The Story and Meanings
Note: I decided to not use my previous format of re-telling the story and then go into the meanings. This part of the film is elusive enough where you have to get into the meanings right away because the story is the meaning.
Humankind, represented by David Bowman, has overcome obstacles for 4 million years. The final obstacle was to demonstrate inventiveness and the will to survive against his own tools. We have come to the final chapter of the story. We have now reached Jupiter where lies the ultimate destination of the 4 million year odyssey. The third and final title reads: "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite". We hear the hum of Ligeti's Requiem and we know from past experience, that another monolith has been discovered. There it is, floating amongst the moons of Jupiter. Unlike its predecessors, this monolith is on its side, at least in respect to our viewing angle (in space, there is no up or down).
There is a shot of the Discovery approaching Jupiter with one of its moons to the left. As we have seen many times before, the three bodies form a triangle.
The Discovery moves towards Jupiter and we see the middle pod bay door open. We can assume there is only one working pod left since one was lost during the murder of Frank Poole and another had its door blown off and it's not clear what Bowman did with it. The pod containing Bowman heads toward the monolith which has floated off in alignment with Jupiter and several of its moons.
We have witnessed this scene before as we know to associate alignments in space with the monolith. Also, as before, a human (Bowman) goes out to "touch" the monolith. Also as before, the monolith performs its assigned task shortly after a human makes contact with it.
The first monolith tested early humans and when they proved themselves worthy, were rewarded with the knowledge of the use of tools. This sparked the first odyssey of using the tools to build a civilization that would ultimately lead them to outer space.
The second monolith was a test in that it required humans to have the drive and technology to find it. In proving themselves worthy by finding it, they were led on to a mission to Jupiter, the second odyssey.
The third monolith was also a test in that it had to be found. Humans had to prove themselves more worthy than their own machines. Now that that has happened, it will lead the human race on a new course by taking Bowman on the third odyssey across the universe itself.
As we see the monolith become a rectangular tunnel of light, we should realize we are only experiencing a portion of what is really happening. Witness the periodic flashes to David Bowman. He isn't witnessing a mere light show, he is experiencing something totally shocking to him and he can hardly bear to watch.
Notice the music has segued from Ligeti's Requiem to Atmospheres. This is the music we heard at the beginning of the film and at intermission. It's a further clue that this is the ultimate journey that the prior parts of the film have been leading to.
Suddenly all the doppler shifts in the music make sense as we emerge from the tunnel and into open space. Clusters of gas and nebulae dominate the screen. They seem to be creating stars and even galaxies. The scale of these in terms of space and time is spectacular if one knows much about astronomy. Note that the brief flashes back to Bowman no longer show his shocked face but just one eye.
The scale apparently gets smaller as we are now traveling above streams of purple gas. Ahead are five, make that, seven diamond-shaped objects. Clearly these aren't natural. Many say they are the beings that created the monolith and are who is controlling Bowman's trip. I disagree as I don't believe we are ever supposed to see who is behind all this. Remember, it could be an advanced alien race or it could be God. So perhaps the diamonds are others going through the same experience as Bowman, i.e. they are another race that has passed the three tests.
The scene changes again as we are flying at first under, then over landscapes. The scale seems to have shrunk again as we can recognize mountains, valleys and bodies of water. It's as if we are flying in an airplane. However, the bright, gaseous sky that makes the ground below glow in eerie colored light tells us we are nowhere near Earth. The journey ends as we focus on Bowman's eye again as the colors it reflects segue from red to green to violet to yellow to green to gold and finally to Dave's blue as they would appear in white light.
This whole trip raises many questions as to what this was all about. Explanations can be found in essays, reviews, articles, and from Clarke's novel. Clarke's novel explains the monolith as a stargate that transports one from one part of the universe to another - bypassing laws of relativity. Some have tried to explain the trip as the path a sperm cell takes on its way to the egg. There are some visuals that could support this explanation but I believe Kubrick intended it to be a mystery. Think of scale again. This time, in terms of time and evolution. The force behind the monolith is over 4 million years older than Man. Think of Australopithecus, 4 millions years ago encountering the Internet and trying to comprehend it. This would perhaps be similar to David Bowman or us trying to understand what was just experienced.
The next thing we see is odder, still. The Discovery pod is suddenly in a brightly lit suite. Remembering how white the inside of the spacestation and the Discovery was, we can determine that this is contemporary decor for 2001. (Bright white, sterile appearing rooms was a common perception of the future in the 1960's.) So this room is meant for Bowman and is something Bowman would find familiar.
Bowman's face has aged. He is shaking - apparently from the ordeal he had been going through. It could be an indication of him encountering God, similar to Moses in the Ten Commandments and how he aged after encountering God.
The display panels in the pod say "Non-Function". It is obvious that this suite is in a different part of the universe and all contact with Discovery is gone. Perhaps it is also years later as Bowman's appearance might indicate.
A red space suited Bowman is outside the pod standing in the room. We are seeing this from inside the pod meaning this is the shaking Bowman's point of view. Then the point of view changes to the Bowman outside the pod. He appears even more aged as his hair has greyed and there are more wrinkles. He is no longer shaking and appears calm, yet utterly mystified. As Bowman looks back, the pod is gone. Time seems to have jumped, but during that jump, there was a brief period where there were two Bowmans.
There are strange sounds. The suite which appeared out of nowhere may be floating above the brightly lit planet we saw earlier. The sounds may be the atmosphere surrounding the suite. They also may be from an intelligence that is watching Bowman.
Bowman walks slowly like an old man across the room to the bathroom. Kubrick fans know that a bathroom must be shown somewhere in the movie and we have already witnessed two other references to bathrooms, one by Floyd's daughter saying where Rachel is and secondly, the zero-gravity toilet on board the Aries. Bowman looks in the mirror and seems astonished at his appearance.
We hear a new sound, a tapping sound coming from the other side of the suite. Bowman turns to investigate. He pans around and we see several Renaissance-era paintings and sculptures. This would hardly be a Kubrick film if there wasn't at least one room with paintings. An old man clad in a blue robe with his back turned is eating. He hears the space suited Bowman and turns and rises to investigate. Here we see it is Bowman again. He is even older but calm as though he had been living in the suite for quite some time and is accustomed to the surroundings. He apparently doesn't see anything and resumes eating. Once again, a time jump has occurred, and like the previous one, there was a brief period where there were two Bowmans.
Bowman is eating a meal of meat, vegetables, and bread. This is essentially the same meal Floyd ate on the Aries through a straw and the same meal Poole and Bowman ate in synthetic form on the Discovery. Now the meal is in its "normal" form. Bowman is also drinking wine and a startling sound occurs when he accidentally knocks over the wine glass.
Both the wine glass and the Renaissance motif are clues as to what is happening. Breaking a wine glass after drinking from it is of course, a Jewish tradition in a wedding. A wedding of course, is a transition from one life to another. The artwork suggests a re-birth. It is odd that there is a second wine glass on the table. Perhaps this symbolizes that Bowman knows he is not alone.
Bowman looks up and lying on the bed is a very old man. From what we've already seen, we can guess that this is another time jump. This time, we briefly see both Bowmans in the same shot. Like the other two times, the previous Bowman is soon gone.
As Bowman lies, apparently near death, he lifts his head and points ahead. In front of him is now a monolith. The pointing finger reminds us of Michelangelo's The Creation where Adam has been created by God and is pointing at him. Then it is no longer the dying man Bowman, it is a translucent glowing baby on the bed. Also Sprach Zarathustra is heard for the third time as Man has transitioned to a higher form of life (Overman if you follow Nietzsche). The child passes through the monolith and appears over the Earth. The music climaxes as we realize this is the end of Man and a new beginning. The Blue Danube reprises as the closing credits appear.
It can truly be said that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the story of Man. It begins with Man's predecessor transitioning to Man and ends where Man transitions to something else.
The novel ends with the Starchild detonating an orbiting nuclear device. This symbolizes the Starchild having no use for his tools of old. The film might have ended this way but Kubrick felt it would be too similar an ending to his previous film Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Thinking of the novel's ending though, allows us to speculate what would have happened if Bowman had not defeated Hal. What if Hal was the lone survivor of the Discovery mission and encountered and went through the stargate? Hal would have been transformed in some way and returned to Earth. As the Starchild no longer had a need for his tools, Halchild would have had no further need of humans and probably would have destroyed them. Man's legacy would have been his tool.
In 1967, the moons of Jupiter, including the four large Galilean moons were seen as points of light from the most powerful telescopes. The Voyager missions in the late seventies finally revealed how the moons actually appeared. Therefore, it is uncanny how well the film held up. The bluish moon can easily be Europa and the pockmarked moon shown is very similar to Callisto.