2001: A Metaphysical Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick has produced phenomenal works throughout his career. His relentless, unflinching approach to the subjects he chose certainly showed in his films and we cannot be thankful enough for his contribution to the art of filmmaking. That said, any further discourse on how great a filmmaker he was seems pointless to me as it has already been addressed umpteen times by several, far more accomplished personas at greater lengths. What I would prefer to bring under the microscope today is his magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey and what lay at its heart. The film, which has now been minced to mere GIFs and iconic ringtones, was presumably his life’s most important and ambitious work, although I have no grounds to claim so. He started to work on 2001 in 1964 after his overture to Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the script for the film and authored a book of the same name.

2001 opens with a black screen and eerie music, giving a sense of void with all its horror. From the very beginning, Kubrick made sure he doesn’t send the wrong signal about this odyssey being just any sci-fi. This void was then succeeded by a scene of the camera rising up to behold the sun from beyond the edges of the moon and the Earth to the tune of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. Now, this is where things get real. The use of Thus Spake Zarathustra was no mere coincidence, and it should not be with someone as seminal as Kubrick. The extraordinary work by Friedrich Nietzsche at the dusk of his life was indeed the prime theme of the entire project, which Kubrick concurred to later on. And as for the scene in question, it was clearly the beckoning of the new morning that Nietzsche suggested in the book when he said, “The noon when man stands the middle of his way between beast and Superman… a way to a new morning.”

The film primarily addresses three important themes: The Superman, Evolution and the Dionysian and Apollonian. Now, if you’re familiar with these concepts you can avoid this paragraph and move on to the next, and if not I will walk you through them briefly. The Superman is a term coined not by DC comics but by Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spake Zarathustra. In it, he points out that it is not right for us to assume that evolution has ended. He argued that we are currently in the middle of our evolution, that we are the bridge between the hominids and the far superior Superman. Nietzsche declares in his book: “What is ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to the Superman: a laughing stock and painful embarrassment.” Nietzsche says his future Supermen would have their own values, being independently-minded, and forging their own path. These Supermen will accept the fact that they might need to hurt people for the sake of great things, that selfishness isn’t a vice but a necessity. They won’t despise the success of others and will accept suffering as a means to good things. They will also bear the cross of loneliness as a price for their hard nature. They will be gentle towards the weak because of their consciousness of their own strength and will exult at their capabilities. The other Nietzschean concepts, the Dionysian and Apollonian, are paradigms of human nature. The Dionysian engages in revelry, wine, and dance, in chaos and irrationality, he is instinctive and emotional; the Apollonian, on the other hand, is cultured, intellectual, engaging with logic and rationality, and wise and controlled. Finally there is evolution: while it is clear that our ancestors were Dionysian and we have evolved to be Apollonian, according to Nietzsche, we would further evolve to find the sublime balance between these two ideologies to forge our own paths. Kubrick held Nietzsche in high regard and took dear to his views almost devoutly. He too believed that we are not at the end of evolution and must march forward to acquire greater psychological abilities. And even though many have foreseen machinery to be the biggest possible threat to humanity, Kubrick believed there’s nothing that our species cannot conquer given our superior psychological faculty, be it the leopards that once ambushed and attacked the apes or be it an artificially intelligent computer.

The film starts at the dawn of mankind, when the ape-men amid their daily struggles to survive and maintain their territory, witnessed the first of four monoliths that supposedly changed the course of their lives. It bestowed them with the idea of using bones as weapons— this is Kubrick subtly asserting that violence underpins basic human nature. The second monolith is unearthed in the Moon, suggesting that humans are ready for their advent toward the next stage of evolution, to acquire the next level of intelligence. And thus the journey begins; the quiet and long journey which Kubrick infallibly filmed.

We, the audience felt the tediousness of the journey. This is also the part where we come across the iconic Hal 9000 which till date is a big reference in pop culture. This artificially intelligent computer was given to monitor and supervise the journey but it all changed when it started making a few mistakes stoking doubts in the minds of the two other passengers – Dave and Frank - about its reliability. What follows is an epochal scene where Dave and Frank discuss in private in a pod bay about their plans to disconnect Hal which Hal oversees through the glass door of the pod bay. Dave first shows the signs of a Superman when he lets go of Frank to enter the spaceship himself without a moment’s trepidation. He sacrificed his colleague for the greater cause. When Dave struggled his way into the spaceship, he without delay hurried to disconnect Hal despite the constant pleadings from Hal, who tried to convince Dave into not disconnecting him. Later, whilst he was disconnecting Hal, there was a moment when Dave took dear to Hal’s pleas and responded in kindness, knowing Hal’s final moments were soon approaching. Dave was gentle towards the weak Hal, even if he was ‘killing’ him, being aware of his own superiority. Dave personified independency of mind, being willing to act on his own accord even though he remained alone in the entire spaceship.

Finally, in the neoclassical room we see Dave, ageing and perishing in front of our eyes, approaching his final moments at the bridge, taking the next and final step towards evolution when he extends his hand toward the fourth monolith like Adam did in the painting, Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Nietzsche, through his character Zarathustra, says in his magnum opus, “I love him who willeth the creation of something beyond himself and then perisheth.” Dave gives in to something greater than himself, he is the Star child on his deathbed. Space Odyssey is about going beyond good and evil, it is Kubrick’s take on how we must evolve and embrace the Superman within in a future that may not be so far away.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.