easier to urge Dave to rescue Frank than vice-versa, based on his personality profiles of the two HAL might have thought Dave would be more prone to rush to the rescue,

e) Perhaps HAL only resorted to commiting murder as a last resort. That is when he was in no doubt that the mission was in jeopardy. I.e. the likelyhood of his own disconnection was discussed, which in his mind amount to the same thing. So he chooses to wait until the astronauts reveal their intentions.

The Threat of Disconnection

Frank and Dave then hold their famous disconnection talk in one of the pods, out of Hal's earshot but do not suspect that he can lip read. Frank Poole is quite frank in expressing his opinions, based on his own pool of information, and he proceeds to convince Dave that HAL must be disconnected, saying "I don't think we'd have any alternatives." Of the two Frank is more willing to believe that HAL has erred, "It would be if he knew he was wrong," whereas Dave is more open-minded on this issue. Also note that, at one point in the conversation, Frank, speaking of HAL, says, "Look, Dave. I can't put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him. "Is this Frank's subconscious at work in regard to HAL's mistake in the earlier chess game?

For whatever reason HAL did not murder Dave on the first EVA, But now that his disconnection is being discussed he can not afford to wait any longer.

After the murder, Dave prepares to rush to Frank's rescue. The hurried dialogue goes:

Dave: Made radio contact with him yet?
HAL: The radio is still dead.
Dave: Do you have a positive track on him?
HAL: Yes, I have a good track.
Dave: Do you know what happened?
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I don't have enough information.

This is, of course, the ideal way to answer if one wishes to encourage Dave to leave the ship to attempt a rescue. The first answer is a clever distortion and the third an outright lie.

It should be noted that Dave does not know whether Frank is alive or dead at this juncture. All he has seen is a brief glimpse in the monitor of Frank cartwheeling off into space, arms flailing. He doesn't know that Frank's oxygen line has been severed; it could instead be a malfunction in his propulsion unit, or possibly some other non-life-threatening malfunction. This is also underscored by Dave's question concerning radio contact.

Forgotten Helmet

Dave, in a hurry and not suspecting HAL's motives, forgets his space helmet as he goes out in the pod to rescue his colleague. As Dave approaches Frank's lifeless body, the radar (RAD) screen is shown. A brief printout reads:


The last of these clearly means that the pod is out of communication with HAL. The second could mean no optimum (check)mate is possible from this position. (It could also mean that docking the pod is not applicable to the current mission, so this could be a double-entendre. ) Perhaps this is a hint from Kubrick that HAL's plot, from his point of view, is a life or death game of chess, but that he hasn't yet clinched a win. Chess is a game of pure logic and HAL a creature of pure logic, so this speculation is not too far-fetched.

So how did HAL know Dave would forget to take a helmet? There are two main possibilities:

a) He has kept Dave from becoming overly suspicious so far. Since he still trusts HAL, he doesn't take the extra precaution, because it would waste precious time grabbing for one. Perhaps from studying Dave's personality profile HAL knew he was selfless in taking risks to help his fellow man.

b) As in the chess game, human gullibility meant that HAL got lucky.

While Dave is retrieving Frank's body, HAL murders the scientific survey crew; confident that he has won the 'game.' HAL assumes that Dave cannot re-enter the ship and like Frank will eventually perish through lack of air. So when he returns with the incriminating evidence of Franl's body, HAL refuses to let him enter the ship. HAL must be feeling confident--overconfident, as it turns out--because he tells Dave the truth behind his own murderous actions, saying "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it." Why did HAL bother speaking to Dave at all? Is this HAL's hubris talking? We know he is capable of pride from remarks the television reporter made after interviewing him. Also, Kubrick and Clarke should be allowed a little literary license in wishing to dramatize Hal's motives and inform the audience in not uncertain terms.

HAL also tells Dave something else of importance: "I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen." As we know, Dave and Frank were planning to do this only if the AE-35 continued to function properly. Could this remark be construed as an admission that HAL knows the unit will continue working. And that he lied when he predicting the fault?

When Dave finally re-enters the ship through the emergency airlock and proceeds with disconnection, HAL pleads for his life. His words sound a lot like a plea of temporary insanity: "I know everything hasn't been quite right with me. But I can assure you now, very confidently, that it's going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do." But given the collapse of his plan to avoid disconnection, wouldn't HAL plead for his survival, hoping for Bowman to be lenient.

Dave ignores his pleas and disconnects his higher brain functions, and that is the end of HAL's sentience and his story.


Of course, many of the above conclusions, suppositions, speculations, etc. would be true even if HAL were mad, particularly those after the conversation in the pod. But the story as told here does seem to hold together pretty well. And it is certainly in keeping with Kubrick's filmmaking artistry--as well as the rest of this film and his other filmworks--that he would sprinkle about subtle hints, clues, portents, and the like, pointing to what is really going on underneath the film's surface.

In retrospect, it's too bad Peter Falk as Columbo wasn't on board. I could just envision him donning that rumpled raincoat of his and badgering even the god-like HAL into a confession--or driving him completely mad!

"Oh, just one more thing..." -- Lt. Columbo (repeated ad nauseum)

(1) For a more detailed explanation of the Roesch vs. Schlage chess game go to