Dr. Dave Bowman is the mission commander aboard Discovery One. In many ways, he's a typical science fiction protagonist since he sports the three Cs: curiosity, courage, and cleverness.
And Be a Sci-Fi Hero
Most science fiction protagonists have the three Cs in spades: Ripley, Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Neo… okay, Neo isn't too clever, but who needs to be clever when you can download kung fu into your brain? The tradition goes as far back as the protagonists of Jules Verne novels, and Bowman keeps it alive in 2001.
We see his courage when he goes to save Poole after his run-in with the Hal-controlled EVA pod. We know from the film's first spacewalk that these procedures are part and parcel of space travel, but they're also very dangerous. Remember: When Bowman was out there, all we could hear was the harsh, rhythmic sound of his breathing. This emphasis on his breath is a reminder that things are never easy in space; everything must be accounted for and paid attention to, even something as reflexive as breathing.
Yet Bowman goes out there to rescue Poole. Adding to his courage is the fact that he doesn't know what went wrong, and he isn't entirely sure he can trust HAL's judgments anymore. Both factors could complicate the rescue, and indeed HAL does just that.
Bowman's cleverness is shown a few times during the film. The first is when he arranges to meet with Poole in the EVA pod to prevent HAL from hearing their conversation:
BOWMAN: Oh, Frank, I'm having a bit of trouble with my transmitter in C-pod. Would you come down and take a look at it with me?
That was Bowman's quick thinking.
Bowman needs to use all his smarts and guts when he uses the emergency air lock to reenter the ship:
BOWMAN: 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.
BOWMAN: All right, HAL. I'll go in through the emergency airlock.
HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult.
HAL's right that it'll be difficult, but Bowman figures out how to survive the unpleasant trip.
Finally, Bowman displays his curiosity when he continues the Jupiter mission despite a rather disastrous road trip. As Floyd says in his message to the Jupiter crew about the monolith, "[i]ts origin and purpose still a total mystery." Bowman retrieves the Jupiter monolith and enters the Star Gate because he wants to solve that mystery.
This is perhaps the most important of the three Cs, as it's the one Bowman shares with the characters of the film's other chapters. Dr. Floyd's curiosity leads him to the moon and to discover the second monolith. The hominids' curiosity pushes them to touch the monolith and take the next step in human evolution. In all three cases, it's curiosity that advances humanity to the next step on its evolutionary path to the stars.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto
One area where Bowman proves unique when compared to many science fiction protagonists is his general lack of emotion. We're not saying that science fiction heroes are typically melodramatic; in fact, many of them can be stoic, emotionally stunted intellectuals or overly adventurous manly men. But Bowman—and Poole for that matter—has an emotional state that seems rather…well, somewhere between subdued and robotic. They're definitely more Spock than Kirk.
That's probably an adaptive trait to have when you're on a very long mission, performing tedious tasks all the time and having little entertainment or distraction. You have to be able to handle it without freaking out, and be laid-back enough to get along with someone for 350 million miles. No place for a hothead or drama queen.
Let's think about a few examples. When Poole and Bowman first realize that there may be something wrong with HAL, they chill in the EVA pod to discuss the situation away from HAL's prying ears, um, microphones:
BOWMAN: I don't know. I think so. You know, he's right about the 9000 Series having a perfect operational record. They do.
POOLE: Unfortunately, that sounds a little like famous last words.
BOWMAN: Yeah. Still, it was his idea to carry out the failure mode analysis, wasn't it? It should certainly indicate his integrity and self-confidence. If he were wrong, it'd be the surest way of proving it.
POOLE: It would be if he knew he was wrong. Look, Dave, I can't put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him.
BOWMAN: Still, I can't think of a good reason to not put back the number one unit and carry on with the failure analysis.
POOLE: No, no, I agree about that. (2001)
Both the dialogue and the delivery are very rational, running down the list of problems and potential fixes with all the emotion of a spreadsheet. Maybe that's what the situation calls for, but most of us would probably enter the pod panicking, saying, "Holy crap, we're gonna die!"
Another example of Bowman's rational approach is when he first sets off to rescue Poole:
BOWMAN: Prepare G-pod for EVA, HAL. Made radio contact with him yet?
HAL: The radio is still dead.
BOWMAN: Do you have a positive track on him?
HAL: Yes, I have a good track.
BOWMAN: Do you know what happened?
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I don't have enough information.
BOWMAN: Open the pod door, HAL.
Again, if that were us, we'd be a little more anxious about the fact that the only person we could play Mario Kart with for the next 200 million miles was quietly flying to his death in a cold, radiation-filled vacuum. But Bowman takes it in stride and gets to work.
As Carolyn Geduld notes, "Kubrick also tips his hat to Clarke in his mechanization of humans and humanization of machines aboard Discovery, acknowledging Clarke's belief that a symbiosis of man and machine is a necessary part of cosmic evolution" (Source).
In other words, as humans and their tools evolved side by side, it appears that we've begun to rub off on one another. Computer scientists have developed HAL to be as human as possible—perhaps even granting him consciousness. At the same time, humans have become more like our computer overlords. So when HAL and Bowman square off in their battle, it really isn't a battle of opposites but equals in an evolutionary standoff.
Dave ♥ HAL
Despite his rather muted personality, Bowman seems to have a good working relationship with HAL, and he seems like a slightly warmer person than his colleague Frank Poole. He's more casual in his conversations with HAL, and his facial expressions as seen in closeup through HAL's lens are softer and more attentive. Bowman's an amateur artist, and he spends some time sketching the astronauts in hibernation on the ship. There's a charming episode where Dave flips through his sketchbook and shows HAL his sketches. Dave's still reserved in these interactions, but you wouldn't guess from his demeanor that he's talking to a computer.
Later, when Bowman realizes he has to deactivate HAL's higher functions, you can hear his breathing getting more rapid as he does the deed. When HAL "regresses" and asks Dave if he wants to hear a song he learned, Bowman replies, "I'd like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me." He doesn't have to respond, but he does. It's a very human thing to do, an empathic act. HAL's on his deathbed, after all.
Trust But Verify
Bowman's no softie, though. When HAL tries to chat him up about his own reservations about the mission, Bowman deduces that HAL's just working up his crew psychology report; he calls him on it instead of revealing any information. Some fans have speculated that HAL's actually trying to feel Dave out about what he might suspect about the purpose of the mission. Regardless, Dave doesn't crack. Maybe this is why HAL decides he's gotta go—he's not vulnerable to manipulation and can't be controlled.
To Infinity and Beyond!
The final leg of Bowman's journey takes him through the Star Gate and into the infinite. The laser rock show to follow can be read on two levels. On the literal level, the scene is showing Bowman's travels through time and space as he's transported light-years away from our solar system.
On a more metaphorical level, Bowman's trippy travels can be read as a mind-altering, consciousness-expanding experience. The expanding nebulas, exploding galaxies, and alien landscapes represent all-new experiences and knowledge for Bowman. The camera also repeatedly focuses on his eyes as they take in the new wonders. The color shifts visually, informing us that his view of the universe and life is being transformed.
This scene can be viewed as a type of religious or spiritual transcendence; Bowman is moving from the finite reality of a mortal to the divine and infinite reality of God—or, in this case, godlike extraterrestrials.
At the end of his travels, Bowman finds himself in a hotel room at the end of the universe. Once again, this part of Bowman's story can be read on two levels. On the first level, the room is physical and real, perhaps something designed by the aliens to make Bowman feel at home as they perform their genetic altering experiments. It's basically the same way zoos build enclosures to match an animal's natural environment. Dave is calm; he displays mild curiosity but no fear.
We can understand the room metaphorically. In this case, Bowman's story is no longer Bowman's story, and the film is "[…] using individuality in the service of transcending itself, so that the one can embody the many" (Source). In other words, Bowman is now a stand-in for humanity.
Ultimately, Bowman's fate is humanity's, presented to us in cinematic shortcut. The being he becomes, called the Star Child, is the next step in human evolution. Although it remains a mystery, we can say for certain that the Star Child can travel space without the need of a ship or other human technology. He's way cooler than us.