Originally titled Journey Beyond the Stars, 2001: A Space Odyssey evolved over several years of close collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and the English science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The screenplay was based on Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” in which astronauts on a roving mission to extract mineral samples from the mountains of the moon discover a pyramidal structure left by space travelers eons before, presumably as a kind of cosmic signpost for those terrestrial creatures who might evolve sufficiently to be able to journey to the moon and find it.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first such signpost is a black monolith, a slender slab of smooth marble, which proto-human apes discover in their desert habitat. Touching the slab creates the spark of realization that leads to the use of tools and—in an unsettling preview of human history—weapons. The man-ape who touches the slab understands that the bone in his hand is useful not only for obtaining food but also for dominating other apes. In a famous scene, a triumphant man-ape tosses his bone-weapon into the air, and the bone’s trajectory dissolves into the orbit of a twenty-first century manmade spacecraft high above the earth, transporting the audience instantaneously and dramatically to the age of human space travel.
The rest of the film follows the astronauts on their quest for the meaning of the mysterious second signpost—an identical black monolith discovered on the moon in the year 2001. The astronauts’ attempt to retrace the monolith’s signal (the sudden and brief emission of a beam of energy aimed at one of the moons of Jupiter) is endangered by the on-board computer HAL, who runs chillingly amok. The one surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), manages to disconnect HAL and pilots a single pod of the spacecraft toward the presumed destination, a black monolith aligned mysteriously with Jupiter and its moons. What follows is a tour of the universe—a dynamic visual roller coaster that careens past awesome galactic and planetary systems. At the end of the journey, the astronaut faces not the extraterrestrials who left the signposts that guided him there but himself in the imploded present, past, and future. He is simultaneously young, old, dying, and—in the dramatic final scene—cosmically reborn as a star-child.