Stanley Kubrick's Iconic '2001: A Space Odyssey' Sci-Fi Film Explained (Infographic)

Infographic: "2001: A Space Odyssey's" depiction of space travel and how it differs from reality
The landmark 1968 film influenced the depiction of space travel in movies and television for decades. (Image credit: Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

Stanley Kubrick's ambitious film "2001: A Space Odyssey" premiered on April 2, 1968. Four years in the making, "2001" drew from the most optimistic predictions of futurists to map out a then-believable scenario of 21st-century space travel. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote various versions of the story under Kubrick's guidance, and the film was pieced together from their collaborative effort.

The film begins 4 million years in the past. A troop of prehuman man-apes is barely surviving on the African plain as a drought threatens their existence.

One day, an unexplained black monolith appears. The influence of the monolith causes one of the apes to begin using bones as weapons. The apes kill animals for food, and later bludgeon the leader of an enemy tribe: the first murder.

It is not known when the ancestors of humans first used tools and weapons. Around the time frame of the film, a species of pre-human called Australopithecus lived in Africa. The oldest known stone tools date back to 2.6 million years ago.

In one of the most famous transitions in film history, a camera shot of a bone tumbling through the air cuts to a shot of an orbiting spacecraft, a gap of 4 million years between film frames.

The kinds of spacecraft depicted in "2001" were imagined by engineers in the years following World War II. This 1953 painting by Chesley Bonestell features a ring-shaped, rotating space station, a winged shuttle plane, and lunar landing vehicles under construction.

The spaceships of 2001 were designed by Frederick I. Ordway III, chief science adviser; Harry Lange, illustrator and concept artist (who later would design spaceship interiors for "Star Wars") and Tony Masters, production designer on "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dune" and other films. Real-life spacecraft contractors including IBM, Honeywell, RCA and General Electric were consulted for their predictions of the technology of 35 years in the future.

In the film, Clavius Base is a half-mile-wide American moon colony housing 400 personnel. The Soviet Union maintains a base elsewhere on the moon.

Astronauts from Clavius take a short trip by rocket-bus to the crater Tycho, where they examine Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One (TMA-1), an 11-foot-tall (3.4 meters) rectangular alien artifact that had been deliberately buried 4 million years ago.

When the TMA-1 monolith is first exposed to sunlight, it beams a radio signal to the planet Jupiter. The 520-foot spaceship Discovery One is launched on a secret mission to investigate.  Discovery's on-duty astronauts, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, spend their time in the 52-foot diameter Habitat Sphere, where a rotating drum-shaped Centrifuge spins constantly to generate artificial gravity about equal to a quarter of Earth's.

The design of Discovery was influenced by a set of NASA-funded studies done in 1962 called EMPIRE ("Early Manned Planetary-Interplanetary Round Trip Expeditions"). Shown below is a 420-foot-long concept vehicle, powered by four nuclear engines and capable of carrying a crew of eight on a 15-month mission to Mars in 1975.

In the film, the astronauts use a tablet computer called an "IBM News Pad" to watch TV transmissions from Earth. Their food paste, however, is much more primitive than the dehydrated space foods in use by astronauts in the actual year 2001.

Three of Discovery's astronauts, the Jupiter survey team, were placed on board already in suspended animation (or "hibernation"). Unknown to Bowman and Poole, the survey team had been separately trained to investigate another alien monolith that telescopes had revealed in orbit around Jupiter.

The concept of suspended animation had been used as a storytelling device in Western literature for hundreds of years, as a means of bringing characters forward in time. Devices to suspend human life had been a staple of science fiction and pulp magazines of the 1950s.

In addition to the five human astronauts, Discovery also carries HAL 9000, a supercomputer capable of running all the functions of the spaceship. HAL could conduct the Jupiter mission by himself if necessary.

HAL erroneously predicts a fault in the ship's communications antenna and then attempts to cover up his mistake. Bowman and Poole conclude that HAL has become too unreliable and must be disconnected.

When his higher brain functions are removed, HAL regresses to his earliest memories. HAL's singing of "Bicycle Built For Two (Daisy)" is a reference to a 1962 experiment where an IBM 704 computer sang the song at Bell Labs.

On arrival at Jupiter, Bowman discovers another monolith in orbit. Bowman is transported from Earth's solar system through a strange tunnel-like corridor called the "Stargate." He finally comes to rest in what appears to be an antique hotel room with no doors or windows. There, Bowman appears to age, die, and become reborn as the fetuslike "Star  Child."

The response to  "2001" was sharply polarized. After the initial screening, Kubrick cut 19 minutes from the film. Removed footage included a prologue with scientists discussing the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, and several duplicated scenes depicting the monotony of life aboard the Discovery. Critics both hailed and condemned the film.

Arthur Clarke wrote three sequel novels, published in 1982, 1987 and 1997. The first of these was made into a movie starring Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren and John Lithgow, released in 1984.

The production design of "2001" heavily influenced the look of space travel in sci-fi films and television for decades. Kubrick's techniques for filming model spacecraft led to the computerized camera-control methods pioneered in "Star Wars" 10 years later.



Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Karl Tate contributor

Karl's association with goes back to 2000, when he was hired to produce interactive Flash graphics. From 2010 to 2016, Karl worked as an infographics specialist across all editorial properties of Purch (formerly known as TechMediaNetwork).  Before joining, Karl spent 11 years at the New York headquarters of The Associated Press, creating news graphics for use around the world in newspapers and on the web.  He has a degree in graphic design from Louisiana State University and now works as a freelance graphic designer in New York City.