Screenwriting 101: Pop Quiz, 2001: A Space Odyssey

The protagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey is:

a) Moon-Watcher
b) The Monolith
c) Dr. Heywood R. Floyd
d) Dr. Dave Bowman
e) Dr. Frank Poole
e) HAL 9000
f) The frozen astronauts
g) None of the above

The answer is g.

Congratulations to RJWhite, who, although he is confused as to the character’s name, correctly identifies the protagonist of 2001 as “whomever was trying to propel the human race forward.”

2001 is, essentially, an education drama, not unlike Blackboard Jungle or Dangerous Minds.  There is a  wise teacher who has been put in charge of a bunch of wild students in the inner city, with their gang wars and primitive ways, and the teacher must show them the beauty of learning and betterment while hoping they don’t use their new intelligence to kill each other.  Kubrick’s bold stroke was to make an education drama where the “wise teacher” goes unseen.  If you can imagine Stand and Deliver with a big black slab instead of Edward James Olmos, that’s pretty much 2001.

“Humanity” is, in fact, the antagonist of 2001.  The protagonist is trying to teach them, and while humanity is capable of learning, their “background” continues to “keep them down.”  The drama of 2001 is, “can the protagonist change the antagonist, given that the antagonist is probably evil to its core?”

“Dave” is indeed a “main character,” but his story is, basically, a subplot.  Dave is the student who advances to the State Finals and must “prove himself.”  The movie, essentially, ends when the student walks out onto the stage to prove what he’s learned, how far he’s come — but then doesn’t show us the speech.

Eronanke supplies a mind-blowing answer to a mind-blowing movie and suggests that “destiny” is the protagonist, which is an intriguing idea, if “destiny” is indeed what the movie is about — which I don’t think it is.  But I also think that “destiny” is no kind of protagonist to hang a 2-hour, 20-minute movie on — even if that movie’s prime directive is to blow one’s mind.

Mr. Noy correctly identifies the four large-scale story chunks that give the movie its shape.  I’m going to go ahead and call these chunks the acts of the movie, even though they don’t really function as acts in the traditional sense.  This is typical of Kubrick’s approach to story structure — three or four very long sequences instead of three acts made up of short scenes — and is, to me, the thing that makes AI such an odd movie-watching experience; Spielberg made Kubrick’s script his own, but kept the decidedly Kubrickian structure.

Here is the plot of 2001, as told from the protagonist’s point of view.


There is this bunch of extraterrestrials.  They have a machine that makes creatures smarter.  Let’s call them the Invisible Extraterrestrials (the IET).

They spot Earth.  Earth has relatively intelligent creatures on it called apes.  The apes are doing okay but they’re eating vegetables and living in caves and getting into fights over resources (plus ca change).  The IET, for reasons unknown, decide to help the apes along in their evolution.

They uncrate three of their smart-making-machines — small, medium and large.  They leave the small one on the planet Earth, in the middle of the ape community, they bury the medium-sized one beneath the surface of the moon, and they put the large one out in space, somewhere near Jupiter.

The scene we don’t see is the IET discussing their plan: “So, we’ll put the small one in the middle of the ape community, and the machine will do its thing, and the creatures will either become smart or they won’t.  If they do become smart, we know that they’ll eventually fly to their moon and discover the one we bury there.  We’ll stick a light-sensitive device in the second one, so that when it gets hit by sunlight it will send a radio signal to the big one next to Jupiter, and if the creatures are smart enough to make it to the big one, then we’ll give them all the intelligence in the universe, and if that doesn’t totally blow their minds, they will evolve to the next step.”

So they leave the small monolith in the middle of Apetown.  The apes wake up in the morning and see the monolith.  Moon-Watcher (the lead ape) touches the monolith, the monolith does its thing, makes Moon-Watcher a little bit smarter, and the first thing Moon-Watcher does with his new intelligence is to pick up a bone and beat his enemy to death and use his new intelligence to stop eating vegetables and start eating meat.

So, here we have the central conflict of 2001 — the protagonist (the IET) want to make humans intelligent, but humanity (the antagonist) has this thing where their nature is, at its root, homicidal.  The question of the movie, which is left unanswered, is “can people evolve to the point where they don’t kill each other any more?”

(The novel, in my opinion, answers “no,” but that is not the concern of this journal.)

But that’s it — that’s the whole movie.  There’s a bunch of invisible extraterrestrials who want to educate humanity but humanity may just be too homicidal to survive the process.

(Each one of the four acts dramatize this central conflict in different ways.  In Act I, we see that an ape, given a little intelligence, kills another ape.  In Act II, we see that humanity, given a few million years of evolution, has advanced to the point where they can destroy all life on the planet with atom bombs and every bit of human interaction must be rife with suspicion, secrecy and coded language.  In Act III, we see that humanity has gotten smart enough to create a machine capable of killing people on its own, and in Act IV we see that a man, even after gaining all the knowledge in the world, still has to eat and still spills his wine.  So the answer to the question “what happens after the end of the movie,” it seems to me, is a very pessimistic one — and indeed, Kubrick once said that he wanted to end the movie with a scene showing the world destroyed by atom bombs but decided it was too much like the ending of Dr. Strangelove.)


It’s the year 2001 or thereabouts (the rest of the movie covers an 18-month time-span, so obviously the whole movie doesn’t take place in 2001).  Dr. Floyd goes to the moon.  And we see how sophisticated people have become, and how boring — they glide across the surface of the moon and can talk about nothing but what kind of sandwiches they have.  (Intelligence and food again, stuck together.  No matter how smart you get, you still have to eat, and something still has to die for that to happen.)

And there’s a bunch of hugger-mugger about “The Russians” and so forth, but the whole act is basically a bunch of “plot” about uncovering the second monolith and getting it exposed to the sunlight — once that happens, the act ends abruptly and we never hear about any of those people again.


A lovely subplot on the spaceship Discovery about Dave and Frank and the frozen astronauts and the murderous computer.  There are more scenes with food, and more scenes showing how, no matter how intelligent humans get, no matter how bloodless and dispassionate, they are still animals who eat and piss and shit and sweat.  HAL 9000 doesn’t have those problems, of course (and here Kubrick points toward AI — machines as the final evolution of humanity) — he is more bloodless and dispassionate than any of the humans on board, although we find that that only enables him to kill more bloodlessly and dispassionately, leading to Dave having to take matters into his own hands and kill HAL.

At the end of Act III, just after Dave kills HAL, the video comes on and Some Guy on the video tells us the story of the movie.  The scene comes after so many mind-blowing visuals one is forgiven for missing it, but the guy on the video actually takes a few minutes to sit there quietly and patiently explain the plot of the whole movie to us.


Dave takes his pod to go investigate the extra-large monolith out in space.  His encounter with the monolith gives him all the intelligence in the universe (that’s the big famous mind-blowing psychedelic freakout scene), but he’s still human.  He still has to eat and his body will still decay.

That’s okay, as it turns out.  The IET give Dave a place to relax and grow old.  The scene where Dave “sees himself” getting old is a misdirect — all that’s happening is that Dave is growing old, over a period of years, and Kubrick is trying to think of an interesting way to shoot that bit of exposition.  The fact that the inside of the monolith looks like some kind of postmodern French hotel suite is just the IET’s way of trying to think of something to make Dave comfortable while he grows old and dies.

Finally Dave dies and, because he’s obtained all the intelligence in the universe, he is reincarnated as the “Star-Child,” the big green fetus who is seen approaching the Earth at the end of the movie.

Now that the IET have given humanity all the knowledge in the universe, what will humanity do?  Will the Star-Child do good works and teach the world to sing, or will it use its super-intelligence to wipe out all of humanity?  That is, will the protagonist’s goal be reached or will it be frustrated by the antagonist’s inherent self-destructiveness?

(This, of course, assumes that the protagonist’s goal is for humanity to better itself.  For all I know, the IET’s goal is to get us to wipe ourselves out so they could come and steal all our resources.  That would make the monolith not an intelligence-generating machine but a homicide-generating machine.)

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47 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: Pop Quiz, 2001: A Space Odyssey”
  1. seamusd says:

    I always thought it was Dave, without question. The most important events in the plot happen to him.

  2. iainjcoleman says:

    The protagonist is the genus homo.

    • iainjcoleman says:

      To expand:

      I agree with many other commenters that the protagonist is humanity, except that restricting it to a single species underestimates the scope of the film. We start with a pre-human species of hominids, and end with an evolutionary stage beyond homo sapiens – call it homo superior, if you like.

      So 2001 is the story of our genus, first wanting little more than to survive in a bleak and hostile world, then wanting to explore the even more bleak and hostile environment of the Solar System – but tragically doomed by its divided consciousness which tries to keep secrets from itself. The tragedy comes to a climax when the contradictions within humanity clash fatally with the unremitting logic of humanity’s own machines. This is resolved in the eucatastrophe when Bowman, humanity’s representative, helpless and alone in space, enters the stargate and is transfigured into homo superior – the first fruits of the transfiguration of the rest of mankind? Perhaps – but the film doesn’t doesn’t end wholly comfortingly. Bowman’s breaking of a wine glass in the imaginary hotel of his transformation suggests that even this new, higher form may contain still within it inescapable flaws.

  3. planettom says:

    It’s hard to tell who the protagonist is, because that movie, oh my God, it’s full of stars!

  4. edo_fanatic says:

    Personally, I believe it was the Monolith.

  5. rjwhite says:

    I’d say the moon-watcher or whomever was trying to propel the human race forward. That’s what that “guy” wants. It just took thousands of years to do it. The things with HAL and the astronauts- that was just getting in the way. Things happened to Bowman and the rest, sure, but that’s not who the larger story is about.

    Of course, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the thing and I could be flat-out stupid wrong.

  6. chrispiers says:

    g) None of the above. The protaganist is all mankind.

  7. eronanke says:

    The Protagonist is Destiny. The Monoliths are here to observe what humans will become. They, therefore, knew what great jumps humankind would make and appear there to watch and judge our progress.

  8. Anonymous says:

    My first thought was the Monolith, since it shows up in all three parts, but I’m thinking “None of the Above — Mankind” might be the winner.

    If we consider a certain Alcottian precept — “The protagonist’s path through the narrative is the meaning of the movie” — and since it certainly seems like 2001 is about the journey of mankind, from apes to space travellers to transcendence, we can reverse-engineer that to come up with “mankind” as the protagonist. Dave represents mankind, because he’s “Bow*man*”, man.

    Or if not, then it’s the Monolith.

    Which one’s the Moon-Watcher? Is that the Star-child or something else? It’s been awhile.

    — Kent M. Beeson, secretly hoping it’s actually the five frozen astronauts, cuz that would be awesome

  9. mr_noy says:

    Excellent question. Personally, I’m going to have to go with G. I think the true protagonist is the human race (including its electronic offspring, HAL). What does the protagonist want? To survive, to explore; and ultimately, to evolve.

    On the other other hand, 2001 consists of 4 discrete passages (“non-submersible units” as Kubrick called them) that when viewed together create a narrative. When viewed that way, there could a protagonist for each section.

    Story 1 – Moonwatcher
    Story 2 – Floyd
    Story 3 – Bowman (although a case could be made for HAL)
    Story 4 – Bowman/Starchild

  10. zodmicrobe says:

    I always thought the protagonist was humanity in general, as shown by Lead Ape, Dave Bowman, HAL, and the space baby as a progression of evolution.

  11. Toynbee ideas in Kubrick’s 2001 resurrect dead on planet Jupiter

    Good question, though. I think the lack of an obvious protagonist is part of why the movie is so hard for many people to watch.

  12. jbacardi says:

    I say h) Me, as I valiantly struggle to stay awake for the duration of this film. Sorry, I know, classic of both the sci-fi genre and cinema, Kubrick (whom I normally revere), blah blah blah- but this one’s so deliberately paced that it took me 20-something years to sit through it all the way the first time (all the time fighting restlessness) and I have yet to reprise that feat.

    But, if I can’t take that, I’ll say g) because this film deals with more than one protagonist, depending on which time period it takes place in.

  13. kornleaf says:

    i know this may sound trite, but for some reason I always come away from watching this moving thinking that I am the protaganist and what I am watching is the development of conciousness in the universe and what i want is to see what happens next.

    but that could just be from drug use.

  14. moroccomole says:

    I’m going to go with B, since it wants things from humanity. But what do I know?

  15. ndgmtlcd says:

    Finally, you get around to doing it.

  16. craigjclark says:

    By an extraordinary coincidence I just watched this again this week, immediately after seeing Godard’s Alphaville for the first time in over a decade because I was struck by the similarities between Alpha 60 and the HAL 9000. One has to wonder if Kubrick and Clarke were at all familiar with Godard’s vision.

    Also, not to nitpick, but there are only three frozen astronauts in 2001

  17. Anonymous says:

    Yes, that’s good. But I would have gone a step further up to say that the protagonist is God, which is to say Stanley Kubrick. He’s breaking the fourth wall with those text frames (among other things) speaking directly to us from above. It’s fairly well integrated so it’s not obvious. It’s excellent in fact.


  18. Anonymous says:

    “Now that the IET have given humanity all the knowledge in the universe, what will humanity do? Will the Star-Child do good works and teach the world to sing, or will it use its super-intelligence to wipe out all of humanity?”

    Neither – or a bit of both actually.

    In my opinion (and it’s been thirty years since I’ve gotten to participate in a “what does 2001 really mean” discussion, so thank you) you have to realize that Dave Bowman and Moonwatcher are essentially the same character. Both were the ones that made the jump upwards to the next stage in the Space Gods’ uplift project. Moonwatcher took the step from advanced ape to the first primitive human – a tool-user (and remember the 60’s were a time when tool making and use was still the accepted dividing line between animal and sentient). Dave made the jump from advanced man to bottom-of-the-rung space god. Both characters were the ones to first contact the monoliths that were set on “uplift” mode. The monolith on the moon had a different function, to point the way to the next “uplift” programmed monolith once man had made it as far as the moon.

    The first thing Moonwatcher did when transformed from ape to human, was to teach the rest of his tribe to take the same step – and thus outperform those who were still stuck in ape mode and take the vital water hole away from those has-beens for all time.

    So, if you follow my interpretation, the first thing Dave as immature space god will do is go down among the humans and select those who can make the jump up to his level. He’s going to make more like him out of the same raw material. Those that can make the next jump (learn to sing) join him and the rest are doomed.

    (And in my scenario, the whole business with HAL wigging out was also directed by the space god in charge of the human uplift project. After having advanced so far, putting our destinies into the hands of sentient machines is a wrong path, inevitably leading to domination and an end to the ongoing project, so a tiny course correction is made. The space god tweaks HAL just a bit and now he helps with the ongoing weeding out process – this whole project is about weeding out – to leave the one member of the mission who proves he’s the one to get the next bump in uplift by being the one to survive HAL. And of course, if Dave couldn’t survive HAL, then he wouldn’t be the right one either and the Jupiter monolith would patiently wait for someone to make the cut.)

    Bill Willingham

    • Todd says:

      Excellent analysis. In comic-book terms, that would make the Starchild not unlike Magneto — homo superior, as it were. Which means that Magneto isn’t cruel, per se, he’s just performing his duty to humanity by wiping out all the ones unfit to survive.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well, sure.

        Now, when are you going to do the full analysis on Magnolia, which I think is an excellent, nearly flawless, film?

  19. dougo says:

    Whoa! You answered! Glad I happened to look back at this post or I would never have noticed.

  20. rjwhite says:

    Oddly enough, this was on TCM tonight and I caught part of it- when Frank’s getting the birthday message from his parents, his father hurriedly says “See you next Wednesday,” before it cuts out.

    Is this maybe where John Landis got his running gag?

  21. Anonymous says:

    I always had a problem with the Well of Souls scene. Indy and Sallah were doing all this fancy mumbo jumbo trying to find this place and then they had to dig for what seemed hours to uncover it. But then, when Indy knocks the statue down and escapes out the side, he walks out a clear as day stone door almost right into the Nazi camp. No one noticed this stone structure and thought, “Hey, that might be the well of souls?” We’re to believe that he and Marion are going to be sealed up underground forever but then it’s just a matter of walking out the side of the building? That was always a little iffy for me.

  22. Anonymous says:

    It wanted to take itself very seriously but it was still hampered by what was “expected” of a comic-book movie — grand characters with evil schemes, ludicrous action sequences and over-the-top plot points (Batman calling the bats of Gotham City to his aid comes to mind).

    Batman calling the bats is a bit taken directly from Frank Miller’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Late to the Party

    It helps to be born a generation later, rather than a half-generation. I was born in ’74; the Beatles and Stones were always a part of my life. When I was in high school, I accidentally found a copy of Dylan’s “Bringing it All Back Home” on vinyl and listened to it over and over (particularly Side Two).

    It backfired, of course, when I tried to explain to somebody years later that “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” sounded like it could have come from any decade from the 1980s to present day. While this is true, I happened to say it about a week before the “Sopranos” finale, when the dumbest surviving character on the whole damn show noted the same thing.

  24. Anonymous says:

    The forementioned film is now on YouTube. Keeping in mind that we seriously did not win (except for Best Graphics), please discount my previous euphoria-induced sense that it’s the best thing ever.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t quite remember how the very end of the movie went and reading your description, I’m a little disappointed too. I had remembered it as a bit more ambiguous, without such a definitive answer to the question of whether Ryan has earned the sacrifice made for him. I think that both this and the Marshall letter are cases of Spielberg favoring the reality of the characters and their situations over the ideas of the film. Marshall probably would make reference to the greater cause the war was fought for, as he needs to offer a reason that her other three sons are gone. “Family” may be the overall reason that we fight according to the film, but that’s little comfort to an apparently single mother who would probably much rather all of her sons were home and alive rather than dead after fighting the good fight for their family, which at this point seems to mean her. Similarly, when asked by her husband, staring grief-stricken at the gravestones of fallen comrades, whether or not he’s been a good person, what else is a presumably loving wife going to do? Shrug? Stand there a think about it? Say “Well, now that you mention it….?” I guess Spielberg could have ended the film before she answered, but I think that would come off as feeling more cheap than anything. He could have cut to a long shot showing Ryan’s wife embracing him and his family standing by him, both giving an answer and not giving one, but again, I’m not sure how well that would play. Still, there is some degree of ambiguity in the ending. If you really think about it, all we have about Ryan that we didn’t know from his WWII experience is his wife’s likely biased opinion of him (and even if their marriage hasn’t been the happiest, she certainly isn’t going to tell him that now) and the fact that he has a family, which goes to the movie’s themes, but still doesn’t tell us for certain what kind of man he’s become. Compare that to something like the ending of “Titanic,” where we get a visual history of Rose’s life to reinforce the fact that Jack did the right thing in saving her and that Rose never took her life for granted. (Not saying “good” vs “bad” here; just comparing different approaches to a similar idea.) The film could have done a little more to leave us asking whether Ryan really has earned the sacrifices made to bring him home, but at least it doesn’t beat us over the head with the answer.

    In all the excitement, I think we lost track of Jackson.

  26. Anonymous says:

    i like to assume that he did, in fact, invent a longer lasting light bulb.

  27. Anonymous says:

    My reading was that Ryan’s wife didn’t understand the question – couldn’t POSSIBLY understand the question – and that she, not he, stands in for America from WWII until 1998.

    Her pat on the back leaves him unanswered. America from WWII until 1998, similarly, hasn’t understood the lasting questions of WWII and (whomever’s backs we pat) has failed to answer them.

  28. Anonymous says:

    You’re close: the Vietnam-movie cycle (discounting John Wayne’s 1968 The Green Berets) began in 1978 with the head-to-head release of Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. Both were big hits and considered very significant indeed. MASH was set in the Korean War, but there was little doubt in the audiences mind what war the filmmakers were really talking about.

    The movies you cite all did very well with audiences and there were dozens more that did okay but have been largely forgotten, like Hamburger Hill, Casualties of War, Uncommon Valor, 84 Charlie Mopic, The Boys in Company C and Bat 21

    If you feel like being overwhelmed, here is a list of the 505 movies and TV shows that used the Vietnam war as a plot element.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Re: World’s Best Road Movie

    Simply because his science is bad doesn’t mean he can’t have something interesting to say in literary theory, because the goal of literary theory research is to further the understanding of meaning and how meaning is created in literature. ‘Meaning’ itself is unscientific.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Your understanding of that movie / book was exactly the opposite. you didn’t. your synopsis and dialogue about the movie is total bullshit, please watch it / read it again. Humans aren’t homicidal. The movie cannot be broken up into different acts in the way that you did, and the thoughts / themes expressed in that wonderful movie are apparently over your head or have escaped your grasp. The ape in the first segment gained knowledge and used it to better his community and his tribe. that’s it. there was not total secrecy and paranoia in the world, just with the space community and it’s dealings with the monolith and hal(that’s part of the reason hal became paranoid; their dealing with him and confusing him), they didn’t teach a computer to be homicidal like humans, it’s just an interesting AI subplot about what happens when you try to instruct a computer on how to make human decisions; it’s brilliant.

    It’s not important that dave eats or spills the wine, the only thing that is important is that he is experiencing his whole life at once, birth to old age. again, that’s it. the human experience, good and bad. crammed into one instant so that the IET’s as you call them can experience and better know us, judge us.

    “Act II” Nothing has to die for us to eat. They are eating modified vegetable proteins molded into traditional looking unmeat, flavored as meat. The whole purpose of that segment wasn’t to show how boring we have become, but to show how commonplace space travel is to us, like when we (in our age) ride the bus to work. I can’t believe you saw it that way, it reminds me of certain archaeologist’s theories that they apply to whatever they find, regardless of the obvious. “Hugger mugger”, not true. The section about the russians has to do with suspense in film, we don’t know what is going on, the colonists don’t know what’s going on, heywood can’t tell them, paranoia and secrecy reign in the space program, as it did in the 60’s. Even in 2001 the americans are racing with the russians and the chinese to discover these monolith things and get to them first.

    Jesus! Get over this bad dissertation you have about humans pissing and shitting. It’s just not there. Hal isn’t the ultimate evolution of humans, he’s a companion, like a dog, only smarter. And Hal doesn’t do things dispassionately, as you say – he gets Very Fucking Upset at his human partners and their possibility to mess up the whole mission that is so important to him! Apparently you didn’t listen to the guy on the monitor who explained the plot.

    “Act IV” Holy shit you’re wrong. 1. He doesn’t get all the intelligence in the universe, just enough to be able to communicate with the IETs and realize the next evolution in humanity’s destiny, and he’s not flesh or blood. They don’t really explain this part very well in the first book, but in the second they explicitly say that he’s an Energy being. Clarke hints at this in the first book, but i won’t blame you for missing it. In the movie it’s very confusing, and I didn’t get what was happening in the last two minutes myself until reading the book. The “French Hotel” that dave is in is his past, and his possible future if he hadn’t encountered the monolith, that’s why he’s seen eating with a woman (Wife? Mother?) and his life goes through a lot of periods very fast.

    I could answer your questions about what does dave do after he is progressed into star child, where he goes, with whom (hal goes with him, for one) but i’m still laughing about your ending to the blog that sounds like 2001 + Independence Day. I have the upper hand because i’ve read the books, you have a moronic interpretation of one of last century’s greatest exhibits.

    Please, i beg you, read the book and see the movie again, without this infantile fetish for blood and pissing.