The dawn of man. Ape-like progenitors of what will eventually evolve into homo sapiens enjoy vegetarian meals while using only their wits. The prehistorical world before man entered the picture is one of kill or be killed, survive or die. Physical might makes rights in this strangely verdant yet desolate landscape and every day passes to another that will be just like the one before it and the one after it.
Until the day the apes awaken to discover a large, black monolithic structure that wasn’t there when they went to sleep. The alien and unfamiliar newcomer to their land does not seem to pose a threat, but approaches toward it are tentative anyway. Eventually, one of the apes seems to make some sort of non-visceral connection with the monolith and this leads to a palpable connection. That connection stimulates the ape toward a new level of consciousness that draws them inexorably to the next stage of evolutionary development: the ability to use the primary physical differentiation between them and the current kings of the African landscape to make tool. Lions and hyenas don’t have fingers or opposable thumbs, but the apes have not yet learned how to manipulate this advantage to establish superiority.
The monolith changes all that. With the infusion of intelligence that allows manipulation of their physical dexterity, the apes can make tools. With the advantage of tools, the apes can begin to kill animals and evolve from prey to predator. With the meat supply gained from killing their prey their brains can begin to develop the addition of protein that has been lacking in their vegetarian diet.
Evolution of humanity is about take one giant leap for mankind.
Four million years later, Dr. Heywood Floyd is taking the step to investigate a strange discovery by astronauts exploring the surface the moon. Beneath the lunar surface has been lying—apparently for millions if not billions of years—a large, black monolithic structure. When sunlight strikes the object for the first time, an incredibly loud and shrilly piercing radio signal is produced that seems to be directed straight toward the position of Jupiter.
A year and a half later, the spacecraft Discovery One is headed for Jupiter with five astronauts. Three of the explorers are in cryogenic hibernation while Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole are charged with maintaining everyday duties and earth contact. Actual control of the Discovery’s systems is a voice-equipped computer referred to as HAL 9000 or, more often, just plain HAL. Bowman and Poole go about the tedious day to day duties of staying fit, contacting earth and interacting with HAL more than they interact with each other. The two watch a BBC interview they conducted in which HAL emotionlessly but somehow proudly asserts that his computer functioning is foolproof and utterly incapable of making any errors.
As if proving his capacity for infallibility, HAL calculates the failure of part of the ship’s antennae. The calculation winds up proving that HAL is very capable of making errors, however. In addition to his misstep on the issue of the antennae, HAL seems to be behaving erratically and Bowman and Pool meet to discuss the issue in the place where the computer cannot heard them: inside an enclosed pod used for exterior repairs. What the astronauts do not know is that HAL can read lips. The subject of their conversation is the potential disconnection of the computer if his contention that unreliability of his prediction of his prediction of component failure does not turn out to be human error like the computer insists.
Poole goes outside the Discovery in the pod to replace the crucial component, but when he attempts to re-enter the ship, HAL cuts his lifeline. Bowman then heads out to retrieve Poole and bring his body back inside the ship, but HAL locks the pod entry door while also cutting off the life supply systems to the three hibernating astronauts. Bowmen figures a way to re-enter without HAL using the emergency control and immediately sets to dismantling HAL. With HAL essentially dead, Bowman continues on alone toward the ship’s destination.
When the Discovery enters Jupiter’s orbit, a third monolith appears out among the large planet’s many moons. Bowman finds himself heading through a crazy quilt of lights and colors as he travels through a vortex of time and space into another dimension until he finally winds seeing himself as an old man inside an ornately decorated bedroom. The Bowman who just shortly murdered HAL becomes witness to the final moments of his own life as the monolith makes one last appearance at the foot of the bed. Like the ape four million years earlier, he has made a connection that will result in another giant evolutionary leap forward for mankind. Bowman reaches out toward the monolith and take a step into a transcendent future where he is a star-child floating high above his home planet Earth.