For as long as people have made films, there has been a flood of great movies with awful titles (for example, The Shawshank Redemption and A Nightmare on Elm Street). That's what makes 2001: A Space Odyssey so special- its title is a powerful force of nature that inspires a sense of mystery and distinguishes its source material as a work of art. According to Wikipedia, "Intending to set the film apart from the standard "monsters and sex" type of science-fiction movies of the time, Kubrick used Homer's The Odyssey as inspiration for the title. "It occurred to us", he said, "that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation'". While this seems like a completely plausible explanation, I think there might be more to it than that.
To say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a repeat of Homer's Odyssey would be horribly wrong. There are many layers to 2001, and I could go on all day about how I think the Blue Danube spaceship landing scene is a heavily disguised sex scene, or how I think that Dave's battle with the HAL 9000 is intentionally orchestrated like a game of chess. But I think one of the most overlooked layers of this film is found in its parallels with the epic book which inspired its title.
A little known fact is that Homer's Odyssey begins in the middle of the story. The same could be said of 2001- a careful examiner will notice that the scenes with the apes (or, more accurately, unrealistic ape costumes) and the monolith are almost identical to the scenes with the astronauts and the monolith. While this might be done in part to display how little people have changed over years of evolution, I see it as entirely feasible that the ape scenes are simply a clever foreshadowing device, like Stuart Olman's narration of the Overlook's troubled past in The Shining.
Another similarity with the actual Odyssey might be found in the HAL 9000. In Homer's Odyssey, one of the obstacles standing between Odysseus and victory is the cyclops. In 2001, the cyclops might be the HAL 9000. The film has an extravagant number of shots of the HAL's red light bulb, indicating a feature similar to a human eye (some fans consider it an example of the famous "Kubrick Stare", a technique employed for photographing the head with menacing eyes pointed towards the ground, but the pupils leaning up over the camera.) Kubrick could have just as easily made the HAL 9000 look more like a human being to emphasize its humanity, but instead he makes it a one-eyed monster. Like Homer's cyclops, HAL is not inherently evil, it is just overwhelmed with its own emotion and forced by its own nature to battle with the protagonist in a game of wit.
Nobody understands the ending of 2001. I think that's sort of the point, because Kubrick realized that it is not the director, nor the screenwriter, nor even the producer of a film that has the bottom line on how it turns out- it is the viewer. This is why he never explicitly revealed the meaning of the ending, why his opinion on what happened is no more true than that of the audience. With that said, I think one of the most glorious layers of the ending might also draw a parallel to the Odyssey. At the end of Homer's book, Odysseus executes a clever, magical plan in order to regain his power in Ithaca after his epic journey. A fundamental part of his plan is to age into an old man to deceive the doofuses who ran Ithaca after he was presumed dead. This is exactly what Dave does after passing through the stargate (sort of). After a tumultuous journey through rough circumstances, Dave's mansion represents the first time that he sees signs of civilization after having been through the playground of physics.
This interpretation is not necessarily true- at least, not for everyone who's seen the film. But it is true for me, and that's why I decided to post this blog entry. It's completely possible, even likely, that these similarities are completely coincidental. It doesn't matter. The beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it is a pantheon of interpretations, none of which are inherently false.