Kubrick’s Odyssey at 50

The most influential science fiction movie ever made, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” turns 50 this year. Stanley Kubrick’s film, which inserted existentialism into our understanding of science fiction on screen, was a rare case of a prestigious but obscure director making a movie that was wildly popular. At the high-point of confidence in American technology, here came Kubrick’s cinematic warning that we should not believe in the machines that we have come to use to plan, calculate, and measure everything in our world, including, increasingly, us.

His unexpected villain: the spaceship’s “Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic” computer, known by its now famous model number, HAL 9000. HAL has become part of our pop culture but, I would argue, is misunderstood, as is the odyssey in which he appears.

In one sense, space exploration is just our curiosity, powered at the cost of various transformations to our society and way of life. The existential content of exploration is our restlessness. Earth is not enough for us; we will brave dark death in the vacuum of space to discover the secrets of the universe, in hopes that we will finally learn how to live as human beings.

Recall that the word “odyssey” comes from a single hero, not from a general activity. The movie’s protagonist, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), lives out the crisis that space-age technology has brought to humanity, and must take it upon himself to be fully human when his very survival is threatened. In this second sense, the odyssey is one of becoming fully human and at the same time offering a way to freedom from the imperatives of efficiency and control epitomized by the engineering view of space flight.

So let’s talk about machines. This 1968 movie gave us the prototype for Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, a computer that can take more and more control over your life, but only with your consent. HAL, though, speaks in an inhuman way, without proper vocal pauses or intonations—and therefore without the clues to its intentions that are part of human communications. It seems to be disembodied mind, cogitation without context, reason that is no longer capable of or interested in conversation. This starts out strange, but it ends up terrifying.

The destruction HAL inflicts and the destruction that is visited upon it are both lacking the moral purpose and the tragic striving that make up our humanity. HAL is not even a murderer, the cataclysm more like something between a lighting strike and an animal attack. The computer doesn’t know you’re human because it is not human. Kubrick shows you, in beautiful, calculated filming, the agony of living flesh contending with a lifeless machine on which it nevertheless depends for life. He suggests that this struggle is what it takes to recover our mortality.

Just before the greatest triumph of the Space Age, the walk on the moon in 1969, Kubrick dramatized the fear that machines are emasculating us. The men of the crew are infantilized by a cruel master, and the inhospitable conditions of outer space further limit their ability to act in the full range of their humanity, starting with basic motions. Indeed, as David Bowman heads towards a cosmic rendezvous, he seems to have been reduced to a fetus waiting to be born.

Also Sprach Zarathustra

This is in fact a Nietzschean odyssey. The film’s reference to the most outrageous conceit of Friedrich Nietzsche—a competitor to Christ, the ancient prophet Zarathustra, from his 1891 work of philosophy—comes initially in musical form. The soundtrack opens with two minutes or so from the unearthly 1961 piece “Atmospheres” by Gyorgy Ligeti, followed by the brass strains of Richard Strauss’s powerful, and Nietzsche-inspired, 1896 work  “Also Sprach Zarathustra”—a now iconic fanfare of both discovery and war.

It is a music of alarms and the pounding heartbeat—our natural reaction to danger, to the news that reveals our existential predicament. It is heard in the movie’s prologue, “The Dawn of Man,” to orchestrate the emergence of man the warrior, who learns murder from death. “The Dawn of Man” has footage of wild animals, and then Planet of the Apes-style actors enter the frame, as Kubrick depicts the Paleolithic Age wherein primates use bones to become killers.

Nietzsche is the most famous thinker to speculate that we owe our humanity to a combination of cosmic bad luck and our own weakness, more or less as Kubrick shows. Beginning with his earliest essay, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), Nietzsche developed an anthropology that deepened liberalism’s state-of-nature teaching until he completely reversed its original intention. Far from concluding, with the early liberal philosophers like John Locke, that science, natural and political, is our escape from nature, Nietzsche insisted that knowledge and truth are the perverse creatures of our imagination, now finally come to destroy us. Knowledge equals death for Nietzsche, and the 20th century did much to make his predictions uncannily accurate.

This is why Kubrick makes musical reference to Nietzsche. He suggests that the dawn of man is almost a tragedy. Apropos here is that Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), turned to ancient Greece to find, behind the artificial world of natural and political  science, a more primordial world of striving and violence. Kubrick gives us this Nietzschean glimpse into the violent origins of artificial peace, but the filmmaker substitutes technology for music.

Man, the Ingrate

This is a pre-Christian anthropology. The literary work where we first encountered it was in Aeschylus’ tragedy, Prometheus Bound. According to that myth, man, originally needy and hopeless, received fire and the gifts of technology, in defiance of the gods, from the philanthropic titan Prometheus, who was then punished by the gods for this transgression.

Man in that story is not grateful to Prometheus, for technology does not remove from him the terrors of mortality. And Prometheus himself is shown to be deluded to think technology powerful enough to conquer necessity. That’s an understanding of our humanity that liberates us from any duty of gratitude to a providential Creator, at the same time that it leaves us hopeless that prayer could ever help us in our moment of direst need.

It is this tragic view of man and technology that gives Kubrick’s story its moral and philosophic heft. His choice is deliberate and consistent. And his movie is humorless and anti-erotic—nearly devoid of women. Kubrick wants a heroic history and a historical confrontation with the temptation to replace the paradoxes of humanity with the deadly children of our science. Like Nietzsche, he rehearses our history in preparation for a final cosmic confrontation with science and technology, in an attempt to rescue our humanity. Nietzsche agreed with the liberal philosophers about the importance of understanding nature and our own being in order to understand our strange power of remaking the world in an artificial way, according to our will. But he thought liberalism did not go far enough into the past or future to account for our crisis and its origins.

Do We Understand Our Powers?

2001: A Space Odyssey, with its atheistic account of creation, solves the problem of that lack of perspective and as much as announces, as did Nietzsche, the death of God. We do not have to go as far as Kubrick does to realize the importance of his and Nietzsche’s criticism of our understanding of our freedom and our powers. It would suffice to notice that we hardly have any more compelling history than this, never mind any solid grasp on the future we are hard at work bringing about.

We have much to learn from both, and we can suppose that a new form of science fiction would be necessary to overcome the strange existentialism of this Space Odyssey, if ever we find a way to domesticate science. Probably the best way to start would be to understand ourselves in the perplexities so masterfully organized by Stanley Kubrick in this classic movie. Let’s celebrate its 50th anniversary as it deserves, with articulate, intelligent conversation.