Understanding Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the result of a collaborative effort between science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The initial idea was based on a short story by Clarke called The Sentinel, which involved humanity finding an artifact like the monolith on the Moon. 2001: A Space Odyssey is undoubtedly a classic, but even the most hardened sci-fi nerd can walk away asking themselves: What the hell just happened?

An image of a family of gorillas in a forest.
The movie opens with a view set in the distant past, following a tribe of primitive apes struggling to survive. (Image: Marian Galovic/Shutterstock)

A Tribe of Primitive Apes

The movie opens with a view set in the distant past, following a tribe of primitive apes struggling to survive. They lack proper food, are subject to predators, and must compete with a different tribe for access to a watering hole.

One day, they discover a strange black monolith outside their dwelling. They touch and marvel at it. Later, one of the apes also discovers that bones can be used as weapons, and then teaches the others, first to kill and eat the boars that live near them, and then to kill the leader of the rival tribe and take charge of the watering hole. After the battle, the ape leader throws a bone in the air. And then we smash cut to an orbiting satellite, in the year 2000, where humanity has made a strange discovery buried 40 feet deep on the far side of the Moon: another monolith.

We are led to suspect it was placed there by aliens, but its existence is kept from the public.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.


The next scene cuts to 16 months later, in the year 2001, a pair of astronauts, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, are escorting hibernating astronauts on a mission to Jupiter in a spaceship named Discovery One. Along the way, the ship’s conscious computer, HAL, goes a little wonky and ends up killing Frank and the hibernating astronauts.

In response, Dave goes into the room that houses HAL’s computer brain and robs him of all his higher mental functions—which cause a video to play where Dave learns about the monolith discovered on the Moon and the true purpose of Discovery’s mission: The monolith’s deafening high-pitched noise was a radio signal aimed directly at Jupiter. Discovery has been sent to find out what it was sending a signal to.

A Tunnel of Colors

In the last act, entitled ‘Beyond the Infinite’, Dave reaches Jupiter and discovers yet another monolith, orbiting Jupiter along with its moons. Dave travels out to the monolith via space pod, the camera pans up, and we are treated to a confusing tunnel of colors.

He sees what are apparently exploding galaxies, maybe forming stars, some weird diamond-shaped things, and a photo negative overview of a landscape for some reason.

An image of starlight nebula in galaxy, looking like a sparkly shinny blue star particle motion on black background.
Dave apparently sees exploding galaxies and maybe forming stars. (Image: NASA images/Shutterstock)

He then ends up in a hotel room. From inside his pod, he sees an older version of himself in the room, still inside his spacesuit. Then, from inside his spacesuit, he sees an even older version of himself eating dinner. Dinner Dave sees even older version of himself lying on his deathbed.

The Deathbed Dave points at a monolith that suddenly appears at the foot of his bed, and, all of a sudden, in place of Dave, is a baby in a glowing orb. The opening theme plays again, and the film closes with an image of the baby looking down on earth.

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The Novel

As it turns out, reading the novel helps the movie make a whole lot more sense. First, the novel spells out very clearly what the monolith does to the apes. It gives them visions of ‘spinning wheels of light’ and then actually forces them to perform specific tasks: tying knots, throwing stones at targets, etc.

It gives Moon-Watcher (the tribe’s leader) a vision of fat, satisfied apes that makes him long for such a life. The monolith eventually teaches him how to use stones too. In other words, the monolith gives the apes an evolutionary push toward becoming human.

Monoliths and Aliens

The novel on which 2001: A Space Odyssey is based also explicitly says that the monolith came from aliens and hundreds of them have been placed all over the globe. The one in the film is just the one that succeeded in its task. And once it did, the aliens buried another monolith on the far side of the Moon.

The Moon monolith was intended to serve as a signal. Once the humans had advanced enough, it would send a signal to yet another monolith the aliens had planted deeper in the solar system. The humans, curious about the destination of this signal, would track it down—and once they did, they would receive another evolutionary push, just like the apes.

A Wormhole

How does the monolith do this? In the novel, when Dave travels directly over the Saturn moon monolith in his space pod, the monolith inverts.

…its roof had dropped away to infinite depths; for one dizzy moment, he seemed to be looking down into a vertical shaft—a rectangular duct which defied the laws of perspective, for its size did not decrease with distance…

And then the line in the novel:

David Bowman had time for just one broken sentence which the waiting men in Mission Control, nine hundred million miles away and eighty minutes in the future, were never to forget:

‘The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God!—it’s full of stars!’

It’s a vivid description of a ‘star gate’, a wormhole. Dave’s journey through it is described in detail: passing stars, then a “switch station” where other spaceships pass from one wormhole to another, and then a globular cluster. He ends up above binary red sun and white dwarf pair, and as he descends into their fire, he inexplicably finds himself in a hotel room.

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A Mental Projection

We learn that the hotel room is the mental projection of one of the aliens and he spends a single night there—during which his memories and personhood are transferred into ‘the Star Child’.

When the Star Child returns to Earth, he finds it on the brink of nuclear annihilation. He eliminates the world’s nuclear arsenal by a sheer act of will, and then thinks the same thing that Moon-Watcher did upon his evolutionary elevation: “[I’m] not quite sure what to do next, but [I will] think of something.” Clearly, he is only the first.

So that’s what 2001: A Space Odyssey is about; it’s a story about aliens progressing life on Earth, helping apes evolve into humans, and then humans evolve into Star Children.

Common Questions about Understanding Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Q: In the Movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, what do the apes do when they discover that bones can be weaponized?

In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes discover that bones can be used as weapons, they teach the others to kill and eat the boars.

Q: What does Dave do when HAL kills Frank ?

When HAL kills Frank, Dave goes into the room that houses HAL’s computer brain and robs him of all his higher mental functions.

Q: How does the novel explain what the monolith does to the apes?

The novel explains that the monolith gives the apes visions of ‘spinning wheels of light’ and forces them to perform specific tasks.

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