The “Dawn of Man” sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey” begins, fittingly, in darkness. After the unnerving chaos of the movie’s three-minute overture subsides, the film kicks off with a shot that has since become one of the most recognizable in cinema: sunrise over Earth, set to Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.” Over half a century later, it’s easy to write off this moment as pop culture wallpaper — oh yeah, it’s that bit from “2001” — but it really doesn’t deserve such indifference. In just a few seconds of screen time, Stanley Kubrick’s sunrise introduces that dreadful feeling of cosmic wonder for which the film is so renowned.
“2001” doesn’t let up from there, either. As Kubrick tells his self-contained tale of the evolution of mankind, he uses no dialogue whatsoever, instead relying on the strength of his cinematography, sound design, and score. For the coup de grace, the sequence employs a match cut that has since become iconic, as the apes’ first tool soars through the air to become a satellite in orbit over Earth.
It’s also worth mentioning that this scene was as groundbreaking as it is powerful. According to a Vanity Fair feature on the making of “2001,” Kubrick used a then-experimental concept known as front projection to augment his soundstage, having failed to secure a location shoot in Africa. That’s “Dawn of Man” all over, though — not just captivating, but technically flawless, too.