Synopsis: Humanity finds a mysterious, obviously artificial object buried beneath the Lunar surface and, with the intelligent computer HAL 9000, sets off on a quest.
This is a movie that pushed the boundaries of how a story can be told while still working within a traditional structure. There are acts, there’s a protagonist with a goal and obstacles. Identifying what those are is the source of debate. I won’t get into too much about the movie because so much has already been written on the subject. What I do want to focus on is the protagonist because many have argued the movie doesn’t have one. That’s wrong. Many have argued that HAL is the protagonist. They’re wrong too. At least in this interpretation of the movie. The movie does in fact have a protagonist, but what’s so groundbreaking is that we never actually get to see their presence. We just see the consequences of their actions. That’s very fitting because that describes God to a T. God, or a being evolved to the point of being both omnipresent and omnipotent, is the protagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Let’s call this character God, even if it is an alien life-form, because that best fits the description of the force being discussed. What’s to say God isn’t an alien anyhow? Or maybe even a far off, super-evolved descendant of humans?
The movie opens with the protagonist’s point of view, looking down on Earth and all that grows on the planet. This is his creation, the moon and the stars. And then he “let there be light.” The protagonist has a goal, help mankind evolve enough so that they can make the journey to meet their maker. Early man had many obstacles just to survive, from wild enemies such as the leopard to competition from physically stronger clans to resulting hunger. The solution is placement of the obelisk, which helps early-man, the clan that doesn’t rely on physical strength, to learn how to use a bone as a weapon. Man has learned how to use tools and uses those tools to prosper, ensuring that only the strongest (not just physically but mentally) can continue to evolve. We soon see the consequence of that pivotal scene where a tool is first used – civilization developed enough to create technology that freed us from our planet. This is where we learn of the second obstacle.
Humanity is now capable of space exploration, but explores blindly. Because our protagonist is omnipotent this was an obstacle that was worked on prior to it happening, prior to the movie taking place. Humanity discovers another obelisk, this one triggers a road map and gives their journey guidance. It is on that journey that the final obstacle is encountered. A protagonist that was present even early on in the movie – HAL.
HAL is technology, a tool man has created out of nature. Humanity has free will and can decide how to use the tools it creates. The bone could just as easily have been used to kill for sport, as opposed to kill an animal to provide food, or to protect territory from enemies. The creation of HAL is the misuse of tools. Humanity tried to do what the protagonist did in the beginning of the movie - create life. Unfortunately, humanity is far too underdeveloped to successfully undertake such a task. The result is the red glowing HAL. HAL by itself is not the antagonist, HAL represents the antagonist, humanities bad decisions that result from our inherent flaws.
The protagonist again has found a solution to this obstacle. Dave, the crew member that eventually defeats HAL is the product of evolution. Dave is strong enough both physically and mentally to overcome his enemy. Many of the obstacles are overcome prior to their occurrence because this is a movie about space AND time. The protagonist has a different perspective of the two than humans do and takes advantage of this ability.
Finally, the protagonist accomplishes the original goal. Dave, old and lying on his deathbed sees the obelisk and makes a final evolutionary leap. What is that leap? It’s possible that Dave was reborn as the protagonist, an omnipotent entity. It’s possible this movie is a loop, a self-fulfilling prophesy. One thing is clear, at the end of the movie Dave meets the protagonist and proves that the protagonist truly accomplished the original goal. Humanity was gifted with free will and has time and again pushed in the direction to prove worthiness of meeting the protagonist. The experiment worked and the protagonist could be created by his own work, even though he already knew that would be the outcome because again, he’s omnipotent.