Douglas Rain’s HAL in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ influenced AI image in pop-culture

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TORONTO — As the measured, eerie voice of sentient computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Douglas Rain helped set the gold standard for what artificial intelligence should sound like, say experts.

The Winnipeg-born stage and screen actor, who died Sunday at the age of 90, delivered a clear and neutral tone in the 1968 Oscar-winning science-fiction masterpiece and paved the way for Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and other virtual assistant voices of today.

“In 1967, when he recorded it … there were no speaking computers, there was no standard for what should a computer sound like,” says Gerry Flahive, a Toronto writer and producer who has written extensively on the film for publications including the New York Times.

“So it’s an inadvertent Canadian element in artificial intelligence.”

As the film’s malevolent spacecraft antagonist, HAL also had an ominous quality that conveyed a sense of danger and evil despite sounding good-natured and chipper. He sent a chill down the spines of audiences, making them ponder humanity’s relationship to technology at a time when computers were still mysterious. All this, despite having no physical presence onscreen beyond a red light.

“HAL is the pop-culture example that we most often go to when we think about artificial intelligence and our relationship to artificial intelligence,” says Stephen D. Snobelen, associate professor in the History of Science and Technology program at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

“It’s more than just a sci-fi computer character — it has become this major pop-culture icon. But even in academia, we use HAL as a starting point for discussions about artificial intelligence and the other science-fiction films that have AI voices, computers.”

HAL’s enduring legacy is partly due to Rain’s “magnificently nuanced performance” and the neutrality of his classically trained “middle-class Canadian accent,” says Jack Chambers, professor of linguistics and sociolinguist at the University of Toronto.

“The Canadian accent works very nicely in all kinds of contexts because it is not exactly from anywhere,” says Chambers.

“You can’t say, ‘That guy sounds like he’s from the Bronx’ or ‘That guy sounds like he’s from Vancouver.'”

A versatile actor who co-founded the Stratford Festival, Rain came into “2001: A Space Odyssey” after Kubrick heard his narration in the National Film Board of Canada documentary “Universe,” says Flahive, who was a producer at the NFB for 33 years until 2014.

Rain’s delivery was more poetic and human than the booming style of narration that was popular at the time, and Kubrick initially wanted the actor to voice an elaborate prologue he was planning for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

But in late 1967, during post-production and just a few months before the film’s release the following April, Kubrick decided to scrap the prologue and asked Rain to perform HAL.

Rain replaced Martin Balsam, who’d already recorded his voice for the part and had a Bronx, N.Y., accent.

“It was literally that last-minute and it was all recorded in a day and a half, just Kubrick and Rain,” says Flahive, who interviewed Rain and others for his New York Times article published in March.

“Rain never met anyone connected to the film. When you see the film and you see the actors reacting to HAL, that was a number of other voices of people off-camera shouting out the lines, so they never heard that voice until the film premiered in April of ’68.”

Rain earned raves for the role yet he didn’t think much of it, says Flahive.

In fact, Rain never even saw the film.

“It was not an impressive thing to him at all,” says Flahive. “His work as a stage actor was so meticulous, he loved the preparatory work of getting to understand a character. He did every major Shakespearean role. So this was just a job to him.

“He had no time to really think about it, there was no context. Kubrick just told him a little bit about the film and then just started reading the lines and they sat in a room together and recorded them. So it was very much unlike his usual creative experience at Stratford and he was not impressed.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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