After a spectacular opening act, everything briefly goes dark and silent. We are greeted with a sunrise and an aptly named title “The Dawn of Man”. This is the first of three titles in the film. The titles also announce each part of the film.
We see barren landscapes. The only sounds are winds, adding to the whole feel of desolation. It’s all very eerie and you suddenly realize why. The images aren’t moving. The utter stillness even further adds to the whole tone of lifelessness. From the title, we can gather that we are witnessing Africa , roughly 4 million years ago. In fact, 4 million years will be mentioned specifically in the film later. It is a time where a species evolved from apes, but are no longer quite apes. After viewing dry riverbeds and dry bones, we finally see the man-apes gathered in a group, furiously digging in the hope of finding food. The imagery leading up to this scene is meant to set up just how harsh a landscape this is. The dry riverbed, perhaps, indicates that it may not have always been this way. Maybe, there was a climatic shift that eradicated most of the life here. The man-apes have survived this far but their future is precarious. There appears to be very little food and water. The man-apes are eating whatever they find in the ground whether it’s roots or insects. Even worse, they have to compete with other animals for the remnants of food, notably the pig-like tapirs that are around them. Suddenly, a leopard leaps upon one of them. The rest of the group frantically runs away, leaving their companion to serve as food for the predator.
The scene changes and we see our group slurping from a nearly dry watering hole. The water supply is as bad as the food. A rival band of man-apes comes and chases our group away, clearly before any of them had enough water to drink. There’s a lot of yelling, but no fighting. Energy must be conserved in such a harsh environment.
It’s dusk. The nocturnal animals are stirring. Meanwhile, our group of man-apes are gathered in their caves. They are huddled together to keep warm and to express their fear of the known and unknown terrors of the night. It will be a near sleepless night with all the danger about. So ends another long day in this fight for survival.
The man-apes are the proto-man or pre-man beings from Nietzsche. Kubrick intentionally shows how they differ from Man. They don’t hunt, they don’t fight, and they don’t defend one another. They are all slowly dying of starvation; yet, they don’t rise to the occasion in any way to combat this.
There are some similarities, though. The primal fear that is a constant motivating force behind them is an obvious trait that carries on to modern Man. Kubrick also shows a close-up of one of them. You can see his (her?) eyes and clearly, these eyes show fear and wonder which indicates intelligence. Kubrick was famous for his close-ups on human faces reacting to something.
Ironically, some critics of 2001 thought the “human eyes” in the man-ape were there because of poor makeup. No, these are not gorillas (and pleeeease don’t call them monkeys. Calling an ape a monkey is like calling an elephant a horse) and they are not supposed to look like gorillas and they don’t.
Notice how the man-apes are shown to eat, drink, and sleep. This pattern is somewhat repeated several times in the film. They are the predominant human activities.
The title “The Dawn of Man” certainly suggests that this sequence will indicate the arrival or “dawn” of the human race. Note that this has not yet occurred. As I stated above, these are not humans, they are a semi-intelligent race that is unable to adapt to environmental changes and is therefore, on the path to extinction.
It has been argued that the portrayal of man-apes (Australopithecus) is incorrectly done - notably, that the man-apes in such a desert environment would not be so hairy. Of course, Anthropology has, itself, evolved significantly since the mid-1960’s. It can be argued, though, that the very fact that the man-apes look out of place is precisely what was intended. It is clear that the landscape had changed and the man-apes once lived in a more suitable environment.
Kubrick sent photographer Andrew Birken to Africa to shoot the opening still shots. Whether it was intentional or not, the still shots, as opposed to motion footage, give the scenes an out of this world quality that works well here.
When the original screenplay and novel were written, current knowledge of that time placed the earliest ancestors of Man at 3 million years ago. During filming, Richard Leakey made discoveries placing Australopithecus at 4 million years ago. This accounts for a discrepancy between the novel and the film.
The glowing eyes in the leopard are reflections of studio lights. Since this created a desirable effect, the shot was used