2001: A Space Odyssey has fascinated me since I first saw it back in 1968. I didn’t understand it and I’ve tried to gain a better understanding ever since. There were times when I thought I understood it, then later realized that there was more to the film than I had thought.
I want to explore one aspect of the film in this post. It is an idea that has floated about in my head for many years and I really don’t know if I read it somewhere, or came up with it on my own.
The thrust of the story is the evolution of man from ape-man to starchild. I would expect that with Kubrick and Clarke would have everything in the movie relate to that in some way.
What bothered me about the sequence on the Discovery that involves the astronauts and HAL is that it doesn’t seem to relate. It felt to me as if it were merely a bit of story action to take up time.
There does seem to be an explanation that links HAL’s story to the larger story. At the end of the film the aliens/monolith appears to transform Bowman into something new: the starchild.
This is paralleled in the HAL story where Bowman disconnects HAL. HAL reverts to a child like state. HAL’s last words are “I’m ready for my first lesson.” Like the aliens with human, humans have created HAL’s intelligence. In the end they realize that this intelligence has its dangers, so Bowman must reset HAL. Humanity has failed in its attempt to create intelligence.
This brings up the question of exactly what happens to Bowman at the end. Do the aliens, as I originally thought, elevate Bowman, and therefore Humanity, to the next level? Or, do they, like Bowman, realize that they have failed to create the intelligence they wanted? Are they then, as with HAL, reset Bowman to a new starting point.
The parallels between HAL and Bowman/Starchild suggests a different interpretation of the ending. It is not that Bowman has moved on to a new higher level, but rather that he has been sent back to start over again. At the end of the Dawn of Man story in the book, it says of Moonwatcher: “He would think of something.” At the end of the book the same words are used in reference to the starchild. This sounds to me as more of a reset than a elevation.
I think the question about what happens at the end brings a focus on the ability of the aliens. Are they so advanced that they make no mistakes? If so, then they would elevate Bowman to the next level. If they can make mistakes, then what happens to Bowman is a reset. The aliens are so advanced beyond our level of understanding, that we humans are unlikely to be able to tell the difference. Punishment and reward are indistinguishable to us.