The first time I watched 2001 Space Odyssey, I ran out of the room at two points: the apes and the galactic fetus. Both were too scary for ten-year-old me. Upon viewing the film again, in its entirety multiple times for class, the post-30 me was still a little freaked out by the apes and the fetus. Something tells me they are supposed to be scary. It is unnerving to be confronted by both inherent savagery and alien re-birth. That said, I still was not sure what Kubrick was trying to say, or what media he was critiquing, so I started with the music, as is my custom where applicable.
The Richard Strauss piece, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, indelibly linked to contemporary American pop culture through 2001, is itself a criticism of the Nietzsche poem of a similar title. This fact alone makes 2001 a three-layered candy bar of media criticism, but it still doesn’t answer the why. Why caramel, why peanuts? According to my music textbook¹, Strauss chose the Nietzsche poem in an effort to garner the best publicity, since the idea of the superman was blowing up around the turn of the century. 2001 also represents a turn of the century, albeit told from the perspective of 1968. Interesting. A clue, perhaps. I hope we hear more about the history of the space program and other relevant bits from our professor on Monday night.
Still puzzled, I went to the Nietzsche poem and read the prologue. Essentially a dude named Zarathustra (we’ll call him Z.) comes down a mountain to share his enlightenment with the peeps. “What is the ape to man?” He asks almost rhetorically, although I think the answer is not so simple, and from the looks of it Kubrick agrees. Z. says the ape is an object of ridicule² and goes on about man’s super quest for “something beyond themselves.” Was HAL supposed to be that something? Is the bone famously tossed into the air by the ape only to match-cut to a glorious spaceship also that something?
In the poem, “superearthly hopes” are bad news. God is dead. The earth replaces God, reminiscent of the earth-hating machine that basically worms out terra firma until it becomes God in the E. M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. Going off-planet in the film 2001 certainly seems like a bad idea, too. We see a murderous super computer, a cabal of military men following the orders of a PR man–refusing to share vital information with the galactic community, and of course, a giant monolith capable of some mind-altering cosmic voodoo. The monolith shows up at the dawn of man, too. It is no coincidence that the alien form appears BEFORE the ape gets the idea to use the bone, first as a play thing, and then as a instrument of murder. We dreamt of space travel before we came up with ICBMs.
Juxtapose the playful ape with the infant HAL in 1992 singing a song like a child, only to grow up and wipe out Dave’s crewmates when he somehow becomes sentient. Was the monolith behind this, too? We are given no explanation, only the collective wisdom that HAL’s model had never made a mistake. This too connects to the machine in the Forster story, as does humanity’s over-dependence on technology. In The Machine Stops, Kuno’s mother can’t answer the door without being carted to it, despite no actual physical handicap. Similarly, Dave can’t open the pod bay doors without HAL. Of course, this isn’t pure fiction. We already rely on too much technology. Forget fixing your own car. Don’t try to watch a movie in the Bobst grad lounge (THAT computer has a mind of its own). Also, you are perfectly safe going through the new airport security whizamagigs because they’ve never made a mistake (under optimal conditions).
But Dave fares better than Kuno. He surely exercised enough for it—all that fancy special gravity running and punching. Z. speaks of the “dangerous crossing from man to superman.” The journey of man and of Dave, the hero, is certainly perilous. Kuno dies enlightened, along with his more dim-witted society mates, in Forster’s technological dystopia. By contrast, the Kubrick film is more hopeful. Although he is extremely critical of the condition of society—of our innate violence, our over-reliance on machines, our sterile lifestyles (need some white to go with your white?), our fake food (liquid broccoli anyone?), he lets Dave not only live, but contact new life and be reborn in planetary scale.
Does Dave meet himself having dinner near the end of the film? Since the superman is something beyond the self, as we know it, I do not interpret the final scenes so literally. I think astronaut Dave sees himself in another dimension, made possible by the monolith. Both Daves are alone, and I found this element rather sad, yet he lives. Time, by my reading, speeds up in this other Dave dimension, and at his passing the alien mother visits once more delivering a new dawn of man.
¹Grout, Donald Jay; Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, NY. 1988
²I chatted with my dad, the philosopher king, about 2001. He said that he and his best friend (now a professor at CUNY) went to see it in the theater during its original release. They apparently laughed so hard during the ape scenes that the usher almost kicked them out. See, even in my dad’s likely substance-enhanced state, he understood the apes were funny. Dad, for the win.