Anthony's Film Review

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Dark and disturbing, yet thought-provoking and inspiring, A Clockwork Orange is a memorable film...

A Clockwork Orange, written by Anthony Burgess, was a novel I read many years ago out of curiosity since the book has been heralded as a classic in dystopian science-fiction. I was taken by the themes of the story (which I will discuss in a bit) as well as the creative writing style that is heavy in slang, with words like "droog" and "malchick" whose meaning can be inferred from context (though I'm sure a glossary for this book is available somewhere if anyone wants to use it). Years later, I would finally get a chance to watch Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the book, and I must say that the film reinvigorated my interest in the book by allowing me to relive it with the director's vision of the story.

Like the book, the film takes place in a near-future dystopian England where the main character, a sociopathic adolescent named Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell), spends his nights with three friends raping women and violently beating other innocent people. Alex's menace can be felt from the moment the film starts. Right after the brief opening title, we see a close-up of Alex's face, with his wide-eyed stare and evil smile, before the camera slowly pulls back to reveal more of the lounge where he and his three buddies hang out. The place is filled with many statues of nude women in provocative sexual positions, obviously a way to let us know that we can expect graphic nudity and sex to follow in this film.

The first part of the movie shows Alex committing some acts of rape and violence. To say that this is an unsettling film is an understatement, because it can definitely be described as dark and sadistic. At the same time, it's not as bad as one might think. That's because such scenes are accompanied, interestingly, by pleasant classical music that dampens the darkness a little. Then again, it's a reflection of Alex who loves three things: sex, violence, and music, especially the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Yes, even this horrible character has one likable trait.

Ultimately, the law catches up to Alex. After a botched home invasion that leaves a yoga-loving woman dead, Alex is arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for murder. He is forced to identify himself by an inmate number, 655321, and attend the prison's weekly religious services. But that isn't enough for Alex. He wants to get out as soon as possible. He also understands that becoming good again is a necessity, which is why he requests that he undergo the Ludovico technique, a psychological treatment that is believed to cure immoral behavior and allow a horrible criminal like him to be fully rehabilitated and return to society.

And so he does. What Alex endures is two weeks of conditioning via aversion therapy. With his eyelids forcibly held open, he must watch films of graphic violence and rape while being administered a drug that induces feelings of sickness. The idea is to condition Alex so that any attempts at committing and rape only result in an ill feeling that instantly stops him. At one point, one of the violent films plays a Beethoven piece, but despite Alex's plea to not play his favorite music during the Ludovico technique, the doctors overseeing the treatment brush it aside as a minor inconvenience.

Once it's over, Alex does look as if he's cured. He doesn't respond when someone physically humiliates him or a topless woman approaches him. However, Alex cannot defend himself when he needs to, especially when characters from earlier in the movie get their revenge on Alex. You can also imagine that nonviolent consensual sex won't be something he can enjoy anymore. But worst of all, Beethoven's music induces intense unpleasant reactions. This harmless form of entertainment Alex loves now drives him mad, and he eventually reaches a breaking point.

Besides being a visually stunning film with a great cast, A Clockwork Orange is a thought-provoking film with plenty of themes. For example, can mental health treatment have pitfalls as well as benefits? A bioethicist would certainly appreciate this aspect of the movie. I was also taken by the theme of eye for an eye. If someone victimizes you, is it a good idea to inflict the same pain in return when you have a chance, or would doing so only turn you into the same kind of monster? And what if that perpetrator truly sees the wrongs of his or her ways? Would you forgive that person? I kept thinking of this when the "cured" Alex ends up getting beaten himself by the same people he had previously beaten. For a while, I did have compassion for Alex.

But more importantly, A Clockwork Orange presents its central theme on the nature of morality. As one supporting character proclaims, being good is something that one chooses to do, contrary to the Ludovico technique that forces one to be good against his or her will. That's where I form my interpretation of this movie's title: if you take an orange, pull out its sweet insides, and stuff it with clockwork gears and other mechanical parts, you don't really have an orange anymore, because you've taken its essence away. Similarly, Alex's treatment designed to make him good only makes him less of a human being. In fact, I can think of other things in real life that dehumanize people in an effort to force them into an ideal, like strict religious practices, oppressive governments with an unrealistic vision of a perfect society, heartless parents who care more about having an ideal child than loving the child the way he or she is, and even overly bureaucratic corporate procedures. The ultimate message is that it's better for a person to choose to be good, even if there is the risk of bad decision-making, than to be forced to be good while feeling dead rather than alive.

The underlying themes, the great cast, and the stunning visual presentation are why I definitely admired A Clockwork Orange. It can regenerate interest in the book, as it did for me, as well as tell the same story for those who have not read the book. It's also a fine cinematic work from filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, so you definitely should check it out if you want to explore his best works. A Clockwork Orange is certainly one of the most unique films ever made, not to mention one of the best.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about A Clockwork Orange, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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