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Act 1: The Dawn of Man

2001 starts with the "The Dawn of Man" sequence, where an alien monolith introduces tools to the ancestors of mankind.

The act takes place on earth in a desolate arid region (fig. 1). Neutral browns and tans dominate the color scheme, most of the shots are framed to give us a panoramic view of the world. They show the horizon and some of the sky, which emphasizes the large space that the man-apes live in, they are out in the open, without shelter and exposed.

The man-apes have black fur, which contrasts with the bright browns of the desert and the bright sky. Our attention and focus is drawn to them. Kubrick tries to maintain an asymmetrical balance by spreading the man-apes throughout each shot of the act. Asymmetrical balance is also used when the man-apes are shown huddled in their caves at night. Kubrick uses the implied lines from their eyes to make the viewer aware of the dangers they are afraid of. The man-apes are huddled close together in the small cave that makes them seem small in the world.

The monolith first appears among the man-apes while they are sleeping. When they notice it upon waking up, they form a circle around it, waving their arms at it and shouting (fig. 2). Kubrick frames each shot of the man-apes and the monolith so that the monolith stands at the center of the frame with the man-apes arranged around it. This is a good use of radial balance, and it serves to draw our attention to the monolith.

The monolith is a matte black rectangular slab that sits perfectly upright among the rocks, and Kubrick chooses camera angles that emphasize its height and vertical lines. As the scene progresses, the scene is framed so the top of the monolith is not visible above the top of the frame (fig. 3), so it looks as if the monolith extends all the way to the sky.

The monolith stands in harsh contrast to its surroundings. It is the only object in the scene made of straight lines and right angles, probably the only such object on the planet. This geometric perfection combined with the complete and utter lack of texture on its surfaces, and the apes circling it waving their arms makes it impossible to avoid making it the center of attention.

While the man-apes approach and examine the monolith, Kubrick changes camera angles again to a shot of the monolith from near its base looking to its top, where the sun can be seen partially obscured with the moon above it (fig. 4). This is the first shot where we get some idea of the width and thus the mass of the monolith. We see that the monolith is in fact about a third as wide as it is tall, compared to the man-apes, it is huge.

This shot is a beautiful example of using lines to direct the eye to a specific point. In this case the lines making the sides of the monolith, if they were extended would intersect on top of the moon in the sky. The implication is clear, this strange object has something to do with the moon.

After the mysterious encounter with the monolith, the man-apes are given the knowledge of tools. Using this knowledge they are able to feed themselves and protect themselves from enemies. Mankind is born.


Next: Act 2: From the Earth to the Moon Up: An Artistic Analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey Previous: An Artistic Analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Mike Akers 2000-11-10

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