2001; or,
How One Film-Reviews
With a Hammer

by Donald MacGregor

The opening of 2001:A Space Odyssey depicts the sun rising above a crescent Earth while the introduction to Richard Strauss' tone-poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), plays. This music is meant to represent the wise man, Zarathustra, as he descends from a mountain to preach his gospel to the people. Only in this case, it is Stanley Kubrick coming to preach his gospel.

Friederick Nietzsche's book, Also Sprach Zarathustra, upon which the Strauss tone-poem is based, presents the idea that mankind will one day be surpassed by the übermensch, or the superman. This theme can also be found in Kubrick's films: Dr. Strangelove (1963), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and especially 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968), which is the subject of this paper.

The Nietzschean idea seems to have its origin in Darwin's theory of natural selection. Nietzsche saw life as "a struggle for existence in which the fittest survive, strength is the only virtue, and weakness the only fault."[1] According to Nietzsche, the evolution of man will travel through three stages: primitive man (ape), modern man, and ultimately, superman. Of this, Nietzsche wrote "what is the ape to man? A laughingstock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be to the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment."[2] Man is just a bridge between ape and superman, but for the superman to be, man must use his will to make it happen, "a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher and farther."[3]

Nietzsche's idea is elaborated on in his belief that the spirit of man is born of two gods: Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus was "the god of wine and revelry, of ascending life, of joy in action, of ecstatic emotion and inspiration, of instinct and adventure and dauntless suffering, the god of song and music and dance and drama."[4] Opposing Dionysus is Apollo, "the god of peace and leisure and repose, of aesthetic emotion and intellectual contemplation, of logical order and philosophic calm, the god of painting and sculpture and epic poetry."[5]

Based on this idea, primitive man is Dionysian in spirit, lead by instinct and living in the moment, but lacking intellectual abilities. Modern man, though, is Apollonian in spirit, peaceful and calm, conquered by democracy, socialism, and religions such as Christianity and Buddhism. All vestiges of instinct in man have been extinguished - leaving man as a pathetic creature, in Nietzsche's eyes. The superman will be a move back toward a Dionysian state. "A return to nature, although it is not really a going back but an ascent - up into the high, free, even terrible nature and naturalness."[6] The superman will regain man's lost instinct.

In the Kubrick films, the idea of primitive man can be found in 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. 2001's depiction of primitive man is in the segment "The Dawn of Man" that opens the film. This segment depicts primitive man gaining the instinct to kill, which is symbolized with the appearance of the monolith. In the novel, 2001, the main ape-man (named Moon-Watcher) after gaining this instinct and killing another ape-man is described as master of the world and thinking "he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something."[7] This is a clear illustration of primitive man as a creature of action and of the moment, a Dionysian spirit.

In a similar statement from the novel A Clockwork Orange, the main character, Alex, says "What's it going to be then, eh?"[8], indicating that he is also a creature of action, a man linked to the primitive man's spirit. As Kubrick says, Alex is "natural man in the state in which he is born, unlimited, unrepressed."[9] Further proof of this is in the film, when Alex says "Thinking was for the gloppy (stupid) ones. The oomny (brainy) ones used, like, inspiration..." Inspiration is a Dionysian trait, while contemplative thought is an Apollonian trait. Alex's love of music ("the glorious Ninth of Ludwig Van") is also an example of a Dionysian trait.

The transition from primitive to modern man was a gradual process. 2001 depicts this in a scene showing Moon-Watcher throw a bone into the air. The corresponding chapter to this event, called "The Ascent of Man", describes briefly the evolutionary and intellectual changes in man that lead to his current Apollonian self.

In 2001, modern man is shown to be scientific, intellectual, and reserved in nature. He is a pale and pathetic creature, lacking the vitality of his primitive ancestors. The U.S. President in Dr. Strangelove is also a good depiction of modern man. Intellectual and ineffectual, "a Stevensonian egghead"[10], he is more concerned with protocol than action. This man is not like Moon-Watcher, the master of the world, despite being president of the United States.

The basic conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian spirit can be seen in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex receives the Ludovico treatment, which is done to lessen his Dionysian spirit and make him more Apollonian. The real effect is he comes down with a death-like sickness whenever his natural Dionysian self comes into play. He is "cured" of this treatment at the end of the film - but he doesn't became superman.

In the journey from primitive man to superman, the monolith on the moon in 2001 marks a major moment. In the scene with the moon monolith, the sun is pictured directly overhead when the monolith emits a loud noise (perhaps to signal the arrival of this moment). This moment is described by Nietzsche as "the noon when man stands the middle of his way between beast and superman...a way to a new morning"[11], the first morning of the superman.

The superman is reached at the end of 2001. In the final scenes, the astronaut, David Bowman, lies on his deathbed. He wills the superman into existence before expiring. " 'I love him who willeth the creation of something beyond himself and then perisheth' said Zarathustra."[12] This idea is also well expressed in another work of Richard Strauss, a tone-poem called Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). Writing about this work, Strauss said it was "to represent the death of a person who had striven for the highest artistic goals...The fruit of his path through life appears to him, the idea, the Ideal."[13] Remove the word "artistic" and interpret the "person" to be mankind, then this accurately describes the Nietzschean idea, that mankind is striving for an Ideal, called the superman, to be willed into existence by man before he perishes.

In 2001, the superman is shown to be a child (called the Star-Child in the novel). This also comes from Nietzsche, in his metaphors for the three metamorphoses of man's spirit. In the final metamorphosis, when man becomes superman, Nietzsche says the spirit will be like a child, because "the child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning."[14] A child also is of the Dionysian spirit, before society conditions it out of him. In 2001, the Star-Child is also the reborn David Bowman (i.e., mankind reborn) and returns to Earth in the final scene. This episode in Nietzsche's terms is described as "the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world."[15] David Bowman, lost to the world during his space odyssey, has returned to rule it.

But what, in more specific terms, will the superman be like? Nietzsche said he would be a return to the Dionysian spirit, something borne out in the novel 2001, because in the final paragraph, the Star-Child (superman) is called the master of the world and has the same thought that Moon-Watcher had ("he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something."[16]), linking the two. But the superman would be more than primitive man was, possessing the intellect primitive man lacked. Nietzsche said the superman would required a new morality, because he would be "beyond good and evil."[17] He would be a blend of energy, intellect, and pride, a man of "refinement as well as of courage and strength, scholar and general in one"[18] In other words, a philosopher-leader in the Platonic mold (see Plato's Republic for more on this).

The Nietzschean idea could be summarized as mankind's struggle to reach an Ideal, the perfect being. Although aspects of this idea are in A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove, it is 2001 that is the most striking example of this philosophy in Kubrick's films. Kubrick himself appears to support this view of his film. Kubrick has, in interviews, said "man is the missing link between primitive ape and civilized human beings"[19] (superman?) and has said that the ending represented man reborn as a superman, "returning to Earth prepared for the next leap forward in man's evolutionary destiny."[20]

2001 is usually seen as a highly ambiguous film, open to many different interpretations. But, maybe it wasn't intended that way. Kubrick has said if something can be thought, then it can be filmed. 2001 is very consistent with Nietzsche's philosophy, so perhaps the film is ambiguous because that was the only way Kubrick could film Nietzsche's thoughts.


[1] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1961, p 301.

[2] Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche, New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1982, p 124.

[3] Walter Kaufmann, p 227.

[4] Will Durant, p 305.

[5] Will Durant, p 305.

[6] Walter Kaufmann, p 552.

[7] Arthur C. Clarke, 2001:A Space Odyssey, New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1968, p 34.

[8] Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, New York: Ballantine Books, 1984, p 3.

[9] Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, p 140.

[10] Thomas Allen Nelson, p 85.

[11] Walter Kaufmann, p 190.

[12] Will Durant, p 334.

[13] Michael Kennedy, Strauss Tone Poems, London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1984, p 22.

[14] Walter Kaufmann, p 139.

[15] Walter Kaufmann, p 139.

[16] Arthur C. Clarke, p 221.

[17] Will Durant, p 320.

[18] Will Durant, p 328.

[19] Thomas Allen Nelson, p 99-100.

[20] Thomas Allen Nelson, p 130.