AFI Top 100[Updated: 12.31.11]
This groundbreaking SciFi epic was the first to feature totally realistic space effects, and changed forever the way SF films looked. The story, by Arthur C. Clarke, was written for this film because Kubrick wanted to film his incredible novel A Childhood's End, which could not be filmed at the time with existing technology. That book, and this film, are about the next step in the evolution of mankind, from a material to a spiritual being. The previous step, from animal intelligence to human intelligence, is shown in the beginning to give us a major clue, so its surprising that so many people are still baffled by this movie, which has only 20 minutes of dialogue and encourages us to think - what a concept!
Kubrick's film would have been even better had he been able to get phenomena filmmaker Jordan Belson to work on it, but he refused to ever work on commercial films. Belson makes short animated films about things like the birth of a star, or motion through space. All his short films are in the permanent archives at the Museum of Modern Art, and are much better than anything put into commercial SF films. At film festivals, these short films of 3-8 minutes always get standing ovations. Kubrick did make planets and spaceships finally look realistic together, and forever changed the way science fiction films looked going forward. It would be another 10 yrs before Star Wars, but all the action adventure space films that followed looked the way they did because of 2001, so in that regard it was highly influential on the entire industry. Not exactly an exciting film, it was nevertheless a visionary film, and for its time, like nothing else that had ever been filmed.
The sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, attempts to explain the story further, a story which really needed no filmed postscript. That became more of an action film, with much more human interaction between Americans and Russian in a joint venture to activate the spaceship Discovery, and also check out Jupiter from closer range. Worth seeing, and well-done. Clarke himself wrote a third novel in the series as well, 2040, that has not yet been filmed, real SF fans should read the entire trilogy.
Ranked #1 at the Criterion networking film site, The Auteurs, with over 100,000 members.
Note: it's very similar to the parable of Jesus - it's about the birth of a spiritual being, not a corporal one. The awakening of one's spiritual self is a 'virgin birth' that doesn't involve procreation. In 2001, this is symbolized by the floating embryo at the end, a metaphor for the astronaut now being a spiritual being. In Clarke's novel Childhood's End, this happened to the entire race beginning with the current generation of children, so the adults were living out the last physical lives on earth, or the end of the childhood of mankind.