2001 was released in the tumultuous spring of 1968, at the same time that Americans were reeling from President Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not seek reelection and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It might seem odd that so many people would get so excited about a science fiction movie in the midst of urban race riots and campus protests against the Vietnam War, but to many, 2001 had far greater importance than its sci-fi trappings. Baffling early audiences with its non-traditional structure, theme, and presentation, the film was soon embraced by many members of a younger generation entranced by its consciousness-raising message and its psychedelic special effects. Over the next 30 years, the film would not only become a part of American culture, but would eventually be hailed as a masterpiece of modern cinema. An examination of 2001's appeal over the last three decades provides insight into the changing perceptions of a single cultural document over time.
Young Baby Boomers were initially attracted to the film for very different reasons than those of audiences in the 1990 s. Because 2001 is unlike many other films in that it invites its viewers to apply their own subjective interpretations, it serves particularly well as a signpost for contemporary social attitudes and trends. By examining the different ways that 2001 has been interpreted by its audience over that time, it reveals a great deal about evolving cultural attitudes toward issues such as technology, spirituality, and the commercialization of American society. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the third biggest box office hit of 1968 (after Mike Nichols' The Graduate and William Wyler's Funny Girl) and, upon the completion of its initial theatrical run, was one of the top twenty grossing movies of all time.  Over the next 30 years it would go on to gross over $56. 7 million in the United States and $190.
7 million worldwide.  Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's companion novel of the same name has sold over four million copies worldwide,  and his three follow-up novels to the story have all spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. One of these sequels was turned into a moderately successful film, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, released nearly 15 years after 2001. Audiences, critics, and filmmakers consistently rank the film among the 100 best ever made. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert has stated that if asked which films would still be familiar to audiences 200 years from now, he would select 2001, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Star Wars as his first choices.
Like other popular works of science fiction, such as Star Trek and the Star Wars movie trilogy, 2001 is constantly referenced in popular culture. Films as diverse as Woody Allen's Sleeper and Jan DeBont's Speed have featured homages to 2001. The film's theme music, taken from Richard Strauss' Also Sprache Zarathustra, has been heard everywhere from the opening notes of Elvis Presley's 1970 s Las Vegas lounge act to car commercials. Music videos have featured costumes and sets directly inspired by the film. Dozens of fan Web sites exist on the Internet, where the film's enthusiasts present and debate their differing theories about its meaning.
Why is 2001 still so popular after so long? Its box office success alone is insufficient to explain why there are so many 2001 fans, many of whom were not even born when the film was released. Neither does its status as a science fiction film guarantee a continuing audience of sci-fi "groupies" - many other science fiction movies that enjoyed success on their initial run have failed to maintain their popularity. The key to 2001's appeal lies in examining how the film has been interpreted, defined, and redefined over the past three decades. Because 2001, unlike most films, can be said to have a fluid meaning, different audiences have applied their own subjective interpretations to it.
In addition, 2001's two primary authors have over the years actively continued to indoctrinate audiences with their own differing interpretations. By placing these interpretations in the context of the different times in which they were made, the answers to how and why 2001 has become a part of our mass cultural consciousness become clearer.