1Screenplay Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Based on the short story “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke
Directed and Produced by: Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke wanted 2001: A Space Odyssey open to interpretation.

Kubrick and Clarke’s hope was to provide viewers with a different kind of cinematic experience, one that required active participation, challenging viewers to create their own understanding of what happened and what it meant.

The writers thought forcing us to find our own meaning in the story would impact us on deeper emotional and psychological levels.

So there are many possible themes in 2001: the search for God, the nature of Mankind, the evolution of lifeforms, and pretty much anything viewers are able to find in it for themselves.

There are also many ways to look at the structure of 2001. It’s a Kubrickian Rubik’s Cube.

“Yet,” co-writer Clark said, “there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in 2001.”

While 2001 has been called everything from “episodic” to “formless,” it also manages to hit STC! beats in its own unique way.

The key to unlocking this structure is to look at Mankind as the Protagonist, and the story as an immensely ambitious Golden Fleece.

How does 2001: A Space Odyssey hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the classic film:

GF Type: Epic Fleece

Team: Mankind
Road: Space and Time
Prize: Knowledge of the Unknown (God)

2 Opening Image

Opening Image: Celestial bodies in alignment. The Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Audiences could make drinking games out of how often celestial bodies align in this film.

Set-Up: A title card introduces “The Dawn of Man.” We meet our ape ancestors. Grazing, aimless. Walking hunched over. Prey for leopards. Unable to defend a water source from another tribe of apes. Stasis = death as they hide from a leopard at night.

Theme Stated: There’s no dialogue in this section (and not much later), but the words “Dawn of Man” were on the title card following the credits. Taken into context with what follows, we can infer, as Kubrick once acknowledged: this is a story about the evolution of Mankind.

3 Apes and the monolith

Catalyst: The apes wake to find a strange object. A large, black rectangular monolith. Unlike anything they’ve seen before—although to us it might look like a giant iPhone.

The Ape's POV

Debate: At first scared, the apes are drawn to touch it. What can it all mean? It leads their eyes toward the sky. One of the apes (referred to as MOON-WATCHER by Clarke) sees the top of the monolith in alignment with the setting Moon and rising Sun.

The first tool
The first tool

Later, digging through scraps of bones for fodder, Moon-Watcher remembers this sight. More aware, he discovers he can hit things with a bone: the first tool. What can man do with tools?
He can hunt, kill, feed his clan, claim and defend territory. Begin to walk upright.

one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema
one of the most famous match shots in the history of cinema

In one of the greatest transitions in film history (a touchstone match cut), a bone tossed into the air becomes a man-made object floating in space (a nuke according to the script). So man can create increasingly sophisticated tools.

The space station

When we see a space shuttle approaching a space station, the question could be: what can’t man do?

At least one answer will be: Mankind can’t rely on tools forever; we must evolve beyond tools.

Break into Two: A man we met sleeping on the space shuttle arrives at the space station. “Here you are,” a stewardess says to him, but she may as well be speaking to the audience, if not all of Mankind.

This man, our next stand-in for Mankind after the ape Moon-Watcher, is Dr. HEYWOOD FLOYD, an American. We don’t know it yet, but he’s on a secret mission that could change the course of history.

B Story: Interpersonal relations between lifeforms. Almost robotic communication. All the conversations are superficial. In essence, it’s about how humans interact with each other as opposed to with their tools.

Floyd speaks with his daughter

Floyd speaks with his daughter (played by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian ) through a videophone, a Skype-like service. He wishes her happy birthday and asks to speak with her mom or the babysitter, but no one is available. Humans are not in alignment—unlike the celestial bodies we’ve seen.

Fun and Games: There is a mystery linked to a base on the moon called Clavius. When Russians try to charm answers from Floyd, he pleads ignorance.

We glimpse how far Mankind has come: luxury flights to the moon, liquefied meals, zero-gravity space toilets with instructions.

On Clavius, we learn Floyd and other Americans are using a cover story about an epidemic outbreak while they investigate the discovery of an ancient artifact.

They think premature revelation of the discovery could lead to cultural shock and mass panic. Apparently they’ve found something which was deliberately buried four million years ago.

Midpoint: Past and present stories collide as we see the artifact is another monolith. Floyd and others approach the monolith similar to how the apes approached four million years prior. When Floyd touches it, the reflection almost looks like a hand is reaching back toward him.

a premature pose

Celebrating a false victory, Floyd and the others prematurely pose for pictures in front of the monolith. But it suddenly emits a strange sound that hurts their ears. Covering his ears, Floyd looks up and sees the top of the monolith, the Moon and the Sun in alignment. Mankind must keep evolving.

Bad Guys Close In: A title card “Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later” tells us we’re crossing the point of no return. Stakes are raised as Mankind ventures into uncharted territory. The spacecraft, Discovery One, looks like a spermatozoon moving through the vastness.

To reach further, Mankind has placed trust in its latest tool: an AI named HAL 9000, giving HAL the greatest responsibility on the mission. Mirroring the set-up, man now roams a spacecraft instead of the African veld.

The stand-in for Mankind has changed from apes to Floyd to now mission scientists and pilots, Dr. DAVID “DAVE” BOWMAN and Dr. FRANK POOLE. The rest of the crew sleep in hibernation.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

HAL is the most reliable computer ever made, “foolproof and incapable of error,” putting itself to the fullest possible use. HAL has pride like his human creators, possibly more so.

We see the humans still not communicating. When Poole’s parents send him a radio transmission for his birthday, they say reporters asked them how they felt how about their son: “You can imagine what we told them.”

While beating Dave at chess, HAL asks Dave if he’s been having second thoughts about the mission. But he’s really testing him to build up a psychological profile. HAL says an antenna control device will fail in two days time.

But it turns out HAL may have made a mistake. More human than the humans. Although he claims it must be human error.

Internal and external pressure mounts as Poole and Dave meet secretly to discuss HAL. They will be in serious trouble if testing proves HAL was wrong. If he’s malfunctioning, they’ll have to disconnect him. They think HAL can’t hear them, but HAL’s been reading their lips.

All Is Lost: Tools fail Mankind. While Poole is doing a space walk, HAL takes over the pod and severs Poole’s oxygen hose and kills him. HAL tricks Dave into thinking he doesn’t know what happened. Tools no longer serving.

Open the pod bay doors, HAL_
Open the pod bay doors, HAL

HAL kills the rest of the crew who’ve been hibernating while Dave tries to rescue Poole. HAL traps Dave outside the ship by refusing to open the pod bay doors. It’s the death of old ideas and a wicked road apple when trapped somewhere between the Earth and Jupiter.

An epic whiff of death and false defeat.

Dark Night of the Soul: The tools have taken over. HAL reveals he couldn’t allow Dave and Poole to jeopardize the mission by decommissioning him. HAL ends the conversation because it can serve no further purpose.

Dave’s moment of clarity is that he can’t rely on technology for his survival.

Dave must risk his life and leave the pod without a helmet. Manually using the pod’s Explosive Bolts, Dave jettisons himself out of the pod toward the Discovery’s emergency airlock.

Dave kills HAL
Dave kills HAL

Break into Three: Dave gets into the Discovery, goes into HAL’s processor core (HAL’s brain), and kills HAL by pulling out his circuits as HAL pleads during the most human death in the story.

Mankind kills its most advanced creation. And finds…

Five-Step Finale: A title card appears: “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”

Dave learns the truth about the mission.
Dave learns the truth about the mission.

Gathering the Team: Dave unlocks a secret prerecorded message from Floyd, uniting the lead of Act 2A with the lead of Act 2B. As Floyd reveals what he spent half his story hiding, Dave learns the mission’s objective: investigate a radio signal transmitted at Jupiter from a lunar artifact, the monolith.

Star Gate storming the castle
Star Gate storming the castle

Storming the Castle: Dave pilots the Discovery as it reaches Jupiter. He discovers a monolith floating in alignment, and ventures off in the pod toward it. The monolith leads Dave’s gaze up, and we enter a Star Gate. It seems to lead him into another dimension. Shimmering and luminous with intense colors and unusual shapes.

There's a hightower surprise in the alien zoo.
There’s a high tower surprise in the alien zoo.

High Tower Surprise: Dave finds himself in a room that appears like a replica of a bedroom decorated in a Neoclassical style. He hears abstract voices as if he’s being analyzed by unseen beings. Kubrick admitted these could be interpreted as aliens who have transcended matter and become pure energy. Dave sees himself age right before his eyes into an old man on his deathbed.

Dave reaches...
Dave reaches…

Dig Deep Down: Dying, Dave sees another monolith at the foot of his bed. He reaches out to it, still trying. It’s been noted the shot resembles Michelangelo’s painting of Adam reaching toward God. Suddenly, Dave is transformed into a fetus within an orb of light.

Executing New Plan: And now we, and presumably Dave, are taken into the monolith, and we find ourselves back in space beside the Earth. We’ve come home.

16 Star ChildA Star Child is revealed beside the Earth.

As if Dave has returned from Mankind’s space odyssey reborn into a creature that no longer needs tools to navigate space.

the iconic final image
the iconic final image

Final Image: The Star Child turns, and looks right at us. What more need be said?

If we want to know what it all means, we’ll have to be like Dave, and reach…

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