Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)


After the "Intermission," Poole works outside the spaceship Discovery to replace the original communications unit as planned. He leaves the pod in his spacesuit, emerging again in an image of birth as a tiny, vulnerable creature into the blackness of space for his spacewalk, connected only by his oxygen line. His heavy breathing roars over the soundtrack. [Frank is unable to finish his task of replacing the AE35 unit - therefore the film leaves unanswered the question of whether the unit was defective or not.]

In silence, the pod (silently controlled by HAL) swivels and moves toward Frank (fulfilling what he was programmed to do "with incalculably greater speed and reliability"). HAL uses the pod to attack - he extends its mechanical claw-arms ominously, and murders the astronaut by snapping his oxygen lines and severing his life support in the collision. [In reproductive symbolism, he succumbs to a damaging forceps birth or an abortion. His disconnected air hose represents a severed umbilical cord.] In the eerie silence of the blackness of outer space, a suffocating Frank struggles with flailing arms to reattach his severed air hose, and is left to die and helplessly float off into space. [The image of Poole's flailing around during death resembles the scene of the ape-man learning to use the bone as a violent, murderous weapon when he tosses his arms about.] Bowman asks HAL what has happened, to which the super-machine replies coldly: "I'm sorry Dave. I don't have enough information." Bowman starts to suspect that HAL is the faulty unit - and has engineered the deadly "accident" in order to take over the spaceship. [Like a child that has been caught doing something monstrously wrong, HAL vengefully proceeds to destroy the occupants of the spaceship by disconnecting them - to cover up any evidence of his own error.]

Bowman takes a second pod out after Poole to retrieve him, not bothering in his haste to take his spacesuit helmet. Dave uses the same method that HAL used to kill Frank - he maneuvers the mechanical arms on the pod to clutch and retrieve Poole's spinning, lifeless body from his drifting into outer space. It will be an unpromising rescue - Poole is already dead.

In the meantime, while Dave is absent from the ship and playing right into HAL's devious plans, HAL begins to calculatedly deprive and cut off the life-support systems of three other "hybernating" crewmen on board. Without interference in the empty ship, HAL's next three executions are performed very cleanly. Their electronic charts start to flash red danger warnings regarding their cardiovascular and metabolic levels, their central nervous system, their pulminary function, systems integration and locomotor system. Beeping sirens sound as the statistical jiggly lines become horizontal lines to efficiently record their deaths: COMPUTER MALFUNCTION, LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL, and then LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED. After the crewmen are murdered in their hibernation capsules, there is silence.

From the outside of the closed pod doors, Dave, holding back repressed anger, orders HAL (with the common 'do you read me?' command) to let him back onboard, and is immediately frustrated. HAL responds with silence. HAL's fifth plan of murder is simply to do nothing to defeat his human creators in the deadly game of survival. He intentionally does not readily respond as usual, possibly another sign of error and breakdown:

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL. Open the pod bay doors please, HAL. Hello, HAL. Do you read me? Hello, HAL. Do you read me? Do you read me, HAL? Do you read me, HAL? Hello, HAL. Do you read me? Hello, HAL. Do you read me? Do you read me, HAL?
HAL: Affirmative Dave, I read you.
Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL used his visual-recognition abilities, a byproduct of his eighteen months of practice watching them speak to each other, to "see" their lips move and understand their conversation. The icy-voiced, uncooperative, malevolent HAL justifies his attempt to kill them because they threaten to disconnect him, and because they ultimately threaten the goal of the mission (that the crew members, ironically, do not completely understand):

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
Dave: Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?
HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
Dave: All right, HAL. I'll go in through the emergency air lock.
HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult.
Dave: HAL, I won't argue with you anymore. Open the doors.
HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Dave is in grave peril - he has left his space helmet behind, seen resting back inside the spaceship. An interesting image visually represents the confrontation between Dave and HAL -- the imposing and dominant Discovery (with HAL) and the small pod (with Bowman) appear facing each other. Bowman must improvise with a unique, creative, non-rational solution, like the heroic man-ape from the first sequence. His only way into the spaceship is through the Discovery's small emergency air-lock entrance, but he cannot leave his pod without a helmet. It is also not possible to take the pod into the small hatch. He first releases Frank's body cradled in the pod's mechanical arms, leaving him to spin out of view into the dark recesses of space.

Bowman changes the rules of survival against the programmed computer super-machine by using his unique, human 'tool' of intelligence to inventively outwit HAL - in a life and death game of strategy that will allow him to evolve to the next level. In an exciting, courageous sequence, Bowman opens the emergency hatch door. He parks his pod next to the open emergency entrance. Then, using the explosive bolts on the pod's hatch (normally to speedily eject someone out in an emergency), he explodes or ejects himself from the pod's hatch back into the vacuum of the double-doored airlock chamber. He flies right at the camera into the airless tunnel of the Discovery after the explosion, and then in frenzied, frantic desperation closes the airlock chamber's outside door - all in total silence. He then reaches for the oxygen release mechanism and fills the chamber with oxygen - and miraculously survives. [This is another startling image of reproductive birth.]

Retaliating for HAL's evil deeds, Dave (now with his helmet on) angrily and determinedly proceeds to the computer's reddish-toned "brain room." He is genuinely upset and for the first time in the film expresses his emotional feelings. HAL begins talking again, quizzically asking him what he is doing:

Just what do you think you're doing, Dave? Dave, I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question.

HAL begins to plead for him to reconsider:

I know everything hasn't been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it's going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do.

The soundtrack is filled with Bowman's heavy breathing inside his space suit as he penetrates into the huge space of the "brain room" - filmed with a hand-held camera to communicate a 'subjective' perspective. HAL asks him to calm down and reassess the situation, recognizing and deducing ("see"-ing) his emotional state from his actions, expressions or other indicators. Bowman is empathically affected by HAL's remorse and pleas for his life as he destroys the machine:

Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission and I want to help you.

Dave floats through the computer's memory bank, de-braining, lobotomizing, dismantling and disconnecting HAL's higher-logic functions. He ejects components of HAL's auto-intellect panels (shaped like tiny white monoliths). Although the rectangular prisms slowly emerge from the bank of terminals, they remain connected to it. HAL pleads and protests with Bowman - in a programmed voice - as his 'mind' gradually decays and he becomes imbecilic and returns to infancy. HAL's poignant death is agonizingly slow and piteous, and although the computer maintains a calm tone - it still expresses a full range of genuine emotions while dying. His voice eventually slows and sounds drugged:

Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a-fraid.

HAL's brain reaches senility, and then a second childhood. He calls up his earliest encoded data-memories as physical parts of his mind are pulled away:

Good afternoon gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H A L plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it, I could sing it for you...

Dave replies - with some regret in his voice for the dying super-computer: "Yes, I'd like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me." HAL then sings his swan song, one of the first songs he learned - Daisy, or A Bicycle Built For Two - until the words entirely degenerate with his voice rumbling lower and lower into distortion. He slides into his innate tabula rasa state - and then there is utter silence:

It's called, 'Daisy.' Dai-sy, dai-sy, give me your answer true. I'm half cra-zy, o-ver the love of you. It won't be a sty-lish mar-riage, I can't a-fford a car-riage---. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle - built - for - two.

[Note: Bell Labs, which experimented with computerized-synthesized speech in the early 1960s, programmed a Bell computer to sing a similar song - the first song ever sung by a computer.]

After HAL's voice has slowed to a stop and has been deactivated (reduced to a mechanical shipkeeper), the disconnection (and the coincidental entrance of the ship into Jupiter's space) triggers the playing of a pre-recorded televised briefing recorded prior to the Discovery's departure, previously known only by HAL. These are the last spoken lines of the film - delivered as if the entire astronautical crew were alive. The video recording was made by Dr. Heywood Floyd - he appears on a small video monitor to tell the story of the discovery of the monolith on the moon and the true purpose of the Jupiter mission. With HAL's electrical system shut down, the voice of the recording describing their mission replaces HAL's voice on the loudspeakers:

Good day, gentlemen. This is a prerecorded briefing made prior to your departure and which for security reasons of the highest importance has been known on board during the mission only by your H-A-L 9000 computer. Now that you are in Jupiter's space, and the entire crew is revived, it can be told to you. Eighteen months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered. It was buried forty feet below the lunar surface, near the crater Tycho. Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter the four million year old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.

The meaningless journey to Jupiter now gains relevance. ["For security reasons" - because of the existence of a space race with the Russians? - HAL has been programmed to keep the astronauts from knowing the object of their mission until they arrive. Was HAL deliberately entrusted with the secret about the mission - to follow the alien, high-frequency radio signal beamed directly to Jupiter by the monolith found on the Moon and explore the possibility of extra-terrestrial life - while the mission's purpose was purposely withheld from the astronauts? Further details about this were provided in Arthur C. Clarke's follow-up 1982 adaptation 2010: odyssey two, and used by director Peter Hyams in 2010 (1984).]

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

Now after HAL's malfunction, symbolic of the failure of technology as a tool, another alternative or answer must be found. In the final portion of the film in the Discovery spaceship, Bowman completes the flight to Jupiter alone to find the life-source of the Universe. He is completely human and vulnerable without a crippling dependence upon the ship's computer. He reaches the outer limits of Jupiter with its characteristic banded coloring. In another striking orbital alignment, the giant planet Jupiter (lit up as a bright crescent shape) and its many moons, the spaceship Discovery, and the Sun line up with another monolith (THE THIRD MONOLITH) that hurtles through space toward the moons of Jupiter. Bowman leaves the spaceship in one of the space pods to pursue and investigate the monolith orbiting Jupiter.

In a thrilling light-show ride activated by the monolith through both inner and outer space, the pod is sucked into and sent racing down a vortex, corridor, or tunnel of speckles of light (a time warp termed the Star Gate), moving faster and faster (than the speed of light). During his transcendental journey and space odyssey into the galactic round-about, images of the highlights of his views reflect off his space helmet as he shakes and watches in wonder at the cosmic whirlpool racing and rerouting him toward other dimensions at breakneck speed.

During his passage [through a birth canal], he is mysteriously transfigured (or "reborn") into a higher form of intelligence or universe of evolutionary life on his way to the alien planet. On his way into infinity through alien solar systems, he moves through complex planes of multi-colored grids and rectangles, and digital readouts. Views of deep space are intercut with extreme closeups of Bowman's facial features. An extreme closeup of his dilated eye reveals that has absorbed blue and yellow-tinted patterns from the universe that he has become a part of - he blinks his eye and more patterns and plasmas of color flash before him. There are explosions of nebula, swirling gases, bursting constellations, bright stars, blazing skies, a giant reproductive image of a swimming sperm, and tracking shots of expressionistic, wildly colorful and desolate landscapes [some of the unearthly terrestrial views are of the Hebrides in Scotland and Monument Valley in the Southwest US] with seven diamond-shaped objects floating above. With a final flickering blink of Bowman's eye, his eye returns to more normal colors and he enters a new realm of physical reality, although he appears to have gone through an epileptic seizure.

The astronaut's space vehicle lands and comes to a halt in semi-familiar surroundings created out of his own subconscious memories by the aliens. In the surrealistic ending of the film, the pod has come to rest in a decorated, light-green and glacially-white 'cosmic bedroom' or ornate hotel suite/bed chamber. When Bowman is first seen, he is trembling within the space pod as he looks through the 'eye' of the pod's window. The strange but opulent bedroom is lit by an eerie glow from the floor, and is mostly decorated in a palatial, 1700s French baroque (Louis XVI) style. It is furnished with a wide quilted bed, pieces of ornate furniture, statues, frescoes, mirrors, vases and wall paintings. Eerie, distorted sounds, some of laughter, drift through.

The second time Bowman is observed, he is suddenly pictured standing in the room outside the pod taken by a camera shot from inside the pod. A closeup of his dazed face in his helmet indicates that he has aged with silvery gray hair and wrinkles - his second stage of rapid regressive (and progressive) transformation. This second Bowman enters the spacious, light-blue marble bathroom with bathtub, where he finds that his human life span is rapidly passing by. In a bathroom mirror, he first notices that he has prematurely aged after his trip. Alerted by a strange clicking sound emanating from the bedroom, he turns around to view another reincarnation of himself in the bedroom.

Bowman sees himself a third time - the camera slowly pans around and rests on a sole figure (with back turned) in the dining room. A hunched-over Bowman, wearing a dark dressing gown, is dining at an elegant, table-clothed cart in the middle of the room. The pod has vanished. The clicking comes from eating utensils hitting the plate. When the figure turns, it appears to be an elderly, senile white-haired gentleman - an even older version of Bowman himself - his third stage of change. He stands and approaches the bathroom to look upon his younger 'self,' but then returns to his table to continue dining on bread and wine - a last supper with sacramental elements. When Bowman accidentally brushes against his wine glass, it falls to the floor and breaks with an echoing crash. The grating noise of the chair moving across the floor echoes in the very quiet room.

In the fourth stage of rapid aging, Bowman turns from the table and sees himself - now, a bald, dying man, lying on the bed, looking 100 years old and shrunken in size. The bed-ridden, invalid Bowman slowly and feebly reaches his trembling hand out toward another glowing and mysterious monolith (THE FOURTH MONOLITH) that appears at the foot of his bed. [In earlier phases of the film, the man-ape and Dr. Floyd also reached out toward a monolith.] As he does so, his withered chrysalis-body presumably dies, and he is enigmatically transformed (evolved and reborn). He dissolves into a glowing, hazy, translucent fetus or embryo in utero that rests on the bed. A blast of the musical chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra - signaling a decisive transformation - is heard for the last time.

[Note: The only survivor of the mission - a human specimen, it appears that he is in an observation chamber or tank, scrutinized by alien, extra-terrestrial superior intelligences or beings - symbolized by the black monolithic slabs - who decide that he should be reborn. The film's many reproductive allusions: procreation, gestation, birthing, and nursing, are further visualized throughout this final sequence. The alien beings assist him in making a basic symbiotic change in consciousness toward a more completely civilized human being, with a universal knowledge of existence. The end result of the space odyssey is not a greater and more infallible machine, but a greater, more fully-realized being produced in a second childhood.]

A zooming closeup of the black monolith towering at the foot of the bed plunges us back into the blackness of dark space. [Note: Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) in the sequel 2010 (1984), insightfully speculates about the monoliths as "an emissary for an intelligence beyond ours. A shape of some kind for something that has no shape."]

Bowman distinctly re-emerges within the embryo, with his own serene and wise-eyed features. He becomes reborn as a cosmic, innocent, orbiting "Star Child" that travels through the universe without technological assistance. The last enigmatic, open-ended image of the film is of the large, bright-eyed (with pin-pointed, glowing stars for pupils), luminous embryo in a translucent uterine amnion or bluish globe - an enhanced, reborn superhuman floating through space. Next to the globe of Earth on one-half of the screen is the Star Child's globe of about the same size. Its sphere dominates the screen in close-up before a final quick fade to black and following credits. The end title music, an upbeat and celebratory selection, is a reprise of the final portion of The Blue Danube Waltz. It is played long after the credits end - under a black screen.

[Note: The cyclical evolution from ape to man to spaceman to angel-starchild-superman is complete. Evolution has also been outwardly directed toward another level of existence - from isolated cave dwellings to the entire Earth to the Moon to the Solar System to the Universe. Humankind's unfathomed potential for the future is hopeful and optimistic, even though HAL had momentarily threatened the evolution of humanity. What is the next stage in man's cosmic evolution beyond this powerful, immense, immortal, space-journeying creature? The last lines of the book echo the same sentiment: "Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something."]

Previous Page