You’ve probably seen it at some point or another, and you probably finished watching it with an incredibly puzzled look on your face and something along the lines of “What the hell was that all about?” I know I definitely did, but after a rewatching “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), a few more times, I’ve finally tapped into the genius of Kubrick. In this three part series, I’ll be analysing the three major chapters of the film, starting with “The Dawn of Man”. But just to make clear, this isn’t me trying to present my interpretation of the film as the holy grail to understanding 2001. This is me discussing the probable interpretations of the film and giving you the facilities to develop your own understanding of it. Lets go.
The film opens to a black screen that slowly fades out into the dawn of a new day on the African Savannah, sometime around the early Palaeolithic Era. The opening 10 or so minutes of the film is chaptered “The Dawn of Man”, so by opening the sequence as the dawn of the new day, Kubrick could be literally foreshadowing a historical mark in the evolutionary development of our prehistoric ancestors. Prehistoric man is exposed as a victim of the savage natural world in this sequence; they stay hunched over on all fours and huddle tightly together, as if at constant fear of a threat. Throughout the scene, panoramic shots capture the protohumans alongside the horizon and sky, which gives a realistic sense of the unprotected space and openness in which they live. They are entirely primitive in their actions and behaviours, and are presented as lacking any form of cognition that distinguishes them from the other inhabitants of the savannah. The protohumans live day to day; they are all but victims of their natural habitat.
However, this all changes with the arrival of the monolith. The monolith is a matte black rectangular slab that starkly contrasts with the neutral brown and tans that dominate the natural colour palette. On a side note, the monolith shares very similar colour tones to the black fur of the protohumans, but this could just be coincidence. The geometric perfection of the monolith, with its straight lines and right angled edges, combined with the lack of texture on its surfaces, draws complete attention to it. The monolith appears as the protohumans are asleep, and at the dawn of the next day, they form a circle around it, waving their arms and shrieking in a combination of fear and curiosity.
As the protohumans begin to settle down and examine the monolith more rationally, Kubrick switches to an extreme low angle shot of the monolith at its base looking to its top, where the sun can be seen partially obscuring the moon. The combination of clever camera angles to reveal the astronomical alignment of the monolith gives the structure a sense of physical and metaphorical enormity, that remains completely ambiguous to the audience.
The mystery surrounding the monolith carries over into the next scene, where the alpha male of the protohumans begins examining an animal carcass. Following a flashback to the astronomical alignment of the monolith, we see him stand up on his hind legs, pick up a bone and use it as a weapon to smash other bones. The importance of this discovery of weapons and tools is emphasised through the epic nature of the film’s soundtrack, which first begins to play as the alpha male looks over the pile of bones, and reaches its crescendo as he picks up a bone and smashes other bones with it. As the soundtrack approaches its climax, the action of the ape smashing the bone is captured in slow motion, adding another depth of significance to it.
The discovery of weapons enables the tribe to defeat the other group of apes occupying the water hole, to which we are treated to the famous graphic of the alpha male throwing the bone into the air, which seamlessly shifts into an orbiting spacecraft 4 million years later, implying that the discovery of the bone as a weapon inaugurated human evolution into the next stage of cognition.
This snapshot of evolutionary process portrays prehistoric man advancing to become an active and powerful element of his natural environment. Interestingly, the first tool used by the protohumans is a weapon to commit murder, and this presents us with one of the many challenging evolutionary and philosophical questions that the film poses. The tool’s link to the present 4 million years later is seamlessly captured in the graphic of a bone flying in the air, to an orbiting spacecraft. This could be Kubrick’s exploration of the fundamental attitudes that govern our thought processes: we are innately savage and emotional, and beneath the cover of all our technological, intellectual and scientific advancements, we are but products of a brutal natural world. Whilst this concept is not elaborated throughout the film, the likely explanation can be linked to the contextual importance of the Space Race to the production of the film. During the tumultuous period of the Cold War, the use of space technology in the plight of destruction and domination inspired a generation of neo-nihilist and existential thinkers who considered humanity to be innately destructive creatures, and this is an attitude that Kubrick may be referencing.
Whatever may be the reason for the link between the weapon and the future, we shouldn’t get carried away from what is probably the most important component to the scene. The epic transition in human evolution is apparently triggered by the monolith. In the space of one day, and coinciding alongside the arrival of the monolith, the protohumans go from being hunted, to being the hunters. We are immediately introduced to the concept that the monolith acts as a catalyst in the timeline of the human odyssey, something that is explored later on in the film.
But in my opinion, what makes the monolith so interesting, and what characterises the film as science fiction, is in the way Kubrick offers a radical insight into human evolution. The film seems to toss aside the natural, familiar process of natural selection over millions of years, and replaces it with the prospect that humans have some sort of extra-terrestrial guardian to artificially guide us through our stages of development. This has left room for many religious interpretations to the film. Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the script, offers the explanation of an alien race as our evolutionary guides, but it is Kubrick who remains more spiritual and ambiguous:
“Can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.” – Stanley Kubrick
Whatever the director intended, it is apparent that the sequence of events leading up to futuristic man are taken outside of normality, and indeed natural progression, and take on an air of ambiguity that is void of any verbal explanation. What we see is the limit of what we are able to understand. But this is perhaps one of the shining qualities of the film. There is no verbal road map that each viewer must feel obliged to follow or else fear he’s missed the point. Rather, the audience is free to speculate and project their own philosophical and allegorical interpretations onto the film.
The opening sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey concludes as a visual poem which tells a story about human evolution and steps taken to get there. The Dawn of Man is a testament to the genius of Kubrick, and cleverly sets up the film’s forthcoming narrative, to produce one of the greatest science fiction films ever.