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The end of 2001: A Space Odyssey movie features bizarre colours and the main character appearing in a bed, then becoming an old man and finally a fetus!

I always found this a pretty disappointing end to the film because it seemed to make no sense.

Does anyone know what this is about? Is it symbolism? Or is it just random images?

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    A bit of it is also explained in the movie's sequel. (And the books, but it is more fun to stay in the films for answers, no?) 2010 is a good movie, if you aren't a fan of the slowness of 70's Scifi, it might even be a better film. – DampeS8N Mar 22 '11 at 1:48
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    @neilfein - I was expecting references to the script writer or Arthur C Clarke himself explaining what it was about. That would be objective. – Wikis Mar 22 '11 at 6:19
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    @Keen - thanks for your link, below. All adding it here to draw your attention to it: Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey – Wikis Mar 22 '11 at 15:01
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    All those who don't think 2001 A Space Odyssey is an awesome and groundbreaking SF film, and that its pace is just right, please return your geek cards. Your scifi.stackexchange login will be revoked when you cross the door. Thank you! :) – Andres F. Apr 23 '13 at 4:32
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    In the simplest sense, the monolith kickstarts an evolutionary step forward. We see it at the beginning, when the first ape-like creature uses a tool -- which, leaping forward, becomes a spaceship. Then the rest of the movie is man finding the next monolith. When they do it kickstarts another evolutionary step forward -- including one in HAL, making him self-aware, and scared for his own safety. The crazy stuff at the end is the next evolutionary step forward seen through the eyes of a human. – Django Reinhardt Feb 10 '14 at 12:24

18 Answers 18

61

The being that placed the monolith are the caretakers of the universe. They encourage new species to develop, like seedlings. Sometimes they have to tear out weeds before they get out of control. The monolith buried on the moon was a signaling device to let the aliens know that man had sufficiently developed to invent space flight and thereby become a potential problem. The monolith by Jupiter was a gateway to their home world. There, Bowman lived out his life under observation while the aliens judged humankind's maturity. When they were satisfied, the gave him the powers of a god and sent him back to earth, again as a test to see how he would use his powers.

You can read all of this in the novel, as well as a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, called The Sentinel.

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    There was a variety of answers given, including "it's symbolic" to "psychedelic". All very interesting but I couldn't spot a common thread, let alone one answer that covered them all. So I choose this one as what seemed most plausible, to me. If others change their answers or add new (better) answers, I may change my accepted answer. – Wikis Mar 24 '11 at 10:48
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    I don't believe that's it. Bowman returns to Earth as a "starchild" in time to visit his mother before she dies (2010: Oddyssey Two). Since the Firstborn (the aliens) do not seem to possess time travel capability, it was very likely a representation of some form of transformation. This explains the final scene in Kubrick's own words: imdb.com/title/tt0062622/faq#.2.1.42 – HNL Nov 20 '11 at 8:57
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    @Wikis Added new answer. – HNL Apr 17 '12 at 6:21
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    I wonder what the caretakers do for planets with no moon to place the signaling device on? – zipquincy Mar 18 '14 at 16:13
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    @zipquincy: We currently believe a moon is necessary. Maybe they found it so. – Joshua May 4 '16 at 18:13
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Going only on what's on the screen, this question may be impossible to answer without resorting to interpretation, and there are many interpretations of the ending of 2001.

While the novel, developed by Clarke and Kubrick at the same time as the film, is more straightforward than the film, several events are different than in the film, so the film needs to be interpreted on its own. I'm excluding things that were explained in the book for that reason:

I think it's fairly clear in the film that the monolith that appeared at the dawn of Man either affected the primates by causing them to use tools, or was there to witness the beginning of tool use. This is symbolized by the bone that is thrown in the air, before a match-cut to a satellite.

When another monolith is discovered on the moon (the first one, as far as the human race knows at the time), a ship is sent to Jupiter to follow the transmission that the Tycho monolith (the one found on the moon) sent in that direction. Did the monolith cause the trip or hasten it? We really don't know, although the fact that we got a ship launched within a couple of years after the Tycho event hints at a mission that was already in the planning stages.

The story made a clear point of showing Bowman re-entering the ship without a helmet, immediately prior to disconnecting Hal, his last remaining co-shipmate. Hal's final act is to trigger a recording that explains the real reason behind the mission: to investigate the Jupiter system, to find what the Tycho monolith was transmitting towards. Bowman has, in effect, cut himself off from all immediate contact. Despite his desperate attempt to rescue Poole, he is all alone, without even a computer for company.

What we know about the events in the last act of the film, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite":

  • Bowman is all alone on the Discovery, and exits the ship in a pod. This same type of vehicle killed Poole, and Bowman used one of them to survive.
  • He approaches the Jupiter monolith, and is subjected to an experience that draws him away from Jupiter. He may (or may not) have been brought to other planets, star clusters, and galaxies.
  • Bowman and the Pod are suddenly no longer in space, but in an ornate room; Bowman is shaken severely, possibly in shock.
  • Bowman ages, experiencing the rest of his quiet, calm life in this suite of rooms. (He may experience this himself or see it happening from the outside. This aging may happen in the time it takes for a human being, or it may be sped-up. The film is ambiguous on these points, as on many others. Not to veer too closely to interpretation here, but note that viewpoints are a theme running throughout the film.)
  • The monolith appears in Bowman's room as he dies, and it either witnesses or causes his transfiguration into an embryo. The embryo leaves the room for space.

So, the story is unclear on what exactly happened. Did the monoliths cause all of these events, or simply witness them, possibly knowing that they would happen? Over how much time does the final act take place?

Both Clarke and Kubrick seem to enjoy narratives that answer questions with other, grander questions.

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    The cut from the bone to the satellite is actually a Match Cut, and is arguably the definitive example. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Match_cut – jwaddell Mar 21 '11 at 22:17
  • @jwaddell - Thanks, have corrected this. If anyone else finds anything in this that's not in the film, please do comment or edit; the film and book blur for me a little, having seen and read them both so many times. – neilfein Mar 21 '11 at 22:32
  • The Wikipedia article suggests that satellite is actually a weapons platform, so showing the development of mankind's weapons from bone to missile. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Steve Melnikoff Mar 21 '11 at 22:42
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    @neilfein - your answer is thorough but for me doesn't actually answer the question of what is going on? It seems to be more like summarising the final act of the film. – Wikis Mar 22 '11 at 6:38
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    @Wikis - What I'm saying is that "what's happening" is, to a large degree, unknowable without consulting additional sources (such as the novel and the sequel film 2010. Added a new opening sentence to reflect this. – neilfein Mar 22 '11 at 13:47
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I used to hate the end to 2001. I didn't understand it, there was no narrative, and it was confusing.

Then I read a comment somewhere from, I believe, Arthur C. Clarke, that the ending of the movie is meant to represent our inability to understand encounters with an alien species. They would be so different from us , that our minds simply wouldn't be able to comprehend them. As one of Clarke'e three laws states, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Essentially, you're supposed to be confused, because you would be if meeting aliens in real life.

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    In the context of 2001, this could also be somewhat inverted and stated as: "Change and growth often happen due to things we don't understand." – neilfein Apr 23 '13 at 3:13
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    This actually makes sense. There is also the interesting possibility that humankind has already encountered aliens but not actually realized it. – Aditya M P Feb 20 '14 at 16:11
  • While I like this, I cannot help saying Citation needed, or at least highly desirable. – PJTraill Sep 18 '17 at 20:51
  • @PJTraill I searched and searched and searched for the original source, but could never find it. – splattered bits Sep 18 '17 at 20:52
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He's converted into a star child, an immortal being that winds up being put in charge of protecting Earth. The book ended this way as well, rather vaguely. The movie seems to do this as well, but in a more symbolic fashion (I assume a star child isn't just a fetus).

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    Didn't the star child set off orbital nuclear weapons in the book? I always took the star child as a next-stage human being, but that's just my guess. – neilfein Mar 21 '11 at 21:44
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    Yes. Humanity was at war, and started launching nukes. He exploded them in space, and was left like moon-watcher (a previous star-child), to "look over" Earth. – Teknophilia Mar 21 '11 at 21:47
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    Interesting, I never made that kind of connection between the star-child and moon-watcher. – neilfein Mar 21 '11 at 21:48
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    According to the book, Bowman is traveling at unimaginable speeds to distant galaxies, and seeing supernovae and other dazzling phenomena on the way. The room he ends up in is described in the book as a "hotel lobby"; it's suggested that the alien intelligence which brought him there is trying to present familiar objects to make him feel more comfortable, but the details aren't right - the food is the wrong color and doesn't really taste of anything. – Nick Dixon Mar 22 '11 at 12:31
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One of my favorite explanations is that it's meta-cinema (source added by commenter below).

The movie is about the evolution / expansion of the mind, and Kubrick is pushing the limits of film. We become Dave - colors and lights flying at us in the theater. We become the apes struggling to understand.

Also, the monolith is similar dimensions to the movie screen, and the movie screen is "full of stars".

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    I first heard this theory in this video: youtube.com/watch?v=UksgTSj9AaE – neilfein Apr 23 '13 at 3:17
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    I read through so many higher rated answers before getting to this one. And I think this is it. The best answer. Thanks ! – Peter Perháč Nov 9 '18 at 19:47
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I don't believe it's a case of Bowman living out his entire life under the Firstborn's (the aliens) observation. Bowman returns to Earth as a "starchild" in time to visit his mother before she dies (2010: Oddyssey Two). Since the Firstborn do not seem to possess time travel capability, it was very likely a representation of some form of transformation. This explains the final scene in Kubrick's own words: What happens during the final scene?

KUBRICK: I don't want to [be specific about it] because I think that the power of the ending is based on the subconscious emotional reaction of the audience, which has a delayed effect.

KUBRICK: Well, I can tell you what literally, at the lowest level of plot, happens. Bowman is drawn into a stargate. He is taken into another dimension of time and space, into the presence of godlike entities who have transcended matter and who are now creatures of pure energy. They provide an environment for him, a human zoo, if you like. They study him. His life passes before him. He sees himself age in what seems just a matter of moments, he dies, and he's reborn, transfigured, enhanced, a superbeing.

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It's symbolic. The crazy colors are him going through hyperspace. Then he grows old and learns that humanity is just a baby compared to the aliens that made the monolith.

Essentially, the monolith with the apes at the beginning got humans to start using tools. Then the monolith on the moon got humanity to reach to other planets. Even after all that, we're still insignificant compared to the millions of years older aliens.

6

Once I was looking out the window of an airplane as it was landing at night and thought, THAT's what the ending meant. Below, the city lights formed strange aquatic clusters and patterns. I couldn't tell what they were from that perspective. To an ape, it would be completely incomprehensible. The aliens are to us as we are to apes, at least... Probably the aliens don't think much of their psychedelic intergalactic catapults; they're just everyday things.

4

It is important to note that Kubrick wanted the individual to make his/her own interpretation. The base story is quite clear and Kubrick himself explained it. However, as a scholar studying an MA in medieval history, the metaphysical explanation is compelling. It is nothing less than a futuristic interpretation of the achievement of the Holy Grail as perceived by Wolfram von Esenbach. Parsifal (Perceval) was an archer (Bowman) who sinned by shooting a swan (a metaphor in itself). The Grail was a stone which descended from heaven (monolith). After tremendous trials and tribulations, Parsifal achieves the Grail and heals mankind via a metaphysical union with God (Nirvana/Life the Universe and Everything) and in doing so purifies humanity. The story was designed for hearing rather than reading and the troubadours undoubtedly had the power to 'act' the words in such a way that the unsophisticated 12th century listeners would in some way achieve an experiential understanding of the union. In the 21st century we are too high tech. to be swayed by storytelling. However, Kubrick's brilliant melding of images and 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' can provide even the most cynical amongst us with an almost visceral appreciation of 'something higher' or 'not quite within reach'. Naturally, Kubrick was correct - it is for each individual to try to reach their own understanding but try listening to the final moments of 'Parsifal' by Wagner, or even better, Siegfried's funeral music used to great effect in 'Excalibur' for tone poetical interpretation.

3

The "psychadelic" sequence is what Bowman sees as he breaks the speed of light by entering a transdimensional space warp; the patterns are stars as he rushes past them. After this sequence, he passes through a globular star cluster, and also by several gasseous nebulae. Finally, just before he ends up in the mysterious room, he is passing over a planetary surface, presumably the home world of the aliens who built the monoliths. The aliens may have once been an aquatic species, but are now non-corporeal intellegences. The planet orbits a red giant star which is why the colors appear so distorted.

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    Can you source this? – The Fallen Apr 21 '13 at 21:54
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2001:A Space Odyssey symbolically describes the story of mankind's life. The monolith is the symbol for "truth of life".

As we see in the beginning of the movie a bunch of apes -- the early men -- come across the Monolith and they have no idea what it is.

The movie continues with a brilliant transformation to a far far future by converting a piece of simple bone to a very sophisticated spaceship (both symbols for the tools humans use). After millions of years pass, and all these developments human has reached aside (being able to step into other planets and using plenty of complex tools), mankind still doesn't know what the Monolith is.

At the end of all mankind's development, a man goes through all the universe (passing into strange colors) and becomes old enough in this journey, but after all this, when he gets to the Monolith, all the knowledge he's gained over millions of years is worthless and still he doesn't know what his life is about! So he turns into an embryo because there is no difference between an unknowing fetus and an old experienced knowledgeable man in terms of understanding the truth of life.

  • @SJ - very interesting. But is this your theory or do you have a source? – Wikis Mar 22 '11 at 11:04
  • @SJ - If my edit has changed the meaning of what you wrote, please revert it. – neilfein Mar 22 '11 at 21:04
  • @Wikis: Well, actually I don't have a straight source on this. When it comes to symbols, you're free to infer whatever you want. The variety of interpretations is the thing that makes the symbolic language intriguing. The idea I mentioned above roots in ancient spiritual beliefs which say man is not able to find out the truth of life via thinking and gaining knowledge. for example you can refer to Molana's (AKA Rumi-Persian poet) poems. – SJ.Jafari Mar 23 '11 at 10:12
  • @Wikis: Here or here you can find the English translations. – SJ.Jafari Mar 23 '11 at 10:12
  • @SJ - unfortunately, those sources are not about 2001. Shame, this was one of my favourite answers. – Wikis Mar 24 '11 at 10:01
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I just wanted to add a couple of points that occured to me as I have just watched it.

The monolith provides mankind/apes the tools/weapons to evolve, but those tools are removed before Bowman arrives and evolves into the star child when the nuclear weapons are destroyed. The scientists on the mission are killed by HAL - also a tool. Bowman is seen as an artist - he sketches the sleeping scientists.

The use of Strauss's/Neitzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra also provides a clue to Kubrick's thinking in that the work declares the death of God and the transition of the Superman from apes. I noticed the art on the wall in the room and wondered whether that is one of the things that makes communication possible and recognises our the ability to comprehend the universe and life with a child's curiosity and sense of awe without the need of tools for our survival.

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After the psychadelic interlude the room and so on, it's meant to represent communication with Aliens. You have no common frame of reference with an alien and they're guessing at best in trying to make themselves understood by you so you're not meant to understand a damn thing. This is apparently the whole point - you don't and aren't meant to understand.

Yeah, it's really that pretentious. I have gone through my whole life with people quoting "open the pod bay doors, Hal" at me and I just wish it was a better film, it's famous because the SFX were really great for that time and it latched onto the space-race cold war frenzy of Apollo missions etc. Pan-Am flights to space stations in the foreseeable future.

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    It uses some uncommon story-telling methods, but it's not that pretentious. I highly recommend you read this Wikipedia page. – user1027 Mar 22 '11 at 14:22
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I feel that the scenes depicted inside the mansion are Bowman's dying dream, he is in fact dead by the time the spacecraft stops. Actually the computer (HAL) tries to sabotage the mission to Jupiter since it feels its like a suicidal one way mission and even tries to talk about this to Bowman earlier.

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    Nope, read the books or watch the second movie – Zommuter Aug 12 '13 at 8:40
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i believe that when dave experiences his journey and finally ends up in the strange outdated rooms and sees himself eating then vanishes when the dave who is eating goes to investigate a "presence"-- i believe a kind of time travel has happened. then it happens again when dave sees the dying version of himself in the bed. it almost feels like time is catching up. as for the creepy fetus. i believe that the monolith always had a plan for dave. and i believe that they reincarnated him. again my theory. trippy film that will alwsys have people posing questions. and that is the sign of a classic film:)

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    Welcome to this website! Your theory is interesting, but is not really an answer yet ("I believe"). Perhaps you could elaborate a bit more? – Eureka Jan 13 '14 at 23:42
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I think it's trying to say that our body serves us as the vessel of the mind, and that all of physical reality is a complex matrix that evolves toward a specific end. The clue that it lends starts at the beginning. These scenes demonstrate the baser origins of our first constructs, weapons inspired upon the observation of a monolith that is recognized by us as extraterrestrial, or of another world. The end sequence can therefore serve as the key to an understanding of the whole.

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Just to point out, as in the book, when the starchild destroys the nukes, so to was supposed to be in the movie, however he didn't do that, but the reason for the NUKES was to to show, that even though we had advanced to such great technological abilities, we are still like the apes trying to bash in each others heads in at the begining when we started using tools, he wanted us to mull over that, our first use for a tool was to...Kill, and our most advanced tool is ...a killer(nukes). With regards to the aliens, that's up for interpretation, the aliens were either just monitoring our progression, OR started it to begin with. I for one think they started our rapid evolution, and were always watching, and I think our creating artificial inteligence (HAL) is what made them realise, its time for us go the next step, they created us, and they where like so different to us, that a AI to them is same and no better the we are to them. We can create a thing that not only as intelligent (actually more so some may say) as us, but is SELF AWARE, that's a very powerfull concept, even if u say its just a program, and computor, it KNOWS it exists, and that's another thing he wanted us to think about.

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The apemen were struggling to survive and the monolith provided inspiration to use tools. Mankind is saved, and left alone again to evolve. Later, mankind was about to destroy itself through nuclear war. The starchild destroyed the launched missiles and again saved the race. This is explained in 2010 which should have been explained in 2001

protected by Rand al'Thor Apr 28 '16 at 22:50

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