Derek’s Take On Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

This was a confusing and unsatisfying movie for me the first time I saw it. It seemed pointless in a lot of ways, especially in the beginning, and a couple of plot twists seemed like non sequiturs. For example, why does HAL become homicidal? And what is the monolith; what is its role?

The Nietzsche Connection

After reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and discovering 2001’s connection to Nietzsche, I understand this movie better. 2001’s connection to Nietzsche is clear, given the choice of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra as its theme music; the music’s title happens (by no coincidence) to be the title of one of Nietzsche’s books. Translated “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, this book expounds on the same themes as in Beyond Good and Evil, but in fictional rather than essay form.

A central theme of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and of the movie, punctuated by Strauss’ music, is that if someone can overpower those who stand in the way of his own goals, he should, and make no apologies for it, since that will ultimately produce the noblest outcome. Nietzsche defines the “will to power”, the ability to make others conform their wills to yours, as a sort of “first cause” of consciousness; that which provides the underlying motive for all other motives.

The first part of the movie, “The Dawn of Man”, illustrates this in a straightforward manner. A tribe of miserable hominids is shown shambling through life. They compete for food with some tapir-like animals; one scene shows one of these tapirs actually taking food directly away from one of the hominids, who complains, but does nothing else. They are also chased away from a desirable watering hole by another tribe of hominids, after being cowed by an aggressive display by the leader of the other tribe.

Enter the enigmatic monolith. The beaten-down hominids awake one morning to find it standing nearby. This image, and the images that follow, are among the most powerful in the movie. The monolith is communicating something to the hominids, indicated by a disturbing and intense cacophony that sounds vaguely like a mob shouting. There’s a shot from the hominids’ viewpoint, looking up the length of the monolith to the sun and moon seeming to rest on the top of the monolith, at their zenith. The perspective makes the monolith itself to appear to be a walkway to the heavens.

The next morning, one of the hominids that was listening to the monolith comes across the dry bones of a tapir. He picks up one of the longer bones and is idly poking around with it. Flashback to the “walkway to heaven” scene. Cue Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra as the hominid starts to hit the remaining bones with greater and greater ferocity, shrieking in triumph as the music crescendos. Sudden cut forward in time to a live tapir falling over in slow motion, and then a scene of this new alpha male sharing the fresh tapir meat with the rest of his tribe. The food-stealers have become the food.

Next the monolith-powered hominids revisit the watering hole. The tapir-killer holds the same bone. The rival tribe is there as well, and their alpha male makes his same aggressive display. This time, however, when he rushes the tapir-killer, the tapir-killer clubs him to death with the bone. The rival tribe disperses in fear. The tapir-killer screams and cavorts in triumph, as Strauss’ theme crescendos again; then he hurls the bone in the air and it becomes the space shuttle, in perhaps the most famous transition in the movie.

Some of the theories I have heard about the role of the monolith have posited that the monolith gives intelligence or technology to the hominids. I don’t think the movie shows this at all. What it seems to give them are “balls”, if you will excuse the crudity. It implies that consuming or overpowering one’s obstacles no matter what they are, is the path to achieving noble and glorious triumphs such as space travel. Nietzsche would agree with this completely.

Why HAL Starts Killing

With this understanding, we can now correctly interpret what happens to Dave Bowman’s crew aboard the Discovery later on. As we all know, the computer HAL seems to go insane, killing the rest of the crew and trying also to kill Dave, who retaliates by disassembling HAL’s memory.

The enigma of HAL’s insanity is why? Why did he start acting this way? The sequel, 2010, gives one explanation: that HAL was told to lie, and could not accomplish this task in cybernetic purity of conscience, and so went insane. This explanation is the “official” one. In 2010, HAL is shown repaired, and subsequently sacrificing himself to save the humans, in fine altruistic form. Moreover, both 2001 and 2010 were written by Arthur C. Clarke, so the authorial interpretation appears to be undisputed.

However, it is important to realize that Kubrick did not direct or help to write 2010, and it was Kubrick who tied the movie to Nietzsche. As you may remember, a much larger monolith was in orbit around Jupiter, which Discovery was journeying to visit. Within the context of 2001, given the story with the prehistoric hominids, it seems clear that the monolith communicated its same message to HAL, telling it, in so many words, “you can take them.” This demonstrates a parallelism between the first part of the movie and the second: the Dawn of Man and the Dawn of Machine.

The Monolith’s Changing Message

What is the monolith and its role? It is an indifferent, automated evolutionary midwife. It is not pulling for one “side” or the other; it simply communicates its wordless message of supremacy and triumph over cloying obstacles.

There is still the third part of the movie to explain. This begins when Dave Bowman enters the monolith and discovers within it a kind of gateway to a place where he is transformed and moves beyond the boundaries of age and space, becoming the incorporeal “Star Child”.

The last time we see the monolith, before Bowman’s transformation, it is standing at the foot of Bowman’s deathbed, as an aged Bowman reaches for it. Standing in the position of Death, the monolith still appears to be acting as an evolutionary midwife, but not in the same way as it did with the hominids and with HAL.

Kubrick may be saying that once a race reaches the stars, the path to the next stage of consciousness lies not in subverting others’ will to yours but to transcending the body. At Bowman’s deathbed, the position and proportions of the monolith make it look like a doorway. Perhaps the monolith’s message is heard one way by a being not yet conscious (the hominids or HAL) and another way by a conscious being (Dave Bowman). It is significant that Strauss’ theme is played again when the Star Child makes its final appearance, dwarfing Earth itself. Is there a way to reconcile the message of the “will to power” with Bowman’s transformation? Perhaps Bowman’s consciousness has to subdue the survival instincts of his body; that his will has to overcome the will of his body. Certainly the scene that shows Bowman stretching and reaching for the monolith shows that the transformation is partly due to Bowman himself and not something entirely forced on him by the monolith. Nietzsche would probably agree that any act of transcending something is really an act of overpowering that same thing, and that nothing noble is born without this sort of struggle and triumph.