The early hominids awaken to discover a large black monolith looming over them. At first, they are terrified but eventually they draw close to the mysterious artifact and touch it.
Let's look at the monolith as a symbol of the mysteries of existence—you can extend this to view it as a religious icon, a symbol for God or a higher power. Either way, the hominids don't understand the monolith but they're curious about it. And this curiosity will set the tone for this theme throughout the film.
A hominid looks up at the monolith and scoots over to a tapir's skeleton. He taps a shin bone against the skeleton once, then twice. An idea seems to come to him, and he smashes it down on the skull, crushing it. Images of tapirs falling to the new bone club are interspersed between the moment of invention.
There's a whiff of the ye olde determinism versus free will debate hanging over this scene. Did the monolith determine that the hominid would learn to invent tools or did the monolith simply alter the hominid's mind enough for him to teach himself?
Floyd enters the dig site and sees the monolith. He reaches out and caresses the artifact with a sense of awe and reverence.
The curiosity that drew the hominids to the monolith has been inherited by their human descendants and has brought the hominids from Africa all the way to the moon. Again though, did we get there on our own accord or was Floyd simply following a 4-million-year-old map left by the aliens, left for him to follow when they thought humanity was ready?
AMER: The sixth member of the Discovery crew was not concerned about the problems of hibernation, for he was the latest result in machine intelligence: The HAL 9000 computer, which can reproduce, though some experts still prefer to use the word "mimic," most of the activities of the human brain and with incalculably greater speed and reliability.
We all use words like "intelligence" and "consciousness" when discussing what it means to be alive or human. But do we understand these concepts enough to recognize them in other entities? HAL is introduced to us with this question, as well as the question of whether we could ever create, or would want to create, a conscious machine. Shmoop just has one word to say to you about that: "plastics." Oops, wrong movie again; we meant "singularity". Seriously, check that stuff out.
BOWMAN: How would you account for this discrepancy between you and the twin 9000?
HAL: Well, I don't think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error. This sort of thing has cropped up before and it has always been due to human error.
POOLE: Listen, Hal, there's never been any instance at all of a computer error occurring in a 9000 Series, has there?
HAL: None whatsoever, Frank. The 9000 series has a perfect operational record.
HAL may be a computer, but its internal conflict in 2001 is what we might call an existential crisis.
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
BOWMAN: 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.
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.
One of the best pieces of evidence that HAL is a conscious being is its acting in self-preservation mode. In much the same way the hominids killed the others for that life-sustaining water, HAL has killed Poole and is trying to kill Bowman to sustain its own existence.
HAL: 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…afraid.
As Bowman mentioned earlier, no 9000 series has ever been shut down, so no one knows what will happen. Like its human counterparts, the prospect of shutdown seems to stir genuine fear in it. Or is it just trying to trick Bowman, having been programmed to verbalize fear when threatened as a strategy for dealing with those human pushovers?
The conscious part of HAL is his higher functions—like our cerebral cortex. That's what makes him HAL. When our cortex is gone, we can still breathe, digest food, and keep our heart pumping, but we can't walk, talk, emote, or think. That's what happens to HAL. He can keep the ship running, but that's it.
An aged Bowman lies in the bed and the monolith appears before him. He reaches out to it but is unable to touch the monolith. At the moment of his death, the Star Child is born.
Like HAL and all living beings before him, Bowman's life can only have one definitive conclusion. He must die. Bummer. Especially since Keir Dullea is drop-dead handsome and the Star Child is just, well, a little uncanny valley-ish. Anyway, the ending suggests that our knowledge about the meaning of our existence just scratches the surface of understanding, and that beings can exist in many realms. We're all just space travelers, not really knowing what's ahead.