Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey begins in a visual void, with a dissonant chorus ringing out from behind it. Due both to the lack of visual narrative and the unclear direction of the music, the audience is left stranded, inchoate between a world of distinct absence and a world of reprehensible presence. We essentially occupy the same position that Earth will in the next sequence, the first post-overture sequence of the film.
Here, we have a second visual absence, which is notably shaped by palpable musical direction. In fact, it could be said that this music (“Thus Spake Zarathustra”) wields as shapely of a narrative arc as possible: it projects into the impossibly distant future. And then we are delivered our first non-black image of the film: the dark side of the moon.
In a race of epic proportions, the Earth and the Sun both emerge from behind the moon within mere seconds. Here, we rush through darkness, across void and towards light, embodying what looks something like the beginning of existence itself.
As alluded to earlier, Earth is stuck (as the audience was) between a dominant incomprehensibility and the faith in a comprehensible future here represented by utter pitch-black darkness and the glimmering cusp of light pealing across the Earth’s surface. Musically, we can say that the crescendo suggests building motion, and coupled with the music’s warm tonality, we are inclined to believe in the possibility of life, which we must take as essentially related to the sun. In other words, we believe in the strength of the sun, and in its capacity to propel the narrative (and mankind) forward into logic and into existence. If we can agree that the initial overture essentially represents interpretive incoherence, than this becomes also a comforting proposition for readers, given that it suggests the victory of the coherence over incoherence of the text.
As we push onward, the moon falls away. This resonates with our last impression of the music: namely, that there is more screen-space for light, for interpretive possibility. But then something interesting happens. The Sun, too, pulls away from the Earth, perhaps providing us with Earth’s true predicament: utter separation, isolation and confusion. In this moment, are we lost? Or have we outgrown something which we’ve previously believe necessary to our existence? Certainly, as a symbolic gesture, it can be interpreted any number of ways.
Next, we are delivered to Earth’s surface where we witness the true “dawn” in the dawn of man.
But, just as in the beginning of the film, we are introduced to death (codified through blackness, incoherence) before life. The skull of a dead boar greets us in the foreground before we acquaint ourselves with the silhouettes of man.
As photographers will note, silhouette is also known as “contre-jour” which is helpful simply insofar as it elaborates the metaphor that is being literalized here: man is in the domain of the shadow, the “anti-day” and, as we’ve maintained, incoherence.
With the arrival of the monolith, we see the “darkness” thrust into the light. But instead of curing us of our fears, it seems to catalyze them. Viewers of film noir will recognize this discursive move as similar to the one had by “neo-noir”: that is, the shadow is no longer necessary to preserving darkness. In fact, there remains something unspeakably powerful about the way in which darkness exists when devoid of shadow. All of this is present in the introduction to the monolith at the dawn of the second day.
Much can be said about this moment and about its transformational effects on the humanoids, but, for our purposes, there is one shot in particular that seems particularly important in the context of the cosmic forward. It is an inversion, of sorts, where the monolith takes the place of the darkened moon, the sun peals across it, and the crescent moon shines on the other side of the moon.
Whereas before it was plainly evident that the light was in the process of overcoming the darkness, here we see the darkness in the composition not only as dominant, but as sort of omnipresent. Further interesting is that is seems to have been split in two: the textured rock of the moon is now encoded in the drifting clouds whereas the “pure” black is now located in the monolith. What’s more, whereas the Earth glowed as a result of the former shot and the camera tracked up to see the sun’s brilliant dominance, here the camera is static and the sun seems to be the one stuck in-between, as though it were being crushed by the moon and the monolith. We remember, too, that we’re located on Earth, such that what we thought what was perhaps “able to be changed for the better” is in fact exerting an equal and opposite active resistance against the sun’s benevolent imposition.