2001: A Space Odyssey — Explained

Confused after watching it? This may help.

Preface

Ok, I know where you’ve been. You just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and you loved it… but you kinda don’t know what just happened.

Last week, for the 3rd time, I saw 2001 (but this time in 70 mm) and I left the theater both stunned and pretty confused. It being my 2nd favorite film of all time, I needed to figure it out in its entirety. So, I’ve spent the last few days collecting and combining information from many sources (which I have cited using “(author name)”) to create a working understanding of the film. The following content is mainly based off of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001 A Space Odyssey, his short story The Sentinel, and Kubrick’s famous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I won’t be citing specifically.

Throughout the article, I’ve added direct quotes of Kubrick’s, backing up parts of my information. All of these quotes will be from Joseph Gelmis’s interview with Kubrick in 1969. The small amount of remaining information is speculation.

Finally, as I continue learn more about Kubrick’s masterpiece, I’ll precede to update this resource.

This explanation will be split up based on how Kubrick split his film up:

  1. Section I: The Dawn of Man
  2. Section II: Jupiter Mission
  3. Section III: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

Introduction

Before I dive into the film itself, I need to explain the background of the film. Early, during the creation of the universe, a group of beings came into existence known as the “Firstborn” (Clarke). Their sole purpose is to be the caretakers of the universe. These beings have two specific jobs:

  1. To encourage new species throughout the universe to develop
  2. To end issues before they get out of control

To accomplish these tasks, the “Firstborn” invented what humans ended up calling “Monoliths,” matte black rectangular prisms. These monoliths, somehow, have the ability to advance species (Vagrant).

Around the year 4,000,000 BCE, four monoliths were placed in the universe:

  1. On Earth, specifically prehistoric Africa near a tribe of apes
  2. Below the surface of the Moon
  3. Orbiting Jupiter
  4. In a 3rd dimensional construct in the 5th dimension

Ok, now let’s jump into dissecting each section of the film.

Section I: The Dawn of Man

After the title sequence, the film opens up on Earth, specifically prehistoric Africa near a tribe of animals. We see the apes are curious and share with each other, but are also territorial within their own species. The next day, a monolith appears near the apes. The apes erupt with fear. As they start to slowly calm down, they become more and more curious as they all reach and touch the surface of the monolith, starting with the leader ape. In a later scene, the leader ape is sitting near ape bones. He picks up a bone, has a flashback to the monolith, and hits another bone using the one he picked up. The scene gets more and more dramatic to the point where the ape becomes filled with rage. In the next scene, another ape from an enemy tribe attempts to drink from their watering hole. The leader ape attacks him with his newfound bone — a tool. And thus, man has tools. Kubrick’s point is that for a society to progress, there must be conflict.

In a following scene, the leader ape throws his bone in the air, the camera follows it up and match-cuts to a large missile floating in Earth’s orbit — from a bone to a space missile (tool/weapon → tool/weapon).

The year is now 1999~2001, and homo sapiens are getting close to mastering space travel. Though, Kubrick makes a bold point the master of Earth is just a child in space. This is done by showing that without gravity, man must learn how to walk again; man must eat “baby food”; and need “toilet training.”

At the same time, man’s tools are taking a “human-like” form. This can be seen by looking at some of the spaceships as they resemble a human face, and later in the film we will learn about HAL — a human in a machine (Kubrick2001).

Now, humanity is far more advanced than at the start of the film. Man can detect strong magnetic fields, fly to the moon, and have the ability to excavate. Having these abilities allows man to find a monolith under the surface of the moon which we now know to be the second one. Humans call this monolith “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One,” or, “TMA-1” (Wikia). When they arrive, the astronauts approach the monolith without any of the characteristics that the apes did — without any fear or curiosity. When the sun peeks above the top of the monolith, the monolith emits a loud, high pitched sound. This sound is a signal to the third monolith orbiting Jupiter and the Firstborns that man has advanced significantly and is ready to travel to another planet and eventually continue to the next step of the evolutionary process (Hayine).

Kubrick on section one:

You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe — a kind of cosmic burglar alarm.

Section II: Jupiter Mission

When NASA noticed the signal emitted by TMA-1, they decided to send a handful of astronauts to Jupiter to discover what exactly the TMA-1 sound was pointing to.

This section does not contain much about monoliths, since the main star is HAL 9000, who, by the end of the section, kills everyone but Dave. Man’s tool has just destroyed its creator. HAL is so man-like that it turns into man itself. And, in turn, man destroys the man with the simplest of tools, a screwdriver (as seen in the header image). Here’s how this tool-man “dichotomy” works:

  1. Man creates tool
  2. Man creates a tool that transforms into man
  3. Man transforms into tool
  4. Man destroys tool
  5. Tool destroys man with tool

Sidenote: In this section, the astronauts are now eating solid food, a step up from the liquified food in Section I. Man is growing up.

Section III: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

Man has now won the battle with his tools. When Discovery One, now with just Dave, arrives at Jupiter’s orbit. There, we see the third monolith (TMA-2) floating in space.

Kubrick on this:

And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.

TMA-2, unlike TMA-0 or TMA-1, acts as a “Stargate,” or wormhole which could move any nearby and desired object anywhere in the galaxy (Hayine). When Discovery One goes near TMA-2, it is sucked into it, transporting it and Dave through time and space, possibly to the Firstborn’s dimension. The long light show is not meant to make sense to the viewer since they cannot experience such a thing by watching it through a camera. To Dave, he is being transported through time and space all while receiving vast amounts of the Firstborn’s information.

Kubrick on TMA-2:

When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy.

After the teleportation, Dave and the ship are seen in a neoclassical white room, where he would live his life under observation while the aliens judged humankind’s maturity (Vagrant).

Kubrick describes this room like:

A human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination.

Through multiple jump cuts, Dave sees his life go by — we stop at a scene of old-Dave eating a meal. He knocks his glass of wine over, and it shatters on the floor. The glass is broken, but the wine is still there — container, content — body, spirit (Kubrick2001). The jump cuts continue to the point that Dave is on his deathbed. Dave sees the fourth monolith directly in front of him and he reaches for it with fear and curiosity, just as the apes did.

Since the Firstborns were satisfied, he is transformed into a “Starchild” — a Firstborn — the next evolutionary leap in mankind. The Starchild is not a physical entity. The Starchild, as shown on screen, is a cinematic representation of the consciousness of Dave Bowman. His consciousness was drawn into the TMA-2 monolith. Bowman is effectively reborn within the monolith and looks over mankind. The image of the Starchild symbolizes this rebirth. Much as the previous few minutes of the film symbolize the absorption and the initial communication with the beings that created the monoliths (Chenmunka).

And here’s Kubrick’s explanation of the ending:

In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.

Conclusion

I took this film as the battle between man and tool and man himself and how a superior species attempts to solve that battle. The series of monoliths help this happen over millions of years, and in the end, man has reached its peak.

Keep in mind that Kubrick describes all of the above’s understanding the “simplest level” of the film. So, if you’re interested, feel free to speculate a story and fill in the missing pieces if you wish — after all, that’s what he was trying to do with this film in the first place.

I want to end with a great quote from Kubrick when asked to explain the meaning behind the ending, and subsequently, the whole film:

They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, [their] mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.