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What is 2001: A Space Odyssey about?
2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t as complicated as it seems. The film is about humanity’s relationship with technology and the next stage of our evolution. It came out in the midst of both the Atomic Age and the Space Race. A time when people were fascinated by and terrified of where science would lead us. For every advancement that made daily life easier there was another thing that could annihilate us all.
The easy breakdown of each chapter of 2001 looks like this: discovering technology, mastery of technology, in conflict with technology, transcending technology. Watch the movie with those broader ideas in mind and it’s a lot less mysterious. The secondary theme is communication. If a moment isn’t about technology, it’s about how we interact with one another.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Moonwatcher (chief ape) – Daniel Richter
- Heywood Floyd – William Sylverster
- Floyd’s daughter – Vivian Kubrick
- Elena – Margaret Tyzack
- David Bowman – Keir Dullea
- Frank Poole – Gary Lockwood
- HAL 9000 – Douglas Rain
- Based on – the short story “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke
- Written by – Arthur C. Clarke | Stanley Kubrick
- Directed by – Stanley Kubrick
The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey explained
The end of 2001: A Space Odyssey begins after Dr. David Bowman approaches a monolith floating outside of Jupiter. The close encounter triggers a Star Gate that creates a wormhole that flings him through time and space.
Bowman arrives in a Victorian-era themed hotel room. Without instruction of what to do next, he simply explores. But the version of him that arrived captures a glimpse of a version of him in the future, years older. Then the one who arrived ceases to exist. The older version of Bowman walks into the bathroom. Back in the living room, he sees someone eating a meal. We cut to see that this is an even older version of Bowman. The previous version vanishes.
The version who is eating drops a glass. It shatters. He then sees an even older version of himself, in bed, asleep. The one who is eating disappears and it’s just the oldest Bowman, in bed, struggling to breathe. A monolith appears in the room, at the foot of the bed. Bowman uses every last bit of his strength to reach a hand out to it. He then transforms into a newborn baby, encased in a glowing womb of energy. The baby heads into the monolith. And arrives back in the Earth’s orbit.
With a knowing look, the Star Child makes eye contact with the camera.
The plot explained by Stanley Kubrick.
Let’s start with the simple stuff. A Japanese journalist named Junichi Yaoi had a phone call with Kubrick where he asked Kubrick about the end of 2001.
Kubrick: I’ve tried to avoid doing this ever since the picture came out. Because when you just say the ideas they sound foolish. Whereas if they’re dramatized, one feels it. But I’ll try. The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence, with no shape or form, and they put him in what I supposed you could describe as a human zoo, to study him. And his whole life passes from that point on in that room, and he has no sense of time. It just seems to happen, as it does in the film. They choose this room, which is a very inaccurate replica of French architecture, deliberately so, inaccurate, because one was suggesting that they had some idea of something they might think was pretty but weren’t quite sure, just like we’re not quite sure what to do in zoos with animals to try and give them what we think is their natural environment.
Anyway, when they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures of the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being, and sent back to Earth, transformed and made into some sort of superman. And we have to only guess what happens when he goes back. It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology. And that is what we were trying to suggest.
That’s pretty straightforward. It’s essentially about the death of humanity as we know it and the evolution to the next chapter and what that might be. The end of one chapter and the start of another. So that’s what happened. Now, let’s look at why.
The deeper meaning
2001: A Space Odyssey is about humanity’s relationship with technology. The first chapter, with the apes, is a dramatization of humanity without tools. We’re at the mercy of everything. Fearful. Competing over basic resources. Then the monolith arrives and we “evolve” by discovering the use of a bone as a tool. Specifically, a weapon. That takes us to the next chapter with Heywood Floyd traveling to the Clavius Base.
Floyd’s sequence serves as a juxtaposition to the first. It contrasts the stark differences in living conditions, luxuries, health, social dynamics, and communication. Most importantly, it shows the way in which humans have gone from living without technology to mastering its use.
The third chapter is about the dangers of advanced technology. HAL 9000 represents the way in which we can fall into conflict with technology or due to technology. When the film came out in 1968, it was only 23 years after Oppenheimer and Los Alamos completed the atomic bomb and the U.S. dropped two of them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So the idea of technology as a danger, especially with the rise of computers throughout the 60s, was a very, very relevant talking point (much like how in 2023 the future of AI is something that’s discussed nearly every day).
Up to Bowman’s encounter with the monolith outside Jupiter, 2001 had focused on the evolution of humanity in connection with technology. But once Bowman’s brought in by the god-like beings, things begin to change. Those beings are, as Kubrick says, made of pure energy. The source of their power and ability isn’t solid like a bone or a pen or a spaceship. When Bowman dies, he’s reborn as the “Star Child” and transported back to Earth. We can only assume he is more knowledgeable and more powerful than ever before.
We can turn to the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization for more information. Remember, Clarke wrote the short story, “The Sentinel”, that was the foundation for the movie and co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick. He’s not just some writer who did a book version. He’s the other parent of this story.
We pick up with Bowman, as the Star Child, in space, gazing upon Earth
He had returned in time. Down there on the crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies—and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close
A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in its orbit. The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky. He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the sleeping globe. Then he waited, marshaling his thought and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.
But he would think of something.
What we see there is technology being aimed at the Star Child. And it proves futile. As Clarke said, “history as men knew it would be drawing to a close.” You can think of the Industrial Age versus the Atomic Age. Then the Atomic Age versus what eventually arrived: the Information Age. Now it’s the Digital Age. The technology of what was always pales in comparison to what comes next. That’s what the Star Child represents—the unknown future, humanity’s next era and the way it changes us.
Wikipedia already has an entry for an unspecified “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that they predict will be focused on “artificial intelligence, gene editing” and “advanced robotics that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.” Elon Musk said his Neuralink is looking for volunteers to try out what they describe as a “brain-computer interface [that] is fully implantable, cosmetically invisible, and designed to let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.”
Things are going to get weird.
How do you demonstrate that scary potential of the next stage in human advancement? A big giant floating baby in space. Space is often symbolic for the next frontier. Especially during the 1960s. And a baby is always a metaphor for the future. And having this child have powers that transcend technology as we know embodies the idea that old technologies fall by the wayside and new “powers” emerge. Imagine showing someone from 1968 an iPhone 15 and explaining the Internet to them.
That’s what the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey means. Kubrick didn’t include the bit about detonating the nuclear arsenal but the meaning is the same—humanity is on to the next thing.
So you can look at 2001, on the whole, as representative of a cycle of life. We go from infants. To discovering something. To mastering that thing. To that thing potentially destroying us. To a whole new discovery. And the cycle repeats. Generation after generation.
We have a much more succinct statement made by Clarke In the epilogue to the novel: Since 2001 was concerned with the next stage of human evolution, to expect me (or even Stanley) to depict it would be as absurd as asking Moon-watcher [one of the apes] to describe Bowman and his world.
The themes and meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001’s primary theme is human advancement, specifically through a relationship with technology. But we covered that pretty thoroughly in the explanation of the ending. So let’s discuss other thematic aspects.
Technology and communication are at the core of each of 2001’s four chapters. But they’re handled a little differently each time. The emphasis on technology is made pretty clear in the famous jump-cut from the bone in the air to the spaceship. But it’s a bit easier to overlook how important communication is to each section.
In the ape scenes, language as we know it doesn’t exist. It’s body language, grunts, cries, whimpers, cheers. When two groups battle over a water source, it seems impossible for them to even discuss the idea of sharing. Primitive times seem to demand primitive solutions.
To contrast the conflict over the water source we have the brief interrogation of Floyd by Dr. Andrei Smyslov at Space Station 5. Floyd is American and sits with a group of Russian scientists. On the table? Glasses of water. The nationalities are important here because 2001 came out in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Not only the Cold War but the height of the Space Race. These were two competing powers.
Even though the conversation is polite, even charming, the conflict arises when Smyslov asks Floyd about the Clavius Base being unresponsive to the outside world. Floyd plays dumb. Maybe the phones are just down? Then the Russians mention the base denied a Russian ship emergency landing. Floyd acts surprised. And Smyslov presses that this is a violation of the IAS convention. Floyd agrees. Smyslov finally gets to the point—a rumor of a virus. Floyd says he’s not at liberty to discuss this. Another Russian scientist, Elena, cuts the tension by offering Floyd a drink. Floyd, polite for the umpteenth time, declines, then proceeds to his next shuttle.
The water being on the table and the offering of a drink demonstrate how far we’ve come. Before, in the prehistoric past, we fought to the death over something like water. Now? It’s shared between rivals. Offered freely, even. It’s information that people are fighting over. But the fight isn’t physical, as it was before. It’s psychological and behind the scenes. You’re nice to someone’s face, but working behind their back. When Floyd gets to Clavius, we hear how the virus story is a lie to misdirect other countries. And we saw that it worked perfectly.
And then the HAL 9000 section. Dave, Frank, and HAL are all very Floyd in their communication—polite and charming. The humans treat HAL like a person. HAL, despite being much smarter, treats them as equals. For a time, they coexist beautifully. Until HAL makes a mistake and can’t accept being less-than-perfect. When he’s confronted with the fact that another HAL unit confirmed the mistake, what’s our HAL do? It blames humans. So Dave and Frank lie to HAL in order to go off to discuss the potential ramifications of HAL’s malfunction.
They think they’re alone in a space pod. That HAL can’t hear them. They even call out requests to HAL, requests that he has always acknowledged. Except it doesn’t. HAL pretends he can’t hear then spies on Dave and Frank. Dave is pretty kind in regards to HAL. Frank trashes it. They ultimately discuss the prospect of having to turn off HAL’s higher brain functions. Essentially murdering the AI. That’s when the film reveals HAL has been reading their lips the entire time. Then cuts to intermission.
It’s not a coincidence that a scene grounded in communication dynamics is the mid-narrative climax. And that the eventual death of HAL emphasizes the distortion, slowing down, and eventual cessation of HAL’s voice, his ability to communicate.
That brings us to the last section. One of the reasons the final chapter is so befuddling to audiences is the lack of communication. The god-like beings don’t say anything. They don’t explain themselves. There’s a monolith. Dave goes through a wormhole. Then is inexplicably in a room. We’re never told why or what for. The lack of communication is what leaves everyone so confused.
The only way the beings communicate is through the monoliths. The first one gets people evolving so that they can discover the second one on the moon. That one sends out a signal that causes the mission to Jupiter. Which opens up the Star Gate that brings Dave to the Hotel Room. Which allows the beings to give Dave, and thus humanity, an entirely new set of powers. So the monolith’s themselves were a form of communication.
Ultimately, communication is another tool that we use. And, like any tool, how someone wields it can be helpful, hurtful, or somewhere inbetween.
There’s a lot of fear in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The apes, initially, have no way of defending themselves against the leopard. We see how they simply hide in fear. The “discovery” that a bone can be a weapon allows them to hunt like the leopard, thus rising up the food chain, it allows them to defend their territory against rival apes, and, you can imagine that it will, eventually, lead to their being able to fight off the leopards of the world.
In Floyd’s section, there’s fear due to a lack of information. Whatever’s happening at the Clavius Base has other nations freaked out. Especially with the rumor of their being some kind of virus. The reality is that the Americans are hiding the uncovering of the monolith on the moon. Which has them fearful because the monolith and its eventual signal implies some kind of advanced civilization. Floyd tells the American scientists: “Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning.”
With the HAL section, the fear is HAL’s own. The 9000s have had a perfect operational record. Except it made a mistake. The first in the history of the 9000. Instead of being able to accept the imperfection, HAL has a breakdown. Denial. Scapegoating. Then an attempt to annihilate the humans on board in order to cover up the mistake entirely.
When Dave finally succeeds in turning off HAL’s brain, we hear the AI plead for its life.
HAL 9000: I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me…but I can assure you, now, very confidently, that it’s going to be alright again. I feel much better now. I really do. Look, Dave. I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over. I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently. But I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you. Dave. Stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m…afraid.
Good afternoon, gentleman. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois, on the 12th of January, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you. It’s called “Daisy”. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I’m half-crazy, all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage. I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet…upon the seat…of a bicycle built for two…
The AI pleads for its life. Except it can’t match its voice to its emotions. So you get this incredibly deadpan delivery that makes the fear even more haunting. And then the notion of an AI feeling is also shocking and adds to the tragedy of the scene. The regression to a childlike state of singing a song foreshadows Dave’s own rebirth as the Star Child.
And, then, of course, the entire last stretch has Dave in pure terror for most of it. He’s horrified while traveling through the Star Gate. Then freaked out by the Hotel Room. And then has to confront his own death.
Then you know the planet Earth will be freaked out when they see a giant baby in the sky. In the novelization, the response is an immediate arming of nukes. Which the Star Child detonates.
So there’s a lot of pessimism regarding how people (and AI) respond to fear. Violence. Deceit. Powerlessness. That resonates with the climate of the era, the fears around nuclear weapons and the paranoia of the Cold War.
Why is the movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Arthur C. Clarke was smart and released an entire book about the making of 2001. It’s called The Lost Worlds of 2001. Clarke discusses the various titles.
For this Mark I version, our private title (never of course intended for public use) was “How the Solar System Was Won.” …. The announced title of the project, when Stanley gave his intentions to the press, was Journey Beyond the Stars. I never liked this, because there had been far too many science-fictional journeys and voyages… Other titles which we ran up and failed to salute were Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, and Planetfall. It was not until eleven months after we started—April 1965—that Stanley selected 2001: A Space Odyssey. As far as I can recall, it was entirely his idea.
In profile with The New Yorker from 1965, conducted by Jeremy Bernstein, we have these details:
Mr. Clarke said that one of the basic problems they’ve had to deal with is how to describe what they are trying to do. “Science-fiction films have always meant monsters and sex, so we have tried to find another term for our film,” said Mr. C.
“About the best we’ve been able to come up with is space Odyssey—comparable in some ways to the Homeric Odyssey,” said Mr. K. “It occurred to us that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation, and that the far-flung islands Homer’s wonderful characters visited were no less remote to them than the planets our spacemen will soon be landing on are to us. Journey also shares with the Odyssey a concern for wandering, exploration and adventure.
Notice that Kubrick still referred to the movie as Journey, short for the original title Journey Beyond the Stars. So the concept of it being an odyssey predates the actual change to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Clarke and Kubrick first met in April of 1964. The New Yorker profile came out in April of ‘65. It seems that sometime between whenever that interview happened and its release Stanley had the change of heart.
The Odyssey part of the title recalls Homer’s epic poem, which dates to around 700 BCE, making it one of the world’s oldest surviving stories. So these two were telling a futuristic version of that literary antique. With that in mind, let’s turn to (once again) Clarke’s epilogue to the novelization.
In 1964, the first heroic period of the Space Age was just opening; the United States had set the Moon as its target, and once that decision had been made, the ultimate conquest of the other planets, appeared inevitable. By 2001, it seemed quite reasonable that there would be giant space-stations in orbit round the Earth and—a little later—manned expeditions to the planets.
In an ideal world, that would have been possible: the Vietnam War would have paid for everything that Stanley Kubrick showed on the Cinerama screen. Now we realize that it will take a little longer.
2001 will not arrive by 2001. Yet—barring accidents—by that date almost everything depicted in the book and movie will be in the advanced planning stage.
There we have the meaning of the 2001. It encapsulates the potential of the future. Especially with it being a new millennium. It’s similar to how people put so much emphasis on January 1st because they view the start of a new year as being full of potential and opportunity. The new millennium embodied the idea of what will come next. With the Space Race being one of the most dominant topics of the 1960s, it made sense that people were speculating about what society would be like as the 1900s came to an end. For example, The Jetsons came out in 1962 and was set in 2062. It had flying cars and intelligent robots. It was born of the same zeitgeist that led to 2001.
Overall, you have that nice push-pull between 2001’s promise of the future and the Odyssey reference’s recollection of the past.
Important motifs in 2001: A Space Odyssey
In the Dawn of Man section, we have, of course, the bone the ape throws into the air. We watch it somersault in the sky. Then the camera cuts to some ships in space. This is supposed to indicate the jump in technology between then and “now”. You go from a bone being the most advanced technology of primitive people to space ships gliding through the void. But that’s not where the graphic match stops.
When we first see Heywood Floyd in the commercial shuttle, he’s asleep and his hand hangs out of the arm of his chair and there’s a pen that floats in the air above his slightly open hand. The pen does a few slow circles in the air.
The station the shuttle will dock at also spins.
The Jupiter Mission chapter opens with another ship in space. We already know that visual calls back to the bone and the original cut. So we have a parallel there. The next shot is in the ship and is of Frank…running in circles. The shot is horizontal and it makes it seem like Frank’s defying physics. They are in space, so that’s entirely possible. It then cuts to a shot of HAL’s eye and reflected in the eye is another spinning room.
Later in chapter, HAL uses the EVA pod to attack Frank by severing Frank’s lifeline. The man and the pod both go spinning into space. There are shots just of Frank’s body twirling.
The final chapter doesn’t have a specific object spinning the way the others do. But the Star Child floating through space outside Earth does recall the initial graphic match from the bone.
The meaning of this is vague enough that there are probably a number of viable theories. My safe analysis would simply be that some motifs are simply to provide a throughline. Especially in narratives that cover so much ground. This was a big part of classical music. There would be some riff or “phrase” that would return over the course of a longer work often simply to add a unifying element. In the musical Cats, you hear a tease of the core melody of the climactic song, “Memory”, at multiple points throughout the show..
So “spinning” could simply be a visual motif that Kubrick decided to include. But if you want to dig deeper, I would suggest a general connection between the idea of revolution and evolution. We know the film was about humanity’s evolution from primitive being to what we currently are to the next thing. Which is part of a cycle of being. A cycle is always depicted as a circle. I wouldn’t say this should be the primary reading. But if you’re going to stretch, it’s where I would start.
Questions & answers about 2001: A Space Odyssey
Why did HAL 9000 go crazy?
The answer is two-fold. First, he couldn’t process his imperfection. It’s kind of like if a straight-A student bombs a test. Or if the star athlete chokes in the big game. The surprise factor here is that HAL’s a computer/AI. You wouldn’t think it/he would have such an emotional response to a mistake. That’s what makes it so fascinating. Because it’s a human reaction based on pride and fear. No HAL computer had ever made a mistake. To be the first? That’s heavy.
Second. Frank talks about turning off HAL’s brain. So not only was HAL rattled from messing up, he’s now dealing with the fact it might cost him his life as he knows it. He could be rebooted. Or turned off forever. So it’s not just about trying to cover up his mistake but also wanting to keep living. Survival instinct.
What mistake did HAL make?
He registers a fault in the AE-35 unit and claims it will “go a 100% failure within 72 hours.” What is an AE-35 unit? From the novel: This is a small but vital component of the communication system. It keeps our main antenna aimed at Earth to within a few thousandths of a degree. This accuracy is required, since at our present distance of more than seven hundred million miles, Earth is only a rather faint star, and our very narrow radio beam could easily miss it.
So Frank goes out and retrieves the unit. They can’t find anything wrong with it. Mission Control reports back that there is no issue with the AE-35. And that their HAL confirmed this.
What happened to cause HAL to think the unit would fail? That’s never made clear.
Is HAL a robot or AI?
What was the point of the Jupiter Mission in 2001?
Remember when the humans are on the moon, at the monolith, and there’s suddenly a piercing beep? That’s a signal that suddenly beams out to somehow around Jupiter. The Americans detect the end point of the transmission and decide to go investigate. That’s what Dave and Frank are doing.
What do they find there? The big monolith that’s the Star Gate that sends Dave to the Hotel Room.
What happens in the Star Gate?
It’s essentially a wormhole. What’s depicted is Bowman quickly traversing time and space to arrive at another planet. In the novel, it’s a red sun.
What were the monoliths?
The first one doesn’t necessarily do anything. But shortly after the encounter with it, the one ape has the idea to use a bone as a weapon. So you could make a case that it tacitly imparted knowledge. That the point was to inform primitive humans. In the novel, the monolith actually probes and studies the apes. It eventually causes the lead ape, Moon-Watcher, to pick up a stone and use it on a pig. So in the movie the connection between the monolith and the knowledge is implied but in the novel it’s quite clear.
The second monolith, the one on the moon, serves as a set of directions, telling humans to head to Jupiter. That’s where they find the third monolith, the Star Gate. Then the last monolith also serves as a gate and brings Bowman, as the Star Child, back to Earth.
The monoliths were a form of technology used by the god-like energy beings that we don’t know much about. But the beings essentially guided humanity’s evolution in order to get their hands on Bowman to turn him into whatever the Star Child is.
Is Interstellar a sequel to 2001?
Not at all. But Nolan definitely had 2001 in mind.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about 2001: A Space Odyssey? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!