I’m afraid your god is dead, Dave

Filled with some of his most famous images and perhaps remembered as his most popular masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has managed to stand the test of time in a genre known for aging poorly. This longevity is likely attributable in part to the film’s groundbreaking special effects—which manage to look fresh and interesting even some forty-odd years hence—or to the mere nature of Kubrick’s incredible legacy as producer of some of the greatest films of the twentieth century. It’s a film quoted and referenced too frequently to measure, and its breathtaking moments of tension or mystery have woven their way into mainstream American culture in an unparalleled way. Despite its myriad virtues, the reason for 2001’s continued interest among filmgoers and academics alike is its incredibly dense and thought-provoking narrative, which manages to integrate and modernize the thinking of one of history’s most influential proto-existential philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche. The film not only came to define the science fiction genre for the big screen but also framed a new mythos for a century yet to come, one that fixated on man, and on what man might become should he dabble in the infinite.

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Nietzschean posthumanity

Kubrick’s largest hint that he might be exploring Nietzsche’s philosophy is his prominent and memorable use of the classical arrangement Also Sprach Zarathustra at multiple points in the film. Of course, the name of the composition alone ties any related sequences to Nietzsche’s most famous work, but David Patterson argues that the parallels go deeper in his essay on the subject:

Also Sprach Zarathustra [is] a theme that Kubrick ultimately employs in three instances, all of which underscore dramatic turning points of “becoming,” including the moment of the apeman’s attainment of human consciousness and the arrival of the Star-Child at the conclusion of the film.1

Of course, it’s simple to label these major sequences as harkening a new transformation of humanity or the human condition based on their musical content alone, and critics have long found parallels between Kubrick’s Star-Child and Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the “superhuman” next step in human development featured prominently in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Many critics have highlighted the obvious “idea that the Star-Child at the film’s end represents a future stage of evolution,” and Patterson acknowledges that there had to have been “a fairly large indebtedness to Nietzsche on Kubrick’s part,” proving that this relationship is easily discerned. However, there is significantly more at play in these key scenes and along the narrative, particularly when one considers the symbol of the black monolith.

The three pivotal sequences which feature the composition—including the apeman’s coming into consciousness at the film’s outset and the arrival of the Star-Child to Earth at its conclusion—are brought on by or focus upon large, humming black monoliths which are counted among the film’s most memorable and significant symbols.2 These mysterious objects can be considered to motivate evolutionary development, to give rise to apes and inspire Bowman’s eventual journey into the infinite and into the next phase of evolution. They come to create us by gifting our consciousness, to advance us toward the stars, and to guide us towards evolutionary succession and enlightenment. Whereas the Judeo-Christian mythology of the past millennium dictates that a theistic deity of infinite knowledge and power spurned on our creation and offered us total enlightenment, in 2001 these celestial obelisks instead come to supplant god as guiders and creators, and significantly offer a spin on human understanding of our own development. This places the notion of god as secondary, and perhaps suggests that, like the apeman who waxed bipedal and raised his crude weapon to murder, we ought to abandon monotheism alongside our other vestiges. Of course, one of Nietzsche’s most famous and misunderstood quotations seems to incapsulate this approach, “god is dead,” which is to say that the deity has lost its necessity and foundational status within human culture and moral understanding.

Coupled with this god replacement is a now-famous moment of Promethean rebellion aboard the Discovery. The HAL 9000 computer serves as an obvious symbol for omniscient godliness since the cyclopic monster claims flawlessness and infallibility. As Bowman dismantles the machine following a series of mistreatments, it mirrors wonderfully the notion of “man kill[ing] God in the Nietzschean allegory.”3 This further extends the role of Bowman as Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra, the man who “kills God [and] ultimately evolves into superman,” symbolized by the Star-Child, 3 and solidifies the allegorical content of Bowman’s journey. Of course, many parallels might be drawn between the astronaut’s voyage and that of Odysseus (as the film’s subtitle portends), but closer examination of the other symbols at work within 2001 removes much doubt that another layer of interpretation intended that Bowman symbolize Nietzsche’s great orator and hero, the superman Zarathustra.

But why space, why the future? Countless films have dabbled in Nietzschean allegory before and since Kubrick, but this above all others has proved immortal. The film’s setting in 1969’s retro-future suggests an eventuality or inevitability of its contents. 2001 introduces a post-human mythology for a new century yet to come, and helped define what would become an entire sub-genre of science fiction literature. The author of 2001’s novelization and consultant for Kubrick on the screenplay Arthur C. Clarke felt that “that next step in evolution beyond homo sapiens will involve a synthesis of humanity and machines,” an idea which helped inform much of the latter portions of the film.3 This, more obviously than anywhere else, clarifies the specifics of Kubrick’s and 2001’s post-human reality. The fresh mythology for a new millennium entails post-human specimens enlightened in regards to their evolutionary biology. It introduces us to a Star-Child, not a Star-Man, who might grow into a post-moral Übermensch and redeem the human race. Among the Nietzschean aphorisms espoused most by Clarke was that “humanity is a tightrope stretched across the abyss between ape and superman,” 3 and the monoliths seem determined to help us bridge it. The notion of a superman or Übermensch is certainly open to interpretation, but Clarke and, presumably, Kubrick have taken it to mean a post-human landscape spurned on by an apparently extraterrestrial but certainly natural entity, defined by a an evolutionary synthesis between man and machine—something of an extension of the film’s apeman wielding his bone weapon. Importantly, this growth takes place in the absence of god, for god has either been replaced by a new celestial intelligence or has been killed at our own hero’s hands.

To assume Kubrick had some evangelical atheist motives with one of the most widely lauded science fiction epics of all time would be going too far, but the film certainly addresses a new mythos for a new century. It explores where humanity might go when freed from all its current constraints, without the false moral authority of god and with an evolutionary destiny known only to his alien replacement. Perhaps unwittingly, the movie defined an entire genre of science fiction narratives involving the next step of human advancement, men wielding new technological tools integrated with ourselves to become something larger, the Übermensch of Nietzschean lore. As the Star-Child emerges from the infinite within Jupiter—a plane not entirely unlike Nietzsche’s abyss—we see Kubrick’s idea of a fresh face of man for a new century. 2001 takes place in the year 2001 to suggest just this, that a new millennium requires a new mythological hero to attain enlightenment. Dave Bowman is this superman who the monoliths upgrade to post-human Star-Child status, the fabled Übermensch whose wisdom will redeem the world, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

%% Connor, This is an ambitious essay, which benefits from your understanding of what Nietzsche is doing in *Zarathustra*. But occasionally it’s perhaps the very scope of your argument that gets in the way of its clarity, but it’s always worthwhile keeping up with you. %%

  1. Patterson, David W. “Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space OdysseyAmerican Music 22.3 (2004): 444-74. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. 

  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. By Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Perf. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood. Warner Bros., 1968. DVD. 

  3. Freedman, Carl. “Superman Among The Stars.” Rev. of Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory, by Leonard F. Wheat. Science Fiction Studies 28.2 (2001): 296-99. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.  2 3 4