Q. Did you deliberately try for ambiguity as opposed to a specific meaning for any scene or image?
Stanley Kubrick: No, I didn’t have to try for ambiguity; it was inevitable…But it’s the ambiguity of all art, of a fine piece of music or a painting – you don’t need written instructions by the composer or painter accompanying such works to “explain” them. “Explaining” them contributes nothing but a superficial “cultural” value which has no value except for critics and teachers who have to earn a living. Reactions to art are always different because they are always deeply personal.
Q. The final scenes of the film seemed more metaphorical than realistic. Will you discuss them — or would that be part of the “road map” you’re trying to avoid?
Kubrick: No, I don’t mind discussing it, on the lowest level, that is, straightforward explanation of the plot. You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression.
Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe – a kind of cosmic burglar alarm.
And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system. When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he’s placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.
That is what happens on the film’s simplest level. Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.
Q. What are those areas of meaning?
Kubrick: They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.
-1969, via Stanley Kubrick: Interviews