This month is the 50th anniversary of the finest science fiction movie, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A year before the moon landing, man’s greatest achievement of space exploration so far, Kubrick gave us the first and still most impressive and most believable vision of our cosmic destiny.
He showed us a moon landing, a space station, spaceflight to the outer reaches of our solar system, and, eventually, a possible transformation of humanity itself. Fear and wonder mix throughout this slow movie, just like the grandeur of the epic combines with the romance of scientific discovery. Daring to explore the universe is part of our heroic striving, but it also reveals our vulnerability and, ultimately, our mortality.
Our ambition may be as vast as the universe we contemplate in our scientific visions, but we are no bigger nor yet too different from the other living animals that so resemble us, except in our agonistic restlessness. Kubrick ends by showing our divine aspirations, but he starts with our beast-like origins.
The Classic Story of Man Versus Machine
The core of the movie, the struggle that gives the plot its fictional urgency and philosophical importance, is man versus machine, living flesh powered by soul versus technology.
This was timely when Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke imagined it, but it is more timely now. Today we are trying to enact this story, or at least Elon Musk is. He promises to take mankind to the moon, Mars, and beyond, while warning us that we must fear artificial intelligence (AI), exactly as Kubrick and Clarke did in creating HAL.
This is the contradiction within our understanding of science and its powers. The movie comprises a series of episodes that pose this problem and offer possible solutions. We need science to survive and to reach other inhabitable planets, to protect our kind from the fate of the dinosaurs, but we’re also using science in ways that might wipe us out before any cosmic threat materializes.
This is the meaning of the pre-historic prologue set to Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” the first setting of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous book to music. Our origin is in an innovation, primates’ discovery of weaponry that seems foreign and ferocious to us. It reveals both the warlike character of our technology and our minds’ power to change the world through imagination.
This is true of us today as well, despite the unprecedented peace we enjoy. Rockets are a child of World War II. The Internet, our computers, and thus AI are children of the Cold War, intended to destroy our enemies and to save our knowledge inside machines, if not necessarily ourselves. These are indispensable technologies today, and they are pushing towards even newer technologies whose beneficence is as doubtful as that of atomic power.
We do not know whether we are creating a post-human future by our greatest, most spectacular efforts, but we also do not know how to stop. We are the spectators of our own struggle to understand and to defend ourselves. This is what we see onscreen in Kubrick’s movie, such that we don’t know whether to mourn our fate or to exult in our achievements. We have greatness, but maybe not goodness.
The ‘Space Odyssey’ Started with the Big Bang
Indeed, at the moment when we have achieved these terrible, world- and life-destroying powers, Kubrick tells us we’re ready to leave the world we have inhabited behind, and take a new and terrible responsibility for ourselves in a universe that seems indifferent to our survival.
Hence the stunning adventure we go on in this mostly silent movie. A grand sobriety is the mood Kubrick awakens in us, fitting for such a decisive moment in our history. Perhaps we are coming to the end of history, Kubrick suggests, and we must finally come to understand our own mysterious character. Indeed, the title “Space Odyssey” refers first and foremost to our entire biological history, starting with pre-human primates.
Like Musk, Kubrick thinks the moon is only the first step in a journey unlike anything previously attempted. It’s fitting that Americans undertake it, for we are more restless and adventurous than any other people. We have as our birthright the discovery of new worlds. We assumed a preeminence unlike that of any other country in history after the European empires destroyed themselves in the World Wars. Kubrick shows us what the next frontier for us is, and the entirely new difficulty we face.
On Earth, there are always the necessities of life and of the world limiting our plans and desires. Our horizons are small, and we know our lifespan is not long enough for grand projects. Our space odyssey involves replacing God and nature with technology and losing our souls in the process.
This is the sense in which Kubrick is a conservative, of a kind, and certainly anti-Progress, just like Nietzsche was. Whether faith or science explains our origins, we understand ourselves as souls questing and questioning our mortality.
Replacing God with HAL
Kubrick shows us that in our cosmic adventure we might be tempted by fear and mistrust of ourselves to set up an idol like HAL, an antagonist worse than the cold vacuum. HAL speaks in a monotone that announces both its soullessness and its near omnipotence and omniscience. HAL forbids and punishes like God, but without any love for us, or providence. It seems to give us new powers, but Kubrick reveals how AI might in fact be a creature of our desperation, intended to relieve us of the pain of living and the inconvenience of thinking.
HAL’s attack on the crew is the last obstacle we must face: nihilism, the disease of our times threatening our very souls. Kubrick suggests this in two ways: by showing that HAL is a knowledge machine that fully opposes humanity, then by bringing back Zarathustra’s story of the metamorphosis of the soul into a child, into new life that is finally fully human, no longer burdened by the beast-like past.
Beginning and ending with Nietzsche, Kubrick wanted to show the American audience that the crazy-sounding philosopher is a necessary ally in the struggle against nihilism, certainly a more reliable ally than technology, because he does not compromise our faith, our self-understanding as ensouled bodies and embodied souls, so he doesn’t tell us to destroy what’s mysterious about us in the name of taking scientific control of life itself.
This victory of wonder, the way our souls open to the mystery of the world, is expressed in the movie’s mysterious ending, which forces us to the limits of rational interpretation as it asks whether we really have faith. That’s how we find out what it means to be human.
Kubrick shows us our grandeur and frailty. He shows us that any space adventure must be an adventure of soul, not a mere technological achievement. He shows us why we seek new frontiers and new worlds: We want to understand ourselves and live in the fullness of our unique powers without being essentially destructive or crazy. We are driven by the hope that we can be hilarious without war.