Stanley Kubrick’s visceral masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey so effectively incorporated Richard Strauss’s little known intro, ‘Sunrise,’ that it is almost exclusively known and associated with the film. It is an example of a key dramatic moment, enhanced by wonderfully suited music that is choreographed and edited to perfection. The music by itself seems to recall the images of the film naturally. Perhaps this becuase the music itself is intended to evoke the same philosophical truth that Kubrick intended to convey with his “proverbially good science fiction film.”
The piece is used three times in the film, first in the opening credits. I do not assign much meaning to this first use (although I accept that it could possess more than I give it credit for). It seems here primarily to create a sense of grandeur and introduce what I would say is the dramatic musical theme of the film. The second use displays the first shred of humanity and human-like intelligence through the discovery of tools and the potential of killing. The third use is the next step of human development, as transformed by the Monolith and the mysterious beings that assist intelligent life.
‘Sunrise’ is the intro to a longer eight-movement piece called ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ (or ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ in its original German) which was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophical treatise of the same name. 2001 uses this music to cite and conceptualize nihilistic ideology, particularly in relation to the history and potential future of human evolution.
The fact that there is no dialogue for the first twenty or so minutes of 2001 is one of the most praised and condemned qualities of the film. It opens with a section entitled, ‘The Dawn of Man.’ In this section, we see hominid beings (apes of some sort) unknnowingly encounter an alien structure, a large black cube called a Monolith. They do not understand what its presence and touch does to them, but shortly after the encounter, they are forever changed. Instead of feasting upon the endless supplies of meat that surrounds them, they had previously lived as herbivores (a lifestyle that would eventually cause their species to die out). The idea of consuming meat is beyond their range of thought, but the Monolith changes this. It is important to note how incredibly primitive they are compared to a fully evolved human being. This comparison displays exactly how much of humanity the film credits to the Monolith.
I suppose I would have to label the second use of the ‘Sunrise’ the ‘Master Moment’ to which the title of this post refers, although the when it surfaces for the third time, it recurs for the purpose of recalling the second use and to conclude the idea introduced there. This scene (the second use) is the visual display of the change caused by the Monolith. It plays out like a delicately choreographed ballet. It begins with the ape, Moonwatcher, hunched over, examining the bones of the deceased. Just as the music slowly builds, the movement of the ape gradually transitions from total stillness to a crescendo of violence as he experiences the epiphany of tools, the potential to kill, and the idea of eating meat. By the end he is standing on all fours smashing the bones of the deceased with a bone-fashioned club. This epiphany is the implanted potential for intelligent life within Moonwatcher, implanted by the Monolith. The screenplay describes this moment: “Moonwatcher feels the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion – the urge to kill. He had taken his first step towards humanity.”
When Nietzsche originally published Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in between 1883 and 1885, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was still a fervently controversial, but important new development in scientific research. Nietszche saw the idea of evolution as the end-all to the idea of God. His famous parable of a saying, “God is dead,” implies that throughout human history, until the discovery of evolution, God served as meaning and motivation for humanity. However, once his existence could be scientifically refuted (which Nietzsche believed evolution and his own philosophy did), Nietzsche believed that humanity no longer needed God. Humanity’s motivation and drive would no longer be to please God and live a moral life, but instead to make it our goal to push ourselves evolutionarily forward. He called the next step in the evolutionary chain, the Ubermensch (which translates to “superman” or “overman”). The treatise specifically focuses on the detail that humans are the middle ground in between the evolution of ape-like hominids and the impending Ubermensch.
The third use of ‘Sunrise’ is in the final chapter of the film entitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” This sequence is the surreallist nightmare in which the lead character, Bowman, encounters the Monolith that allows him to experience the next step in human development, just as Moonwatcher did four million years earlier. The final frame of the film shows Bowman as a Star Child, an immortal Ubermensch.
A month or so back, Alex complained that X-Men: First Class felt that earlier X-Men films were worthy of citation. A few weeks ago, I praised Rango for being more sophisticated than such rudimentary efforts by citing such works as Apocalypse Now and Star Wars. But even those citations are merely references that entirely revere the works they are citing, offering no criticism or meaningful reason for the citation other than reverence and entertainment. These moments only exist because the opportunity was there for the reference to be made. Kubrick cites Nietzsche through Richard Strauss–that is a real reference which is artistically rendered without being mere imitation. In fact, it isn’t really a citation at all, it’s more of a full-on embodiment of the work being referenced.
On top of that, 2001 is not exclusively a nihilist film. Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke do philosophically and scientifically display Nietzsche’s Ubermensch as the future of humanity, but they do it in a manner that defies some basic nihilist philosphy and incorporates their own personal beliefs.
The key idea in nihilist philosphy that Kubrick and Clarke are not aligned with is the notion that evolution is fully human and natural. As previously stated, Nietzsche wanted to eliminate the idea of God or otherworldy beings. The Monolith and the idea of implanted intelligence breaks the evolutionary chain and therefore defies nihilism. The idea that humanity came from a God-like super-being (even if it isn’t literally a God) inherently differs from Thus Spoke Zarathustra because if the motivation of our life is supposed to be to reach for the next evolutionary step, that step would need to be within our reach and not require the external help of beings that exist outside of our world. The idea of the Monolith would philosophically require humans to remain dependent on a foreign super-being that may as well be God. And being that the starting point of the film was one of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories, The Sentinel, which is exclusively about the Monolith and its tranformative powers, the film must have never intended to be exclusively nihilist in nature. It is certainly influenced by Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but it is an independent work ideologically. 2001 is not merely film, it is an audacious and “proverbially good” philosophical work.
Although I have admittedly discussed much of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and have mostly failed to confine myself to an individual moment as this column promises, I feel as though the second use of ‘Sunrise’ is the moment that the film is centered around. In that moment we see the birth of humanity as we know it. The final sequence is obviously of equal significance, but the Moonwatcher scene shows us the humanity that we embody, not one that feels like the distant future. In one fleeting ballet of a scene, Kubrick turned a mirror on nature of life on Earth as he perceived it. That is a master moment if ever there was one.