Classic Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  Stanley Kubrick brilliantly uses provocative social-satire to show the world the Cold War’s insanity.

Review: I enjoyed watching ‘Dr. Strangelove’ a lot, and had I been around to appreciate some of the attitudes and paranoia of the Cold War, I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  What makes this film so entertaining is that it shows the absolute worst-case scenario, that most dreaded fear for mankind-Nuclear Holocaust — but it does so in such a wonderfully humorous way.

And so we can’t help but laugh.  We laugh at the comically insane general who orders U.S. B-52’s to bomb the Soviets and purposely start a war.  We laugh at the crazily patriotic captain of one of the planes, with his cowboy hat and goofy southern accent, who vows to do his patriotic duty come hell or high water.  We laugh as the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, who are evidently VERY good friends, argue about what to do, and we laugh at the bumbling politicians in Washington who scramble to call the bombing off, lest they set off a Soviet super-weapon.  We laugh because the situation is so absurd.  It’s so goofy and ridiculous and hilarious throughout.

But then the ending comes, and we see a montage of nuclear explosions (for the Russian super-weapon has gone off) that seems oddly out-of-place with the rest of the film.  All of the sudden there’s a sinking feeling in our stomach, and the last feeling of this film is that of sorrow.

Why such a sad ending?  It’s because Kubrick is reminding us of something: While incredibly funny, the seemingly absurd situation in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is not so far from possibility.  Sure, it seemed ridiculous in the film, but the threat of sudden, unexpected war, people not knowing what to do or how to stop it, and total annihilation is actually a reality.  The film’s insanity parallels that of the Cold War and really of all war.  Escalation, growing militaristic tension, and the constant hatred of the “other” can only lead to tragedy.  Had the United States and the Soviet Union persisted in this, we likely could all be dead now, much like the ending of the film.  It was only through reconciliation and reaching out on both sides that allowed for the Cold War to end, and even now there is still tension with other countries due to it.  Let’s hope we never run into an ending like ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

This film is one of Kubrick’s many cinematic masterpieces.  His strong sense of storytelling shines through brilliantly here, and his message is as powerful as any he has given.  Few people could have mixed something so funny with something so meaningful, and few movies are stronger for it.

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Classic Review: Dr. No

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The fantastic, intelligent, archetypical spy movie.

Review: There’s something intriguing about persons who live deceptive, decadent and devilish lives yet find themselves on the side of truth, justice, and fair play. Just such a human contradiction is writer Ian Fleming’s iconic spy James Bond (also known by his code number 007), realized by actor Sean Connery in this, the first of many official big screen films starring the character.  It’s the archetypical spy movie, beautifully designed, perfectly cast, well-written, and exciting throughout.

Unlike future Bond adventures that would focus on his action capabilities and grand set pieces (inspiring Steven Spielberg’s interest in creating Indiana Jones), those elements, though fantastically present in this debut, take a backseat to letting the viewer get to know the mysterious spy and his skill as a detective.  James is not yet the violent “blunt instrument” as in 2006’s reboot of the series, ‘Casino Royale’, and its followup, ‘Quantum of Solace’, where Bond is basically described as a problematic weapon.  Though Daniel Craig’s portrayal is no less intelligent than Connery’s, by the nature of the story in ‘Dr. No’ it is clear that Bond is something approaching a Renaissance Man akin to pulp hero Doc Savage and/or a stimulant-seeking genius who can put himself in anyone’s shoes, ala Sherlock Holmes.  His ruthless manipulation of those who dare to manipulate him reveals an intimate understanding of sociopathy, a condition he obviously shares and is probably aware of.  Bond is the ultimate Cold War figure; an individual capable of literally sleeping with the enemy for the advantage of King & Country.  Dr. No, the titular villain played by Joseph Wiseman, recognizes this unnerving trait and praises it, inviting the secret agent to join SPECTRE, the shadowy supercriminal organization that works to pit East & West against each other.  This seems to imply that Bond is, really, not too different from Dr. No at all, only that Bond chose the right friends and loyalties.  Yet perhaps this isn’t true.  The villain’s plot is to frustrate the U.S. space program, to disturb the balance of power, and if Bond were really as wicked as No, he would have taken advantage of the situation to create World War III, which could then be promptly won with Dr. No’s technology.  Instead, he becomes determined to blow the operation to smithereens, a gesture that denotes respect for both sides of the frigid conflict.

Bond’s similarity to Holmes is evident in the pursuit of the constant challenge.  But while Sherlock avoided women, James both hunts them and entraps them like a skilled playactor running through a familiar routine, similar to Sherlock’s routine of obtaining information from witnesses.  Holmes did what he did because of an obsession with information; Bond acts so because of an appreciation of beauty, that has run out of control.  And yet, like Holmes’ appreciation for his cases and even for the brilliance of the perpetrators, Bond truly cares for the good-hearted women he encounters, and in ‘Dr. No’ he goes to great lengths to save his main love interest, Honey Ryder, from the villain’s clutches.  This points once again to the probability that 007 is a self-aware sociopath, who, though he uses his emotional callousness to do his job, understands the importance of basic humanity when it really matters.

‘Dr. No’ establishes a long list of James Bond film traditions, such as having dinner with the villain, over-the-top technology, exotic locales, multiple femme fatales, a reluctant woman won over by James’ nobility, the Walther PPK, Felix Leiter, villains with physical deformities that turn out to be advantages, car chases in the hills, etc. etc. etc.

This is a must-see for fans of the spy and action genres.  It’s in the top ten of my favorite Bond movies, and it’s there to stay.

Buy It From Amazon: Dr. No (James Bond) [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Nicholas Meyer’s second ‘Trek’ film equals the first and ends the original series on a dark, chilling, and ultimately hopeful note.

Star Trek VI:  Revenge of the Giant Klingon.

Star Trek VI: Revenge of the Giant Klingon.

Review:  So the previous ‘Trek’ was a failure, falling way short of expectations and coming dangerously close to destroying the franchise.  Thanks to Paramount’s concern over the 25th anniversary of the media property, however, they were given another shot at the silver screen, this time to close out the original series cast’s run.

And it’s so, so good.

After the high adventure and wacky antics of ‘The Final Frontier’, this film delivers a dark, intense detective story, a philosophical political thriller.  Blending the literary influence so well captured by director Nicholas Meyer with series creator Gene Roddenberry’s often on-the-nose allegory, it strikes a nearly perfect balance of intellect, message, and thrills.

It opens with a new ‘Trek’ composer — Cliff Eidelman, never destined to write another note for ‘Trek’, unfortunately — spinning a dark web of sound over space.  We know from the first few notes and the dark, purplish color of the opening credits that we are in for a trip into the dark side.  By the time the music is drawing to an obvious close and the credits are following its lead, we are anticipating a release.  And we get it, in the form of a classic Industrial Light & Magic explosion, complete with disc-shaped shockwave.  Then we cut to the bridge of the U.S.S. Excelsior — Captained by Sulu! — which is soon enough hit with the explosion.  After surviving the wave, the crew quickly finds out that the Federation’s longtime enemy, the Klingon Empire, just had one of its central moons and sources of power destroyed in a freak accident (Chernobyl, anyone?)

Now it’s time for talks.  But legendary Captain Kirk, suggested for the diplomatic mission by his friend Spock, is not happy.  He blames the Klingons for the death of his son, and considers them “animals”.  “Let them die!”  He says.  But now he’s committed.  After meeting the Klingon chancellor, he soon discovers that the Klingon leadership can for the most part be trusted — or can they? — and they start their journey to Earth on awkward but hopeful terms.  Soon however, disaster strikes as Captain Kirk watches his own ship, outside of his control, fire on the Chancellor’s vessel.  With the Klingon gravity controls knocked out, assassins beam over from the Enterprise and murder the Klingon leader… and now it’s Kirk’s fault.  He and Dr. McCoy are arrested, leaving Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew to solve the mystery and rescue Kirk & McCoy as political turmoil reigns and war looms.  Somewhere, an assassin still remains, possibly on the Enterprise…

The setup is excellent, and the execution, slow-burning until the last twenty minutes, is superb.  Though the film lacks a villain quite as memorable as Khan, Christopher Plummer does a good job playing the antagonist, and makes up in personality what he lacks in the personal touch.  Shatner, Kelley, and Nimoy each turn in their best, most confident performance since ‘Wrath of Khan’.

The political philosophy of the movie is simple, yet very strong for ‘Trek’.  It brings the series full circle, back to the themes that the first television series thrived on.  It’s a Cold War parable, but focuses on the subject of hate and bigotry rather than the conflicting philosophies of the opponents.  In short, it goes after the chief problem that plagued both, in the real world and the fictional universe of Trek.

As the Enterprise crew flies into the glare of a star at the end of this last drama, we are left both tearful and glad that we were along for the ride.  With a such a great last hurrah, it’s a shame they chose to bring back Kirk for the next film, ‘Star Trek: Generations’, only to drop a bridge on him(!).  I’d rather forget about that film, and leave what happens after ‘Trek VI’ an undiscovered country.