2001: A Space Odyssey's ending is famous among strange film endings, and when you consider that the competition includes Magnolia, Mulholland Drive, and Rock-A-Doodle, that's sayin' something. Bowman ends up in a room somewhere in one universe or another, and we have no idea where.
Perhaps the best answer we've come across belongs to Jan Harlan, Kubrick's brother-in-law and executive producer. He said, "It is much better to leave the end of 2001, and the whole story in fact, as it stands: Unexplained. As a bow to the unknowable" (source). And there's your answer. 2001's ending can't really be explained, and maybe it's better if it isn't.
Okay. Well… we hope that helps, and we'll see you at one of the other pages. See ya.
Why are you still here reading this?
You don't like that answer? Feel like maybe you deserve a little more for clicking the link? Like this is a bit of a cop-out on our part?
Oh, all right, fine.
While we really do think Harlan was spot-on, maybe we can spend some time together analyzing the ending anyway. This probably won't lead us to any definitive answers, but we'll give you 10 points of extra credit on the exam.
To Infinity and Where Now?
Let's start with that room.
After traveling vast distances through time and space—with imagery that looks like 60s cinema had a baby with the craziest cosmic bowling scene ever—Bowman finds his EVA pod in a room that is suspiciously un-alien. Actually it's very human and unsurprising, which is totally surprising given that he had to travel across the universe to get there. You'd think after all that the scenery would be a little less upscale hotel and a little more H.R. Giger.
Here's the first element of the ending that you'll have to interpret for yourself. Is this room real or a figment of Bowman's imagination? As an actual room, it might serve the same purpose of a zoo terrarium. The extraterrestrials build a space that resembles a human's "natural environment" to keep Bowman at ease, allowing them time to study and modify him at their leisure. Maybe we're only seeing snippets of his long stay there.
Or maybe the hotel room is a projection of Bowman's mind, like a near-death experience. Unable to grasp the unfathomable predicament it finds itself in, Bowman's mind searches for a place from his past and superimposes it over the shock, trauma, and impending death. Maybe he spent a few nights at The Plaza at some point. Maybe the whole universe as we perceive it is only a hologram, or just a speck under the fingernail of a giant being that…Sorry. We've watched this film way too many times.
Another element of the room to consider is just how white it is. Throwing a red wine and devil's food cake soiree here would likely result in post-traumatic stress disorder for the host. The color scheme draws obvious parallels to imagery of heaven and is meant to direct our minds toward thoughts of the afterlife. It's a classic cinematic color scheme, and you can see it representing heaven or the afterlife in everything from the portrayal of limbo in Harry Potter to heaven in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.
Then there are the Renaissance paintings in that white room. Renaissance art heavily focused on subjects such as religion, mythology, and the ideal human form. And the term "renaissance" means "rebirth" in French. Oooh. We know something's happening to Dave.
All Astronauts Go to Heaven
Bowman sits in the EVA pod, staring out the window at himself. Freaky. As the camera draws closer, we see that this version of Bowman has aged dramatically and he looks about as dazed and confused as the audience. When we cut to the wide shot and the other Bowman's point-of-view, the pod has disappeared, taking the first Bowman inside with it.
Old Man Bowman wanders into the bathroom and looks in the mirror. Looking back in the hotel room, he sees an even older version of himself eating a meal at a serving cart. This Bowman wears a bathrobe and PJs. When the elderly Bowman stands up to explore the bathroom, we find that spacesuit Bowman has now disappeared.
What's happening here is that Bowman is slowly being stripped of his technology; he's shedding his protective layers—first the EVA pod, then the spacesuit.
But there's one more layer that must be destroyed before Bowman can truly be free of what it means to be human, his human body. By facing death, Bowman's essence—perhaps you could call it his soul—is let loose to become something else, something new, something more than human.
As Bowman lies on his deathbed, the monolith appears before him, like some terrifying geometric grim reaper. Geometry really will be the death of him. Bowman reaches for it, but the monolith remains out of reach.
Earlier in the film, the monolith was linked to rebirth from hominid to human, so we know something is about to happen.
There's No Place Like Home
Bowman is gone and the Star Child is born. The Star Child is the next step in human evolution, but it's not really human at all. We might expect a being in the next step of human evolution to shoot lasers from its eyes or control magnetism while sporting spandex, but this isn't the case here. Instead, the next step in our evolution looks like a fetus, "the last thing we expect Bowman to turn into, an image not associated with a superman but with mankind's own humble biology and placed out there among the stars" (Source).
The fetus imagery suggests birth, which again has been a prevalent motif throughout the film. As the Star Child draws closer to Earth, we can draw out a couple other important details. The return to Earth is important because it suggests a complete circle. The story began on Earth with the birth of a new species, and it ends there as well. Like a true hero's journey, we return to where it all began.
Also, notice that the Star Child traveled through space without the need of a spaceship. The coevolution of man and machine has been severed and humanity has moved beyond its dependence on technology—or, at least, technology as we understand it. Beyond this, though, we can't say what the Star Child means for humanity. Will it represent humanity's savior or its destroyer? A rebirth of our species or its death? Is this ending uplifting or apocalyptically terrifying?
We're all in the same spaceship, and there are no wrong answers. So what do you think is up with the ending?