The science-fiction genre was introduced in the silent era and gradually, advanced technology was rising. The most highlighted landmark of science fiction films which bridged the gap between classic and modern cinema was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the majority of this film, Kubrick used technological methods and created symbolic meanings about formations of life. This essay will analyze the opening credits, ‘The Dawn Of Man’ chapter and what themes and motifs they represent through mise-en-scéne, cinematography, editing and sound.
In the film’s first shot, Kubrick introduces a geometric alignment of the Moon, Earth and Sun, a technique he used many times in his films, which suggests that he is providing a preview of the entire film’s upcoming journey. Furthermore, the glistening stars in the background also suggest that the audience could venture beyond any of the other celestial figures on the screen. The powerful music within this opening shot immediately prepares the audience for an epic adventure.
‘The Dawn Of Man’ is based in a prehistoric setting and the most important theme of this chapter is nature. We see this through a slideshow of the horizon followed by land from the Earth. At a beautifully slow pace, Kubrick expresses these two stages of nature before introducing how humans became evolved species. We see mixed colours through cinematography to give it a natural effect. On the other hand, the shots of land are staged in altered settings within different time zones, which express the Earth as a large world. With no characters and dialogue, the non-diegetic sound of birds chirping is another representation of nature. However, birds were never seen in this chapter but still created a natural atmosphere. The slideshow of landscape shots concludes where the slow camera movement points the audience in an unknown direction.
After the anonymous position the audience have been placed in, the visible difference in the next shot is the deserted skull of an Elephant-like breed. The chapter is ‘The Dawn Of Man’ and when the audience see this, it suggests that these apes who have yet to be seen could be a dominant force. However, in the following shot a full-body ape skeleton is seen, which indicates to the audience that a force even more threatening could jeopardize the symbolic meaning of the entire chapter.
When seeing the apes for the first time, they are shadowed figures. For a film made in the mid-1960s make-up and costume design was not advanced like today. Therefore, providing exact replicas of apes through costume and make-up was very difficult. Nevertheless, one of the themes in this opening chapter is nature and costumes were designed for the apes to physically relate to humans. In another series of shots, Kubrick creates a natural wildlife atmosphere between apes and tapirs, where both species are herbivores that live off the low supply of plants. Although at times these apes are overprotecting their food, they appear sensitive that lack the intelligence to hunt, fight or even defend themselves against predators.
Shortly afterwards, one of the apes is attacked by a leopard. Likewise in previous shots, this ape is seeking herbivorous food further away from the others, which directs him as the key focus. Out of nowhere, a leopard attacks whilst the other apes flee. Audiences do not see the exact fate of this ape victim, but it can assume that this leopard is going to eat it through echoed screeching sound and the leopard’s roaring after the screen cuts to black. In an unusual move, Kubrick includes a glow within this leopard’s eyes. This symbolizes carnivores and the power that they unleash upon their prey. The glowing eyes could be presenting to viewers of a forthcoming supernatural event.
After this attack, audiences see the first sign of humanity within these apes. Kubrick introduces another tribe who are drinking nearby a waterhole as well as searching for herbivorous food. The waterhole becomes as an important prop. It is presented as an essence of nature that becomes threatened by two groups clashing against each other. The first tribe were thirsty and sensitive whereas the confrontive clan wanted domination, especially after the leopard’s attack. As a result of this, a shouting match between the two tribes occurred. These noises are forms of argumentative dialogue and were presented in different audible sounds. All apes were incoherently yelling at each other through a powerful tone similar to a dog’s bark and screeches which suggests emotional discomfort. In addition, their body language helped us read what they are doing. After taking over the waterhole, one of the apes looks directly towards the camera and growls, which hints a sign of intelligence.
The death of a member causes great vulnerability among the apes. Their figural expressions and their hiding place inside a small cave indicate that they are vulnerable. We see this through the use of the colour blue in the cinematography. It casts a bleak, sad reflection on the land whereas the different shades of the colour in the sky create a bizarre atmosphere. Naturally, the sky circulates around the entire area yet the shades unusually only shine on the central piece of land – the apes’ hiding place. This suggests that the reflection from the sky is a force beyond the Earth that could appear and alter the current disheartening mood of the film.
2001: A Space Odyssey consists of many props but arguably the most symbolic of them all is the monolith. It is introduced shortly after the film had created a sad, gloomy mood but prior to this, the same group of vulnerable apes are sleeping. However, when one of them awakes, possibly the next morning, it witnesses the monolith. Through its fixed eye contact, figure expressions and slow build-up of diagetic sound, this ape’s response indicates fear yet at the same time, curiosity. Therefore, this creates an atmosphere of mystery and perhaps suspense.
The music in this incident is about as mysterious as the general scene structure. When the audience eventually witness the monolith through a wide shot, Kubrick reveals that this is the mysterious force from the sky, which the reflection in the gloomy wide shot suggested. In addition, the monolith is arguably the central source that holds everything together in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it is introduced in ‘The Dawn Of Man’ sequence, it creates a meaningful, symbolic purpose as it teaches these apes what they need to know in order to survive. The apes eventually gather and touch the monolith, which hints another sign of intelligence. The monolith additionally represents the end of one era but the birth of another in this chapter. In that sense, it appears again in each of the remaining chapters and serves as a crucial prop.
After encounting the monolith, the film goes back to square one with natural landscapes, birds chirping and apes searching for herbivorous food. However, one of the apes forms an idea to use a bone as a weapon. From this point until the end of ‘The Dawn Of Man’ sequence, Kubrick uses some interesting methods of editing. When this ape, known in the novel as Moon-Watcher, looks at the skeleton the shot cuts to the upward angle from the monolith to the horizon, which evidently shows the audience that this is what he is thinking about. At this point, he has become the central character.
Furthermore, when Moon-Watcher smashes the skull with the bone, it cuts to a shot of a defeated tapir. This method of editing not only becomes an insight to Moon-Watcher’s thoughts but suggests a flash-forward of mankind’s predatory instincts. In addition, the continuous quick-cuts of the crushed skeleton and another take of a beaten tapir is to illustrate the dominance that the apes have restored. The music flows with a sense of power in this incident and because it is exactly the same from the very first shot, the music indicates a connection between the outskirts of space and this breakthrough of human evolution. As a result of this, these apes are next seen as a species of newly-developed intelligence as well as carnivores. Similar to the shots featuring apes eating plants, Kubrick presents another slideshow of them consuming meat, which symbolizes their dietary change.
Another confrontation between two groups occur at the same waterhole as previously seen. However, in this incident one ape kills another with a bone which signifies the ugliness of modern humanity. At this point, ‘The Dawn Of Man’ chapter reaches its peak and the journey to the next segment is through a match-cut in arguably the most iconic editing sequence in film history. As a sign of victory, an ape throws a bone into the air after which the audience are directly sent to an orbiting nuclear satellite in outer space, transitioning millions of years in the future. Whilst in midair, the bone illustrates mankind’s next step after the breakthrough and the satellite is the futuristic outcome. These props mutually symbolize technological advancements in different time settings with the bone aiding as a tool and the satellite serving as an even stronger one.
The opening sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey concluded as a visual poem which tells a story about human evolution and the steps taken to get there. The mise-en-scéne and cinematography provided both a natural and unusual touch, the editing gave the audience an in-sight to the ancestral species of mankind and sound effects created moods within the audience. Nevertheless, these techniques along with their represented themes set up the film’s forthcoming narrative and, thus, resulted in one of the greatest science-fiction films ever.