[12 September 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
War and the exploration of space. The horrors that are/were Vietnam and the infinite possibilities of contact with another, alien race. Is there a connection? Is there a way of making comparative sense out of one of the greatest sci-fi statements of the 20th century and one of the most condemning critiques of war ever committed to film. Well, beyond their positions as part of the Sight & Sound Greatest movies list and the men who made them, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now argue for the same struggle - the place of humanity in the bigger picture presence of the universe. It’s easy to see in Kubrick’s vision of life beyond our stars. For Coppola and his complex lament over man’s inhumanity to man, the vision is far fuzzier.
For many, each film represents the pinnacle of the their particular genre. 2001 is often cited as the greatest example of speculative fiction ever. It doesn’t even answer its own questions. Instead, it presents a certain scenario (large monoliths, both on Earth and elsewhere, indicated a technologically superior influence on the evolution of life) and then uses it to mirror the problems facing two astronauts and a suddenly sentient computer. Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, takes its military investigator/assassin deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia, exposing the insanity and chaos that comes from an ill-planned policy and that most evil of sovereign entropies - power.
Initially, you can see slight similarities. While on his mission to the moon, Dr. Heywood Floyd runs into a Russian contingent who is concerned about the US involvement on our closest neighboring satellite. After politely declining to discuss details, the suspicious looks from everyone suggests a future filled with continuing Cold War tensions (naturally, the ‘80s/‘90s altered that prediction irreparably). The reasons why we are in Vietnam are never really a part of Apocalypse Now‘s motives. Instead, Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard is on a personal quest to bring down a rogue officer (Marlon Brando’s despotic Col. Kurtz) whose building his own loyal army deep within the confines of the conflict.
Both films therefore follow journeys, sometimes more than one. Heywood heads to the lunar surface, where he learns a startling truth about the ancient, suspect monoliths. We then move forward to the outskirts of Jupiter, and the story of astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). Along with several team members in stasis, they are aided by a super intelligent computer named HAL who may or may not have their best interests at heart. Willard hooks up with a ragtag boat crew, a collection of caricatures including a teen bad-ass (Laurence Fishburne), a stoned surfer (Sam Bottoms), a wannabe chef (Frederic Forrest) and a no nonsense commander (Albert Hall). As with Dante’s descent into the Underworld, our collective enter layer upon layer of malevolent absurdity, all leading to the evil Kurtz core.
While getting there is indeed half the battle (in one case, literally), what each film finds at the end marks a major aesthetic turning point. Both conclusions claim a certain cosmic completeness - Dave, now disconnected from his spaceship and its despotic artificial intelligence, if sent through a series of hippy era ‘happenings,’ his travels leading to a surreal finale where he sits in a stylish room, ages rapidly, and then transforms into an infant (the next step in man’s continuing evolution, if you consider the start). Willard, on the other hand, finds a clearly demented Kurtz clamoring on about errand boys, individual manipulation, and other mystical mumbo jumbo. He’s a figure in love with his own import, a man made ready to die by the hand of those who no longer listen to his own particular drum beat.
In 2001, we are meant to meditate on the place we humans hold in the universe. Like considering your place on the planet, and then moving one step further…into the sky…into the Milky Way…into the greater mystery of the Universe as a whole, the film finds a way to argue philosophically about something without actually quoting scholars. It’s visual perception, time and temperament measured in stars and interplanetary symbols. Apocalypse Now is all macho argumentation, acuity auctioned off like so much meat at a cattle ranch. Willard’s fragile psyche would see a perfect fit for his targets misguided religion, but our hero is actually unnerved by what he finds. Like all issues of war and remembrance, people are dying for decisions which don’t lead to clear cut conclusions.
When brought down to their main creative components, both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now are true explorations of what it means to be human. They are quizzes which contain answers as well as topics for further discussion. Neither accurately reflects their subject (no matter what Coppola and collaborator John Milius would have you believe about their take on the “real Vietnam’). Instead, they are artistic impressions, visions with more than mere representation on their mind. Each applies its genre tropes to a greater good, finding truths and hidden messages within other standard cinematic steps. Even more interesting is the fact that neither film offers up a true resolution. Willard kills Kurtz, but what does it mean? Will he be rewarded? Rejected? Take the mad Colonel’s place? And what of the Starchild? Is it really there to stop nuclear war (as many have read into the narrative) or just a really cool - and confusing - last shot.
Apparently, ambiguity exemplifies art. It definitely brings together such divergent elements as space exploration and bloodshed on the battlefield. But there are far more concrete links between the number six choices on the S&S list beyond their ability to move audiences and make them think. Indeed, both 2001 and Apocalypse Now address non-personal subjects in very personal terms, turning universal ideas into individualized insights. In the end, we see ourselves and our fellow human beings even as the surrounding backdrop bubbles with heretofore unseen majesty/menace. Whether diving into the darkness of another angry person or marveling at an infinite selection of stars, it’s all about who we are and what we represent. The setting is ancillary. The circumstances the same. It’s the people who populate these particulars that make all the difference…and create the connections.