At first glance, the title 2001: A Space Odyssey reads like an expiration date of relevance. The year came and went without alien contact, and humans had been walking on the moon for well over thirty years. Sure, our space stations aren't the luxurious tourist traps we imagined they'd be, but we still have space stations.
So is this title past its prime, like milk with a sell-by date from last week, and you can't tell if that sour smell is your imagination or not but an Oreo sounds really, really good tonight?
The short answer is no. The longer answer goes something like this—
'Cause I'm the Space Wanderer
Let's start with the subtitle A Space Odyssey.
The Odyssey is an epic poem written between 800 and 600 BCE by the ancient Greek poet Homer. The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, a Greek warrior who got all turned around on his way home from the Trojan War. With the god Poseidon angrily tailgating his ship, Odysseus adventures his way across the Mediterranean, and after ten years he returns to his home in Ithaka and enrolls at Cornell. (Oh, sorry—wrong Ithaca.)
Today the poem is so revered that its title has entered the English language as a noun meaning "a long series of wanderings or adventures, especially when filled with notable experiences, hardships, etc." (Source).
It's easy to see why this film is called a "space odyssey." The film's characters are travelers, moving from the confines of our home planet, Earth, to the moon, then to Jupiter and beyond. During the journey, the characters must overcome hardships such as the murderous artificial intelligence HAL—which is represented by a single glowing orb that looks an awful lot like a certain one-eyed beastie from The Odyssey. Also like in The Odyssey, the character of Dave Bowman returns home to Earth after his journey has concluded.
The most interesting part of the subtitle, for us at least, is the article "a." If it were "the" space odyssey, it would be the definitive adventure. The one, the only. But the use of "a" suggests that this will be just one of many odysseys humanity will take, "merely one of the possible imaginative routes into the future" (Source).
Best If Used By
Let's get a common misunderstanding out of the way. The year 2000 was the first year of the 2000s, but it was not the first year of the 21st century or the 3rd millennium—despite how hard news-hungry anchors, party supply stores and Willennium tried to convince us otherwise in 1999. That honor goes to the year 2001.
Think about what humanity accomplished in the 20th century: computers, airplanes, the Internet, television, electrical lighting, atomic power, MTV. We even went to the moon and back for good measure. We learned about the inner workings of living bodies, discovered the evolutionary history of our planet, and unlocked many of the secrets of the universe through physics.
These facts make it a little easier to understand why the title 2001 remains relevant so many years after the year came and went. The title isn't about the year 2001 itself, but about what it represents: the start of a new millennium. Given what humanity has already learned and accomplished, what more can we do in the next thousand years? Will we discover extraterrestrial life? Will we travel farther in the solar system? Mars? Jupiter? Will we develop conscious machines that can be defined as intelligent and alive?
The movie's title is a giant "What if?" that isn't trying to answer the question so much as open the doors of speculation. It's one possible odyssey that humanity might take in this new millennium.