Thursday, September 14, 2006

Something New (Film Synopsis Part 2)

The Story

For the third time, there is a sunrise. This time, we aren't viewing the celestial bodies. Instead, the focus is on the awakening man-apes in the caves. Something has obviously gotten their attention. They are stirred up - growling and staring at something. We hear a choir of voices chanting. Finally, it is revealed. Sitting in front of the caves is a rectangular block. Sharp-edged and jet-black, this "monolith" just seems so weird and out of place. It contrasts the natural landscape around it. The man-apes have never seen anything remotely like it. Their curiosity finally overcomes their initial fear and they approach it slowly. They surround it and eventually one of them dares to touch it. The choir voices raise and eventually, all the man-apes in the group have surrounded the monolith and are reaching out and touching it. It's smooth stone or metal (you can't tell) must feel as alien to them as its appearance does. Just as the chorus peaks, we witness a new point of view, an alignment of the monolith, the Sun, and the Moon.

In Kubrick style, the scene, including the music, suddenly ends abruptly. We are again seeing the man-apes and the harsh landscape. Everything is back to normal. The morning incident seems to have been forgotten. We focus on one particular man-ape as he furiously digs in the never-ending quest for nourishment. Something grabs his attention. He looks up. We get a repeated glimpse of the shot of the monolith, Sun, and Moon. The hominid grabs a large bone and begins pounding the ground and other bones around him. We once again, hear Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra. At first, the man-ape seems confused as to why is he doing this. As he strikes the other bones, causing them to break and go flying, the man-ape gets more enthusiastic and his motions become more purposeful. He gets the point! The bone in his hand increases his power. With this first tool, he can kill tapirs. He and his cavemates suddenly have a new source of food.

For the third time, we start off a scene with the desert landscape. This time, we only see a solitary man-ape eating. He is not digging in the ground for roots and insects, he is eating fresh (tapir?) meat. We then see the clan in small groups all eating meat. All is well for a change.


This is a monumental scene of the film. We are introduced to the monolith. Its simple, yet perfect shape is perplexing to both the man-apes and the audience. Its black color and the way it sits there silently gives it an almost menacing appearance. There is a common misconception about the scene showing the "cosmic alignment". Some point out that the Sun had just rose so how could the Sun be directly overhead so quickly? Also, when the Sun and Moon are so close to each other in the sky, it is impossible to see the Moon due to glare from the Sun. One has to realize that the view of the "cosmic alignment" was for the audience only. Kubrick clues us in by revealing the monolith in alignment with the Sun and Moon. This is a reference to the alignment shown at the film's beginning. Obviously, the monolith is connected to whatever was shown visiting the Earth.

This re-asks the question of what came to Earth. The novel, which was adapted from an intermediate version of the screenplay, explains it as a very advanced alien intelligence, advanced so much that even 4 million years ago, they were way ahead of mankind today. Did Kubrick follow this part of the screenplay? The music we hear (Ligeti's Requiem For Soprano, Mezzo Soprano) features the chanting of a choir. While we don't quite hear "Hallelujah", it comes across as a religious piece. The monolith even looks like a religious symbol. The way it is planted into the ground is not dissimilar to a cross. The triple alignment also can be interpreted as the holy trinity. Of course, a third explanation can be that the monolith incident of 4 million years ago was the beginning of religion. The empowerment our ancestors received at the time of the monolith may have passed on through the generations leading humankind to associate power with an unknown higher form of life.

The highlight of this part of the story is when the solitary man-ape (Moonwatcher in the novel) learns to use an ordinary bone as a tool. Over and over, in other discussions I read and hear, this scene is usually mistakenly described as "the monolith teaches the hominid to use tools". This was not a class, it was a test. Look at Moonwatcher'a actions. He is searching for food, he suddenly glances back towards the monolith. He receives a command from as far as he is concerned, God. He lifts up a bone gingerly and begins to strike the other bones. His mannerisms at this point indicate unsure compliance, i.e. he was told to strike the bones but was not told why. People who complain that 2001 does not have good acting overlooked a great performance here. There is a moment where Moonwatcher suddenly realizes why he is striking the bones. He gets it. He passes the test. Once this happens, he strikes the bones with much more enthusiasm. He feels triumphant and the flashes of a dying tapir indicate he has made the important mental connection that the power he has in striking the dead bones would also apply to striking living things.

2001 features many tests of humankind. Although not shown in the film, it is logical to assume the "tool test" was not just given to this one particular group of man-apes. It is likely that most man-ape groups failed the test. The film shows us one of the rare cases of a success. Possibly, the rival tribe encountered the monolith and failed the test. This of course, falls right into evolution, the inferior tribe - that being the one that couldn't reach out and think beyond their normal scope, won't survive.

Thus Spake Zarathustra is played because passing the test was the moment in time where the man-apes became Nietzsche's "proto-man". Man-apes will no longer live on instinct, alone.

Notice how the man-apes appear more relaxed and sociable with one another once they have a healthy portion of food in them. Having leisure time will enable them to develop better communication skills. The path to humanity has begun.

Other Notes

Early versions of the screenplay and novel had a less mystical tone. Indeed, a ship lands and an alien comes out and teaches the man-apes to use bones as hunting tools and reeds to tie knots. This is where we see the difference between author Arthur C Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick. The physical alien would be typical of Clarke and would work in the story as a novel. Kubrick never wanted to make a typical science fiction film with "little green men" or some other physical manifestation of an extraterrestrial. It is because of Kubrick and his vision that I, and others, get to endlessly speculate this film.

Early versions of the monolith had it as a crystal pyramid, similar to the object in The Sentinel - the short story 2001 originated from. Director Stanley Kubrick decided that people might want to relate the monolith to the Egyptian pyramids, something Kubrick did not want. So they tried a crystalline rectangular block. Unfortunately, this didn't work either as there was no way to keep it from reflecting the studio lights. This resulted in a black monolith.


Celestial Elf said...

Really great post thank you,
thought you might enjoy my machinima film on Kubric's Monolith
Best Wishes ~

Nicolas Galvani said...

I really read carefully your comment on this part of 2001 A space Odyssey and I must admit how close you are in sequence analysis, thanks to share this kind of knowledge. Before all forgive my English written, not my mother language but I will try to argue on one point with you, especially on this part, about the “god” topic you share with us.

There is another point of view that can be push so far but for this I need two hypotheses, assumptions, I guess.

One is :

The first part of 2001 is clearly named “dawn of humanity”, and you know Kubrick as well, he had to do something about dawn of humanity. Kubrick was a huge technician, a thirsty curious mind also, he took documentation everywhere, especially in science, and when he decided to work and adapt Arthur C. Clarke novel, it was purely in scientific way. From dawn of humanity (even if I must admit that we have a real fur problem in it, ;) ) to the silence in space(as we know the only s.f. movie that respect this scientific point, no sound, no music; nothing, as the matter in fact sounds waves can’t go through empty space instead of radio ones), from electronic chess to labial recognition ( HAL’s developed abilities) , everything, almost, is pointed on scientific evolution. One of the good point of Kubrick adaptation, he passed all through the civilizations process in one cut between bone and spaceship, things done, admitted. Perfect ending of humanity first steps…

The second one :

is based on neuronal and cerebral actuals researches, which started, for some of them, during ww2.

Of course, the main brain function is about treating information. Intelligence factor is when memory is on, because you can’t treat information if you can’t remember data’s you need to confront them in intelligence process... Everything else then this intelligence factor is biomechanical neuronal system, as, for example, the legs of a fly, which have their own neuron directly connected to nervous system reactive to dynamics factor as wind, gravity or else. To follow this example, a fly doesn’t decide to take off, it’s neurons of her legs that react to wind, air displacement and so on… No central brain to decide what ever. We guess also no memory.

Nicolas Galvani said...

Science, nowadays, go far on these topics.

Topics about how the brain assumed functions or decisions. How raising an arm is always the same neuronal connection system put in place by the brain itself. And so on, I invited anyone how’s interested to seek in neuronal topics to see where we are now. But by the way a curious thirsty mind as Kubrick was also aware of this point of research. Plus, he had the opportunity to point on the two infinite sides: space in one, the largest, neuronal connection in another, the smallest, (in 1968 knowledge, we mustn’t forget. )

At this time, scientists had already discovered that the brain, confronted to a cycle situation ( react always the same way to a stimuli for example) will find a way to “cycle” also its neural network. But once information is completed, if the cycle continues to infinity, as cells have possibility to mute, neurons have abilities to escape an infinite cycle process by searching another way. Understand another connection network between neurons.

This topic is used in the first sequence of 2001 with a very subtitle angle which is the most realistic event ever related in science fiction register movie.
So let’s go back now to “the dawn of humanity”, first part of 2001 space odyssey.

As you already told it, this ape specie is in hard and dry environment, fooding with plants and seeds, they can’t go too far in fighting or defending themselves against leopard or another tribe of ape. If we go this side, we can also say that this specie, without evolution, without a radical change, is about to extinct. Trees won’t be enough to food all the tribe, and they don’t have any dominating behaviour in front of other animals with whom they share their living space. Surviving is more than living here…

The dawn of humanity can be cut in 4 parts :

- the scene takes place ( environment, protagonists, their lives)
- The monolith appears and disappears
- One ape discover the object
- New point of view on their environment (what has changed after monolith’s visit.)

As you also told this, in Clarke’s novel, the monolith is some kind of alien thing (or god) that learns apes the basics and fundamentals of life. Fire, pottery, and so on. In the novel, we have Lighting balls coming from the monolith that became transparent and these lighting balls “learn” things to the apes.
Kubrick was not agreed with this idea and decided to point on the neuronal topic I spoke before.

If we look at well, apes are living in a familiar environment made of trees, sand, rocks and animals they can or they cannot approach. This environment makes their behaviour going on cycle : sleep, reproduce, eat, drink. All their days are the same and all their behaviours are written by natural rhythms. They can’t at this point, understand anything about planet alignment ( moon, earth, sun ) or they can’t even imagine that one object can have a so perfect mathematical shape ( 1,4,9, the first three perfect square numbers) .

So the main question is still : what is the monolith ?

In this sequence, we see it twice.

The first time, it’s just like we are at the apes position, at the bottom, looking at from bottom to the top, touching it, discovering it. The planet alignment here is just to mark an event. En event that apes cannot understand, an event, as you said yourself, that is magnified even for us, we cannot see this event exactly like this in reality. So this is an event, something that is happening, just like something else than their living cycles.

The second time we see the monolith is when the main ape discovered object, using a bone not yet as a weapon, but as arm continuity. WE seem to have a flash back, few seconds, on what the ape has seen when he was at the bottom of monolith.

Nicolas Galvani said...

These few seconds are exactly the time when memory function turn ON on apes brain. He has a new memory skill much more efficient, he has now the ability to treat data’s. The monolith as nothing to do with the bone, nothing to do with its life, it’s only here to show us that memory is on.

So after all, we can have a discussion about alien or god regarding the monolith. But this point of view is also interesting. Because, in this case, the monolith doesn’t have to exist. It’s a symbol of an event that happens to an ape tribe, this event was extremely different from their usual environment and behaviours, the first apparition of the monolith showed us the way brain is trying to find another way to stop a cycling (and not useful) problem. The second apparition of the monolith is clearly a souvenir, a remind, that definitely proves that memory is on.

2001 space odyssey is a huge reference for me in terms of realistic science fiction. It’s also known as as a mystical adventure about universe creation, from largest infinite to smallest one. It’s ok we can find some religious symbol on it because of its mystery, of its theatrical position in all the situations we meet him in the movie. For the other parts of the movie when we are facing the movie, I won’t discuss about the religious thing. I guess it’s up to anyone to make its own idea, and that’s also a reason why this movie is so interesting.

But I am definitely sure that even if it wasn’t exactly like this in term of history ( once more a fur problem ?) , Kubrick is the closest one in terms of scientific explanation about the topic “dawn of humanity”.

From ape to man, characterized by intelligence. Floating on all evolution system brought by nature : mutation, or neuronal adaptation.

It’s very interesting to see this movie on this angle, it points on the very beginning of brain understanding, and that also a reason why Kubrick wanted to have an A.I ( HAL computer) that faced exactly the same problem. Kubrick, in this movie, is not only telling us story about mankind evolution over 4 million years, he also shows us that humanity, at the end of the movie, as accomplished the “brain cycle” making one, HAL, which will be… as human as possible…

Hope you don’t mind this point of view, I will be really pleased if you want to discuss this more.