(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Early ancestors of humankind are struggling to survive, and it appears that they will succumb to extinction. Moon-Watcher, who leads a tribe of these primates by virtue of his massive size, encounters a “new rock.” The new rock is a Monolith, a sentient entity in the form of a rectangular block with perfect proportions—the ratio of its depth to width to height is exactly 1 to 4 to 9. The Monolith conducts experiments on Moon-Watcher and his tribe, ultimately providing Moon-Watcher’s people with the ability to utilize and create rudimentary tools. As a result, Moon-Watcher’s tribe learns to hunt and defeats a competing tribe, ensuring humanity’s eventual existence.

Millions of years later, Dr. Heywood Floyd is sent by the president of the United States to a base on the moon in order to investigate mysterious magnetic fluctuations. The source of the fluctuations is another Monolith found buried in the moon’s Tycho crater. Floyd and other scientists refer to the moon’s Monolith as Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One (TMA-1) and prepare to conduct experiments on it. Uncovered, the Monolith is exposed to a sunrise on the moon and immediately emits a signal that disrupts almost all nearby electronic equipment. Distant communication satellites record the signal, and its destination is pinpointed.

In 2001, the spaceship Discovery travels through space toward Saturn. Discovery was initially scheduled to travel only to Jupiter, but its mission was altered shortly before it began, ostensibly for the purpose of surveying Saturn’s various moons. Two astronauts, David Bowman and Frank Poole, comprise the ship’s crew, while three members of a survey team lie dormant in cryogenic sleep for the journey. Bowman and Poole are accompanied by the ship’s advanced computer, the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer (HAL), which is responsible for maintaining the ship’s course and systems.

Passing through the asteroid belt and reaching Jupiter, Discovery begins a maneuver that slingshots the ship around the gas giant, increasing its speed for the remainder of the journey to Saturn. Following the slingshot maneuver, Bowman and Poole return to their normal duties of caring for the ship. HAL, however, begins to detect various failures in the ship’s...

(The entire section is 946 words.)