I recently saw 2001: A Space Odyssey again on the big screen. That’s the best way to see this visually stunning cinematic poem, like I saw it during its premiere run in 1968. The film’s star, Keir Dullea, attended that recent screening and afterward offered thoughts on director Stanley Kubrick’s awe-inspiring opus.
He and many others have discussed the visions offered in the film. Some have come to pass: video phone calls and iPad tablets, for example. Others, sadly, haven’t: regularly scheduled commercial flights to orbiting space stations and Moon bases.
But what should engage our attention is that the film’s enigmatic central theme of transformation is itself transforming from science fiction to science fact.
The film’s story came from a collaboration between Kubrick and sci-fi great Arthur C. Clarke. If you’re familiar with Clarke’s pre-2001 novel Childhood’s End and his short story “The Sentinel” you’ll recognize themes in the film.
In the film we see a pre-human species on the brink of starvation, struggling to survive. An alien monolith appears and implants in the brain of one of the more curious man-apes, Moonwatcher, an idea. He picks up a bone and bashes in the skull of one of a herd of pigs roaming the landscape. Now he and his tribe will have all the food they need.
We know from Clarke’s novel, written in conjunction with the film script, that the aliens actually alter Moonwatcher’s brain, giving it the capacity for imagination and implanting a vision of him and his tribe filled with food. He sees that there is an alternative to starvation and acts accordingly. The aliens had juiced evolution. Kubrick gives us the famous scene where Moonwatcher throws the bone in the air. As it falls the scene cuts ahead to a vehicle drifting through space. Natural evolution over four million years has now transformed ape-men into modern technological humans.
In the film, astronauts discover a monolith buried on the Moon, which sends a signal toward Jupiter. A spaceship is sent to investigate, and astronaut Dave Bowman, played by Dullea, discovers a giant monolith in orbit. He enters it and passes through an incredible hyperspacial stargate. At the end of his journey, Bowman is transformed by the unseen aliens’ monolith into a new, higher life form, an embryo-appearing starchild with, we presume, knowledge and powers beyond anything dreamt of by humans. He is transhuman!
Kubrick and Clarke are making obvious references to Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. In that book Nietzsche offers a vision of a human going through three transformations, ending up as a child. “Innocent is the child . . . a new beginning . . . a first movement . . . a holy ‘Yes’.” The child is the creator and the potential for the creation of new values. And, of course, Kubrick used the introduction/sunrise music from the Richard Strauss tone poem named for Nietzsche’s work in the film’s famous opening; in the scene when an idea dawns in the brain of the ape-man; and at the end, when the human is reborn as the starchild. This is as over-the-top symbolism as there ever was!
In 2001 natural evolution and alien intervention transform ape-man, to man, to übermensch. Today, we humans are taking control of our own evolution and are beginning to transform ourselves—but into what?
Futurists like Max and Natasha Vita More and Ray Kurzweil have given us the transhumanist philosophy, the idea that we humans can and should use technology to overcome our biological limits, enhancing our physical and mental capacities. Scientists, researchers, and engineers today are doing just this.
They are creating advanced bionic implants and prosthetics to replace lost limbs or body parts. They are working on brain-machine interfaces that could better merge the two. They are experimenting with actually implanting information into brains. They have genetically engineered certain cells to attack only cancer cells. They are working to program nanobots to do the same. And they are understanding the deep mechanisms that cause cells over time to break down, and are exploring ways to “turn off” this process—that is, to actually stop aging. Could we engineer superbrains for real, eternally young übermenschen in decades to come?
Today, the fundamental theme of 2001, human transcendence, is being made real by we humans rather than by alien monoliths. So when you next see this classic film, you might still see the starchild as a piece of evocative fiction. But you can appreciate that we humans are putting ourselves on a path to something in the future beyond anything dreamt of by humans.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.