WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
All science fiction is about the unknown, but few movies have embraced it as fully as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s journey to the dark side of the solar system.
While he and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke draw on familiar science-fiction story elements—the dangerous mission, the homicidal supercomputer, humanity’s first contact with alien intelligence—Kubrick arranges them in an unfamiliar way to give audiences something unique and unforgettably strange.
The movie is loosely structured around a series of turning points in human evolution, but despite the grandiose five-note fanfare of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra—the movie’s famous musical motif—these moments are not epiphanies. They only serve to deepen the mystery of humankind’s role in the universe.
2001’s opening scene centers on Moon-Watcher, a prehistoric ape whose tribe is fighting another for water and comes into contact with a mysterious black object known as the Monolith. The appearance of the Monolith triggers a shift in the apes’ culture; they turn old bones into tools—and weapons—and the human race’s long journey to the stars begins in earnest
From Ape to Astronaut
This odyssey is represented by a now iconic cut from one image to another, as a bone hurled by Moon-Watcher becomes a spaceship twirling through the void. Suddenly the action shifts to the future, where astronauts Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood) are on a mission to Jupiter in the spaceship Discovery.
Their lives are in the care of Discovery’s computer, HAL 9000 (voiced with chilling detachment by Douglas Rain), who malfunctions and grows politely mutinous. When the crew try to shut him down, HAL fights back. “I’m sorry, Dave,” he tells Bowman when given an order. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Here Kubrick is showing the audience another turning point in humanity’s evolution—the point at which the tools begin to turn on the apes.
Mystery & Meaning
As Discovery’s mission descends further and further into disaster, the Monolith appears again. What can it mean? Is it the emissary of an alien race? Proof of the existence of God? The scientists are baffled, and so is the viewer. Kubrick refuses to supply any easy answers; he’s more interested in taking the audience on a journey than he is in revealing the destination.
The final act of 2001 abandons conventional storytelling as the audience follows Bowman through a tunnel of light and into an otherworldly chamber, possibly the construct of an extraterrestrial host, where the Monolith is waiting for him. He sees himself as an old man and is then transformed into the Star Child, a strange, fetal being floating in space—and this is where the movie ends.