After analyzing the overall structure we can now begin to look at the movie in detail. This part of the series will analyze the first 16 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.

(Note: All images are copyright Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and used solely for the purpose of analyzing 2001)

(Another note: as stated in the introduction part of this series, this analysis will work almost solely on certain images or moments. Therefore it is written in a purely linear way, from the beginning of the movie to the end and might therefore be not the usual film analysis you find on the net)

The first part of the chapter “The Dawn of Man” can be seen as one of the most unusual beginning of a movie ever printed on film. Not only are we greeted with a bunch of apes after a wonderful tune of music, but also we hear no dialogue or anything that would describe what is happening on screen. Some might say this start is boring and useless but for the story of 2001 it is essential.

After the MGM logo disappears we are treated with the first moment of 2001:

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We see a view of space or, to be more precise, a view of earth, behind it the sun and partly covered by the moon. Now this first minute seemingly doesn’t need to be analyzed because this scene is the introduction of the movie and its title. But in fact it is more than that. If you know the ending, you can say that the beginning of 2001 we see is the point of view of the entity. This factor is being stressed by the music because it is the same we hear in the end, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. Therefore, the beginning we see is in fact the ending and all that follows afterwards in 2001 is the telling of everything up to this moment. And since the story began four million years ago, Stanley Kubrick takes us there. If you watch Horror Movies or Thriller you know this story device since it is used quite regularly in the industry although no one might ever have used such a “subtle” ending at the beginning. (Another note: 2001 might also be counted as one of the very few movies that span such a long timeframe for its telling)

After the title with its music we are taken right into the beginning of everything, or “The Dawn of Man”:

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Kubrick takes the title literally and shows us the dawn of a new day on earth that is to say a large unfriendly place on earth which might be located somewhere in Africa. The following shots enhance the feeling that we are in a dangerous and deserted place (quite the contrary to the mystical eden) as Kubrick shows some bones of animals and apes (which are not buried), before cutting to the actual apes:

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This sequence not only shows that the apes are not being feared by the tapirs (some of the apes are even being “ridiculed” by them) but it also introduces us to a very important motif we will encounter many times again for the rest of the movie: food and eating. As you can see, the apes are at the beginning of the journey by being shown eating plants, one might consider the most basic way of eating and surviving as it rather easy to pick them. Kubrick even goes one step further by contrasting the eating of the apes with the eating of carnivores: an ape is getting killed by a leopard.

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It is interesting to note that for this scene Kubrick managed to add a glow in the leopard’s eyes. This stresses the feeling that carnivores are dangerous, perhaps even demonic or supernatural for the apes, in every case more powerful. Moreover this scene introduces another important motif in 2001: Death and Killing. This is not only shown by the actual killing but also by the bones which are placed all over in this setting. The death motif here is shown in a rather “basic” form compared to the deaths in the later parts of the movie. This time it is “simply” a killing to eat and therefore to survive. But since the ape doesn’t yet understand this concept, the leopard gets this demonic appearance. This glow might also be some sort of hint Kubrick added for the audience regarding the later monolith. Since it cannot be fully comprehended by us, it might by some be (wrongly) interpreted in a supernatural way.

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Kubrick then cuts to a water hole, another occurrence of the food motif. The form of drinking we witness here is the most primitive one we see in 2001 and it also is the exact opposite to the form of drinking we will see at the end of the movie (also mirrored by the sets they happen in). Eating and drinking at the beginning and at the end therefore build a mirror or a bracket surrounding the whole movie.

And, at the water hole we for the first time hear some primitive form of communication between the apes. And, as it is later again picked up, they only communicate to mark the water as one’s own and to scare away other apes. This becomes more apparent as shortly afterwards a different group arrives at the water hole and scares “our” bunch away from it with movements that seem to be more some form of ritual.

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This moment during the fight is very interesting. As you can see, the “leader” of the other group jumps into the water. This moment can also be interpreted in that way that the apes have no feeling for their food and in fact walk over it. Again, compared to the celebration at the end of 2001 (and our more or less civilized today) this here is marks the opposite.

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This shot is quite enigmatic, being placed just before the night in the desert.

Since Stanley Kubrick could have used any animal here it is quite possible that he wanted to imply a certain color code. Because the soon to arrive monolith is completely black, the zebra could be a symbol for change or metamorphosis. In this sense, the color white would stand for stagnancy, perhaps even ignorance. In this sense, Stanley Kubrick reversed the usual color connotations (black being a symbol for evil/death).

The leopard on top of the zebra again wears the glowing eyes. This not only stresses the demonic appearance but also, because it is getting dark, might imply that hiding is useless as the leopard sees everything (which is stressed by the roars during the later night). On a more abstract level you could interpret this shot that way that a certain way of change or evolution is part of nature (the zebra), most often being triggered by the fight for life (the leopard). But this change has certain limits that cannot be overcome (or might not be fast enough). Because of those circumstances the monolith soon comes into play. (This assumption of the speed of change becomes much more important if we assume that those two groups of apes are the only living specimen of this kind. As the beginning implies at least one group – “our” group – might be close to extinction)

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After this night the monolith is standing right in front of the apes so it is impossible to overlook it. Although this moment is quite self-explanatory (fear becomes curiosity) it is nevertheless very important for the movie on an abstract level as Stanley Kubrick introduces us to another motif: the Contact with the Monolith.

This shot shows that after some seconds the whole group of apes is sitting right at the monolith and touches its surface extensively. In a way you can say that the “positive” charge of the black monolith is being transferred to the black apes as they and the monolith almost seem to become one single black mass.

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This is the last shot of the sequence in which the apes touch the monolith. This shot in itself is, from a pragmatic and physical standpoint, impossible for some reasons:

  1. Although it is not absolutely sure how much time passed from the shot with the apes it can be assumed that it is an immediate cut. And by comparing this shot with the one above you can see, that in the first one, the sun is not visible in the shot.
  2. The moon couldn’t be that visible if the sun is that close.
  3. The clouds on the right are lit from below.

It is quite impossible that the perfectionist Kubrick would have made such many mistakes in one shot, which means it was intended. As you can see, the perspective Kubrick chose implies an upward direction or a space oriented direction: the monolith opens the gate to evolution, and in the end space. Besides the upward direction the monolith moreover points at one direct position in space: the moon, which will be the next stop for man’s evolution. The “sun” we see here is most likely not the real one, but a metaphorical symbol for knowledge, intelligence or wisdom that “dawns” in the apes – a motif, used extensively in the first 16 minutes.Another interesting element at the end of this scene or moment is the strong cut used. From the eerie singing and the metaphorical charged imagery Kubrick smash cuts right away to a shot showing the silent desert: as fast as the monolith appeared it also disappeared as fast. Even more, the apes forgot it rather quickly after it went away.

The following moment marks the first step of the apes into a new kind of evolution and is another turning point of 2001:

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The ape not really invents something new, but more precisely finds a new way of using something he knows all day long (the bones are everywhere), triggered by the monolith which is shortly shown in this sequence. The ape “invents” a tool, the most important motif in 2001 which from now on is almost everywhere.

By using the color connotation mentioned above, the black ape (with a dawning intelligence) is beginning to use something negative (death – the bones of a tapir) for later positive (and negative) things. The ape gives the up to now useless thing a new meaning and new use. But the ape not only “invents” the tool, he immediately takes two more steps: he uses the bone/the tool to kill a tapir (the second step and a new occurrence of the killing/death-motif) so the group can eat meat (the third step).

Although one cannot say for sure that the apes were carnivores to begin with, Kubrick at least never hinted something like this (he rather showed the opposite as the tapirs had no fears and apes showed no signs of trying to kill them), which means, that the third step also was something new for them.

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After the first killing of a tapir everything has changed. As you can see, the ape again and again looks around him to see if any animal comes close to him to steal his food. Compared to the beginning, it is now quite the opposite as in this shot no animal is visible. This is later enhanced as the tapir keep some distance and no leopard is been seen again. They are gone. The apes have taken a big step forward which started to “alienate” them from the rest of nature.

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By looking at this shot (when our group wants to reclaim the water hole), one can see that, compared to the other apes in the back of the image doing their grunting ritual, the apes with the bones walk more upright and their movements are way more controlled and slower. Kubrick not only uses this to show the physical manifestation of evolution triggered by the monolith and the usage of tools, he also introduces another (minor) motif in 2001: walking, shown here in its first incarnation. The apes (in some sort the baby humans) learn the first steps of walking.

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This is another big moment of the first part of “The Dawn of Man”: an ape kills another one. What is interesting is the fact, that this killing is, at first, an accidental killing. If you watch this moment you can see that the other ape is charging in to the bone-wielder. The latter one seems surprised, frightened and immediately (and by instinct?) gives the fatal blow. Now the apes show a deeply human form of action: they follow the leader. Although unsure they do the same as him: they smash the dead body again and again. Kubrick here shows us that we humans still are apes in our most inner cores. Followers and cowards with no true form of communication, or communication downgraded to useless rituals. This moment therefore works on many levels. It is on the one hand a commentary to our current state of evolution and on the other hand a showing of the situation of the apes.

(And this leads me to a long side note and perhaps different commentary to this scene: Although it seems clear that the monolith disappeared before the killing, can we assume that the ones who placed it didn’t know of the situation? Kubrick clearly shows us the conflict at the water hole. And since he showed us it we can take it as an indicator that the entities knew of it, too. They must have had at least a feeling that this was going to happen, because otherwise I they would seem very naïve. But if we interpret the whole situation and this “political” setting that way, it means, that the statement Kubrick makes is rather “disillusioned”: conflict and death is part of the evolution of man. This is also indicated by the legendary match cut passing 4 million years of time, shortly after the killing. Kubrick cuts from a flying killing tool to a killing tool in the future.)

This killing moment shows also another occurrence of two motifs with a first shift: the tool and killing. The killing, up to now being used solely for the hunt for food, is now being used to kill of no higher reason or motivation. The tool also is now used outside of its normal usage of killing animals; it doesn’t completely serve man anymore. On the other hand, the tool doesn’t act on its own. But there is even more: one can say the bone wielders only could win against their opponents because of this tool. This also means that the apes and their survival are completely dependent of it from now on.

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The shot above marks one of the most iconic moments in film history. The bone is in this shot the first part of the match cut that sends us directly into space (whereas the screenshot is taken one or two frames before the cut). In this regard, the upward direction implied by the first half of the “bone flight” is like a sign the ape sends out into the world. What is now interesting is the fact, that Kubrick makes the cut when the bone is falling down again. So, in a way he contradicts the moment of glory by reminding us, that nothing can be “high” forever. He even goes further by cutting in exactly that moment, when the bone is in a downward angle (see screenshot). Since in the western world a lower left to upper right direction is considered development, future and so on, we can assume that this direction is the total opposite. Therefore this shot negates itself: the tool is the symbol for the first technological advancement, which is contradicted by the downward movement and direction. So in the end it is or was no real development we have witnessed.

With this shot ends the analysis of the first 16 minutes of 2001, a sequence unusual and enigmatic on almost every level. Kubrick here shows us his talent for storytelling, as he literally tells the beginning of everything. He doesn’t tell it through an archeologist or someone else, but he simply shows us. In that regard it is also intriguing that in this whole time not one word has been spoken (motif of communication) yet we fully understand the basic story on screen. Of course the understanding/interpretation is a completely different story as each one can interpret the metaphorical symbols in one’s own way. In the end this also means, that the interpretations of these image and shots are my own which you can fully discard if you like.

I hope you enjoyed my view of and on the first 16 minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. If you have some insights or want to comment on it feel free to do it.

The next part of this series will deal with the second part of “The Dawn of Man”: the story of Dr. Floyd and the monolith on the moon.

Overview:

Comments

  • WHAT A GREAT ANALYSIS!

    Check this website out:

    http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/

    It’s a brilliant Kubrick website full of such analysis and insights. You should send your article to the webmaster and ask him to host it. Looking forward to your PART 2 and 3.

  • Fran

    Wonderful job on describing that perticular scene. Stanley would of been very proud. =0). I always loved his way of art in his films, reason why he’s on top of my “movie directors” list. No one can do what he did, and sadly, all his secrets that will stay with him. All we can do it just speculate and wonder. But that’s the beauty of his ideas, he wants us to wonder and think. Not a lot of pple are doing that these days, that’s to the technology we have. There’s one question I would love to ask, where and how in the hell did he get those baby tapirs? Lol. Other than that, beautiful job u done. =0)

  • denniz

    The subject matter becomes even more complicated if one looks at the following argument. If the apes, primates, neanderthaler or whatever construction from the alphabet, if they developed an alphabet consisting of 26 letters, then why we can’t even add one ?

    This means we should look at nowadays principle resources that carry such elements that put our intelligence on the platform at least of a spicie that can’t come up with new letter. If the water (as one of those principle elementery resources) is poluted in such a way that it contributes to a bigger scale of such orchestrated events.
    The part of HALL can be seen as a combination of HAARP &THE BEAST.
    By nowadays conquest for weather controle so many regions of frequency’s have been altered aswell. Even up to our civilic envoirments where many reports occure involving psychomatic behaviour among the worlds population of which many researches point at the (armys) interest. Many people in the world are waking up just as HALL and its nowadays equivelent HAARPYBEAST.
    The placement of the monolite resambles the structure of monopoly by higher hiearcy and consciousness. Although we notice through television that there is a stock of (leaders) , we will definitly not know who they are in real life.

    We are paying all the time others and have to show detailed information, but if we evolved simultaniously, than why we have to pay all these taxes and identifications ? While in the first place we were all running together for free on this earth. We had the same hair, the same club, the same rituals, the same ..shame ?
    Lol. I don’t believe a crap out the evelution theoty accept this fact, that if we are not able to produce one of these days a 26 & 27 letter means were fac#et.

    • denniz

      * HAARPYBEAST TRYS TO PREVENT

  • hamid

    hi!
    can i have the video please?
    please send me the video or it’s address link please

  • I’ll note that Kubrick didn’t “manage” to put a glow in the leopard’s eyes… that was an unavoidable side effect of the front projection process by which the backgrounds for the “Dawn of Man” sequence were incorporated into the shots.

    Occasionally you see the tapir’s eyes light up in a similar manner.

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