Stanley Kubrick is one of the most acclaimed and well-known directors of all time. Over his nearly fifty year-long careers he has directed many films that people consider classics. I find it fascinating that within his films he covered many different genres. With this article, I would like to examine how Kubrick has made classics in many different genres. I will look at how they are considered so as well as what I find effective about them. I will cover four different films.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In 1968 Kubrick directed, co-wrote, and produced what is considered as not just one of the most important pieces of science fiction cinema ever but also one of the most important films ever. With this film, Kubrick has created one of the most timeless pieces of science fiction media. Whilst the film polarised audiences upon its release (and in my experience still does to this day) it has gained a large amount of acclaim since its release. It took home an Oscar for its visual effects and upon watching the film today you can see why. The special effects mostly hold up even in HD.
One reason I feel that 2001 is effective is in how it has a realistic quality. This being assisted by both its visual designs as well as its use of sound. The film contains lots of long and slow shots in it. Whether that be of people maneuvering a ship or moving around in the vacuum of space the film contains a lot of almost static shots. These scenes are combined with various sounds that help to draw you in. For example, one scene involves a character floating out into space. The only sound you hear in this scene is the character’s breathing. This helps to make the scene intense due to its use of realism. It contains elements that work more in service of cinematic spectacle instead of realism (such as the wormhole sequence) but I appreciate how the film, for the most part, stays somewhat more realistic.
The film has influenced many different films since. An example of this being Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Upon watching this film you can see how it has taken many cues from 2001 and mixed it with original series Star Trek. One scene in which this is evident is when Spock descends into V’Ger vessel. The use of colour, as well as its design, looks somewhat similar to what is present in the wormhole sequence in 2001. One could also say that the slow pacing and long special effects shots are reminiscent of 2001 also.
In 1975 he directed and produced this film. He also wrote the screenplay which is based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Much like 2001 it garnered a mixed reaction when it was first released but then went on to be more acclaimed as time went on. It is a favourite amongst directors such as Martin Scorsese and Lars Von Trier. The film was nominated for seven Oscars and took home four (those being for Art Direction, Costume Design, Cinematography, and Scoring). Upon watching the film it is easy to see why this is. From a technical standpoint, this is, in my opinion, one of Kubrick’s most impressive films.
One reason I feel that Barry Lyndon is an effective example of the ‘period drama’ is due to its commitment to recapturing that aesthetic. The film does this in many ways. One of these is in how the film tries to make it’s lighting appear natural. The film does not have a cinematic sheen to it in that sense. With some scenes, he used candlelight whereas in other scenes he used artificial light but uses it in a way to make it seem more natural. This helping the film to further capture it’s 1700’s setting. Another way it does this is by its costuming. It pulls a lot of inspiration from classical paintings. When watching the film it is easy to see this given how many of the shots are composed. There is a lot of detail put into the visual design of the film. Whether that be through the orientation of the characters or the shot types are chosen.
In 1980 he directed, produced, and co-wrote (with Diane Johnson) an adaptation of Stephen King’s book The Shining. As with a lot of his films, it garnered a mixed reception upon release (with author Stephen King disliking it) but over time has been given a much warmer reception. The film is now considered one of the best horror films of all time. It also stands as my personal favourite Kubrick film. The film is incredibly iconic and has been both parodied and been the subject of homage over the years.
One reason I feel that this film is effective is due to its use of tension throughout. As Jack Torrance’s (played excellently by Jack Nicolson) mind starts to unravel throughout the film we see how that affects his family dynamic. While it is cut out in some releases of the film there is an implication of Jack being an alcoholic and him attacking Danny (his son) in the past. While the film does contain elements of the supernatural it somewhat remains grounded throughout. It makes it an effective horror film as you can somewhat feel this could happen in real life. When you break it down it is a man going insane and trying to kill his family. There are sadly many stories of this that happen in real life. I also like how it sparingly uses the violence that can be seen as conventional in horror cinema. It allows for the times that it is used to be that much more disturbing to watch.
Full Metal Jacket
In 1987 he directed, produced, and co-wrote (with Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford) this film based on Hasford’s book The Short-Timers. Unlike a lot of Kubrick’s films, it actually garnered a positive reaction at the time. Although interestingly Roger Ebert disliked it despite being a defender of the Kubrick films I have already talked about. It is seen as one of the best war films ever and in my opinion, is the second-best film concerning the Vietnam war (after Apocalypse Now).
One reason I feel that this is an effective war film is due to it not glorifying it as well as showing the much darker side to war. Much like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now we view the film through a single character who is mentally changed after the film’s climax. While this film does not contain as much deeply affecting imagery as Coppola’s film it does make a strong impact on the viewer. Even during the boot camp scenes, which compromise the film’s first half we see how R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman mentally affects the recruits due to his ruthless methods. Despite the fact that the role has been parodied endlessly (sometimes employing Ermey to do so) it still is affecting due to the fact it’s played completely straight. He uses his creative insults and forms of abuse to beat the recruits into what the army would consider good shape. Whilst this wasn’t the first and certainly isn’t the last film to do this I find his performance one of the most effective. Even outside of war cinema one can see the influence of this character in films such as Whiplash (with J.K. Simmons’s character). When the film continues to the war setting we see how the various characters are affected by what they see. They are forced to do things that many would consider inhumane in the name of victory at war. We see how this can change someone’s mental state. It is disturbing on both a visual and psychological level.