At this moment in time, I’m currently between two relatively heavy audio-visual essays.  The first (which is now finished and will be going online in segments from the end of the month) is about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, The Sacrifice (1986) and how it has parallel aims with that of the Russian composer Scriabin and his unfinished work, Mysterium.  The second is looking at Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and how Ligeti’s Atmospheres (through musical techniques and ideas) foreshadows Kubrick’s and Clarke’s narrative.

I’m not merely writing this article for a cathartic exercise but because the essays are starting to interlock and I’m finding that one is helping with the understanding of the other.  This is an understanding of the films rather than simply a flimsy use of academic excessiveness.  By applying the theories from one essay to the other, for the first time in a while, I personally feel comfortable with my own interpretation of the narrative of 2001.  The missing link from my understanding, the piece of the puzzle that had been sneakily evasive is Nietzsche.

This website has used Nietzsche several times to discuss and analyse film but it has always been for more overt cinema, clearly with a desire to reference the philosopher and his work.  Here, through applying the logic of Nietzsche from my essay on The Sacrifice to 2001, the arguments stand up equally well and there’s a slow feeling of dread that my essays are actually mixed up.  Within the first essay, much of the analysis is spent on the philosophical ideas of the Ubermensch and how Scriabin in particular wanted his Mysterium to push mankind to the next stage of development.

The same could be said for humanity in 2001.  While there are plenty of readings within The Sacrifice that have a solid connection to this idea, it seems that the answer to my first essay’s question had been staring me in the face in the thematic material of the second.  In the first, the argument stems from the idea of the Eternal Return which becomes a vital component in the logic of the Ubermensch.  The second development of humanity or the superman will be allowed to fall into existence because of the Eternal Return (and after the destruction or the sweeping away of the past).

While analysing these ideas in depth, it felt natural to start to think of 2001; its narrative is basically a parallel movement.  Whereas Scriabin hoped his week-long performance of Mysterium would move humanity onto the next level, Kubrick and Clarke see the obelisk in their story as the instigator of this push.  When watching the film, the obelisk’s appearances constantly alter the humanoid figures around it.  First it accounts for evolution, moving the first steps forward between ape and man.  The obelisk pushes their questioning to a new boundary where it enables them to learn how to use tools, to kill and to eventually walk on their hind legs alone.

Its second appearance drives an investigation team mad with an earache inducing pitched sound (another piece of Ligeti) but doesn’t show what exactly happens to them.  Instead, Kubrick moves on again to a different crew (adding the drama of HAL 9000 the rather wilful computer).   Here, the final surviving crew-member eventually encounters the obelisk in space but instead of cutting away, Kubrick shows his visual interpretation of the destruction, the Eternal return and the rebirth as the Ubermensch or, in terms of the film, what some people call the Star Child.

It’s almost pleasing to study Mysterium in this sense as it’s almost conceivable that the composer would have imagined something along the lines of the space-warp sequence in 2001 to happen after it had finished.  For those who haven’t heard of this piece of music, its prefatory act still exists and an interesting way of considering it is to think of a musical equivalent of the obelisk.  Whether we would have all been moved to turn into Star-Children orbiting the Earth is debatable but it is at least a pleasing tie.  Perhaps as a final book-end to this way of thinking, it is fitting to consider the music that the film is most famous for; that of Strauss’ Sunrise.

Sunrise appears thrice within the film and this isn’t simply through coincidence.  Sunrise comes from Strauss’ tone poem of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; a story explicitly concerning the journey towards the Ubermensch through the Eternal Return.  At each point where the film uses the music, it is to mark this transition and creation.  In the film’s opening visual sequence, it signifies the birth of the universe itself, making it the least applicable in this theory.

However the second and third time it comes into use, it seems to be explicitly referencing this transition.  The second time is when an ape first learns to use a weapon, showing a montage of its gradual evolution into what would eventually turn into Homosapien.  The last time it is used is in the film’s final sequence at the birth of the Star-Child.  This is a film where the musical references are not just well-fitting but are philosophically in touch with the narrative itself.  This is also what my next essay will chiefly concern itself with only with musical emphasis on Ligeti and its use in the in the blank opening sequence; a cinematic choice that has fascinated me ever since I first viewed the film.

Adam Scovell

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7 thoughts on “Nietzsche and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

  1. I really enjoyed this (as I do all your blog pieces :-))!! Very academic approach to the subject, and it’s refreshing when blogs discuss film in this way rather than simple reviews or opinionated critiques. I found your essay really interesting though despite not actually like 2001: A Space Odysey!! I did notice one minor error, in the 4th paragraph it says ‘a solid to connection to this idea’, but think the first ‘to’ was a mistake, but it’s hard to notice those things, especially when you’re going through it and reading so many times!! I can’t watch the videos as I’m at work (hehe) but really liked the essay nevertheless 😀

    1. Thanks Jade! 🙂 Glad you like the essays. I try not to review films in the traditional sense as so many people do that. Thanks also for spotting the mistake. Due to the sheer amount I write, I often rely on editors to do the final proof but sadly the stuff on here doesn’t have that luxury!

      1. Understandable!! I know I’ve written a few things before and have later found little errors in them! Yeh I love that it’s not traditional reviews. I’m not a big fan of film reviews and if I want an opinion on a film, I usually just head straight to Sight and Sound!! Very few people put academic essays up, but I always enjoy them as they are more valuable and certainly more valid examinations of films and require more creative thinking that just an opinion of a film. I need to put my film essays from uni up at some point soon but I have neglected my site a bit in recent months, so am trying to catch up with posting things now. Keep up the great work, and I look forward to future posts ^_^

  2. I read Leonard F.Wheat;s ”Kubrick’s 2001; a Triple Allegory”,he really does show how HAl=Nietzsche’s idea of God,”beyond the infinite=beyond God” and how Zarathustra also starts at dawn,ending with the ”God-killer” Bowman(also=Odysseus)having an interrupted meal!

  3. Du grosses Gestirn! Was wäre dein Glück, wenn du nicht Die hättest, welchen du leuchtest!

    Kubrick & Clarke MIGHT have depicted the Star-Child detonating the orbiting nukes at the end. They are certainly there…

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