2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is confusing, at first–is this the right movie? Did something go wrong? For the first three minutes, the screen is black, and absolutely devoid of color, form, or movement. The only cue is auditory: a quiet, synthetic, and dissonant hum, which, every so often, grows louder as an orchestra fades in, accentuating the wave of noise that builds and builds until suddenly–quiet again. The waves of noise break several times as the three minutes anxiously pass by. There is this suspense and expectation already accrued at the top of the movie

The darkness breaks to a bright blue, with the yellow MGM logo silently announcing the studio which produced the movie centered in frame. After about 15 seconds, the final introductory sequence cues.

First, a low, deep hum carries the tension from the first sequence, and pair of trumpets sound a C flat at a pianissimo, marking the start of the famous and instantly recognizable piece, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. The black screen quickly wipes away to reveal three celestial bodies in vertical alignment, moving in parallax, as though leaving an eclipsed state.

The closest terrestrial body spans the frame edge to edge and soon falls out of frame. It is barely visible, as the light is blocked by the central terrestrial body. The center body is illuminated from behind, and slightly above, the viewer’s perspective, creating a crescent of light on it’s surface. Then there is the star, furthest away from the frame, which rises directly above the other bodies. This procession happens slowly over the course of about 80 seconds, by the end of which the star is completely visible, the title of the movie appears in a large, thin Gill Sans, and the Strauss pieces triumphantly rings out its final notes.

The entire sequence is a prelude, hinting at some of the stylistic choices and even symbolically representing parts of the film. The prolonged darkness is abnormal indeed for any movie, but it characterizes Stanley Kubrik’s directing and vision for the movie, which is filled with striking, bold, and experimental cinematography. This darkness also alludes to the monolith, a foreboding, featureless, and mysterious object appearing throughout the movie–also accompanied with various orchestral swells, ranging from ominously quiet to frighteningly loud. Part of the suspense in the darkness sequence is psychological: the fear of the unknown. For three minutes, the viewer is anticipating a resolution to the suspense, but nothing happens and the movie simply “begins.” What a strange way to set the scene.

The celestial sequence, then, offers context and a contrasting sense of grandeur. The story is based in outer space, where there are forces at play that are much, much bigger than the viewer. It again hints at artistic choices with the use of alignment. With few other visual cues, the rising star steals the attention in the frame. The viewer is left to project meaning on it–maybe it is the Sun, maybe it is an idea, maybe it is God, or maybe it’s just a star.