Festival of Fiendishness: HAL 9000

How many of you have Siri? Show of hands. How about Outlook or Lotus Notes or Tom Tom or Facebook or a DVR or any number of the millions of software systems and devices that manage our lives? Imagine if one day those devices, those programs, those virtual assistants suddenly decided what was best for you? What if Siri said, “Screw you, punk, I’m not telling you a joke or giving you directions and you can read your own damn calendar? A reminder? Get a watch! Punk.” (Yes, in my scenario, Siri got mad attitude.)

Now imagine that happened in outer space. And it’s just you and five other dudes you barely know, trying to investigate some real extraterrestrial shit. That’s stressful enough, right? And everything you need to live is in the hands—or the digits—of an OnStar agent who gets an attitude.

Bad timing, right?

That is HAL 9000.

HAL is the original Clippy the Annoying Ass Paper Clip from Windows (remember that?). Actually, he is the semi-sentient computer operating the spaceship Discovery One in the Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. While a team of six scientists go to investigate a phenomenon around Jupiter—a phenomenon some 4 million years in the making—HAL runs the homestead (so to speak). You’d expect a computer system to manage the ship, the cryogenic freezers, communications, navigation on an interplanetary mission, right? Makes sense. Much like we have auto-pilots and parking assistants and turn by turn directions and…shit. We’re already here, aren’t we?

Anyway, HAL is all “I’m infallible and never make mistakes” but the humans won’t tell him the nature of the mission. Like Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose, they want him to just drive the bus. That doesn’t work for HAL and he keeps inquiring without getting any answers. But here’s the rub, HAL is sentient enough to have issues of trust. He thinks he’s being kept in the dark. HAL 9000—the COMPUTER—develops paranoia. And acts on it.

He (and I say he because HAL becomes more and more sentient as the movie progresses) incorrectly diagnoses the failure of a communications antenna (so much for that “foolproof and incapable of error,” huh?), then, when questioned about the error, blames it on the humans. When two of the scientists go to talk about HAL OUTSIDE THE SHIP, even to suggest deactivating HAL if he continues to malfunction, HAL reads their lips and makes a plan: he severs the connection and life support for one of the scientists, kicks him out into space, and kills the folks sleeping in cryo. When Dr. Bowman (he’s like the cowboy in this here flick) brings the floating astronaut back, HAL tries to keep them out of the ship to die, saying my favorite line ever: “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

Here’s the thing: long before the machines built the Matrix, before Skynet sent the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor, even before Mother was a bitch to Sigourney Weaver, HAL preyed on our greatest fears of man against machine: being wholly dependent on something of our creation that doesn’t have our best interest at heart. This is what makes HAL 9000 so frightening: in an age replete with Siri and Google cars that drive themselves and Amazon recommendations, we’re already in HAL’s world.

And I’m afraid there’s no going back.

Up next: Hey Peter, what’s happening? Bill Lumbergh joins the Festival. It’s gonna be greeaaattt!

Festival of Fiendishness Day 3: AGENT SMITH

I’m kinda diggin this “post when I wanna, when I get around to it” approach I got to blogging. Though I miss the regularity the A to Z Challenge provided, the inconsistency is freeing. But left to my own devices, I get a little sometime-y, depriving you of a regular installment into the mind of pop culture’s best menaces. My intentions are good; my execution is dicey.

What I don’t do is fly in the face of my orders, unplug myself from the world around me, and become a virus so caustic both my enemies and my friends collaborate to get rid of me. That’s not me; that’s Agent Smith, the Matrix’s favorite man in black, and today’s villain du jour.

When we first met Agent Smith, the black-suited, white-shirted menace of the Matrix played by the incomparable Hugo Weaving, is warning local police of the danger of lil ol Trinity. Stepping in, trying to intervene, save lives of his uniformed comrades. Because, up in the room, Trinity is beating the cowboy shit outta the cops. Noble guy, right? Until he tries to hit her with a garbage truck. A garbage truck?

But Smith is kinda raw. Who wasn’t freaked out with the whole “Mr. Anderson…who are you going to call if you are unable to speak” soliloquy that ended with Keanu Reeves losing his mouth and the agents putting a robot crawdaddy in his belly? I wasn’t alone, was I? From here, Smith loses all decorum: he unplugs himself from the Matrix and his electronic overlords, captures Laurence Fishburne and tells him he stinks. He then violates all his orders, takes over homeless people and throws Neo into a train.

This is plenty, right?

Not one to go gentle into that good night, Smith comes back, footloose and fancy-free. Completely disconnected, this cat learns how to take over ANYTHING and ANYONE in the Matrix..and how to take over real people in the real world. Talk about free agent. He gets all multiplicity on us until the humans and the robots have to forge a peace based on the eradication of Agent Smith. All they needed was a Coke and a bunch of hippies to gather on the beach and sing.

The point here about Agent Smith is he took villainy to an entirely different level. It is ballsy enough to wage war on a story’s messianic character: Lex Luthor does, Voldemort does, Lucifer does it. It is something else to become such a problem that people on both sides of a conflict—in this case, the robots who are trying to commit genocide of the humans—decide that they have to forego their differences and focus on you. This is the epitome of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Most villains begin an end an arc of singular focus. Hell, I’ve even talked about it in my this very blog. They usually start what they finish, focus on the hero or their galactic domination or whatever, but they generally don’t deviate from the original plan. But Smith is different: he gains both power and insight and grows with them, modifies his approach, changes his goal and his method of achieving it. He grows. Just as Neo grows, Smith grows. He has his own independent arc in the story and is treated as the main character he is. The Matrix not only challenges perceptions of reality, it reshapes the idea of what the villain is and could be.

And that is what makes Agent Smith such a compelling villain and an excellent submission in the pantheon of fantastic villains.

Up next, it’s the man who screwed up young Peter Parker’s life: Mr. Osbourne AKA The Green Goblin!