Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is rightfully hailed as a milestone in science fiction filmmaking, but even its most ardent fans would have a tough time explaining the final scenes of the movie.
From the dizzyingly psychedelic “stargate sequence” to the strange hotel room and the appearance of the nebulous Star Baby, 2001 signs off with far more questions than answers—questions that have been discussed and dissected for 50 years. But now we might have a concrete explanation of just what was going on from Kubrick himself.
In a video posted to the Eyes On Cinema YouTube page, as discovered by io9, we see footage of filmmaker Jun’ichi Yaoi on the telephone in 1980, with someone who is purported to be Kubrick. This was all during Yaoi’s documentary on the paranormal, so a natural interview subject would have been Kubrick, who was making The Shining at the time. During the interview, though, Yaoi asks the director what exactly happens at the end of 2001, to which Kubrick gives a full explanation, as transcribed by io9:
“I’ve tried to avoid doing this ever since the picture came out. When you just say the ideas they sound foolish, whereas if they’re dramatized one feels it, but I’ll try. “The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room. And he has no sense of time. It just seems to happen as it does in the film. “They choose this room, which is a very inaccurate replica of French architecture (deliberately so, inaccurate), because one was suggesting that they had some idea of something that he might think was pretty, but wasn’t quite sure. Just as we’re not quite sure what do in zoos with animals to try to give them what we think is their natural environment. “Anyway, when they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being and sent back to Earth, transformed and made into some sort of superman. We have to only guess what happens when he goes back. It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology, and that is what we were trying to suggest.”
Obviously, that’s a lot to take in, but it jibes with what Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the 2001 book, both of which were developed at the same time. In the book’s ending, astronaut Dave Bowman is very obviously on display in an artificial environment, which resembles a swanky hotel room. Only this room is furnished with dummy drawers that can’t open, ornamental books that are simply attached to shelves, and hollow televisions, much like an IKEA showroom; the zoo connection is much clearer as a result as Clarke walks readers through this strange, faux-human habitat.
As io9 points out, this Kubrick video may be a little “too good to be true,” especially since there’s no definitive visual evidence that he’s actually talking. Still, the explanation does hold weight when taken with Clarke’s writing, but after 50 years and countless essays and theories on the subject, it's doubtful that this will put an end to the discussions on one of the most complex endings in all of film.