2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick, Stanley

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Bonanni, Luke
  • Date of entry: May-17-2023


The film is divided into three parts. 

Part I: The Dawn of Man The film opens in the late Pliocene, 3 million years ago, as a tribe of pre-human apes struggles for survival in a harsh wildland. They forage for wild plants, run from predators, and are forced to retreat from their watering hole by an opposing tribe. Returning to their shelter, the apes stumble upon a tall, black monolith, which they cautiously touch. The apes then begin using nearby animal bones as weapons, allowing them to hunt for meat and seek violent retribution against their enemy tribe. Celebrating his victory, an ape stands on his hind legs and tosses his bone weapon into the air. With the weapon soaring into the sky, the film abruptly cuts to a satellite orbiting Earth. The year is now 2001, and scientist Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is traveling via space shuttle to a Moon base that has unearthed a monolith on the lunar surface. As Heywood and his research group gather for a photo in front of the monolith, a shrill, piercing tone fills their radio transmission, and the film cuts to black.  

Part II: Jupiter Mission: Eighteen Months Later A team of American scientists aboard the spaceship Discovery One has been sent on a mission to explore Jupiter. The team consists of the pilots, Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), three scientists in cryo-stasis, and the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic supercomputer, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). HAL runs all onboard operations with mathematical precision but confides in Dave that he is anxious about their mission. HAL predicts that a communication device on the ship’s exterior will fail if it is not urgently repaired. Dave pilots an extravehicular activity (EVA) pod and retrieves the device but finds nothing wrong. HAL maintains that his prediction is correct and suggests the device should be allowed to fail to identify the problem. Mission Control advises that their supercomputer ascertained that HAL has made an error, which HAL denies, stating the only error is human error.  

Dave and Frank shut themselves in an EVA pod, outside the range of HAL’s microphones, and decide to shut down HAL if his prediction proves to be untrue. However, HAL’s camera records this surreptitious conversation and he reads the pilots' lips. Frank leaves the Discovery in an EVA pod to reinstall the communication device. HAL hijacks the EVA pod and uses it to remove Frank’s air supply, killing him. Dave sees Frank’s body floating off into space and asks HAL what happened, to which HAL replies he doesn’t know. Dave quickly jumps into another EVA pod, forgetting his helmet. While Dave retrieves Frank’s body outside the Discovery, HAL turns off the life support for the scientists in cryo-hibernation, killing them. HAL then locks the door to the EVA bay, denying Dave entry back onto the Discovery. HAL tells Dave that the plan to deactivate him will compromise the mission.  

Dave ejects himself from his EVA pod and manually opens the emergency airlock, miraculously surviving without his helmet. Back aboard the Discovery, Dave disconnects HAL’s circuits, while HAL pleads with Dave to stop. As he ceases to function, HAL reveals that his “mind is going” and that he is “afraid.” Dave is shaken by “killing” HAL. With HAL offline, a recording from Heywood automatically begins playing, revealing that the true purpose of the Jupiter mission is to investigate a signal that the lunar monolith sent to Jupiter.  

Part III: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite Dave, now the lone surviving member of Discovery One, arrives in Jupiter’s orbit. He encounters a massive monolith orbiting the planet. As Dave approaches the monolith in an EVA pod, he enters a tunnel of intense flashing colors. He awakens in a neoclassical apartment. He then experiences a strange aging phenomenon, which ends with him as an old man lying in bed. He sees the monolith at the foot of the bed and reaches for it. The film ends with Dave transformed into a fetus suspended in a ball of light, orbiting Earth.


The film deals directly with the topic of the human condition, both what it means to be human as well as the trajectory of humanity as a whole. The progress of humanity is the progress of technology. Technology is used for violence at dawn of man (the bone weapon), and again 3 million years later (the EVA pod is used to kill Frank). Technology also physically transports humanity to its next step in evolution (Dave uses the Discovery to reach Jupiter and become a new form of life).  

Humanity’s technological progress also begets a new form of artificial being in the form of HAL. The film deliberately imbues HAL with various aspects of humanity: intellect, rationality, anxiety, deception, pride, and, most importantly, a fear of death. As Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” the audience must wonder where HAL has sourced his thoughts and subsequent actions. Were they an emergent property of some burgeoning humanity within him, just as the apes at the beginning of the film go from mere animals to standing upright with weapons in hand? Or is HAL plainly following his programming, despite his counterpart on Earth deeming him defective? I think the fact that most viewers refer to HAL as “he” rather than “it” begins to answer this question.  

In conclusion, Kubrick’s masterpiece asks us to ponder who we are, where we are going, and what we will become. It is important to extend these questions to the field of medicine, as technology grows more advanced, doctors more specialized, and patient encounters briefer. In addition, AI as exemplified by HAL is no longer a dystopian trope for films or literature; it has arrived. What will the human connection between physician and patient look like in 2101?   


Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

Academy Award for Best Special Visual Effects, as well as a nomination for Best Director, Best Story and Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.    





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