Why I Don’t Like Stanley Kubrick’s Films

At lunch the other day we somehow went from talking about Pixar films to talking about those of director Stanley Kubrick. Some people love Kubrick’s films, but I don’t, having seen five and not enjoyed any of them.

Whenever I think of Kubrick, I recall my high school film class teacher (who introduced me to my favorite film, North by Northwest) who said something to the effect that Kubrick was more concerned with where his electrical wires were going than with the script or acting.

Yes, Kubrick’s films do look great, but I realized over lunch that my basic problem with them is that they feel emotionless, even downright soulless.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example of this: The characters are flat and colorless. Dave Bowman is memorable only because Keir Dullea is an interesting-looking guy, and the orange spacesuits are distinctive. But the most human-seeming of the character is HAL, the computer. The film looks great, but it also feels lifeless, the direction and editing carefully constructed to make the whole film seem alien. It’s not about humanity’s encounter with the alien, it’s some weird zombie form of humanity encountering the alien, and evolving into something even more alien. The sequel film 2010 is a much warmer and more human film, and is more fun to boot. Not to say it doesn’t have plenty of flaws, but I’d much rather watch it again than its predecessor.

Full Metal Jacket, which certainly deals with powerful subject matter (the Vietnam War), felt decidedly bland when I saw it. Ironically, the IMDb summary of the film starts with the phrase “A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War…”, where it seems to me that Kubrick does a pretty good job of dehumanizing the characters in his films anyway.

Of the Kubrick films I’ve seen, I’d say I liked The Shining the best (and I don’t really care for horror films). The sense in Kubrick’s films that we’re seeing all this happen from a distance, that the people are just little chess pieces being moved around by the plot, perhaps plays better in a horror film, where the humans are often not the ones in control. I don’t think it’s a great film, I have no desire to see it again, but I thought it worked well enough for what it is.

(The other two films of his that I’ve seen are Dr. Strangelove, which I found neither insightful nor funny, and A Clockwork Orange, which I detest more than any other film I can think of.)

Overall my most charitable description of Kubrick’s films would be “well crafted”. But then, there are lots of directors who craft films well, and many who imbue their films with more humanity than Kubrick was able to. Usually I place a high value on craft in storytelling, but Kubrick’s films deploy his craft in the most superficial manner, completely failing to evoke any feeling in me as a viewer other than being impressed with the polish he brings to his settings. And that’s not nearly enough to make a great – or even good – film for me.