The trailers for the upcoming movies have finished. The curtain closes. There is an air of anticipation resonating from the audience. There is hardly a sound. Then, the curtain rises again, you expectantly wait for the screen to begin revealing incredible imagery. Instead, the screen remains blank. You first hear a hum and soon, the hum becomes a mysterious blend of instruments - sounding somewhat classical, but with an electronic edge. Members of the audience begin to murmur as some aren't sure if the music is part of the film or not. Some even wonder if something is wrong with the projector as nothing is shown on the screen.
This is the very unique way 2001: A Space Odyssey begins, at least in a theater. The music is an excerpt from Ligeti's Atmosphere's. Kubrick chose to open this film way for several reasons:
It falls in with tradition as an MGM film. MGM films have overtures, typically an oil or watercolor painting shown on the screen with a montage of the films musical numbers playing. The oil painting dissolves into a live-action shot as the overture ends. Kubrick, while following the outline of this tradition, did it his way in keeping the screen blank.
It sets a perfect tone for what is to come. The dark screen and eerie music set up what is going to be an enigmatic storyline. The score consists of highs and lows that are doppler shifted. That is, it sounds like you are speeding along with landmarks whizzing by you. Thus, a journey or odyssey.
All is quiet again. The MGM logo appears, not as a moving, roaring lion, but as a still drawing. Kubrick refused to have the roaring lion interrupt his opening act. He convinced the studio executives to allow him this request. They conceded. After one or two more films (Ice Station Zebra and I'm not sure if there were any more), MGM went back to the roaring lion logo that all moviegoers are used to. A hum begins a few seconds later, then followed by the famous three notes that begin Thus Spake Zarathustra. Now we're seeing the alignment of three heavenly bodies as the sun peeks over the Earth with the Moon in the foreground. We're just getting started here and we are already experiencing many of the themes of the film.
The theme music Thus Spake Zarathustra (or Also Sprach Zarathustra) is fitting in more ways than one. It was written to tribute Friedrich Nietzsche's literary work of the same title. The work has to do with the stepping stones that mankind makes from ape or proto-man to the god-like overman. This, of course, is one of the main themes of 2001.
A common theme of 2001 is the exploration of God and who is behind the progression of mankind. Discussion 1 is that it is from an extra-terrestrial race that is very highly advanced. Discussion 2 is that God is behind this and the film is analogous to the Bible. Discussion 3 is that the extra-terrestrial race is so advanced that they became God and are helping the human race to follow the correct path to God. In this context, the Sun, Earth, and Moon could be representing the holy trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
See my previous article 3.
The imagery, starting with the far side of the Moon, indicates a point of view from someone or something visiting the Earth from outside. Is it extraterrestrials? Maybe it's God. Perhaps, since the end of the film shows the Starchild returning to Earth, maybe the film begins with the point of view of the Starchild, who then reflects on the entire history of the human race to show how he came to exist.
There is a minimum of titles. "MGM Presents" to "A Stanley Kubrick Production" to "2001: a Space Odyssey". Again, Kubrick broke some rules (George Lucas would follow suit 10 years later) and not inundate the audience with the names of actors, writers, and other production people in the title sequence. With the Sun now well above the crescent Earth and Moon, the music and picture fade.
I want to stress here that you have to experience this in a good theater. The overture and the visuals just don't have the same impact on the TV. In fact, when 2001 is shown on television, the station often omits the important overture.
We're only through the film's opening and we already have a lot to think about.
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