Like him or not, it's hard to argue that director Stanley Kubrick hasn't made some classic, even landmark films, especially in his early-to-middle period. "Paths of Glory" (1957) remains one of the two or three best antiwar movies of all time; "Spartacus" (1960) is one of the most literate and intelligent historical epics of the big screen; "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) is the cinema's definitive black comedy; and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) set new standards for its use of imagery, music, and special effects to tell a story. Which brings us to "A Clockwork Orange" (1971).
All of Kubrick's films have generated controversy, but this one engendered outright hostility. A tongue-in-cheek social satire, it initially received an X rating in America (later changed to an R after about twenty seconds of trimming), and at the suggestion of the English police Kubrick withdrew it from England altogether after several juvenile gangs admitted to copying the crimes depicted in the movie. Still, people everywhere appreciated the movie for its devastating attacks on rampant youth violence, social injustice, medical ineptitude, and, most especially, government hypocrisy. It's not an easy film to evaluate and may, perhaps, have picked up a certain following for the wrong reasons, but it's undoubtedly a film that people everywhere can argue and enjoy. Looking and sounding better than ever in this new HD DVD edition remastered from restored elements, the film continues to be thoughtful, savage, and funny, a combination seldom attempted by Hollywood filmmakers.
Basing the movie on the 1963 novel by Anthony Burgess, Kubrick retains the story's English setting, somewhere in the mid twenty-first century, and Kubrick also retains much of the book's language, containing words newly made up by the author. Kubrick doesn't go quite as far as Burgess, who required a glossary of terms at the end of his book, but the director does give us the flavor of this future language. Here's a sample taken from the early pages of the novel and inserted directly into the movie: "...we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.... They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prooding some of the veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemese or drencrom...." You get the idea.
Once establishing the place and time, Kubrick introduces us to the main character, a young, rebellious, teenaged hoodlum named Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who hangs out evenings with his three cronies getting high and committing crimes of "ultraviolence." Theft, murder, mayhem, and rape are the order of the day for these young fellows in the movie's future world, a comment, naturally, on the crime in our own present-day society. Kubrick always presents the violence in a highly stylized manner, though--using quick cuts, slow motion, and speeded-up effects, mainly, accompanied by classical music or, in the case of one of the story's first major crime sprees, "Singin' in the Rain." Now, you may complain that the stylization and music trivialize the brutality and horror of the crimes, thus rendering them less serious and more prone to imitation. But one can also argue that the director is juxtaposing the beautiful with the grotesque in his own surreal arrangement to startle us and fix the imagery in our minds all the more clearly. He was a director who consciously strove for the ambiguous in an effort to force his viewers to make choices. It's in the nature of symbolism that one can and should interpret the symbols in varying ways. One thing is certain: Kubrick created moving pictures that stick with us, whether we like them or not.
There are two beatings, a near killing, a gang fight, a break-in, a rape, and an attempted rape all within the movie's first twenty minutes. It's a harsh future the film portrays, with the cities trashed and sexual evocations everywhere, even to a snake Alex keeps in a dresser drawer. A clever touch is that we see the soundtrack album to "2001: A Space Odyssey" prominently displayed at a record shop Alex frequents. Kubrick parades sex, nudity, violence, murder, and rape openly yet with taste and, yes, macabre humor. Part one ends with Alex's capture and conviction on homicide charges.
Part two of three parts recounts Alex's experiences in prison, where the government decides to rehabilitate him through a bizarre series of brainwashing experiments. Here, the film changes its focus from criticizing society's degeneracy to criticizing corrupt politicians who use Alex in their attempts to gain greater glory for themselves. Alex's counselor, Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), appears to be just as depraved as Alex and the Minister of Interior just as self-centered. The government feels it must do something to clean up the country's youth crime, so they adopt the Lotevico Technique on select prisoners, Alex in particular. The "technique" takes away all free will, at the end of which forcing its subject to choose only "good." Alex becomes a pawn, a puppet, in the hands of the politicians, but he's willing to do anything to get out of fourteen years of prison. After all, his only interest while serving time seems to be fantasizing about the seamier elements of the Bible. Needless to say, one of the movie's major themes is that without free will to choose, we are nothing.
Part three of the film slows down considerably from the first two thirds and can appear to drag on endlessly, but it eventually gets its point across: The treatment turns out to be worse than the crime. Alex, once "cured" of his antisocial behavior and released to the free world, gets physically ill at the very thought of sex or violence. The society in which Alex lives turns out in many ways to be more corrupt than the actual criminal element represented by Alex. His past gang buddies even wind up as cops!
As the old cockney phrase goes, the world is "as crazy as a clockwork orange."
The disc case says that the screen ratio is 1.66:1, the film's original theatrical size, yet it completely filled my widescreen television; so for all intents and purposes I'd say it was 1.78:1. In any case, the VC-1, high-resolution video does a good job capturing Kubrick's picture. This is not to say, however, that all viewers are going to like what they see. Kubrick was very keen on shooting in natural light, and as McDowell tells us in the audio commentary, the director lit most of the indoor scenes with normal light bulbs and window light. The result is that there aren't the kind of bright, hit-you-in-the-face visuals that some viewers associate with typical motion pictures; there's just a realistic simplicity. Moreover, the natural lighting gives the image a somewhat soft appearance, so you live with it. The HD transfer does everything it can, I'm sure, to represent what's on the print, and, I can assure you, that's pretty good. Kubrick began his life in pictures as a still photographer and migrated to motion pictures. The photography, imagery, lighting, and framing in his movies are so good, in fact, that you could hang any given shot on the wall. They are like works of art.
The audio engineers do up the sound, mostly dialogue and background music, in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Both soundtracks are admirably free of noise, but neither one does much in the rear channels. As was Kubrick's wont, the director took a lot of his music from various commercial recordings of the time, recordings mainly of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, several of Rossini's overtures, a few selections from Elgar, Purcell, and Rimsky-Korsakov, several Moog synthesizer realizations by Wendy Carlos, and, of course, the Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown song "Singin' in the Rain," performed by Gene Kelly. It's still good sound, if a tad edgy in parts, and slightly fuller and more robust in TrueHD. It's just not quite state-of-the-art movie sound by today's standards.
Disc one of this special-edition, two-disc HD DVD set contains the feature film; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese subtitles; thirty-five scene selections; and an outstandingly informative and entertaining audio commentary by star Malcolm McDowell and film historian Nick Redman. Between McDowell's inside knowledge and high good humor and Redman's intelligent questions and comments, the two men provide one of the few such commentaries I sat through in its entirety.
Disc two contains only four items, but you'll understand in a moment the necessity for a second HD DVD. Things begin with a Channel Four documentary in standard definition called "Still Tickin': The Return of A Clockwork Orange," a forty-three-minute look at the novel and the movie with filmmakers, artists, writers, critics, and the movie's star. Following that is a twenty-eight-minute featurette called "Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: Making A Clockwork Orange," also in standard def, this time with filmmakers like William Friedkin, Hugh Hudson, Peter Hyams, George Lucas, Sidney Pollack, Steven Spielberg, and others. The third bonus item is the killer, though: a ninety-minute career profile of Malcolm McDowell called "O Lucky Malcolm!" in high definition. Not even a thirty gigabyte disc could hold almost four hours of high-definition material plus the other, standard-def extras. Things conclude with a widescreen, SD theatrical trailer, and WB's usual HD DVD goodies like pop-up menus, bookmarks, a guide to elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan function, and an Elite Red HD case.
Although "A Clockwork Orange" gets its points across early on and begins beating the viewer over the head with them by the end, its tongue-in-cheek humor, its stylized imagery, and McDowell's wonderfully understated performance are worth every minute of one's time.