Touch of Odyssey
Joseph J. Green
Northern Arizona University
Touch of Odyssey
The films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Touch of Evil (hereafter known as 2001 and Evil) both work to use as a subject for the further study of philosophy. At least half of 2001 is wasted showing off camera technologies and special and practical effects, but when they get into the dialog, especially with the computer HAL, some notions of philosophy start to shape up. Evil, on the other hand, one large philosophic struggle. In our analysis, we will be relating the themes of knowledge and power, ethics and morals, and law to these films.
Knowledge and Power
Knowledge and power are often interrelated. Often times it is those with power who obtain knowledge, and in other situations, it is those who obtain knowledge that end up with power.
In 2001, men, presumably government or some other high ranking people, discover a thing on the moon. This thing appears to be something unnatural, that something or someone must have purposely planted this thing on the moon millions of years prior. Much as is the case with Plato’s prisoners, who were only permitted to see shadows and hear echos, the men in control of this knowledge feared that humans would be unable to handle it and lash out against them or fall to anarchy (Plato, 1998). The men with the knowledge had the power to hide such a thing from the masses, and so they did. They did this by leaking out a lie that it was an epidemic that they were trying to cover up to mislead the masses. Later on, we are shown a new crew who are working alongside a possibly sentient computer system named HAL, which is believed unable to have an error, on a space ship. It is later discovered that this system may actually be able to fall to errors. Fearing this, the two crew members Dave Bowman and Frank Poole decide that it may be a good idea to disable HAL’s ability to think. HAL, as is the way in such films, discovers the plot. HAL was designed to have control over all functions of the ship, therefore HAL was able to use this power, and knowledge, in an attempt to defend itself, and try to kill all the humans.
In Evil, knowledge comes across a handful of times. Near the end of the film, Menzies finds Quinlan’s cane near a crime scene. As Quinlan’s closest friend, Menzies uses that power to try to help capture a recording of Quinlan admitting guilt. Quinlan himself has some sort of pseudo-knowledge that comes from his leg injury. A special intuition. One such time is when he starts to suspect that Menzies is trying to catch him incriminating himself. With this knowledge, Quinlan is encouraged to use his power to kill Menzies and get away with it to preserve his own good name. It is revealed that Quinlan is happy to plant evidence in an effort to capture the guilty, something a man of his reputation can get away with. The unjust who appear just reap great rewards, and, as Plato would say, Quinlan had managed to obtain the greatest that any unjust man could hope to obtain. To use injustice to further his ends, yet appear just.
A member of a criminal outfit, Grandi, uses his knowledge and power in an effort to control the world around him. He uses his knowledge of Vargas, a person trying to imprison his brother for being involved with narcotics, having a wife, and his power over his family, to, in a way, capture Vargas’s wife and intimidate Vargas. He is later able to blackmail Quinlan into entering into a deal with him to discredit Vargas thanks to is knowledge of Quinlan’s situation, and his own power.
Ethics and Morals
When it comes to ethics, these films are full of them, as should already be obvious from the previous section. We have HAL, Bowman, and, to a lesser extent, others dealing with the ethics of deception and murder, and the various characters of Evil struggling to entertain their own sense of ethics.
In 2001, when the movie manages to get to dialog about 27 minutes in, we are introduced with deception. Dr. Floyd meets with some Russian doctors who are very curious about this epidemic. Of course, Floyd is bound not to discuss such matter, but to allow people to believe that they may be in immense danger is certainly an ethical dilemma. The film later has Floyd explain that secrecy was so important that, even though he disagreed with the means, he believed that the ends of keeping the secret was justifiable. The clear dilemma is, do we deceive these people, or do we allow them the truth even though we believe it may cause them great harm?
Later we are met with deception again. HAL said that some equipment was bound to fail within 72 hours. Upon replacing the damaged equipment, the humans decided that there was nothing wrong with it, and therefore HAL must be wrong. However, it is also possible that HAL was simply experimenting with deception as a method of trying to control the humans. Since Bowman and Poole believed that HAL may not, after all, be infallible, they decided to deceive HAL and speak in private about the possibility of disabling HAL. HAL managed to discover their plot and switched to self-defense mode. HAL’s response was to deceive, such as telling Bowman that he didn’t know what went wrong for Poole, and kill all humans, in which it is implied that he killed the crew members who were in stasis, and refuse orders, such as when Bowman demanded the air lock be opened. What is most interesting, since it is not made clear by the film, is that HAL may have been, much like Quinlan, trying to protect the reputation of being perfect, and decided that everyone must die in order to protect that reputation. It is also just as likely HAL was simply defending itself. The idea that it was simply defending itself is made evident when HAL told Bowman that he was scared as Bowman was disabling his supposed sentience, which brings up another question of morality; is it just for Bowman to effectively kill HAL? Is Bowman any more or less moral for killing HAL than it was for HAL to kill Poole?
In Evil characters are more readily defined. What were Quinlan’s ethics and morals? He believed that guilty men must be put away, and that it was his job to do so. It didn’t matter to him if he was being unjust. He, allegedly, planted evidence in many cases to put men that he knew to be guilty behind bars. He’s all too happy to lie, and even willing to kill. He seems to be without ethics. The only thing he is interested in beyond putting guilty men away is his own reputation, this is reinforced throughout the film as he complains of how little he has to show for all the years he’s given to the force. In this, he is very successful. He has but a small ranch, but he is considered a celebrity. Much like HAL, Quinlan seeks to protect his reputation and well being. Further proof of his disregard for morality and justice, is his unrestrained willingness to beat Sanchez, a man he only suspects (Najdowski and Bonventre, 2014). Another interesting thing about Quinlan is that he manages to convince everyone else of his innocence in the face of clear incrimination. Much like Plato said, when people are shown a greater amount of information as compared to a former time, they may believe that the former is more true than the reality, which describes Quinlan’s situation perfectly.
Menzies and Vargas are pretty much the opposite of Quinlan. Vargas is very concerned about being just. He goes so far as to say that he hates the work he has to do, and that the only time the work of police is easy is when working in a police state, such as is the case of totalitarianism (Longley, 2018). Menzies, however, is a trusting and good cop till the end. So much so that he serves justice with his dying breath by shooting Quinlan to save Vargas.
Grandi, our last big character, seems to reflect a special kind of morality. While he certainly wants to hurt other people’s personal and professional reputations, he clearly doesn’t want to harm others. He is all to happy to subvert and blackmail Quinlan in an attempt to get his brother free from Vargas’s testimony, but he also choose to beat a family member who threw acid at Vargas. While he is clearly willing to do immoral things to get his way, it is also clear that he wishes to do so in the least harmful way possible.
2001 has little, if anything, to do with laws. We could assume that murdering is an illegal act and HAL was willing to do so, but that’s the only thing that could be tangentially related to law in 2001. As for Evil, it should be obvious that Quinlan had no respect for the law. He found the law to be worthless, even said something similar when talking about being a lawyer. He wasn’t interested in bantering words and people getting out and technicalities and what not, his only concern was to put bad men behind bars, or six feet under, by any means necessary. His partner Menzies, as well as Vargas, are the opposite. They have nothing but the upmost respect for law. They may not like a law, but they both want everything to be done in the most just way possible. To plant evidence or any other unjust act, even if completely convinced that a person is guilty and would otherwise go free, would be violation of their own beings. Even Grandi seems to have a healthy respect for the law. He understands it as an opponent to his operations, but he clearly does what he can to stay on the right side of the law. Early on when he gets Vargas’s wife to talk to him, he makes it exceptionally clear that she is not to be touched. Unfortunately for him, Quinlan did not feel the same way, which ultimately lead to his death.
2001 and Evil surely have their place in philosophical study. They are both particularly strong in displaying the relationships between knowledge, power, morals, and ethics. Law mostly only applies to Evil, but surely law and morals, at least in some respect, go hand in hand. In any case, it is clear that philosophy is rarely, if ever, a simple matter of black and white.
2001: A Space Odyssey. (1968). [DVD] Directed by S. Kubrick. MGM.
Longley, R. (2018). Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism: What's the Difference?. [online] ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/totalitarianism-authoritarianism-fascism-4147699 [Accessed 14 Jun. 2018].
Najdowski, C. and Bonventre, C. (2014). Deception in the interrogation room. [online] http://www.apa.org. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/05/jn.aspx [Accessed 14 Jun. 2018].
Plato (1998). Republic, The. Project Gutenberg.
Touch of Evil. (1858). [DVD] Directed by O. Welles. UI.