2001: A Space Odyssey – Ending Explained


50 years after its release, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is as mysterious, stunning and current as ever. We unpack the film’s enigmatic ending. Support ScreenPrism on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=7792695

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Transcript provided by Youtube:

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50 Years after its release and 17
00:27
after its imagined future,
00:29
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
00:32
remains a masterwork that stunningly
00:34
doesn’t feel dated at all.
00:37
Meanwhile, its famously enigmatic ending
00:39
is as mysterious as ever.
00:41
What’s key about this ending is
00:43
it’s not like other confusing movie endings
00:46
where we’re left to debate whether option A
00:48
or option B is the correct answer to
00:51
“what really happened?” —
00:52
you know, like “is the character dreaming, or not,
00:55
right, or wrong, dead or alive,
00:58
really doing these things
00:59
or just imagining it all.
01:00
No, here Kubrick is experimenting with
01:03
a new kind of ending altogether.
01:05
It’s not just ambiguous;
01:07
it’s impressionistic.
01:09
2001’s ending is intended to evoke —
01:12
images, sounds, memories, suggestions, associations,
01:16
all of which which seek to produce a response in us,
01:19
mental and emotional.
01:21
Its primary purpose is to open up, not resolve;
01:25
to inspire questions instead of answering them.
01:28
In multiple interviews, Kubrick not only
01:31
avoided clarifying the ending,
01:33
but also spoken about how it wasn’t meant
01:35
to be clear in a conventional sense.
01:37
He told Eye Magazine,
01:38
“I think that the power of the ending
01:41
is based on the subconscious emotional reaction
01:43
of the audience, which has a delayed effect…
01:46
to be specific about what it’s supposed to mean,
01:49
spoils people’s pleasure and denies them
01:51
their own emotional reactions.”
01:54
He also said to Joseph Gelmis,
01:56
“If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates
01:59
the subconscious of the viewer,
02:01
if it stimulates, however inchoately,
02:03
his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses,
02:07
then it has succeeded.”
02:08
So basically if anyone walks away from 2001
02:11
with a very simple answer for what just happened,
02:14
that viewer may not be experiencing the ending
02:17
as deeply as Kubrick wanted us to.
02:31
So all of that said, what do we see
02:33
literally happened at the end?
02:35
From what we gather, advanced aliens have been
02:37
contacting humankind through monoliths
02:40
to help them develop advanced technology
02:42
and a better understanding of the universe.
02:44
The first monolith inspires prehistoric apes
02:47
to invent the first tool —
02:48
which is a weapon for killing.
02:50
And this is essentially the moment when the apes
02:52
become humankind as we know it —
02:55
so there’s the idea that our intelligence
02:57
may have been developed through
02:58
an outside mysterious force contacting us.
03:02
Then far in the future, around the year 2001,
03:05
the US government finds a monolith buried under
03:07
the surface on the moon.
03:09
This monolith is sending signals to Jupiter.
03:11
So the US sends a mission to Jupiter,
03:13
but the on board the spaceship, the computer Hal
03:16
turns on the humans and kills most of the crew.
03:19
“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”
03:22
“I’m sorry, Dave.
03:23
I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
03:25
Dave Bowman manages to disconnect Hal.
03:28
But by the time they reach Jupiter,
03:29
He’s the only man alive.
03:32
He passes through a stargate of sorts.
03:34
And here’s Kubrick’s own literal explanation
03:36
of what we see after this, quote:
03:39
“He is taken into another dimension of time and space,
03:43
into the presence of godlike entities
03:44
who have transcended matter and who are now
03:47
creatures of pure energy.
03:49
They provide an environment for him,
03:51
a human zoo, if you like.
03:53
They study him.
03:54
His life passes before him.
03:56
He sees himself age in what seems just a matter of moments,
04:00
he dies, and he’s reborn, transfigured,
04:04
enhanced, a superbeing.”
04:06
Finally, we see a starchild heading back toward earth
04:10
and we get the sense that, perhaps,
04:12
humankind has entered a new era
04:14
of more intelligent existence.
04:16
So now let’s dig into some of the many interpretations
04:20
that have been applied to this evocative final sequence.
04:23
2001 can be read as a film about God.
04:27
Kubrick told Eye Magazine that, quote,
04:29
“The god concept is at the heart of 2001,
04:32
but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of god.
04:35
I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions,
04:38
but I do believe that one can construct
04:41
an intriguing scientific definition of god.”
04:45
According to Kubrick, these aliens in the film
04:47
would seem to us like gods,
04:49
because they are so advanced in their evolution
04:52
that we couldn’t possibly understand them.
04:54
Kubrick has described them as, quote,
04:57
“beings of pure energy and spirit.
04:59
He said their potentialities would be limitless
05:02
and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.
05:05
These beings would be gods to the billions
05:07
of less advanced races in the universe,
05:09
just as man would appear a god to an ant.
05:12
They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods…”
05:15
Kubrick’s “scientific” God-aliens who study us
05:19
and educate us via the monolith are hardly
05:22
the warm, fuzzy conception of God
05:24
that many of us have been taught
05:25
to simply love and obey.
05:28
Kubrick’s God figure is impenetrable —
05:31
we can’t really grasp anything of its nature,
05:33
let alone its motives.
05:35
As the aliens study Bowman, he becomes an old man,
05:39
symbolically embodying the aging of all humankind.
05:42
The elderly Bowman accidentally knocks over
05:45
a glass of wine.
05:46
Some have interpreted that in this moment,
05:48
the glass represents the human body, which will die,
05:52
while the wine represents the human spirit,
05:55
which can continue to live on outside of the body.
05:58
This scene is immediately followed by
06:00
a dying Bowman lying in bed.
06:03
He reaches towards the fourth black monolith
06:05
we see in the film.
06:06
This shot mimics Michelangelo’s painting
06:08
“The Creation of Adam,” part of the Sistine Chapel,
06:11
where Adam reaches out his hand toward God’s.
06:14
The visual comparison makes Bowman the original human,
06:17
and the monolith a representation of God.
06:20
After Bowman’s human form dies,
06:22
or the glass breaks,
06:23
his spirit, the wine, is reborn
06:25
as the enlightened Star Child.
06:27
What’s happened to Bowman in these rooms near the end
06:30
is a kind of enlightenment.
06:33
Critics have noted that the French 18th century
06:35
neoclassical decor recalls the Age of Enlightenment.
06:38
So Kubrick’s version of god —
06:40
these mysterious aliens pushing mankind to progress —
06:43
seem to have as their goal, humankind’s enlightenment.
06:47
This Star Child is even a god-like or Christ-like figure itself
06:51
compared to the humans on earth —
06:53
This child is presumably being sent to earth
06:56
to impart some newfound wisdom to the people
06:58
and carry them toward the next step
07:00
in their evolution.
07:01
And put in those terms, this might remind us
07:03
a little of Jesus Christ.
07:09
Kubrick was strongly influenced by Nietzsche.
07:12
He opens and closes this film with Richard Strauss’s
07:16
Thus Spake Zarathustra,
07:18
named after the Nietzsche work of the same name.
07:30
This text centers of the concept
07:32
of the Übermensch, or superman.
07:34
It argues that the child is the last stage
07:37
of evolution before the Übermensch.
07:40
So it’s meaningful that Strauss’ music comes back in
07:43
just as we see the starchild
07:45
moving back toward Earth —
07:46
as something more evolved than man,
07:49
maybe a precursor to the superman.
07:53
We see four Monoliths in the film,
07:55
and Rolling Stone’s Bob McClay points out
07:57
that every monolith represents a stage
08:00
in our evolution.
08:01
The first learning device turns the apes into humans;
08:06
the second on the moon sends a signal
08:07
to alert this alien intelligence
08:09
that man has now sufficiently evolved
08:11
to find the monolith there —
08:13
so Earthbound humans have become space travelers,
08:17
even creators of their own sophisticated machines.
08:20
But before humankind can reach the next stage of evolution,
08:24
Bowman has to unplug Hal.
08:27
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.”
08:37
So mankind aborts this experiment
08:39
of becoming the creator.
08:41
Man kills its monstrous offspring
08:44
and instead progresses on
08:45
to another stage of evolution,
08:48
following this higher intelligence-slash-god.
08:50
This is a very interesting plot point
08:52
if we think about it in terms of today’s fears
08:55
of AI becoming so intelligent, one day
08:58
it’ll take over the world.
08:59
“I’m always happy when surrounded by smart people,
09:02
who also happens to be rich and powerful.
09:04
I was told that people here at the Future Investment Initiative
09:07
are interested in future initiatives,
09:10
which means AI, which means me.
09:13
Back in 1968, Kubrick imagines that turning point
09:17
when computers are starting to become smarter than man.
09:20
But the story says no —
09:22
our destiny isn’t just to stagnate
09:24
and let our machines dominate us.
09:27
Our destiny is in a different direction,
09:29
because we humans aren’t finished in our evolution.
09:33
So the third monolith near Jupiter is a kind of portal,
09:37
that ushers humanity into a stage
09:39
of reflection and examination,
09:41
communing closely with these mysterious greater beings.
09:44
Then the fourth monolith appears near Bowman’s deathbed
09:48
just before he’s reborn as the star child
09:51
that surpasses our current consciousness.
09:54
When the film came out,
09:55
Kubrick told the The New York Times:
09:57
“Somebody said man is the missing link
10:00
between primitive apes and civilized human beings.
10:04
We are semicivilized, capable of cooperation and affection,
10:08
but needing some sort of transfiguration
10:10
into a higher form of life.
10:13
Man is really in a very unstable condition.”
10:16
That’s such an interesting thought because we talk
10:19
a lot about how we evolved into our current state,
10:23
and we think about the future state
10:24
of our lifestyle or planet.
10:27
but we don’t always think much about how we ourselves
10:30
might continue evolve in the future.
10:33
The starchild’s identity and form is unknown,
10:36
as mysterious to us as we are now,
10:38
as the human identity was to the apes.
10:41
Thus the end of this film with this image of the star child
10:44
feels surprisingly, incredibly optimistic.
10:48
The image symbolizes mankind’s potential
10:50
to spiritually remake ourselves as something more.
10:54
The final shot also affirms the theme of eternal recurrence
10:58
in the film — another Nietzschean concept
11:00
the idea that everything repeats over and over.
11:04
In 2001, moments from the different stages
11:06
of evolution mirror each other
11:08
to show how little has changed in some ways over time.
11:11
Then, at the end, sending the starchild back to earth
11:15
after Bowman left earth for this long space odyssey
11:19
represents the ultimate return.
11:21
Scholars have also written about how closely the film
11:24
echoes the story of Homer’s epic The Odyssey.
11:27
Of course, “Odyssey” is right there in the title.
11:30
Leonard F. Wheat has noted Dave’s last name “Bowman”
11:33
could allude to Odysseus’ skill as an archer.
11:37
Many have also noticed that the single red eye of Hal
11:40
brings to mind the Cyclops.
11:43
The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’
11:45
voyage home to Ithaka.
11:47
Bowman’s journey seems to be an adventure
11:49
into the new and unknown —
11:51
but because it ends in his rebirth
11:53
as this higher form of consciousness
11:55
going back to earth,
11:56
perhaps Kubrick is implying this is a homecoming —
12:00
that it’s a journey toward becoming more ourselves,
12:04
what we were always meant to be.
12:07
Up until the ending sequence of 2001,
12:10
the story isn’t the most conventionally told narrative,
12:13
but it is logical and causal,
12:17
straightforward enough to follow.
12:19
Then the film’s final sequence is confusing,
12:22
abstract and symbolic.
12:24
This shift in the storytelling technique
12:26
signals the entering of a dimension
12:28
that is beyond Dave’s and our comprehension.
12:31
That’s why the last line of dialogue in the film is
12:34
“Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.”
12:40
We can’t fathom the intelligence or purpose of these aliens,
12:44
and thus in the final sequence we can only process
12:47
certain imagery and respond to it
12:49
in our personal, intuitive way.
12:51
Kubrick himself said, “2001 is a nonverbal experience;
12:56
out of two hours and 19 minutes of film,
12:58
there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialogue.
13:01
I tried to create a visual experience,
13:04
one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing
13:07
and directly penetrates the subconscious
13:09
with an emotional and philosophic content.
13:12
I intended the film to be
13:14
an intensely subjective experience
13:16
that reaches the viewer at an inner level
13:18
of consciousness, just as music does.”
13:21
So from these words we can gather
13:23
that it’s not so important to “get” the ending
13:26
in the traditional way.
13:28
In Kubrick’s view, any interpretation of the ending
13:31
is supplemental to the experience of it.
13:35
So if 2001: A Space Odyssey has confused you
13:38
but also emotionally or mentally affected you,
13:41
then it’s done its job.
13:47
Before we go, there’s also a lot to say about
13:49
how the ending reflects on a major theme of the film —
13:52
technology and its link to violence,
13:54
and how the monolith fits into all that —
13:56
but we kind of need a whole other video
13:58
to do that theme justice.
14:00
So stay tuned.
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