This month has seen the loss of two of Stanley Kubrick’s key collaborators. As different as each of their contributions were, both remind us not only of Kubrick’s sharp eye for unique talent but also of his penchant for exploring the ways we tend to anthropomorphize our machines. Douglas Rain, the voice of the supercomputer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), passed away on November 11 at the age of ninety. And Pablo Ferro, the animator, filmmaker, and extraordinarily innovative title designer who created his signature font for the opening titles of Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), passed away on Friday. He was eighty-three.
Though Rain would eventually rack up dozens of film and television credits, the Canadian actor was primarily known in the world of theater, especially for his performances in works by Shakespeare. He was also a member of the company that founded the internationally renowned Stratford Festival in Ontario. Earlier this year, when a slew of new books and revival screenings were marking the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001, Gerry Flahive told the story in the New York Times of Kubrick’s search for—what else to call it—the personality of HAL, who’d oversee nearly every function aboard the Discovery One spacecraft hurtling toward Jupiter. Visually, HAL would be represented as an immobile but seemingly omnipresent and all-seeing glowing red orb with a tiny flaming yellow dot at its center. The voice would have to do all of the heavy lifting, and Kubrick ran through several candidates, including Martin Balsam, before settling on the one he’d heard in one of his favorite documentaries, Universe (1960).
As Flahive observes, Rain’s HAL “has become the default reference, not just for the voice, but also for the humanesque qualities of what a sentient machine’s personality should be. Just ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home—the cadence, the friendly formality, the pleasant intelligence and sense of calm control in their voices evoke Mr. Rain’s unforgettable performance.” Before 2001, most on-screen robots and computers interacted with human characters in a chopped-up monotone that suggested its creators couldn’t imagine that our machines might one day acquire a degree of emotional intelligence above and beyond their mathematical smarts.
HAL, though, is introduced as a somewhat chillingly benevolent presence on Discovery One, asking Dave Bowman, for example, if he might see some of the astronaut’s latest sketches. After complimenting Dave on his improvement as an amateur artist, HAL shifts the conversation to the mission at hand, seeking either to confirm his own suspicions that there may be trouble ahead or to update his psychological profile of Dave. Neither option is particularly comforting. 2001 steadily builds toward a confrontation that plays on our fears that, once a technological singularity is triggered, one of the superintelligence’s first realizations will be that we humans are simply in the way. That confrontation, one of the most famous scenes in all of science fiction, is all the more effective in that it’s underplayed—by Kubrick’s direction and sound design, by Keir Dullea as Dave, and especially by Douglas Rain as HAL: