2001: A Space Odyssey Ending

Where were you when 2001: A Space Odyssey ended? That was the movie where the blessed Star Child took off into outer space with a Mona Lisa smile as the rest of us just sat there, confused, somewhat dejected. Commander Bowman encountered a time distortion that showed him several Bowman's at several points in time until it finally turned into a shiny, brand new fetus with a heavenly smile floating back to Earth. The scene was unforgettable because we didn't know what just happened. Then, we covered it up. "I got it, did you?" "Of course, I did." "He... evolved!" Of course. Why not? Isn't that what we just watched for over a couple of hours? Evolution? Apes, humans, computers, then a Star Child? Makes perfect sense. No it doesn't. But here's a theory as to what may have happened.


Everyone knows that 2001: A Space Odyssey is based on Arthur C. Clark's short story which then became the novel of the same name. Many have reverted to the novel to figure out Kubrick's film. This blog, however, looks at the film as a stand alone work. It is not an adaptation, but rather Kubrick's version of the story. (And we all know what Kubrick was like.)

Albert Einstein and the Theory of Time

2001: A Space Odyssey is about time. So consider that Kubrick lived at a time when Albert Einstein's theories about the tick-tock! were kicking around. Einstein believed that time was an illusion, a human construct. In reality, it existed as a single event. We only perceived it incrementally as mere mortals would. Furthermore, Einstein believed that time had physical properties like an inert piece of matter. Time slowed down if you sped up. Time went faster if you slowed down. Time plays a central one in Commander Bowman's evolution as we seen through the Four Bowmans who were four different versions of the same person at different times. Cue 2001 theme.

The Four Bowmans

In 2001's ending, four Bowmans represent the astronauts evolutionary leap c/o space aliens who created the monolith. Time still exists, except the boundaries have gotten all screwy. The incremental slots for seconds, minutes and hours aren't becoming moments of awareness but locations on a time field. Each of the four Bowmans have more wrinkles and white hair than the previous one which means they're at different places in time. Let's take a look at the chronology of events:

  • The first Bowman gets off the pod and sees himself eating a meal sometime in the future.
  • The second Bowman becomes aware of this Bowman as well as a future one on his deathbed. 
  • The third, or "deathbed Bowman" becomes aware of his time as a fetus. 
  • The fourth, or "fetus Bowman" metaphorically heads off to planet Earth, with a sweet smile.

This holy quartet of Bowman's speak to time more than anything else. But it was the second Bowman that we should find more interesting. He brings everything - "everything" - together.

The Second Bowman

The second Bowman takes a moment to pick up his glass. He doesn't drink. He merely contemplates something before sipping. We can't help but notice he's having a premonition. He resumes eating, reaches for something, then accidentally drops the glass on the floor. He doesn't just mop up the mess as much as philosophically ponder it. He acts as if he knew it was going to happen. Then, he turns to face the deathbed Bowman who sits alone, dying.

Bowman has become timeless. The second one is the only one that links the past with the future. The dying Bowman links the future with the past, in his fetal existence. But it is the second Bowman who seems to break the barriers of chronological time first. When he drops his glass, his look says it all. He not only had a sense it was going to happen, he couldn't prevent it either. It's not that different than Dr. Manhattan from the Watchman comic book series. Dr. Manhattan knows what's going to happen because it has already happened. The universe is complete as a single experience rather than something slowly unfolding. Another example would be Interstellar, where the fifth dimension humans created a tesserract to explore time as if it here like geographic space.

That's the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Commander Bowman moved past time as chronological into time as a constant property of the universe. Personally, this transformation doesn't imply he's immortal as Bowman doesn't exist beyond the universe. But as long as the universe exists, so does he, within his own timeline that is now a part of the universe. The Star Child goes off into space to tell his fellow Earthlings like the early hominid taught everyone the use of tools. Later, H.A.L. would take over a ship, in his bid to meet the maker of the monolith himself. But like it or not, evolution of humanity is best left to people and not the machines they use.

In Conclusion

2001: A Space Odyssey was confusing because timelessness is counter-intuitive. As physical beings, we experience time as sequential, a by-product of physical processes that change in a given place. To see a human being cross this threshold should be confusing. Without Einstein's theories, Bowman's final sequence just looks weird and immortal in his own way. Baffling for sure, but what doesn't make sense is usually forgotten anyway. Hopefully, this explanation intrigues audiences to see the film again and appreciate the twist in the end, which, isn't really a twist, just the universe winking at us mere mortal. 

Related Blogs:

Did H.A.L. really go crazy or did he just want to reach the monolith himself? Click here.

The Illusion of Time (Nova) is a documentary that explains the nature of time. Check it out and other resources on the Story Arcs Facebook Page.

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