The actor Rock Hudson stormed out of an early screening of ‘2001’ shouting: ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’ People who stayed may not have had a clear answer afterwards – but, as the Starchild turned in the film’s final 30 seconds, many of them felt an unmistakable tingling up the spine.
Over the preceding two hours and 22 minutes, Kubrick had woven a narrative whose threads come brilliantly together in the closing scenes. In space, Man finds himself at an evolutionary dead-end; it was simply ‘natural selection’ for his tools to replace their creator. But tools were always mere extensions of the human body. If that evolutionary route is exhausted, the next step forward for humanity can only be spiritual.
Then what happened? That’s anyone’s guess. Maybe the Starchild returns to Earth and reincarnates as a new Buddha or Messiah. In AC Clarke’s novel, ‘2001’, s/he detonates a nuclear warhead that, perhaps, destroys the Earth. We prefer Kubrick’s ‘open ending’.