The original theatrical screening of 2001 included a three-minute musical overture set against a blank screen. The music played during this prelude is Ligeti's Atmospheres, and its purpose is twofold. First, it is an eerie, unusual music that puts the audience into an expectant mood; the feeling is of something important about to happen. Atmospheres is repeated twice during the movie's running time, at certain key moments (the Intermission, and Dave Bowman's journey into the Unknown). The meaning of this music will become clear later in the film.
The tone of 2001 is set in the very first scene, before the opening credits themselves: Sunrise over the planet Earth. It's a breath-taking sight as the triumphant Also Sprach Zarathustra echoes through the heavens, the Moon moves away and the Sun rises in its dazzling brightness across the face of the Earth. This planetary alignment has always been significant to Man, and Kubrick makes the most of it here. "The mystical alignment of the Sun, the Moon, and Earth, or of Jupiter and its moons, was used throughout the film as a premonitory image of a leap forward to the unknown," he says. The image is repeated several times throughout the movie, to signify an important event in human history.
Filmguide to 2001 offers an additional explanation of this scene that makes sense: it may be the point-of-view of the Aliens themselves. Travelling through our Solar System, they come across a bright little planet teeming with life – and this is what they have been looking for. There may be other possibilities, including one theory that says that the open credits are, in fact, the same scene that takes place at the very END of the movie. This view of the Earth could be the point-of-view of the Star Child himself, and we are seeing the world through his eyes. If this is so, then the entire movie becomes a flashback, finally ending with this exact same moment - and the same music, as the movie also ends with Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Daylight. The sun rises upon a vast desert, and with the credits we realize that this is the prehistoric era. It is the African landscape, and the land is in the midst of a drought - this becomes obvious when, in one scene, we see a pile of bleached bones on the ground. Some of those bones look like humanoid skulls - and that is exactly what they are.
The man-apes appear. They are our ancestors, and at first glance it's hard to believe that these creatures will one day evolve into the masters of the planet. In fact, the man-apes are not surviving. They're foraging for plants and bugs; they're scavengers, and they're not having much luck finding things to eat. Furthermore, they're obviously not very dangerous, for a group of tapirs is competing with them for the same food. They cannot even scare the animals away.
Their number is diminishing. As a leopard pounces upon one of the man-apes, the others flee in terror; they cannot defend their comrade, and they have no desire to anyways. In the harsh world of this prehistoric era, every creature must fend for himself, and he cannot grieve for anyone else. Besides, the man-apes are too weak from hunger to properly defend themselves.
These man-apes are not the only ones in the vicinity, however. As they are drinking from a pool of muddy water, another group of humanoids comes upon the scene. But the man-apes lack the strength and the natural weapons to defend their territory, and they are driven away by the intruders. They are not surviving, and it is obvious that they will die soon.
The novel 2001 states that one of the apes is called Moon-Watcher. This name is not important to the story, but it helps to identify the chief man-ape as the central figure here. It is he who will be the subject of the great experiment. The first signs of intelligence are appearing in him, but they may not be there for long - for Moon-Watcher, like the rest of his tribe, is starving to death.
That night, the man-apes huddle together under a big outcropping of rock. This is the best protection they have against the terrors of the night. But this night is different from many others. There is something else out there, something that even makes the great predators and hunters nervous. A leopard glances up from its kill, its eyes glowing in the dusk sky. (The glow of the cat's eyes was a lucky accident during the filming of the movie.) Other animals, normally silent, growl and roar as fear overcomes them. The man-apes sense this, and Moon-Watcher growls as well - though in his case, it is merely a gesture to show the world that he is not afraid, when inside he is just as scared as his fellow man-apes. In a close-up of his face, we see eyes that are definitely human - the same curious eyes that Moon-Watcher's descendants will have, four million years later.
The night falls.
As dawn brightens the sky, the great event takes place. The eerie strains of Gygory Legeti's unearthly Requiem resound, and the man-apes awaken. A look of outright terror appears on their faces. Something is wrong; they see something that strikes them dumb with fright.
Then the camera pulls back, and the Monolith appears.
The appearance of something so artificial, so PERFECT, in the prehistoric era of the man-apes is one of the greatest shocks of the entire film. This Thing has appeared, as if from nowhere. The man- apes flee in terror from it at first, but their curiosity overcomes them and they slowly approach it. It is Moon-Watcher who first performs the act that will be repeated twice later in the film: He reaches out to touch the Monolith.
There is something mystical and emotional about this scene: the man-apes, almost childlike in their innocence, running their hands over the smooth surface of the Monolith. They do not know where it has come from, nor can they comprehend the beings responsible for intruding upon their world in this manner. They only know that this is something new, and their curiosity is compelling them to find out what this new thing is. It's as if they have received a gift from the gods.
In fact, this is precisely what has happened.
Stanley Kubrick chose the rectangular form of the Monolith because of its simplicity and its perfection. There is no question upon viewing the Monolith that it is artificial – it is the work of an intelligent mind. Its simple shape is likewise impressive, as it towers over to the man-apes, silently looking down upon them (and upon the audience, as well). Indeed, as the weird music reaches its peak, the "magical" alignment occurs once again: the Sun and the Moon in the sky together, rising over the silhouette of the ominous ebon form.
But at this point the scene suddenly changes, and the normal routine of life takes over once again. In the harsh world of the man- apes, the Monolith is quickly accepted as a part of the surroundings; they no longer pay attention to it. To quote the novel: "They could not eat it, and it could not eat them; therefore it was not important."
The man-apes continue their desparate search for food, as the Monolith silently observes them. They forage among the rocks and the stones, and they pick through the skeletal remains of other animals, whose bones have long since been picked clean and dried out by long exposure to the Sun.
Then something new takes place. For the first time, Moon-Watcher looks at the bleached bones with curiosity. With a faltering, hesitant grip, the man-ape takes one of the bones in his hand. He has obviously never done this before, as evidenced by his clumsy moves. But slowly, his grip on the bone tightens, and as the triumphant chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra sound, as if from the heavens themselves, Moon-watcher acquires that one trait that puts him above all the other creatures of the world: He takes the bone and uses it as a weapon, gleefully smashing the animal skeleton to pieces. An image of a falling tapir also flashes across the screen: This man-ape knows that what he is doing to these bones can also be done to live animals - and he has found a new source of food! The Moon-Watcher has taken the first step down the long road to Mankind.
One point in this scene is vital to the story of 2001: Of all the man-apes in all the world, it would be Moon-Watcher who, at this particular moment, first discovers the use of this tool to get food. It is no coincidence that he was in the shadow of the Monolith when this historic event took place. Furthermore, as Moon-Watcher was eyeing the dried bones, there was a single, abrupt flash back to the image of the Monolith. The fact that the man-apes discovered tools when the Monolith was present is not a coincidence: the idea was planted in their minds by the Monolith itself. It was the Monolith, and the Aliens who made it, who gave the use of tools to the man-apes, and the camera's focus on the Monolith and Moon-Watcher serves to associates the two eith each other. At this time, the tribe was starving – indeed, it might have died out completely within the next year or so. But now the man-apes have been given a gift; this gift would ensure their survival for the next four million years.
The next scene shows that the man-apes have put their new tools to good use, and that they have taken another step toward survival: they are no longer groping and scratching among the rocks for plants and little bits of food. They're eating meat. They've seen the potential food supply that could easily last for the rest of their lives; and so, in order to survive, the hunted have become the hunters. They have made their first kills, and with this new supply of food, the man-apes find themselves growing stronger. They are no longer weak with hunger - and now that they have the time and the energy to make their world a better place to live, they can at last overcome the obstacles threatening their survival. Through the use of tools, the man-apes can become the masters of the world.
As they are filling their bellies, the man-apes are oblivious to the other major change that has taken place. The camera pulls back and we realize with a shock what has happened.
As suddenly as it came, the Monolith has disappeared. Its purpose has been fulfilled.
Now once again, we are at the drinking pool. And once again, the other tribe is there, making their threats, trying to keep their rivals away from the water. But something has changed, as one group of man-apes - Moon-Watcher's tribe - is now carrying bone tools and weapons. The other tribe does not notice this, for they have not made the great intuitive leap that was needed to use tools. They merely think that the intruders are back, to be driven away again. So one of the Others (as the novel calls them) crosses the stream - and Moon- Watcher strikes him down with his bone club. Because Moon-Watcher's hunting skills are still minimal, he hits his foe again and again to make sure he is dead. The other members of the tribe join him in the brutal murder.
The Others are frightened out of their wits - something like this has never happened before! They flee in terror, and they are pursued by the fierce roar of Moon-Watcher and the other man-apes. If they ever come back to this water again, they will surely be killed.
Moon-Watcher has indeed become, as the novel states, "master of the world." He has conquered his enemies, and he is the lord of all he sees. In triumph, he throws his weapon into the air…
…where it suddenly becomes an orbiting satellite. In one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history, the story has shifted forward four million years, to the year 2001 AD.
There is a great deal of symbolism in the scene of Moon-watcher and the man-apes conquering the Others. Among other things, it can be noted that:
- The man-apes were given the use of tools by the Monolith, but they learn to kill other man-apes AFTER the Monolith has disappeared. Murder, apparently, is entirely a human invention.
- The tool that the man-apes use to survive becomes a weapon of destruction. The new tools that the man-apes have gained are useful - they have saved the man-apes' lives - but they are also dangerous. Man's tools are always as much of a threat to him as they are a benefit, and this two-edged sword has never dulled, even after four million years of history.
The Making Of Kubrick's 2001 states that the first satellite to appear in the film is, in fact, a satellite carrying nuclear weapons. Man's desire to kill other men has not diminished in four million years, and it can even be said that the simple weapons of the man-apes have evolved, like Man himself, into the complex weapons of the year 2001. The sudden switch from bone to satellite shows how the two are actually very similar to each other in purpose: they kill.
As the novel states: "Man had been re-made by his own tools." Man has come to depend on his tools so completely that he is a slave to them. Without his tools, Man would not have survived, four million years ago. Even today, Man needs tools to continue his existence - but those tools threaten to destroy Man as well. This is one of the central themes of 2001: Is Man stronger than his own tools, or are the tools really the masters? The answer to this question lies further ahead in the movie.