Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has left more than one smart cinephile stupefied. We’ll discuss the theories of what’s going on (or not) in this landmark science fiction film.
If you’re like many fans of science fiction or classic cult films in general, you want to like Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic masterpiece. You may even feel like you should, and yet, you just can’t understand it.
You can’t get past its long, tedious shots, its confusing cuts and sequences, and its dearth of dialogue to find any logic or sense in it all, let alone enjoy or appreciate it.
Fortunately, for most of the prevailing conundrums surrounding 2001, there are completely valid and comprehensible answers — or at least very good theories.
Read on — especially before you watch it on your favorite streaming service. With any luck, the answers provided here will help bring this nebulous entity more down to Earth for you and increase your enjoyment of the film. Here’s 2001: A Space Odyssey explained simply; spoilers ahead.
Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:
Background: The Odyssey in Context
Before diving into the nitty-gritty of it, there are several key points about the film and the making of it that in some way inform the answers to most, if not all, of the frequently asked questions about 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Film, in Many Ways, Is a Product of Its Time
Films of the mid-twentieth century moved at a slower pace than films of today. The fact that Kubrick also aimed to produce a slowing-down effect through much of the film is only amplified by modern audiences’ sensibilities for high action and a fast pace.
Likewise, technologies were far less advanced, and awareness of metaphysical concepts was far less widespread, perhaps dampening the impact on modern audiences of elements that were groundbreaking to audiences of the time.
Kubrick Never Intended To Spell It All Out
Rather, the director wanted audiences to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions about the film, to develop a more personal experience of and relationship with its deeper meanings and messages.
Are those meanings and messages cosmic, spiritual, or both? At every opportunity, Kubrick leaves it to the viewer to decide.
As The New Yorker essay “2001: What It Means, and How It Was Made,” explains, “The film took for granted a broad cultural tolerance, if not an appetite, for enigma, as well as the time and inclination for parsing interpretive mysteries. … You didn’t solve it by watching it a second time, but you did settle into its mysteries.”
Arthur C. Clarke Was Involved in the Making of This Movie
2001 is loosely based on a short story called “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke, who was not only a science fiction writer but also an engineer and explorer of shipwrecks.
As such, a great deal of scientific discussion and research went into the making of this film, giving it an almost historic feel despite its futuristic focus and making it feel, as The New Yorker piece describes it, like “a period piece about a period that had yet to happen.”
2001: A Space Odyssey: Section I: The Dawn of Man
Let’s talk about the first portion of the film — the one with the apes.
How Does the Opening Scene With the Primates and the Monolith Relate to the Rest of the Film?
In the opening scenes, set in the prehistoric Pleistocene, two tribes of apes roar at one another. Then, in the night, they hear a strange sound that frightens them. In the morning, one of the tribes discovers a giant, black object planted in the earth and towering above them: the monolith.
Captivated, they touch its smooth, glistening surface and its precise angles with curious fingers, until something seems to pass from the monolith to the apes: a new awareness. Suddenly, one of the apes picks up a nearby bone and uses it as a weapon to kill one of his adversaries. Later, the apes figure out how to use the bone in more productive and proactive ways.
What we’re witnessing, the audience is to assume, is the beginning of civilization as we know it. As this story posits, evolution did not come as Darwin had interpreted, but rather through alien interference.
What’s Up With the Three Monoliths?
The monolith, therefore, serves as both plot and foreshadowing, suggesting to the audience outside forces of greater intellect — perhaps aliens? — are playing a role in the development of human consciousness and civilization.
A second, identical monolith appears later in the film. It appears in 2001, on the moon, predicting the space journey that occupies the bulk of the film. The object appears a third time when astronaut Dave Bowman literally runs into it as it orbits Jupiter, after which it pulls him and his space explorer into a space warp.
The viewer can now reasonably assume that all three monoliths are of the same origin and that Dave is taken by the entities which sent these mysterious objects.
It would be safe for audiences to conjecture, at this point, that the aliens who built this object may have set its likeness on Earth all those millennia ago as part of a greater plan involving the evolution of humankind.
2001: A Space Odyssey: Section II: Jupiter Mission
Next, the film documents a small team’s journey to Jupiter.
Why Does the Bone the Neanderthal Man Throws Into the Air Cut to a Space Missile?
The first section of the film depicts a pivotal stage in the evolution of homo sapiens, specifically man’s awareness of using tools.
A space shuttle starts the second section of the film, showing what humans have done with that knowledge over the four million ensuing years, and how far his toolmaking and tool-using skills have evolved over that span.
The subtextual implication here is that the audience is about to witness a shift to yet another stage of man’s evolutionary journey.
Why Is the Film So Long and Slow?
The predominant theory of why Kubrick chose to make the film move at such a ponderous pace is that it produces an almost hypnotic state in viewers that allows them to better be transported into the fathomlessness of outer and inner space that the film purports.
Kubrick distributes a small handful of key plot points across a vastness of setting and mood like stars across boundless space. In short, it’s as though he wanted to make the viewer feel like a space explorer, which an earthbound person can’t fathom without a more familiar and grounded reference like time.
Take the opening sequence of this second section of the film as an example. Kubrick’s use of slow-motion over several long shots of a massive space shuttle floating through space has several effects on the audience, presumably intended by the director:
- To disorient, or unground, viewers from their usual experience and comfortable assumptions about space and time
- To give viewers a sense of the vastness of space and a sensation of floating weightless among that vastness
- To show the accomplishment of humans in building a tool that can carry them from their home planet to the great unknown
Where Is the Spaceship Going and Why?
The spaceship is traveling to the planet Jupiter because mankind has gained enough intelligence to realize that the monolith on the moon is of alien origin and that it is sending signals toward the solar system’s largest planet.
Why Does HAL Sabotage the Mission?
At a certain point in the ship’s journey, HAL 9000, the amicable, human-like supercomputer built on Earth in the image of man to navigate the ship through space and keep the crew alive, seems to go rogue. “He” kills crew members, cuts off communication with Earth, takes full control of all ship functions and changes course.
While this seems to be an erratic, almost sadistic, malfunction, the eerily calm voice of the ship’s computer tries to console and reassure David Bowman, the sole remaining crew member left alive.
It turns out that no malfunction has occurred at all — nor is HAL in control of any of its own actions. Rather, this creation of man has been hijacked by an outside force: those very entities, still unidentified, who appear to have “created” humans from the apes by giving the ignorant creatures consciousness of tool-making.
2001: A Space Odyssey: Section III: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
The last part of the film gets really weird.
Why Did Dave Emerge From the Ship Into a Bedroom?
In the most practical sense, aliens would need to create life-support arrangements for a human visitor that would support human life long enough to fulfill their objectives in bringing him there.
It would also make sense, whatever their intentions, to keep their “guest” as comfortable as possible, making him feel at home by placing him in a more familiar setting.
As for the bygone era represented in the bedroom’s design, a simple explanation could be the theory of relativity itself, meaning that the most recent signals from Earth received through the monoliths may have been from the neoclassical era.
Despite the clean, accommodating, almost luxurious, setting, its disjunctive appearance near Jupiter, where it would be the last thing any human being would expect, also produces a distinctly disturbing effect that puts the viewer, and Dave, off-balance.
While the aliens of the plot may have devised this setting to make their guest more comfortable, the director himself may have had opposite intentions, wishing to disarm the viewer from any illusion this territory is the remotest bit familiar.
Kubrick sheds further light on this disjunct, and how it all ties together, in a rare and reluctant interview on the ending of 2001 in which he explains that the bedroom is essentially a cage in a zoo, or a human habitat, as it were, where the aliens observe Dave throughout the rest of his natural mortal existence, presumably to gauge humanity’s level of evolution.
What Is the Meaning of the Giant Baby at the End?
The final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey depict a classic scene of death and rebirth. The sequence of events is as follows:
- Dave observes chronological moments of his life through a series of jump cuts.
- Dave observes himself in bed as an old, frail man on his deathbed.
- In one last jump cut, Dave finds himself in his dying body.
- Dave dies.
- Dave is reborn as the giant baby.
Kubrick’s explanation of the bedroom as a habitat in a zoo would explain how Dave becomes the old, frail, dying version of himself as a condensation of the passage of time. Then, when he dies, ending his usefulness for study, the aliens turn him into some sort of evolved, immortal superbeing and they then send him back to Earth.
This suggests the newly evolved Dave will serve as a tool for mankind’s next evolutionary leap, much like the bone in the opening sequence did for the apes.
From the vantage point of the observer, the baby seems to be the same size as the Earth upon which he gazes and, soon after, toward which he jettisons. The implication here is that humankind — or Dave, as representative of his species — has now transcended once again. This time he morphs from a child of the Earth to a child of the universe, or as The New Yorker piece describes it, “the fetal Star Child betokening the new race.”
When, in the final seconds of the film, the baby turns its gaze on the viewer, the circle between past and future, origin and destination, ancestors and progeny, creation and creator, is now complete.
What Is the Point of the Cascading Color Spectrum?
The spectrum of colors cascading toward the audience at the end of the film is meant to imply a journey over great time and distance, breaking physical barriers.
Baby Dave now careens toward Earth, just as the viewer is hurtling toward their own evolutionary destiny. It implies visually that it is now up to the viewer to absorb and interpret the film to ultimately discern their place in the universe.
Roger Ebert, in his essay, “2001 — The Monolith and the Message,” summarizes Kubrick’s sprawling, quixotic, ambiguous epic as a “parable about the nature of man.” It is from this perspective that perhaps one can best understand and appreciate this deceptively simple and humble work.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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