The 100-Week Roundup VI

Here’s another quartet of reviews from my July 2018 viewing, with an all-star cast both behind the camera (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott) and in front of it (Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, etc).

In this week’s roundup…

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Wind River (2017)
  • Body of Lies (2008)


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

    2018 #163
    Scott Derrickson | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves as an alien who has come to “save the Earth”.

    The original might be best remembered for its message about mankind. The do-over doesn’t so much attempt serious “humanity are the problem” moralising as just nod in that general direction. Instead, it conforms to the Hollywood-remake stereotype of simplification, using the plot as an excuse for a CGI destructathon. Even as that it’s a bit of a damp squib, with no genuinely impressive sequences; some of the CGI is pretty crap, even, like the first appearance of the giant robot GORT.

    I know we all love him now because he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy in real life and the John Wick movies are cool, but, still, the role of an emotionally cold alien pretending to be human but struggling to understand what truly makes us ‘us’ is a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves and his usual acting style. Jaden Smith is equally perfect casting as an irritating brat of a kid. Jennifer Connelly struggles gamely to be the heart of the film, and there are small or cameo roles for the likes of Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese, none of whom can really elevate the basic material they’re given.

    All in all, it’s inoffensively bland, with some light sci-fi ideas, a bit of loose moralising, and a bunch of pixels whooshing about. Perhaps with a better creative team — or without the demands of a studio blockbuster budget — it could’ve been more; something genuinely thought-provoking about the value (or otherwise) of humanity. But it isn’t.

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

    2018 #165
    Stanley Kubrick | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Full Metal Jacket

    Kubrick’s anti-war war movie, about the dehumanisation of abusive army training, the virtue and success of kindness, and how combat can erode and destroy the soul. It’s “a Vietnam movie”, but Kubrick wasn’t interested in Nam per se, rather “the phenomenon of war” and what happens to young men when you turn them into killing machines.

    It’s a film of two halves: first, the training; then, the war. The first half is the better known one, and some people will tell you it goes downhill when they leave training. That first part is indeed horrid but effective and meaningful, but I thought the second half lived up to its impact too.

    A film about war’s effect on people requires strong performances, and fortunately it has those. Most famous is R. Lee Ermey’s nasty drill instructor — an unquestionably accurate portrayal of the real thing, because Ermey used to be one. He was originally hired as a consultant, but decided he wanted the role and convinced Kubrick to cast him, then rewrote his dialogue — the obscenity-strewn insults are all Ermey’s own. But for my money the best performance in the movie comes from Vincent D’Onofrio. Apparently he got the part just because he was a friend of Matthew Modine — it was his first film role — but he’s fantastic. And nowadays best known as a gun-happy right-wing nut-job on Twitter, Adam Baldwin is very convincing as, er, a gun-happy right-wing nut-job.

    Naturally, Kubrick’s work is as on-point as ever. A climactic action scene pits the entire troop against just one sniper, which is both thrilling and horrifyingly brutal. The film’s final death is excruciatingly drawn out, to really convey its emotional toll. Douglas Milsome’s photography frequently looks stunning as well. The fire-lit final act is as visually gorgeous as it is suspenseful and gruelling.

    To paraphrase a commentator in the Between Good and Evil documentary, Kubrick “takes the sympathetic characters and breaks them down so that, by the end, there’s no one left to root for, and the sympathy you feel is not for the character, but for what they’d lost.” And another notes how much you can see Iraq in the film, as if Kubrick was predicting the future of urban warfare too. Or, another way of looking at it: how little changes; how few lessons we learn.

    5 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Wind River
    (2017)

    2018 #166
    Taylor Sheridan | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Wind River

    A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.IMDb

    What follows is a neo-Western crime thriller, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. As a genre piece, it’s most noteworthy for how well it handles the reveal of whodunnit. Just as you think the film’s getting to the point where they find who did it, but it’s only a suspicion and they’re going to have to go off and prove it, the film takes a hard left in a different direction that’s perfectly handled. To quote from a comment on iCheckMovies, the way it goes about this “seemed truly unique to this genre. The closest comparison I can think of is from Se7en, when [Se7en spoilers!] Kevin Spacey just turns up and hands himself in, completely out of the blue. It unexpectedly shattered the cat and mouse formula that people expected it to follow.” By dispensing with narrative oneupmanship (i.e. trying really, really hard to pull a twist out of thin air, as most mystery/thrillers do), it lets “the story unfold into more of a tragedy than the standard mystery or thriller you might expect it to be.”

    Talking of other reviews, some people are heavily critical of the film having a white male lead when it’s supposed to be about the plight of Native Americans, and especially Native American women. Well, yes, to an extent that’s true, but this is where fantasy rubs up against reality: do you really think a movie with a Native American lead would find it easy to get funding, distribution, and gain attention? Sometimes these things are a necessary ‘evil’ if your goal is to reach a wider audience and thereby spread the message. Besides, the film makes a point of treating the white characters as outsiders, in various ways. It’s not pretending this is how it should be, nor that they’re welcomed like, “hooray, the white people are here to save us!” If anything it’s used to emphasise the point: the Native American cops can’t solve the case themselves because they’re underfunded and understaffed; they have no choice but to rely on white people being prepared to help. That’s an indictment in itself.

    Altogether, this is a powerful movie — arguably Taylor Sheridan’s best, most mature screenplay (which is saying something for the man who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water), and features a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, reminding you why he was Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker before his attempts to be a blockbuster action star.

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

    2018 #168
    Ridley Scott | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English & Arabic | 15 / R

    Body of Lies

    A CIA agent on the ground in Jordan hunts down a powerful terrorist leader while being caught between the unclear intentions of his American supervisors and Jordan Intelligence.IMDb

    That’s the simple version, anyhow, because I thought the film itself got a bit long-winded and complicated; but if you enjoy spy movies, it’s smattered with some good bits of tradecraft stuff. That said, I’m not sure I buy Leonardo DiCaprio as the CIA’s man in the Middle East — he stands out like a sore thumb there; not good for a spy.

    Meanwhile, Russell Crowe commands complex world-changing missions over the phone while taking his kids to school or watching a football match — a nice touch, I thought, contrasting mundanity with these high-stakes actions. (Quite why he “had” to gain 50lbs for the role is beyond me, though. Sounds like he just fancied being lazy about his diet and exercise regime.) Still, the standout from the cast is the ever-excellent Mark Strong as the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man who is urbane and always immaculately dressed, but does not suffer those who disrespect him, exhibiting a kind of calm fury-cum-disappointment when they offend him.

    For all the confusion I felt about the plot, what I presume is the intended theme (that America can’t win because it refuses to respect or understand the culture of both its enemies and allies in the Middle East; and that the supposed good guys aren’t any better than the bad guys) comes across quite effectively. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of advanced technology. The CIA, so focused on their shiny new bells and whistles, lose out in the end to old fashioned personal interaction and patient preparation.

    Body of Lies seems somewhat torn between making these points and being an entertaining action-thriller. Ultimately it straddles the two stools, not quite satisfying as either — it has its moments, for sure, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. Maybe Ridley should’ve left the spy thrillers to his brother…

    3 out of 5

  • Barry Lyndon (1975)

    2016 #111
    Stanley Kubrick | 185 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English, German & French | PG / PG

    Barry LyndonStanley Kubrick made a good many exceptionally well-regarded films — indeed, with possibly the exception of his first semi-amateur feature, Fear and Desire, every one of his works can lay claim to being someone’s favourite. Nonetheless, although you wouldn’t guess it from its barebones also-ran type treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, three-hour period drama Barry Lyndon places among his top works in terms of consensus audience favourites, in that it’s on the IMDb Top 250. That said, it’s at #230, while the other six films on there are in the top 100, and he only made 13 features anyway — so it sits at the precise halfway point of his oeuvre, at least on IMDb.

    Adapted from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, commonly called The Luck of Barry Lyndon but whose full original title is going in a footnote because it’s so long,* Kubrick’s film narrates the life of the eponymous Irish rogue (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, runs away from home, joins the army, becomes a spy, becomes a con artist, marries a wealthy heiress (Marisa Berenson), runs an estate, and is a man of dubious virtue and questionable likeability throughout the whole affair.

    Apparently the novel is considered to be the first English-language ‘novel without a hero’, aka antihero, and Lyndon certainly fits that bill. He serves his own interests throughout the tale, which is rarely seen as a desirable characteristic but can certainly be an understandable one, though at times you may despair at how his stubborn dedication to certain causes actually works against his interests. On the other hand, he has a great propensity for blagging his way through a war, and the ensuing complications, so I guess he learns from his mistakes… some of them, at any rate. It would be tough to say that Barry is a character you empathise with, but that doesn’t stop him from being a fascinating one to follow for a couple of hours. Some of this dislike may stem from the film’s voiceover narrator, who often tells us less-than-favourable things about the lead character. Apparently this is an example of an unreliable narrator, and I suppose some of the things we’re told aren’t directly evidenced on screen, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave that seam to be mined by other writers, because (on a first viewing at least) I didn’t see where or to what effect the narrator was lying to the viewer.

    As played by O’Neal, Barry’s accent places him as coming from the same part of Westeros as Littlefinger. Although I wouldn’t say he did a bad job, there seems little doubt he was miscast. The story of how he came to be in the film is more interesting than his performance, really: Warner Bros would only finance the film if Kubrick cast a top-ten box office star, based on the annual Quigley Poll of Top Money-Making Stars. O’Neal was second on the 1974 poll, just behind Clint Eastwood and ahead of people like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. Barbra Streisand was the only woman on the list, so you’d think Kubrick had nine options, but apparently they were all considered “too old or inappropriate for the role” with the exception of O’Neal and Redford. O’Neal was the bigger star thanks to also securing a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the past, but Kubrick was smart enough to offer it to Redford first, but he turned it down so O’Neal it was. Ironically, 1973 was the only year O’Neal appeared in that top ten, while Redford placed first in 1974, 1975, and 1976.

    Whether it was the intention or not, O’Neal often gets by thanks to the style of the narrative, in which a series of variously-plausible events keep happening to Barry as much as he is proactive in making them occur. This is not a simple, narrow-focused, cause-and-effect kind of story, but a fictional biopic, that ranges across Europe and across time to… what effect? It’s a Kubrick film, so the ultimate goal of the tale, the message(s) it may be trying to impart, are debatable. You could see a story of the pitfalls of hubris. You could see an exploration of how a certain class lived in this time period. You could just see a man who led an adventurous life.

    Whatever the merits of the tale, its telling is a frequent wonder. Its length and pace are surely barriers to entry for some — this is not a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride; it’s more analogous to a BBC miniseries, perhaps, albeit one where you’re watching all three episodes at once. Well, binge viewing is the TV watching style du jour, so that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone nowadays. Much has been made of the film’s candle-lit photography, using special lenses adapted from NASA, and rightly so; though perhaps it’s beginning to look less remarkable as we move into an era where digital cameras can produce exceptional range and quality. That’s not to say the potential commonality of such lighting decisions dulls the excellence of John Alcott’s photography, but, without knowledge of the production challenges, a modern viewer might not be so readily wowed.

    Maybe I’m one of them, because for me the best shots are to be found elsewhere. The film is littered with recreations of art from the era — not obvious “ooh, I know that painting” recreations, but photographic imitations of the painters’ style, subjects, and composition. The opening shot, for instance, really looks like a painting. It’s incredible. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best shot in the film; which is not to say the ensuing three hours are a visual disappointment, just that it remains the best among greats. (That said, having looked up images online for this review, it seems slightly less striking to me now. That may be the quality of the screengrabs; it may be that the painterly quality is so remarkable at first appearance (before becoming more familiar when the whole movie has that quality) that its memorableness is heightened.)

    With its measured pace, obfuscated meaning, and sporadically likeable characters, Barry Lyndon is not the most readily accessible movie ever made. Well, it’s Kubrick, isn’t it? There’s so much to commend it though, especially if you consider visual style a reason to watch a movie (not everyone is satiated by that, but, for a visually-driven medium, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable element to be particularly engaged by). It’s an imperfect film (for Ryan O’Neal if nothing else), but perhaps a brilliant one. Certainly I’d put it in the high-middle of my Kubrick viewing so far — and as his only films that I’ve seen are all on the IMDb Top 250, that’s an upgrade from me, at least.

    5 out of 5

    The restored 40th anniversary re-release of Barry Lyndon is in UK cinemas from today.

    Barry Lyndon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    * The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim. ^

    A Clockwork Orange (1971)

    2015 #152
    Stanley Kubrick | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

    Yet more dystopian sci-fi! Who doesn’t love some dystopian sci-fi? Here we’re in the ’70s, though (makes a change from the ’80s), with writer-director Stanley Kubrick adapting Anthony Burgess’ novel into a film so controversially violent the director himself eventually banned it from release in the UK for decades. Almost 45 years on, it’s testament to the film’s power that it is still in parts shocking.

    Set in a glum future Britain, the film follows eloquent juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose violent acts eventually catch up with him when he’s imprisoned. Being the cocky little so-and-so that he is, he manages to get himself on a programme for rehabilitation and release… though that may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

    The first half-hour or so of A Clockwork Orange is brilliant. I think there’s a reason this is the part that the majority of clips used when discussing the movie are lifted from, and it’s not just to do with spoilers: here is where the best imagery, and the most potent examinations of violence and the male group psyche, are to be found. It’s shocking and uncomfortable at times, funny and almost attractive at others (hence the perceived need for the ‘ban’), but the cumulative effect is precise and striking.

    However, everything from Alex’s admission to prison onwards could do with tightening, in my view. It may be sacrilege to say this, but I think the film would benefit from having a good 15 to 20 minutes chopped out. All the prison bureaucracy stuff is funny, but is it relevant? “Relevance” isn’t the only deciding factor about what goes into a film, of course, but I feel like we’ve seen plenty of red-tape spoofing elsewhere. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s age. Other parts just go on a bit too long for my taste — there’s barely a sequence after Alex’s arrest that I didn’t feel would benefit from getting a wriggle on. I don’t think this is me bringing a youth-of-today “everything must be fast cut” perspective to the film, I just found it needlessly languorous at times. Maybe I was missing a point.

    McDowell’s performance is fantastic throughout. I’ve seen Alex referred to as a villain (not often, but by at least one person), which strikes me (and, I’m sure, many others) as remarkably reductionist and point-missing. He’s not a hero, certainly — a mistake I think some critics of the film made, in part because the use of voiceover invites us to identify with him, and I guess anyone other than the hero having a voiceover narration was fairly new 45 years ago (feel free to correct me on that point). But he’s not a villain, especially when he comes up against the terrifying forces of the establishment. McDowell’s performance, and Kubrick/Burgess’ storytelling, is thankfully more complex than that.

    That continues right through to the ending, which is quite different in the novel and film — though I say this as someone who’s not read the book, so apologies if this is off base. Reportedly Burgess ends with Alex moving away from violence of his own free will, primarily because he’s grown up and grown out of it; the point basically being that all young men go through a violent phase (even if Alex’s is extreme) and then grow out of it. Kubrick ends on a much more ambiguous note… so ambiguous, I’m not really sure what it’s saying… or even what all the ambiguities actually are…

    A Clockwork Orange remains a striking film, and not just because of the ultra-violence. It’s at its best early on, with the remainder not always working for me, but it’s a fascinating experience nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    A Clockwork Orange was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Room 237 (2012)

    2015 #56
    Rodney Ascher | 99 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

    Room 237Possibly-crazy people offer definitely-crazy theories on the subtextual meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in this controversial film analysis documentary.

    Some believe it’s presenting the theories for genuine consideration, and get angry because they’re patently insane. Others believe it’s an implicit criticism of such outlandish readings, exposing how ‘dedicated’ individuals can see things that aren’t there. I don’t think it’s the former, but the lack of objective commentary means it falls short of achieving the latter.

    It’s fascinating what deluded people can concoct, though. As a bonus, they do expose passingly-interesting minor facets of Kubrick’s work that you probably missed.

    3 out of 5

    The Shining (1980)

    2014 #80
    Stanley Kubrick | 120 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The ShiningFêted director Stanley Kubrick turned his hand to horror for this Stephen King adaptation. Poorly received on release (it was nominated for two Razzies: Worst Actress and Worst Director) and reviled by King (he attempted his own version as a miniseries in 1997. It didn’t go down well), it has since been reassessed as a classic. I’ve never read the novel, so have no opinion on the film’s level of faithfulness or (assuming it isn’t true to the book) whether that’s a good thing or not. As a movie in its own right, however, The Shining is bloody scary.

    The plot sees Jack Nicholson, his wife and young son travelling to a remote hotel to be its caretakers while it’s closed over the winter. As the weeks pass by, strange things begin to happen. Nicholson begins to go a little stir crazy… or is it something worse? As the hotel becomes cut off by a snowstorm, everything goes to pot…

    It’s somewhat hard to summarise The Shining because, in a way, nothing much happens. There are some mysteries, but few (if any) answers. That prompts plenty of wild theories — there’s now a whole film about them, even — but whether any of those are right or not… well, you know what wild theories are normally like, right? Really, story is not the order of the day. Kubrick seems to have set out to make a horror movie in the truest sense: a movie to instill fear. And that it does. And then some.

    But you're not called JohnnyGradually, inexorably, the film builds a sense of dread; a fear so deep-seated that it feels almost primal. There are few jumps or gory moments, the easy stomping ground of lesser films. There’s just… unease. It’s a feeling that’s tricky to put into words, because it’s not exactly “scary”; even “terrifying” feels too lightweight. There are undoubtedly sequences of suspense, where we fear what’s coming or what will happen to the characters (everyone knows the “Here’s Johnny!” bit, for instance), but that’s not where the film’s impact really lies.

    I guess some find it slow and aimless. There are certainly fans of King and his original that are just as unimpressed as the author by the way it supposedly shortchanges Nicholson’s character. There may be some validity to both of those arguments. Nonetheless, I found Kubrick’s realisation to be probably the most excruciatingly and exquisitely unsettling film I’ve ever seen.

    5 out of 5

    The Shining placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

    It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


    * The Shining was initially released at 146 minutes. After a week, Kubrick cut two minutes off the end. Following a poor reception, he cut even more for the European release (some say 31 minutes, but that doesn’t add up). He maintained the shortest version was his preferred cut, though it’s not the one released in most territories… except the UK. ^

    What Do You Mean You Didn’t Like 2001: A Space Odyssey?

    2015 #26a
    1968 | Stanley Kubrick | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.20:1 | USA & UK / English | U / G

    2001: A Space OdysseyAs suggested (and named) by the ghost of 82, this is the first in an occasional series* in which I revisit films that are highly acclaimed but I didn’t enjoy first time round. First up, Stanley Kubrick’s monumental sci-fi opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Now, let me begin with a point of clarification: I don’t remember when I first saw 2001, but I was very young, and most likely looking for SF films in the vein of others I’d enjoyed, like, say, Star Wars. I think we can all agree that 2001 is not like Star Wars. Nonetheless, while I wouldn’t have said I disliked 2001, I didn’t understand it either — and not in the “let’s debate its meaning” way in which no one else really understands it either, but in a more “well I didn’t get that, let’s ignore it” kinda way. I tried to watch it again in my teens, but it was late and I fell asleep. Some bits of it are very calming…

    I think whenever it is someone first watches 2001, it’s the kind of film a viewer needs to be ‘prepared’ for. You can’t just watch it like “any other film”; it doesn’t quite play by the normal rules of mainstream narrative cinema. There is a story, but it’s slight, and told almost incidentally, half in asides and snatched exposition amongst other goings-on, and it’s never thoroughly elucidated. It exists to serve the film’s themes, or explorations, or whatever you want to call them, which I think is contrary to how most people (outside of the arthouse crowd) view cinema.

    In reality, 2001 probably is an arthouse film. The final 20 minutes, with their bizarre and initially-inexplicable imagery, certainly are. The opening Dawn of Man sequence probably is too. The long, slow shots of spacecraft drifting, or of people silently riding said spacecraft, fit in that box ‘n’ all. These may be groundbreaking special effects, but the feelings they generate aren’t exactly the same as Star Wars, are they. The everyday mundanity of the space travel as seen in the film is almost its point, even if it’s conveyed through awe-inspiring effects work. Today, a mainstream director producing an expensive effects-heavy movie Starships were meant to flywith this kind of pace and uncertainty would be unthinkable, but I guess audiences were a little more mature in the Good Old Days. Even then, Kubrick cut 19 minutes after the film’s premiere in order to “speed up the pacing”. Maybe he succeeded, but no one’s going to be calling this a fast-paced thrillride any time soon.

    The effects, incidentally, are magnificent. They still look spectacular today — one can only imagine the impact they had on the big screen in the mid-’60s, nearly a decade before Star Wars came along to blow people’s minds. There are incredible sets too, which, even when you know the kind of behind-the-scenes techniques they likely employed, make the mind boggle — “that circular room on the Discovery is massive; it can’t be one giant rotating set, surely?” The sound design, an often overlooked element of filmmaking, is amazing as well. The EVA with Dave’s breathing echoing constantly around the soundstage, making the experience feel claustrophobic even when what you’re seeing is a giant craft in the vastness of space… And the music, of course. It’s completely unnerving whenever the monolith is near, a score filled with freaky voices that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. The movie’s influence is perhaps most clearly seen in what you might call its title track, Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which 2001 established as the soundtrack of space exploration.

    2002: Invasion of the Giant Space BabyTechnically, then, 2001 is undeniably stunning. Thematically, though… what’s it all about? What does it mean? Author Arthur C. Clarke once said that “if you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” Some find such goals unsatisfying, especially when it comes to storytelling, but the very spirit of space exploration, of science, is to keep asking questions that don’t necessarily have answers. Of course, the ending is actually very easy to explain: the evil alien monolith kidnaps Dave, ages him to death, then mutates him into a giant Space Foetus, which it sends back to Earth. Why they didn’t make 2002: Invasion of the Giant Space Baby, I don’t know. Who doesn’t want to see that movie?

    (Just so we’re clear, I’m being facetious. Probably. Though if 2010 is actually about an invasion by a giant space baby, somebody please let me know.)

    Having said the film looks to expound the scientific virtues of asking questions and pushing forward, it’s interesting that it’s very easy to read it as technophobic — arguably, the entire point might be, “be wary of technology”. Such themes are expressed succinctly in possibly the most striking, probably the most audacious, and certainly the most famous, jump cut in movie history. The strange presence of the monolith leads ape-man to discover tools, Dawn of the Technology of the Apesand almost immediately use them to kill, first a beast for food, then another ape for territory. Then, in a literal split second, we jump forward millennia, as that simple tool turns into a nuclear weapon drifting in orbit — the entirety of human technological innovation summed up in a single cut.

    And then there’s a new monolith and things all go to shit again.

    The simple point is, technology has led us to develop, to literally reach for the stars, but it also drove us to savagery, and still does. So is it a good thing? Surely the film can’t be condemning it entirely…? Whether it is or isn’t, it’s ironic that themes of “bad technology” should be expressed in the most technologically-driven of all entertainment media (at the time), and created largely through advanced and innovative technological effects at that.

    Leaving aside those effects and themes and all the questions we’re left with, what amazes me most about 2001, in a way, is how well-regarded it remains by a general audience, exemplified by public-voted lists like the IMDb Top 250. Of course critics still love it, but you’d think its artiness would have caused a gradual decline over time as the wider viewership immatures. But no; or, at least, not enough that it’s disappeared from consideration. Yet.

    StargazingIn the end, I think 2001 is a film that’s very easy to admire, for all sorts of reasons, but to enjoy in the traditional sense of “enjoyment”? Surely it’s far too removed, too obtuse, too joyless, for that? Some people will like those qualities, of course, and all power to them. For me, 2001 is a film to be impressed, even awed, by; but not one to love.

    5 out of 5

    2001: A Space Odyssey is on BBC Two, in HD, tonight at 11:05pm.

    * Read: there may be more but I’ve not got any planned. ^

    Paths of Glory (1957)

    2009 #85
    Stanley Kubrick | 87 mins | TV (HD) | PG

    Paths of Glory“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” wrote Thomas Gray, and Stanley Kubrick — adapting from the novel by Humphrey Cobb — sets about proving him right.

    Kubrick’s depiction of war is excellent, from long tracking shots through the trenches, to the nighttime wilderness of No Man’s Land, lit only by flares that reveal it’s strewn with bodies, to an epic and perfectly-staged battle that is a visual and aural assault. Indeed, Winston Churchill claimed that the film was a highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind, and it’s so effective that it was banned in France for its negative depiction of the military. I’m sure the story could have been equally well applied to any military in the habit of killing its own men, but hey, it’s always fun to pick on the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

    Even beyond the battle scenes the film remains bleakly realistic: the depressing Old Boys’ Club-style hierarchy of the military (still all too much in effect, as series like Generation Kill reveal); the unjust unrecorded trial (an excellent courtroom sequence that can stand up to any other); through to the inescapable finale. George Macready’s villain is as chillingly evil as they come, because he’s so believable. Lying, manipulating, selfish and dishonourable, yet he produces all this from an opening scene where he appears to be a perfectly honourable General (though one has one’s suspicions). Even at the very end, when some small measure of genuine justice has been wrung from the whole sorry mess, one of the few remaining almost-likeable characters is fully unmasked as just as bad as the rest. Kubrick tries to instil some hope with his final scene, but by then he’s done too fine a job of wiping it out.

    There’s a debate, it seems, about whether this can accurately be described as an anti-war film. It’s patently not pro-war, with its ineffective officers, self-serving high command, corrupt legal system and senseless slaughter for absolutely no military gain; but the argument that it is less a commentary on war and more on human nature — how people, not just soldiers, respond to the opportunity for glory, and how they attempt to cover their own tracks when it goes wrong — certainly holds some weight. The final scene, which is in almost every other respect entirely unrelated to the main narrative, supports such a theory, as does the source of the title. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean it’s not anti-war as well; or, at the very least, anti-military (if that’s not the same thing).

    Perhaps reaction to the film depends on your ideological stance. I’m all too prepared to believe the military is corrupt and unjust because, well, that’s how they always seem. As such, Paths of Glory does an outstanding job of fulfilling and reinforcing these preconceptions, particularly in its refusal to end justly. If you have some measure of faith in the forces, however, you may think it’s an unjustified attack on your beloved institution. Each to their own.

    5 out of 5

    Paths of Glory is on ITV4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st August 2014, at 11:20am.

    (Originally posted on 24th February 2010.)