In a dystopian Britain where people roam the streets in strange face masks, Alex (Malcolm MacDowell) and his gang of droogs engage in a nightly crime spree that makes The Purge look like the porgs. But when Alex’s luck runs out he’s subjected to a new treatment which seeks to cure him of his criminal tendencies.
The procedure may render Alex incapable of committing a criminal act, but as a mechanism for creating genuinely reformed characters it’s about as effective as a Nadsat satnav. By causing an unavoidable physical revulsion at the idea of wrongdoing it removes any real choice from the perpetrator, like a person blindly following their satnav down a country road.
Three years on from 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange could scarcely be more different within the sci-fi genre, as the hope and optimism of the 60s crash back to earth with the cynicism of the 70s. Unremittingly horrible, it’s easy to see why it was banned. A film without any real good guys, like American Psycho its inhumanly empathy-free main character is the only one to avoid the hypocrisy of the society he inhabits.
But where American Psycho‘s suits are obsessed with wealth and status to the point of obliviousness, A Clockwork Orange is more focused on politics, as liberals and conservatives alike care more about point-scoring than they do about Alex. Meanwhile the prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) decries the treatment for relying on self-interest over reformation of character while his own sermons use the threat of hellfire to inspire good behaviour.
MacDowell gives a performance of a lifetime, apparently subject to much genuine torment as he’s drowned, beaten and his eyes are prised open. And since he was also subject to the notoriously harsh yoke of Kubrick it’s safe to assume he suffered substantially for his craft. Meanwhile Kubrick milks the story for iconic images that linger in the brain, and are more memorable than the connecting tissue.
It’s a faithful adaptation of the novel which brings it to life with a future of brutalism and 60s colour bathed in the stench of terminal decline. The soundtrack a uniquely Kubrickian mix of synths and symphonies. And while elements of its future look dated in a way that 2001 has largely avoided, the debate around free will is as alive as ever.
It may be big data and computing power which threaten free choice, but the extent to which humans are responsible for their increasingly malleable views and actions is a question we urgently need to consider. And appropriately from the man said to have helped fake the moon landing, it’s also about the power of film – the genuine emotional states that can be created from reconstructions of violence.
The result is challenging watch to this day, but one that gets in your head and stays there, without having to prise your glazzies open to do it. Worth a viddy.