Film reviews – Cosmopolis (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

30 August 2012

The latest films by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and American filmmaker Wes Anderson are on the surface wildly different works, however, a comparison of the two films suggests that they are two-sides of the same cinematic coin. Both are films that seem to have taken several cues from Stanley Kubrick in the adoption of a minimalist visual style that relies on meticulous framing, symmetry and an almost self-aware set of conventions surrounding camera movement. Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom are about self-contained spaces that reflect a version of reality that is recognisable enough to connect with the real world despite containing so many abstract elements. Both are films with child or child-like protagonists who are surrounded by a strange ensemble of supporting characters. The major point of difference is that while Cosmopolis is set in the not-so-distant future to depict the metaphorical end of humanity, Moonrise Kingdom is set in a stylised version of the past to present humanity at its most hopeful.

The child-like character at the centre of Cosmopolis is the young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who slowly cruises across a gridlocked Manhattan in a stretch limousine to get a haircut. Packer is not a child in the sense of being vulnerable and innocent, as instead he displays a childlike view of being the centre of the universe and entitled to everything around him. His domain is the limousine and while he has the privilege to enter and leave it as it suits him, it nevertheless serves as a protective womb for him when he wants it to. Unlike the limousine in Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012), which functions as a transformative and transitional space, Packer’s limousine in his command centre, completely insulated from all intrusions – including external noise – and totally ‘safe from penetration’.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) and Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon)

At the centre of this self-made contained universe sits Packer’s who carries out the most mundane and the most intimate activities with the various associates he picks up on the way or briefly stops off to visit. Whether discussing politics, having his prostate checked while speaking with an employee or having sex, Packer maintains an air of detached boredom as if he can’t wait for the apocalypse to arrive. Pattinson is ideally cast as Packer since he is a man-child with power and influence way beyond the capacity of his years, existing as an idealised version of success and beauty without the emotional depth to channel any real feeling. He’s like a character from a previous Cronenberg film Crash (1996), or many of the other novels by Crash author JG Ballard, in that he craves some kind of stimulus or sensation to wake him from the lethargy of his controlled and convenient life, whether that be illicit sex, acts of violence or risking his life by seeking a confrontation with somebody who wants to kill him.

Closely adapted from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, it is remarkable the extent that Cosmopolis feels like a post-GFC, post-Occupy and post-Facebook film. On the surface level there are the news reports of political assassinations, glimpses of anti-capitalist protests on the streets and an early scene between Packer and his young associate Shiner (Jay Baruchel) that feels like a reenactment of any number of scenes between Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). What really stands out is how much better DeLillo’s almost absurdist dialogue sounds when spoken in the film rather than read on the page, and how much Cronenberg uses the dialogue to capture the death of meaning.

Words that DeLillo may have intended as dark abstractions about the decline of western civilisation become the basis for comedic performance pieces throughout Cosmopolis where the characters have extended intense and purposeful conversations about economics, politic and philosophy without actually saying anything. Like the symbols on panels and screens littered throughout the interior of Packer’s futuristic limousine, the building blocks for communication are there but they aren’t arranged in a way that makes sense anymore. All that is left are signifiers broken down to their basic components by a character who despite his wealth and assumed sophistication is still a mere mortal who pisses, shits, fucks, eats and bleeds. Spiralling into self-destruction because language has lost all meaning and there’s nothing else to do, Packer is a classic Cronenberg hero who has engineered his own annihilation.

If Cosmopolis deconstructs language and ideas into meaninglessness to present a darkly funny satire about destruction (it’s Cronenberg’s most humorous film since eXistenZ in 1999) then Moonrise Kingdom does the opposite. Dialogue in Wes Anderson films is typically reduced to essential words and phrases, to be spoken deadpan by actors without emotion. However, instead of the absurdist illusion of meaning that is presented in Cosmopolis, Anderson strips down language and other cinematic conventions to reveal something far more pure and sincere. In the case of Moonrise Kingdom it is adolescent love and hope for the future.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)

The child protagonists in Moonrise Kingdom are 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (another newcomer, Kara Hayward). The pair live on an island off New England and run away together; Sam abandons a Scout camp he is attending and Suzy leaves home. While two unknown young actors are in the lead, the supporting cast is filled out with very experienced and recognisable actors who represent different levels of authority over the children; from Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, to Bruce Willis as police Captain Sharp to Tilda Swinton as a social services worker, to Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents. The inverse of having big name actors in supporting roles to unknown child actors reflects Anderson’s playful inverting of ideas throughout Moonrise Kingdom where the most serious relationship is the one between the children and where characters representing the police and the military-like scout troop become more sympathetic to the plight of the children than characters representing social welfare and the family.

While the production design and wide angle cinematography of Cosmopolis evoke Kubrick films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), the gliding dolly shots, precise movements that almost appear choreographed and theatrical framing of Moonrise Kingdom seem to be inspired by Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980).  Anderson also repeatedly uses military-style percussion through Moonrise Kingdom for both rhythmic editing and a comedic soundtrack in a way that even suggests Kubrick’s war films. Anderson’s approach perfectly suits the focus on ritual present throughout Moonrise Kingdom.

Sequences of social interaction, most notably the inspections at the scout camp, are orchestrated as a complex dance where every element of the interaction is broken down into an isolated action for a singe character to perform in order to contribute to an overall cohesion. If language is deconstructed in Cosmopolis to reveal a loss of meaning, the dynamics of community and relationships are deconstructed in Moonrise Kingdom to reveal the importance of human interaction, both on a public and on a personal level. Every element needs to play a part for the whole to function and rather than remove a disruptive element (for example, Sam) the community adapts to accommodate new dynamics.

The breaking down of social interaction into segments to form a whole is reflected in both Suzy’s preference for looking at the world up close through binoculars and the use of Benjamin Britten’s music throughout the film. Most notable is Britten’s 1946 work ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ where all the separate elements of an orchestra are isolated and described by a narrator to demonstrate the importance of every instrument. The irony of the piece of music is that the formal descriptions don’t do justice to the overall sensation when all the elements come together, and Anderson seems coyly aware of this with his film. Moonrise Kingdom is a very formal work in terms of style and narrative, but the overall effect of the film is very different to what would be typically expected from such a deliberate approach to cinema. Instead of feeling detached and cold, Moonrise Kingdom is an extremely sweet and heartfelt portrayal of young love and how such love inspires the lives of others who encounter it.

Both Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are glorious contradictions. Cosmopolis deconstructs language, symbols and theories to present a sprawling and dense post-GFC Heart of Darkness. Cronenberg reveals himself to be a prankster as it becomes apparent that Cosmopolis is ultimately about arriving at a cultural and philosophical end point where nothing has any real meaning anymore. On the other hand, Moonrise Kingdom is an overtly stylised work set in the past where human behaviour is drolly reduced to ritual and routine. However, through this shines new love and the potential for many of the characters to find happiness. Anderson is a prankster too, appearing detached and indifferent and yet producing one of the year’s most warm and humane films. Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are beautifully crafted works that breakdown the way people relate to themselves and each other. One film offers a vision of our death, the other promises a new world.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

24 November 2011
Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers)

Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers)

Almost fifty years after it’s original 1964 release, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy masterpiece is still as terrifying, insightful and hilarious as ever. In one regard, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb functions as a time capsule in the way it so brilliantly encapsulates the very real Cold War fears of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and the more paranoid fears of Communist infiltration in America. However, while some of the players have changed, the threat of nuclear warfare is still a disturbing reality and something that can only really be faced via large servings of comedy. And the overall point of Dr Strangelove still remains: if something were to go wrong with the nuclear bomb, it would likely be due to human error. Furthermore, that error would very possibly be made by an over zealous nut in a position of power.

One of the defining aspects of the USA and USSR nuclear arms race was the mutual assured destruction (MAD) doctrine. The basic idea behind MAD was that if both sides built up enough weapons, then everybody would be too afraid to ever launch the first strike since the guaranteed retaliation would be too devesting. It’s a theoretically sound concept providing that both sides keep up with each other and no renegade element intervenes in the increasingly deadly standoff. In Dr Strangelove the MAD doctrine is represented by the American Plan R retaliation orders and the Russian Doomsday machine. Both are designed to set a counter nuclear attack in motion, be impossible to stop and therefore function as the ultimate deterrent. Enter Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the renegade element.

Dr Strangelove: Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden)

Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden)

Classic Hollywood cowboy and tough guy actor, Sterling Hayden is perfect as Ripper, playing the role completely straight. Scenes where he justifies launching a nuclear attack, criticises the government for not being equipped to cope with war and rants about ‘the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids’ could have come straight from the microphones of any number of contemporary talk back radio stations. A counterpoint to Hayden’s straight down the line performance is George C. Scott as General ‘Buck’ Turgidson. Scott, another tough guy actor, plays his role in the larger than life manner that Kubrick often demanded from performers such as Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980). What results is Scott coming across as part high school bully, part hyperactive little boy and part fanatical patriot. He blusters through every scene set in the Pentagon War Room, only falling quiet during the occasional moment when hit by a frightening realisation or when feeling admonished.

After Ripper’s office at the air force base and the War Room, the final main setting for Dr Strangelove is on board one of the America B-52 planes that has been sent to drop its deadly payload on Russia. Kubrick shoots many of these scenes in a similar fashion to how he would later film the scenes aboard the Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Initially, there’s a sense of mundane boredom and routine to the lives of the crew. Even when they spring into action the focus is on the processes and protocols that they follow. Similar to 2001 the idea is to show how automated the characters are and how their lives are dictated by technology. What makes the B-52 scenes in Dr Strangelove so entertaining is that in this almost sterile world of technology and military procedure, is the heavily Texan accented captain Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) who puts on a cowboy hat as soon as the attack orders are confirmed. There’s something so sweet and naive about the way Pickens plays the part, which he does sincerely, and this further adds to the film’s maddening charm.

Dr Strangelove: Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers)

Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers)

Then there is Peter Sellers, who plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the American president Merkin Muffley and the sinister German scientist Dr. Strangelove. Sellers, who had also appeared in Kubrick’s previous film Lolita (1962), is phenomenal in all three parts making Dr Strangelove possibly the only Kubrick film that arguably feels like it belongs more to its leading actor rather than its uncompromising auteur director. With the possible exception of Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979), Dr Strangelove is Sellers greatest performance(s). He’s delightfully proper as Mandrake, endearingly wet as Muffley and completely deranged as Strangelove. The final Strangelove scene, which is largely improvised, is so ridiculous, so over-the-top and so outrageous that if you look closely you can see actor Peter Bull, who plays Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, desperately trying not to laugh in the background.

Dr Strangelove is one of Stanley Kubrick’s many masterpieces, one of the greatest films about the Cold War and one of the greatest comedies ever made. Isolating particular standout moments is near impossible, although President Muffley’s awkward phone conversation with his unseen Russian counterpart never fails to amuse. The early use of ironic music is also a delight, with a lush orchestral version of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ playing over the opening titles depicting the sexualised imagery of a plane refuelling and Vera Lynn’s World War II hit ‘We’ll Meet Again’ playing over the film’s final images. Dr Strangelove was adapted from a serious novel titled Fail-Safe, which was more faithfully translated onto the screen by Sidney Lumet, also in 1964. While Lumet’s Fail-Safe is an excellent film, making Dr Strangelove as a comedy was a stroke of genius for Kubrick, who realised that the themes would carry even more weight if the film was funny. Major Kong riding a nuclear bomb like a rodeo horse is still one of the most hilarious and chilling images ever committed to film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Tree of Life (2011)

30 June 2011
The Tree of Life: Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.

To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

The Tree of Life: Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?

The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.

The Tree of Life: Jack (Sean Penn)

Jack (Sean Penn)

However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.

Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.

Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Free Will, Technology and Violence in a Futuristic Vision of Humanity – 2001: A Space Odyssey

3 June 2011

2001: A Space OdysseyStanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films of all time and it is the director’s most profound and confounding exploration of humanity’s relationship to technology, violence, sexuality and social structures. Kubrick’s philosophical inquiries about the nature of humanity are explored to various degrees throughout all his films but in 2001: A Space Odyssey he explored his preoccupations most substantially by examining the place that humans occupy in the universe, asking some extremely weighty questions about the way humanity has evolved and suggesting what the next stage of our evolution will be like.

Although loosely based on the short stories ‘The Sentinel’ and ‘Encounter in the Dawn’ by the acclaimed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who would simultaneously write the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey while Kubrick wrote the film’s screenplay, the film transcends its literary origins. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a work of cinematic poetry and its combination of philosophical musings with its special effects, sound design, production design, cinematography and editing make it just as visually impressive and thematically fascinating now as it was when originally released in 1968. It is a film that has inspired countless science-fiction films since, including Duncan Jones’s acclaimed feature film début Moon (2009), which is a direct homage.

While Clarke’s excellent novel is often used to unravel many of the narrative intricacies that are not immediately apparent in Kubrick’s film, it should largely be put aside for the purpose of conducting any serious analysis of the film.  Clarke’s novel is excellent science-fiction literature, but Kubrick’s film uses the visual and audible powers of cinema to their full potential to create a work of art that produces a sensory effect on the viewer that the written word cannot replicate. The majority of the meaning to explore in 2001: A Space Odyssey is in its visuals, not in its dialogue or characterisation.

2001: A Space OdysseyMost of Kubrick’s films contain a sense of despair over the way humans are capable of treating each other. Institutionalised violence and different types of unnatural conformity feature throughout Kubrick’s films as dehumanising and soul-destroying forces. In Paths of Glory (1975) three innocent French soldiers are executed for cowardice during World War I in order to deflect responsibility of a failed attack away from the orders of an incompetent upper command. The horror film The Shining (1980) places its supernatural elements into the background and functions as a parable for domestic violence when the father of a family looking after a hotel violently takes out his frustrations on his wife and son. The American soldiers in Full Metal Jacket (1987) are first stripped of their identities and transformed into killing machines during their training to then be sent to Vietnam where they symbolically align themselves with cowboys and joke, ‘the gooks can play the Indians’.

Kubrick does seem to believe that violence is innate to humanity and the role of civilisation is to create structures for suppressing that violence without going too far to the other extreme where the social structures are themselves violent or overly restrictive in nature. The exploration of violence within humanity can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey and yet it is arguably the only film Kubrick made that could be interpreted to offer some hope for humanity to transcend its inherently destructive ways. However, before suggesting that 2001: A Space Odyssey can be therefore regarded as an optimistic film it should be noted that this hope comes in the unlikely guise of alien interference and the cold and cynical guise of sterile technology.

2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the birth of technology during the section titled ‘The Dawn of Man’. The ape-like primates who will later evolve into modern humans are depicted as on the brink of dying out. They are herbivores with not enough to eat, they are vulnerable to predators, they squabble over a small pool of water with a rival tribe and they are terrified of the dark. After encountering the alien black monolith one of the apes simultaneously learns to use a bone to hunt with as well as use it to kill with. Technology is used to kill for food and to kill for territory. Tools and weapons are thus depicted as being linked together throughout humanity’s evolution with one group having to kill another in order to wield power for their tribe to survive.

2001: A Space OdysseyIn one of the greatest graphic match edits ever depicted in cinema, Kubrick cuts from the bone being triumphantly thrown into the air to a satellite in orbit three million years later. This dramatic cut links the two objects as tools of humanity but also draws attention to the vast differences between them. One is a crude and Earth-bound tool/weapon with a simple function while the other is a sophisticated and complex object that has left the planet to now serve humanity in space.

Kubrick seems to have extremely mixed feelings about technology as it is frequently depicted as a threat to humanity (for example the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) and yet he also views it as something beautiful. The first sequence set in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey is an extended, dialogue and plot-less sequence where Kubrick simply allows technology to dance. At first glance this sequence depicting the various satellites and spaceships, set to Johann Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’, may seem long and unnecessary but it is a crucial scene to understanding Kubrick’s vision of the future. The use of music and movement is designed to give the impression of the machines waltzing, which is the ultimate expression of the state of grace that humanity-built technology has now achieved. The days of bashing each other over the heads with bones is long gone as now humanity is capable of creating technology that can reach the stars and operate with the finesse of lovers dancing.

Not only is the use of Strauss’s waltz music romantically evocative but there is also a sexual symbolism in moments such as the space-plane docking into the wheel-shaped shape station (the wheel-shape also commenting on how far technology has progressed). Kubrick had previously presented machines in a sexual way in Dr. Strangelove when during the opening credits the image of a B-52 being connected midair to a fuelling plane is underscored by a lush orchestration version of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. This sequence in Dr. Strangelove and the films overall sexual wordplays and innuendo is deliberately comical and suggests an absurd sexualization of objects of war. Kubrick would again do this in Full Metal Jacket when the army recruits are encouraged to sexualise their rifles.  However, in 2001 the effect is different as the sexualization of the machines is far les brutal, comical or overtly suggestive. Instead there is something almost chaste and sterile about the sequence.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe sense of sterility is further reflected by the extremely clean and corporate look given to the space station that Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) disembarks onto. The modernist furniture, bright white lights and smooth surfaces all reflect a bland uniformity that is not dissimilar to the corporate branded world that is satirised in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009). The conversation between Heywood and the Russian scientists indicates that in this version of the future the Cold War persists, or there are at least still tensions between the USA and Russia, however, discourse is polite and there is no hint of violence. Is this the price of humanity has paid for evolving beyond the desire to kill – complete blandness?

The idea of technology erasing violence but also erasing the desires and freewill that define what makes us human is also explored by Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971). As part of a zero tolerance approach to crime the film’s protagonist, the charismatic yet sociopathic teenager Alex DeLarge, is subjected to a controversial behavioural-correction treatment that makes him experience nausea whenever he starts to have any violent or sexual feelings. A Clockwork Orange suggests that stifling such urges is a bad thing because it suppresses the will and therefore the identity of the subject. What good is it for somebody to do good when they have no choice otherwise? In Alex’s case he also becomes sickened by the sound of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as a side effect of his treatment. While Alex’s violence is clearly depicted as destructive his neutering also has a morally adverse effect.

Kubrick is clearly anti-conflict and anit-violence but he is also against any system of over regulation that reduces humans to virtual automations. While the utopian technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey is something to be marvelled at it also comes with a price, which is fully explored in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ section of the film. The dehumanising effect of over-regulation is critiqued in this section by depicting the human characters Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as almost emotionless servants of Discovery One. The three other scientists onboard are kept frozen in cryogenic hibernation making them virtual machines waiting to be switched on when required by the two ‘caretakers’ Bowman and Poole. The music that Kubrick uses during these scenes evokes the lonely emptiness of space but if Bowman or Poole feel melancholia, or any other emotion, then they don’t show it. Even when Poole receives a birthday message from his parents on Earth he barely registers any emotion.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe only character on board Discovery One with any traces of humanity is the computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Programmed by humans to conceal key truths from Bowman and Poole as well as preserving the mission at all costs, which ends up translating as resorting to murder, HAL is still the most sympathetic character on board. His flawed programming that results in violence is the result of his human developers, suggesting that humans have once again misused technology. While the deaths of the human characters are cold, mechanical and emotionless, HAL’s death is extremely moving. Pleading with Bowman to not shut him down and then spiralling into delirium, HAL’s death is given the most dramatic significance in the film.

Placing sympathy and humanity onto a machine character instead of the human characters is an effective way of establishing the dehumanising effect of the modern world. It is a technique that has since become very popular in science-fiction films making a similar comment about a society where the humans are so machine-like that the machines seem human by contrast. The replicants in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Bishop in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Murphy once he has become the cyborg enforcer in RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) and even The Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) all express compassion, passions and degrees of empathy that most of the human characters in the films fail to possess.

At the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey humanity has reached a point where civilisation and technology have appeared to have outgrown the primitive brutality of violence that developed when humanity first evolved due to the intervention of the monolithic aliens. However, this evolution has now brought humanity to a false-Utopian state of sterility, passivity and clinical coldness where a computer resorts to killing the humans it is supposed to work for in order to preserve its mission. Just as the early human-ape creatures at the start of the film were at the point where they could go no further by themselves, the humans in the film’s version of the year 2001 are also required to now undergo the next step in evolution.

2001: A Space OdysseyThis next evolutionary process is depicted in the concluding segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey titled ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ when the film adopts the point-of-view of Bowman to take the audience through an extraordinary psychodelic experience that is designed to represent the enormity and significance of what is happening. While the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey informs the reader that Bowman is physically transported through an alien made Star Gate, the sensation of the sequence in the film could easily be interpreted as a mental or even spiritual transcendence onto a higher plane of consciousness. Delivered into an ornate eighteenth-century room that is uncanny in its out-of-context familiarity, time appears to fold in on itself as Bowman witnesses himself in progressively older incarnations, before adopting those incarnations to eventually be reborn.

As the distinctive notes and crashing drums of Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are heard for the final time to once again signal the next giant step for humanity, we are left with what we are to assume is what Bowman has become – an unborn child floating in space looking down on planet Earth. This dramatic final shot contains a sensation of awe and triumph and then the repeat of the  ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz over the end credits reinstates a sense of hope and beauty with this outcome.

However, what should we really deduce from this ending? Is humanity being transformed into the blank slate of an unborn star child something to hope for? Does such an ending suggest that given the way we are now there is no other hope for our species to survive? Since Kubrick is so critical of social and political structures that force humans to adopt a way living that is restrictive and contradicts freewill then what do we make of the idea that the entire human race have been manipulated by an alien intelligence since the very beginning? Is being under the control of a higher intelligence a source of comfort or the ultimate irony in Kubrick’s cinematic exploration of violence and artificial codes of behaviour throughout his career? The ultimate meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is as deliberately ambiguous as the motives and origins of the black monoliths whose gift of heightened intelligence gave humanity the tools it needed to both survive and self-destruct.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 58 (Winter 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

16 February 2010

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

27 December 2008

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

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Film review – Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

6 February 2007

A film adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s best selling and critically acclaimed novel, originally titled Das Parfum, has been considered ever since its release in 1985. Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are among those who regrettably declared the novel unfilmable. Over twenty years later director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) has created a flawed yet engaging film that propels the viewer into its 18th Century France setting.

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