A Clockwork Orange (Remastered) Review
A tramp character in A Clockwork Orange early on makes the statement “What sort of a world is it all? Men on the moon, and men flying around the Earth and there’s not no attention played to Earthly law and order no more”. This is immediately prior to his ruthless assault at the hands of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of three “droogs” and suggests that Stanley Kubrick has fallen down to Earth with a bump. An adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ cult novel, A Clockwork Orange explores the possibilities of a “future” where law and order has broken down to be replaced by an ineffective and immoral society of thuggish gangs, thuggish cops and selfish politicians. Even more disturbingly, the film makes quite clear how close this is to our (and the film is particularly British) own current situation.
Alex is our hero and narrator, introduced in his milieu of the “Korova Milk Bar” by one of the bravura tracking shots that have been Kubrick’s trademark. The story is split roughly into three equal sections. The first consists of Alex and his droogs wreaking havoc on fellow gangs and innocent members of the public, notably a writer whose wife is raped and, we later learn, dies of her injuries. This episode comes to an end when Alex’s gang rebels against his autocratic rule, immediately following a fatal assault on a female writer. The next episode puts Alex in prison where he bides his time doing bible studies (“not the later part, which is all preachy talk” but the battles and action, Kubrick here evoking his earlier Spartacus) and generally keeping his head down. His chance for parole arrives when is picked for a new experiment, effectively brainwashing him and giving him an aversion to violence. He wants to commit it, but it makes him sick. The final chapter of the film follows a defenceless Alex as he meets his former victims one by one (including his parents, former droogies, the tramp and the writer), and they take their revenge. Ultimately we are asked to question whether Alex’s treatment is a valid solution for his behaviour, and should we really celebrate his return to wicked ways?
Kubrick is back in black comedy territory here, in possibly the most fully realised “first-person” film ever made. Alex is our narrator throughout (using his impenetrable "nadsat" dialect, a parody of teen-speak and way of disguising the true nature of his crimes) but even more so than that, Kubrick as director is Alex. Everything is choreographed from his point of view, from the speeded-up elation of the sex and violence via the fantasy Beethoven sequences to the drudgery and blankness of prison life. Everyone Alex meets is filtered through his own peculiar sensibility so that all adults talk and act ridiculously, caught up in their own banal concerns or forming caricatures of authority (overbearing parole officers, thuggish police, disciplinarian prison officers, smarmy politicians). With so little respect for anyone other than himself, we are drawn inexorably into Alex’s world until we are almost willing him to destroy and hurt, a process helped immeasurably by McDowell’s charismatic performance. Kubrick’s insistence on the worthlessness of everything depicted here (only Alex himself truly appreciates art, in the form of Beethoven) can make depressing viewing, and this and his refusal to allow any “solution” to the problems depicted has frustrated many viewers and critics. Those prepared to overlook these little problems and enjoy the “games” being played (something missed by the thugs who used the film as an excuse for violence upon its release back in the 70s) should enjoy themselves immensely.
Shot on a relatively low budget in real locations with lightweight cameras, this movie plays down the sumptuousness of Kubrick's later works in favour of a harsh, extreme look which perfectly suits the point of view and Alex's twisted outlook. Shot in Kubrick's favoured ratio of 1.66:1, Warners have decided (apparently at the late director's wishes) that the film should not be cropped in any way, hence this disc lacks anamorphic enhancement. 16:9 TV owners will regret that Warners did not opt to "window-box" the image (present it in 16:9 with small black bars at the sides), although this also can result in the image being cropped top and bottom and is less than satisfactory for 4:3 TV owners.
A compromise then, but in every other way the image is stunning. The remastered image is clean of blemishes and brings forth a level of detail truly alien to anybody more familiar with shoddy bootleg videos (the film having been unavailable from 1973 to 2000 on the director's wishes after the media and public furore became too much). Edge enhancement is minimal as are other digital artifacts. The film employs garish colour schemes (from the title sequence to the hideous decor and clothing worn by everyone besides the white-suited droogs) and bizarre lenses and lighting, and the DVD copes with everything admirably. The film is more in-your-face than ever!
The audio is in every way as innovative as the visuals, despite similarly basic origins (most dialogue being recorded on-set with new lightweight microphones). The most noteworthy aspect is undoubtedly the innovative soundtrack which features plenty of Alex's favoured "Ludwig Van" both in traditional and electronic guises, the latter masterminded by legendary electro-pioneer Walter (later Wendy) Carlos. The music is inseperable from the images throughout - how many plots use the lead character's absolute aversion to, and later reconciliation with a particular piece of music as a major plot device?
Originally presented in mono and with the typical restrictions inherent in early 70's non-big-budget filmmaking, the soundtrack has here received a sympathetic 5.1 channel remix. This is not a film that requires surround-sound excellence (it caused enough fuss with one channel), but it's pleasing to hear the music in stereo ("real" or simulated, it's difficult to tell) and Alex's voiceover solidly directed to the centre channel. Panning effects are minimal and surrounds limited to the most subtle atmospheric effects, but overall this disc allows the film a new lease of life in the 21st Century while preserving the character of one of the most effective soundtracks ever.
It's disappointing to find the extras limited to just a trailer (albeit one as innovative as the film itself), when there is so much interesting background to the film. Although Kubrick did not allow documentary of the filming itself, the media attention and lasting impact of the movie has been the basis of many books and TV programmes and it's a shame that Warner (and/or the "Kubrick Estate") has not deigned to include any similar material here.
As one of the most influential science fiction films ever and a pop-culture masterpiece, it's difficult to see how a DVD of A Clockwork Orange could be anything less than a must-have. If the audio and video were less than top-notch (as on the previous DVD edition) then it would be more difficult to recommend, but here the feature quality is exemplary. Given the unrepentant attitude of the disc producers to "let the film stand for itself" it's unlikely we'll ever see a special edition of this film, so fans should eat this up. The red, red vino has never seemed more real...