It is a testament to the craft of 2001: A Space Odyssey that the film—despite dividing critics and audiences during its initial run (and still to some extent today)—quickly attained both a mythical status in the cultural vernacular as well as that of the traditional cinematic classic, the kind of landmark one uses as the central point on a timeline by which to cite surrounding events of lesser importance. Part of this has to do with its near-simultaneous release with the novel of the same title, developed in conjunction with the film and penned by Stanley Kubrick's co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke (whose short story "The Sentinel" provided the core from which 2001—both film and novel—were adapted). More responsible for the film's reputation, though, is the film itself: a four-part, totally immersive, altogether operatic experience that defies traditional expectations in its abandonment of the common narrative form, in essence returning cinema to its roots of pure audio/visual augmentation. Along with a handful of other films, it is one of the defining examples of what a motion picture represents: a series of images that, first and foremost, tell a story. It is a work composed of pure essence—of discoveries made, of potentials realized, of obstacles overcome, of ends opening doorways to new beginnings—and is, in this critic's mind, among the crowning works of art ever created by human hands.
Central to the profundity of the film is the notion that few things are more meaningful than a child's first steps, the emotive impact of this scenario manifest in every one of the film's dizzying set pieces, albeit multiplied to epic proportions. At its core, 2001 is a journey (or, as indicated by its subtitle, an odyssey), a summarization of those questions that are both the simplest in their inquisition and most profound in their answers: who are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? The film exists as an exploration of these timeless themes and the existential weight that accompanies them, probing our growth from passive eating machines subject to the unforgiving elements, to conquerors of the world and pioneers of space, awaiting only a helping hand from a superior force to reach the next level of existence. Just as the ape-men in the opening act must learn to use the tools around them to survive, so too must man learn to walk again when subjected to zero gravity, captured here with a gravitas that suggests a celestial being waxing philosophical.
The first step toward the stars comes when mankind, presented as the aforementioned ape-men roaming the earth millions of years ago, realizes that a bone needn't be just a bone. This first (and simplest) tool gives way to an orbiting spacecraft in a ravishing and much-noted graphic match, then to the supercomputer HAL-9000 (voiced by the inimitable Douglas Rain), who—during the film's most plot-driven sequences—captures our ambitions and foibles as he inadvertently wreaks havoc on the central mission to Jupiter. The human performances in the film have often come under attack for their proposed woodenness, in actuality succeeding in capturing an archetypal timelessness via their finely condensed formalism while also providing the level-headed antithesis to HAL's deranged subtleties. During these passages, man's conflict with his technology embodies a necessary obstacle to be overcome by every species at some point during their evolutionary progress (Kubrick often spoke of nuclear power as this obstacle during interviews). Ironically, it is HAL's disembodied voice that provides the film with its most immediately human element, his tragically flawed personality (essentially manifest of a critical programming error) providing an emotionally vulnerable counterpoint to the film's otherwise perfectionist, externalized perspective. His breakdown is one of sentient self-defense, his eerie, predatory malice subtly foreshadowed by the much-feared predators of the ape-men in the first act. Once again, man must come to a new level of control over his environment if he is to survive, with Dave Bowman's (Keir Dullea) decisive disconnection of HAL—cold, collected, and emotionless—echoing the ape-men's newfound barbarity four million years prior.
Kubrick, like many great artists, often took to examining humanity from the outside in, a quality that both fans and detractors have mistaken for outright cynicism. 2001 is an incontrovertible counterargument to such misanthropic claims, both celestial and appropriately humble in its framing of our existence against the reaches of space, the semi-detached tone critical to its aura. Though God is never invoked in the film (Kubrick himself was something of a spiritual secularist, unswayed by the notion of an anthropomorphic God), the unseen extraterrestrial forces—represented by the black, geometrical monoliths that appear at critical points throughout—represent the God concept manifest. As a metaphor, the monolith is many things: an evolutionary trigger, a burglar alarm set to notify our having reached the next stepping stone, a porthole that penetrates the very fabric of space and time. It is no coincidence that the towering figures bear the likeness of a doorway, in the final act sending human protagonist Dave beyond the infinite of space only to return him back to Earth, born again. The psychedelic sequence that accompanies the former is one of the preeminent accomplishments in all of film—a climactic, orgiastic sequence of alien landscapes, exploding nebulae, and wafting tides of organic space that practically leaps off the screen. Putting to shame the comparatively shallow thrills of virtually every blockbuster ever made, it may be the ultimate example of mind-blowing cinema; show us your O face, baby, and prepare to meet your maker.
This, however, is not until long after the film has lulled the subconscious into a state of deep tranquility—essentially, a return to nature, of inwardness and meditation unhindered by the distractions of the rat race. Detractors often cite the film's lack of dialogue as a source of extreme boredom, but it is through the film's silent, deliberate hypnosis that it achieves its ballet-like majesty, with every painterly image and effortless pan and cut communicating not only a necessary narrative/emotional cue, but the wordless beauty of mankind as a creative, conscious entity at work in the universe. This sense of awe is appropriately complemented by the marriage of Kubrick's work with that of composers past, the thunderous notes of "Also Spake Zarathustra" catapulting man into the cosmos only for Strauss's "The Blue Danube" to titillate his senses once there. The space-docking sequences employing the latter evoke a range of feeling far beyond the evocative ability of language's too-literal limitations, at once exhilarating and bemusing in their waltz-like bliss, while the repeated use of the former marks mankind's many ascensions throughout the film. Their rhapsody is apparent throughout the entirety of the film, as individual moments made eternal, as literature created in the flesh. The final passages are the most exultant in their taking us beyond ourselves into a wide-eyed state of untarnished possibilities; entirely without words, the film reminds us that, despite how far we've come, the real odyssey has only just begun.