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It's a movie geek's film to watch and to enjoy. But when I reached the end, I had no idea what to take from it.

Some of the ideas are amazing, the visuals, and the lines (I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that) are brilliant. But why is it considered such a great film, while at the same time having no defined meaning or interpretation?

As discussed on Wikipedia, Kubrick stated:

You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point.

And Clarke:

I still stand by this remark, which does not mean one can't enjoy the movie completely the first time around. What I meant was, of course, that because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man's comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in "2001", and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simpleminded critics to the contrary.

Freeman Dyson urged:

"After seeing Space Odyssey, I read Arthur Clarke's book. I found the book gripping and intellectually satisfying, full of the tension and clarity which the movie lacks. All the parts of the movie that are vague and unintelligible, especially the beginning and the end, become clear and convincing in the book. So I recommend to my middle-aged friends who find the movie bewildering that they should read the book; their teenage kids don't need to."

So is it a case of just having to read the book to 'get it'?

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I experienced the same as Freeman Dyson. I only understood (and appreciated) the movie after reading the book –  a_horse_with_no_name Dec 5 '13 at 20:47
The only printed, detailed explanation to the end of this film is located in Marcellus Wallace's Briefcase with "One other thing" –  Andrei Freeman Dec 7 '13 at 1:21

5 Answers 5

Book ending explanation:

In the book, the moon was a portal which lead to a series of more portals. A giant intergalactic highway. The space ship, lacking fuel, ended up colliding with a star, presumably killing Dave. He then wakes up in the white room, as seen in the movie, and becomes a "star-child". The reader now understands that the obelisks were placed by supreme "aliens," the same who were behind the white room and the portals.

The movie is faithful to the book, although it intentionally lacks narration explaining what's going on. Unlike the book, the movie is an allegory to a number of things, and shouldn't be interpreted as being simply an adaptation of the book, but much more. It's an artistic approach to a scientific novel.

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Actually, the movie is not an adaptation of the book at all, they were created concurrently and the book was published after the movie release. –  Mormegil Dec 18 '11 at 16:13

To me the brilliance of 2001 lies in that it's a perfect storm of brilliant individual parts. It has jaw-dropping cinematography and SFX (that holds its own even in this CGI rich era), an iconic soundtrack, amazing writing (HAL remains one of the most chilling adversaries in movie history), and an intentionally ambiguous ending.

When you finish watching 2001 you are left with more questions that answers. Now, if you read up on anything related to the greater cosmos around us you'll get the same feeling of delicious bewilderment. That is part of the message of 2001 (the book or the movie); mankind as a tiny insignificant speck trying to find its place in a vast universe it can't begin to fully comprehend.

You don't need to read the book (although I do recommend that you do) to enjoy the movie on its own merits, as there isn't any truly "canonical" explanation to the events of the movie. You're supposed to feel lost at the end. Which, in my opinion, the movie does better than the book.

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I have to say the book was pretty dull and one of the few movie treatments, where the movie is superior to the book, also worth stressing as it has been done elsewhere that the book was published after the film so some things are not quite the same. The book explains the ending better than the film but is a far less satisfactory experience. For me the movie is pure cinema magic, no one now would attempt to make a movie like this, expensive SFX, little action, heavy science, no talking, abstract ending, real genuine piece of art in my opinion. –  EdChum Mar 14 '12 at 21:06
@EdChum +1 - felt exactly the same, word for word. –  fableal Apr 29 '13 at 12:45

Like your second paragraph and your quote of Kubrick's own statement kind of answer the question already: there is explanation nor meaning for the movie. That is intended.

You just may or must make up your own.

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There was actually originally supposed to be a voice-over in the ending, and for unknown reasons it was cut. The original script can be viewed here. Hopefully that helps you align the meaning of the visuals with the narrative in the book and in your mind.

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I always thought that the ending of 2001 was open in the following sense.

The film narrates of two main steps in human evolution, both triggered by alien intervention using the monolith as an inductive device.

The first occured in the far past, where ape-like creatures were tranformed in homo sapiens through an enhancement of their intelligence.

We have to expect that a similar enhancement characterizes the second step, located in the near future of the year 2001, when the dying body of David Bowman is transformed into a newborn.

Now, the first act of the first creature with the intelligence of a homo sapiens was to concieve a new powerful weapon and eventually use it against other, formerly equal, men to his own advantage. All human technology (that's underlined by the famous bone-to-starship jump sequence) derives from that first killing tool.

So, what will be the first act of the newborn starchild who is already so powerful to be able to return to Earth almost instantly? What will be his (?) feelings for the humans on Earth?

The viewer is left to ponder.

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