May 16, 2019

What Does the Ending of '2001: A Space Odyssey' Mean?

The ending of '2001: A Space Odyssey' has fascinated audiences for years. Stanley Kubrick is an enigmatic director who put a lot of layers into all his work. Today, we're analyzing the themes, motifs, and talking about what actually happened. 

Stanley Kubrick is a stunning filmmaker who challenges audiences at every level. He was famous for striking films with grand morals and questions. But when he released 2001: A Space Odyssey, it just was different. Hollywood knew downer endings and ambiguous plot points, but for one of the first times ever, a mainstream movie asked an audience to chose an ending based on their own belief system. 

It was deep, inspirational, and caused a lot of people to hate Stanley Kubrick. 

People want answers. They want to know what to expect. What to believe. And the ending of 2001 was never going to give them that. But we might be able to help. 

Today, we're going to go over 2001: A Space Odyssey. We'll talk about the beginning, the ending, and how you can walk away from a film like this one. I expect many to disagree and to have their own theories. Let's talk about them in the comments below. 

But without further ado...let's talk about 2001: A Space Odyssey

Someone throw me a bone! 

2001: A Space Odyssey

On April 5th, 1968, 2001  hit theaters. Kubrick was well known at the time for movies like Paths of GlorySpartacus, and the adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. His true fame came from the Nuclear satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. That movie made Kubrick a household name and got him a meeting with Arthur C. Clarke. That meeting led to a collaboration by the men to adapt Clarke's short story “The Sentinel” into a screenplay as well as a full-length novel. 

The original title for 2001 was going to be A Journey Beyond the Stars, but they went with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think they did the switch because of how the end and beginning mirror one another, but more on that later.  

The point is, we jump from the Pleistocene Era to a space-shuttle cabin some 4 million years later. Most people remember this magical match cut. It might be the greatest edit of all time. 

The movie itself is around three hours long. There's an intermission. Only forty minutes contain dialogue. We have silence and an extensive score that shakes the theater when you see it on the big screen. Kubrick intended 2001 to be a visual experience and the lack of talking makes us take every frame in and ask for meaning.

When 2001  was released, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, for one, called it “monumentally unimaginative” but now we see Kubrick’s masterwork and one of the most significant films of the 20th century. At the 41st annual Academy Awards, the film did not receive a nomination for Best Picture, even though Kubrick was nominated for Best Director; he lost to Carol Reed for Oliver!  2001 won one Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

But it had an ending that people still talk about today. 

The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey 

So what happens at the end of 2001

After Dave and his crew head from the moon to Jupiter to investigate some mysterious monoliths, their computer system, HAL, takes over the ship. HAL kills everyone on board except Dave. Dave manages to survive, stumbles onto Jupiter, and encounters a species of highly advanced beings who try to give him the comforts of the good life. Dave, blown away by their existence, sees himself age in mere moments, goes on a color trail, dies, and is reborn as a star child. 

That child jettisons toward earth. 

And then the movie ends. 


The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey Explained 

We're now 18 years past 2001, we've never been to Jupiter, and the enigmatic ending of the movie still haunts the generations who watch it. There are many people who think 2001 is about the afterlife, or how nothing really matters. Still, some others say it's just Dave's fever dream as he runs out of oxygen on the planet. 

So what does Kubrick say?

As you can tell, Kubrick didn't love giving answers. He says he avoided doing it because saying the ideas sound foolish, but dramatizing is about an experience. Kubrick goes on to describe the ending and talks about how Dave is basically placed in a zoo for humans by godlike aliens who study him until finished, then they transform him into a super being sent to Earth. 

 In a 1968 interview with Playboy, Kubrick stated:

"You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point."

When asked by Eric Nordern in Kubrick's interview with Playboy if 2001: A Space Odyssey was a religious film, Kubrick elaborated:

"I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001 but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don't believe in any of Earth's monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe. Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun's energy on the planet's chemicals,

it's fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It's reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the Sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans."

While this is a nice explanation. It's not really what 2001 means. Sure, it might be what happens, but I think the meaning of the movie goes deeper than that. 

Kubrick wants you to have a complicated answer to what the movie meant to you. 

See, it doesn't matter what 2001 means to everyone. It matters what it means to you. 

I'm not being a hippie about it, although I did write a post on here about happiness

Think about it. In the beginning, the monkeys who find the monolith have no idea how to interpret it. Then, when we find one on the moon, we have no idea how to interpret that. In all that time, with all our advancements in technology, we still don't get it. And that's just like 2001

What if the monoliths are just things to prod our personal beliefs about the lives we've lead? 

As the colors cascade toward us, I think we're supposed to think about our lives, about what flashes before our eyes. Are there things you did wrong? Right? What parts do you wish were better? 

Well, what if you could be better? What if you could leave 2001 born again, not a star baby ready to take on the rest of the earth with the empowering knowledge that you can change. That life isn't about understanding the monoliths before you but about loving the people around you. 

Someday we'll be so advanced we'll understand the monoliths too. 

But for now, we've got each other. 

What's next? More Film Theory! 

Tell me if this sounds familiar. It’s a Friday night, and you and your group of friends are exiting the movie theater. You saw a new release, and everyone is jockeying to get their opinion out. It can be hard to articulate the way you feel about a movie or TV show besides the typical "good" or "bad" gut reaction. 

Sometimes you want to say more about a film or TV show.

Or maybe you want to write, direct or produce. It’s important to have a baseline of Film Theory so you can properly analyze what’s in front of you. To dissect a film and understand the context can take years of training. But you've been training without knowing it. Every time you watch a new show or movie you're building an internal database. You have something to base your reactions on and, over time, your tastes grow.

So click the link and find out more!      

Your Comment


(I realize this long of a response could be interpreted as an angry, vehement rant. It's not. That is not the spirit in which I write this. There is no spite or anger here; just offering a different perspective which I think is more legitimate than what is offered in this article. If you don't agree, that's totally fine.)
When you talk about interpreting the ending of 2001, you're really talking about interpreting the meaning or intent of whole film.
If you read interviews with Kubrick from this time, he is very interested in film as a language. He felt that films up to that point hadn't even scratched the surface of what film could communicate. He hoped that 2001 would scratch a little deeper than anything that had come before it. The way I understand it is this: He felt we could communicate much deeper ideas with film if we tried, but we hadn't been taking advantage of the power of the medium to "speak" in terms that go deeper than what can be verbalized, cannot be encapsulated in "verbal roadmaps".
So when Kubrick is saying that the viewer is free to speculate about the film and that he won't spell things out for people in a verbal way. I don't think Kubrick was making a movie devoid of meaning, an empty box into which people can place their own meaning with no relation to what he intended. Kubrick has a meaning, and I would imagine that he wants people to "get it", but he's not going to explain it in a verbal way. That would be to dishonor his work as an artist. I think he's saying that film should be a non-verbal experience, and the totality of meaning one can find in that experience, if it is crafted rightly, transcends verbal explanation. Ingmar Bergman explained his films in this way, too. Sometimes we cannot quite put an experience into words, and we might only be able to put what we got out of an experience in terms of how it made us feel.
I think it's helpful to try to think about the film from the artist's point of view: Where was his mind at the time? What were his values? What was his world view?
At the time Kubrick made 2001, we hadn't yet landed on the moon. The space program was a very optimistic, aspirational effort in our society. From what I've read Kubrick admired astronauts and the space the space program, thinking of them as some of the ultimate expressions of mankind's greatness as a species. To Kubrick space travel is the perfect expression of mankind beginning to physically and perhaps metaphorically transcend our human-ness. The space program is one more step toward our becoming something evolutionarily greater than mankind.

Kubrick starts the film with the dawn of man, when, in his worldview, we tore ourselves from animal-ness and made the first gesture toward something greater. The dawn of mankind started with the development of the first piece of technology (perhaps using a bone as a weapon). (That famous cut between the bone and the satellite is so great because in an instant you've told the story of mankind, from a technological standpoint.) The film ends when we have achieved something that would reach beyond our human-ness, tear us away from human-ness, and bring us closer to something greater, perhaps moving toward that ultimate greatness (which he describes in that extensive quote about evolutionary possibilities of godlike beings who have transcended physical limitations, etc.).

From what I've understood and judging from his own works, Kubrick was totally into philosophy and thought very deeply himself. So looking at philosophy or philosophers that might have influenced his thinking is helpful, too. I'm not saying he was a nihilist, or is 100% aligned with Nietzsche; I don't know that. However, if you read Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, I think you'll find some parallels with some of Kubrick's own thinking about mankind, progress, some of his highest values. Nietzsche praises the men/women who are brave enough and strong enough to shed what has come before us (whether it's "outdated" morals or physical limitations, etc.), and reach for something greater, something greater-than-human. He calls these supermen (ubermensch). He praises those who would be great enough, courageous enough to reach forward, reach for the next step in evolution, for that greater version of what mankind can be.
With Kubrick's admiration for astronauts the space program, you can imagine him thinking of these folks as ubermensches. They are symbols of humans reaching for that great-than-human. (It could be a misinterpretation, but I find it interesting that the spacecraft Dave and the others travel in is basically a picture of a bridge spanning to points (the engine in the back and the fuselage at the front. The spaceship itself is a physical expression of reaching forward into space, into what is beyond.) And I think it's no coincidence that "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is the piece of music that plays during the bone-as-weapon scene and other key places where we witness a significant step in evolution, or see an expression of greatness (reaching the black obelisk at Jupiter, and Dave death and rebirth (mankind's transition into the ubermensch). These mark places where we see mankind (humankind) taking one more step toward the Greater-than-human. The star child at the end is Kubrick's umbermensch. He is floating above earth, having transcended mankind and become something greater.
If you read interviews with Arthur C Clark and Kubrick, you'll see those obelisks are not meaningless. They are "mile-markers", in a way, placed there by these godlike beings (the pinnacle of evolutionary potential). So they visit earth in some way, and they find these beings (the ape-man creatures) with potential for something greater. They place another marker on the moon, the assumption being that if these ape-men evolve enough, they'll be able to reach the moon and find this thing. When that obelisk is found, it sends a signal to the one orbiting Jupiter. If mankind is evolved enough, they should be able to reach that "mile-marker", too. Once Dave reaches that last mile-marker, he is pulled beyond Jupiter, and ostensibly held in this "zoo", an example of mankind, or perhaps the as an example of the first greater-than-human-being.

I agree that the film is a religious film in a sense. Kubrick is worshiping. His music choices communicate a feeling of worship, praise, honor, adoration. Perhaps you could say he is worshiping mankind and its achievements. Or at the very least, he is expressing his wonder at the magnificence of nature and what it has wrought; he is also expressing his admiration for what we are now, and ultimately his hope for what we might become.
This is not my favorite film, but I do admire it a great deal. I think it's a spectacular example of a person expressing his worldview, his greatest values, through the story of where he believes we came from and where he hopes we'll go. I like Kubrick's perspective on film language transcending language, so obviously it would not be in line with Kubrick's view of the film to then think that what I've expressed here encapsulates the film's meaning. It doesn't.
I think the interpretation (or lack thereof) of 2001 proposed in this article kind of does a disservice to the film. The way I read it (and I could be wrong or misunderstanding the main thrust of the article), the author seems to be interpreting 2001 as an empty Sci-fi box in which we are free to place whatever values and ideas we want. I understand what he is saying to be this: we've got these mysterious obelisks that ultimately don't have meaning, and Kubrick is saying that we need to stop trying to understand the meaning, but just create our own meaning, loving those around us. I can't think of any element in the film, visual or otherwise, that expresses this sentiment. (The only thing I can think of that would be fodder for this interpretation is the scene where Dr. Floyd talks to his daughter, and I think he is missing her birthday party (Frank, Dave's astronaut partner, also misses a birthday with family). It's possible you could interpret this scene as saying, "See they're missing their real lives around them in pursuit of the meaning of this obelisk, which they'll never understand. Kubrick is saying that, instead, they really need to spend their lives loving and enjoying the people around them." But I think if one interprets the film like, they eschew the main thrust of everything else in the film.)
It's a free country, and one is free to interpret 2001 that way, and any other piece of art for that matter. But (putting aside dadaism and experimental artists whose sole purpose is either to flout meaning or to say nothing and merely invite interpretation) I believe that that view of 2001 gets us no closer to understanding Kubrick's work (or other artists' works if we view them the same way) and honoring the fact that he (and they) actually meant something when he made it.

May 16, 2019 at 10:59AM, Edited May 16, 11:51AM

Adam Hildebrand
President/Owner Faithful Bull Productions, Inc.

This is a great response!

May 16, 2019 at 11:56AM

Jason Hellerman

Thanks, Jason. I appreciate your affable response. I hope nothing came across as demeaning or attacking you as a writer. That certainly isn't how I meant it.

I meant to point one more element that, for me, ties the film up more closely with an optimistic progressive-evolutionary world view is illustrated in the second half of the movie: Here mankind (symbolized by Dave) overcomes its own creation (ie technology, which has in some ways become an equal) that made it initially superior to other creatures. You can't claim to have progressed if your own creation can overcome you. You must be better/stronger/smarter/superior. As HAL tries to kill all those on board the ship, Dave must overcome HAL, kill it, prove his superiority to it, and so he progresses toward this next step in mankind's greatness (achieve ubermensch/star-child status). If mankind would transcend mankind, then he must display a godlike status over his own creation, and not let it be equal to or master over him.

May 16, 2019 at 12:30PM

Adam Hildebrand
President/Owner Faithful Bull Productions, Inc.

All I want out of my posts are discussions by intelligent people who love movies. You obviously do!

May 16, 2019 at 2:33PM

Jason Hellerman

Well said, Adam. You gently criticize the author of the article in the context of your take on the meaning of the film, one which I wholeheartedly concur with.

May 17, 2019 at 1:00AM

Radames Pera

Just read the books. It's plainly explained about what's happening.

May 16, 2019 at 8:00PM

Sandy Chase


May 17, 2019 at 1:00AM

Radames Pera

As someone who saw 2001 at eight years old at its original release, worked in Hollywood as a child actor and studied filmmaking formally and informally for decades, as well as made a 13-min. "compact" edit of the film (in the year 2001, see "01: A Space Od" on youtube) I will say this:
I read the novel co-authored by Clarke and Kubrick. The monolith was planted by a superior alien race to trigger the next round of evolution on Earth. At the same time, they buried a trigger mechanism on the Moon, figuring that by the time humans discovered it and it was exposed it to the first rays of the sun, that would mean the species was ready for the next bump in evolution. Tracing the focused signal emitted by the Moon monolith to one of Jupiter's moons, Io, the mission with HAL on-board is initiated.
HAL, the only "awake person" on the ship with knowledge of the mission's purpose, realizes that if humanity its about to encounter an intelligence greater than the one who created him, tries to sabotage the mission out of self-preservation, but fails, allowing petty-astronaut Bowman (hired only to get the ship to Jupiter, where the hibernating scientists would take over) to land on top of the massive monolith on the surface of Io. This is a portal which transports him and his pod to a place where he spends the rest of his natural life being taught "from the inside" by the superior beings' teaching mechanism. The same mechanism gives him a new form upon the death of his old body and sends him back to Earth to start yet another advancement in consciousness there.
. . . .
Small addendum: I was fortunate to have had a phone conversation with Mr. Clarke once, and explained my "killer HAL" theory (above)...He found it very interesting and said he hadn't seen it that way before but that it made sense!

May 17, 2019 at 12:47AM, Edited May 17, 1:05AM

Radames Pera

I like your ideas about HAL. It occurred to me that HAL had become self aware about his own mortality and is becoming paranoid. This is implied by the conversation HAL has with Dave where HAL is probing Dave how much he knows about the mission and Dave shuts down the conversation with the crew psychology comment. Immediately after that comment, HAL announces the failure of the AE-35 unit.

May 13, 2020 at 10:20AM


I have a simple theory when directors/writers can't easily explain what their movie/book means. They didn't have a plan in the first place or didn't know how to properly conclude their story, so its easy to use the "artist" cop-out as the excuse. Or, the " I let the viewer interpret the meaning" excuse. And that's all they are. Excuses. Don't put people on pedestals for basically not being able to finish the job. And that's what a vague or unexplainable ending is....terrible writing and not doing your job. I didn't pay to watch a movie and figure it out myself. I paid you to do that=)

2001 was an awesome technical achievement for its time, but it's a slow, boring slog from a story telling perspective.

May 17, 2019 at 6:02AM

Motion Designer/Predator

Kubrick ended the movie about one page before the book ended. To understand the story to the fullest you really should read the book. It ended just as ambiguously as the movie. Kubrick was simply staying true to the story. Who's this Oliver fella?

May 17, 2019 at 6:37PM, Edited May 17, 7:18PM

Dave Palmer
Retired Electrical Engineer