Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Notey Note: 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't have a typical story structure where we follow a single hero from humble origins to becoming the One or a Jedi or whichever of the 31 flavors of hero that Fate has scooped up for him. Instead, the film opens 4 million years ago in prehistory and ends in the one-time-future year of 2001: a narrative structure split up into four distinct chapters, each with different characters.
In order to explore the film as a whole, we're going to map out the hero's journey across the film's entire 4-million-year scope. To accomplish this, we're going to view humanity as the hero of the journey. With that said, it's possible to chart Bowman's story according to the Hero's Journey, and the results would no doubt be another way to explore and enlighten Kubrick's modern-day myth.
The ordinary world is the African savanna that opens the film. Here, we see human life before the "call to adventure stage to come, and it's a bit of a Darwinian fixer-upper. Humanity—at this point hominids that have yet to evolve into homo sapiens—live poor, destitute lives, scrounging for food, avoiding predation, and fighting over mud holes for life-sustaining water.
In a traditional hero's journey, the ordinary world is a safe place to return to by the journey's end. But in 2001, it's a place to escape. Or, if escape is impossible, then to conquer.
Call to Adventure
The call to adventure comes in the form of a black monolith that mysteriously appears before the hominid's cave one night. Our hirsute ancestors may not recognize it as a call, but the appearance of the monolith begins an evolutionary process that changes everything, and this hero's journey is an evolutionary one.
After the hominids examine the monolith, one of them gets the idea to pick up a bone and start whacking the skull of a dead animal. This leads to the development of hunting. The newly armed hominids return to the watering hole to claim it once and for all in the world's first clash of tribal warfare.
The hominids can now dominate other species with their tools and will kill each other to lay claim to something as simple as a waterhole. Or, to put it another way, welcome to the human race.
Refusal of the Call
In a traditional hero's journey, the hero might refuse the call to adventure because he's afraid or doubts himself. In 2001, the refusal isn't so much a childish "I don't wanna go!" as it is a difficult order to fill. As we'll later learn, the call is for humanity to break free of its earthly home and travel the reaches of space, and this is a technological accomplishment that's been 4 million years in the making.
Dr. Heywood Floyd's travels in space demonstrate just how difficult it is for humanity to accept the call. Sailing the stars is a complex and risky endeavor that requires humanity to develop advanced navigation techniques, rocket boosters, communication devices., and Tang breakfast drink. Even relatively simple procedures—such as eating, going to the bathroom, and keeping a pen in your pocket—become very difficult in the zero-gravity vacuum of space.
Meeting the Mentor
Again, the mentor character isn't your typical mentor in 2001. When you think of a mentor, you probably imagine an elderly gentleman with a killer beard and preferably an accent—typically British but we'll take a Christoph Waltz German in a pinch. In 2001, the mentor's a bit more geometric.
Yep, the monolith on the moon presents a type of mentor character. It takes the "men" out of "mentor." It's not brimming with patience and wise sayings, since it's a slab, but it does cryptically tell humanity what it needs to do to complete its quest. As we learn later, the signal it sends to Jupiter provides a roadmap to the next stop in this game of intergalactic hide-and-seek: Jupiter.
Crossing the Threshold
Dan Bronzite describes this stage as when "[the hero] finally crosses the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not." (Source) You'd think this would be when humanity jets its way into space, but remember that in Floyd's section space travel was commonplace. Instead, humanity crosses the threshold with the Jupiter mission. As mentioned in the BBC report, this is the farthest-reaching space mission that humanity's ever attempted.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
At this stage, the characters in the story are grouped into those who stand with the hero and those who will stand with his enemy—the literary equivalent of picking teams for dodgeball. Since we're viewing humanity as the hero, Dr. Bowman and Dr. Poole get a free pass to first draft picks. This leaves only the Discovery One's HAL 9000 series computer up for debate.
When HAL misreads the failure of the antenna's AE-35 unit, this opens up the question as to whether they can trust the computer. They ultimately decide that they'll deactivate HAL if it turns out he was wrong. HAL, not wanting to be deactivated, turns into humanity's public enemy #1.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The reason this stage is called the inmost cave is that tradition holds that terrifying monsters tended to live in caves. Think dragons, chimeras, and bears, oh my! Ultimately, the cave represents a danger the hero must face.
True to form so far, 2001 takes the idea and remixes it. Instead of a claustrophobic cave, we have the infinite vastness of space. And instead of some beastie, we get the HAL 9000.
When Poole goes to replace the AE-35 unit, HAL uses the EVA pod to sever his oxygen line and kill him. Bowman must go after him in a backup pod and hope he can reach his friend in time.
While Bowman's away, HAL shuts off the life support systems for the three hibernating astronauts. Ultimately, our own technology has become the danger, the dragon that the hero must slay in order to advance his quest.
Essentially, this stage represents the hero versus his enemy in a clash of skill, strength, and intelligence. Mano a mano. Or we guess that would be mano a computadora in this case.
Bowman, the last man standing, must face HAL, his deadly foe. Using the emergency airlock, he manages to get onto the Discovery One at the risk of asphyxiating in space. Once inside, Bowman enters HAL's mainframe room and begins to manually deactivate HAL's memory cards. All the while, HAL pleads with Bowman to spare him, but Bowman doesn't listen and ultimately finishes HAL off, ending the ordeal.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Bowman's reward isn't a hoard of treasure, a cure to the village disease, or unfathomable power that lets him stop bullets midair. Instead, when he defeats HAL, Bowman is given the truth in the form of a video recording made by Floyd.
In the recording, Floyd explains to Bowman the monolith, the signal pointing to Jupiter, and how humanity finally has evidence that intelligent life exists beyond Earth.
The Road Back
As the name suggests, this stage represents the hero trying to make his way back to the ordinary world from which he left. But Bowman is stuck in the galactic equivalent of Willy Wonka's factory, and he has to go forward to go back. Better press on.
Bowman takes his EVA pod and heads for a monolith floating in Jupiter's orbit. He then enters a star gate that transports him vast distances in time and space in a scene of psychedelic wonder that would put any Laser Zeppelin show to shame.
At this stage, the hero faces his most dangerous encounter, and for Bowman, that means facing death itself. In his extraterrestrial hotel, Bowman ages through various stages in his life until he ultimately finds himself an old man on his deathbed. The monolith towers over him, and he reaches for it.
Like the traditional hero, Bowman is reborn. His rebirth comes in the form of the Star Child, having defeated the ultimate enemy, death. Or at least death as humanity understands it.
Return with the Elixir
Bowman returns to the original world, or in this case Earth. The Star Child orbits humanity's home planet and manages to exist in space without the aid of spaceships or other technological wonders. It's become a creature of the universe rather than one planet within it.
The "elixir" here is a new stage of evolution for humanity. This stage can be viewed as bringing hope to people to be able to grow and expand beyond the evolutionary confines of Earth. On the other hand, this could also signal the end of the human race as the Star Child becomes the new dominant force in the galaxy. Ultimately, whether his change is a triumph or a disaster is left up to the viewer. Regardless, the times they are a-changin'.