‘Full Metal Jacket’… but Half-Cocked?

It’s not that I have a problem with the two-part structure of Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987); it’s the fact that it feels so lopsided, like a badly loaded van. Can you not sense the tilt of imbalance in the movie? Or maybe it’s got to do with the duality of man? You know — the Jungian thing.

This war film allows Kubrick to indulge in one of his favourite preoccupations — bullying. It’s there in nearly all of his movies, to the point where I sometimes wonder if he mistakes meanness for drama. Not only that but we also see Kubrick up to one of his usual tricks — seeing what he can crib from foreign movies (‘Funeral Parade of Rose’, ‘Ikarie XB-1’) and hoping nobody back home notices. This time its Kobayashi’s superior ‘The Human Condition’ (1959), specifically a young military recruit committing suicide due to abusive training. Yet whereas Kobayashi’s film is, literally, about the human condition Kubrick seems to believe the biggest problem with war is that it had never been shot properly.

As I said, I find the film lopsided and I still can’t figure out what that first 45 minutes of the film are for other than an exercise in sadism. Is it to show that military training is dehumanising? Maybe, but don’t we already know that? Isn’t that why most of us never sign up? Plus, I know some people don’t like how Kubrick’s camera leers over the female bodies in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999) but I find his perverse delight in ogling Pyle’s ordeal even more worrying and lecherous. Fortunately Kubrick doesn’t portray Pyle as an out-and-out cliché of “not fit to be even in basic trai…” Oh.

Then it’s onto “Vietnam” and cliché central where the burning question becomes: What’s more dehumanising — being in combat or in a Stanley Kubrick film? The answer might be the latter. So hookers hook, grunts grunt, era-appropriate music plays in an era-appropriate way and much like America’s presence in Asia I start getting the feeling the movie is falling apart. It’s not just that the second part of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ isn’t as cohesive as the first but that it feels positively splintered, like watching slow-motion shrapnel shards. Sure, war is messy but that’s because it was often chaotic, whereas this feels messy AND contrived. This is less the fog of war and more the artifice of art. Film is an illusion but too often here that illusion is broken. Usually we are not meant to sense we are being tricked.

Yet Kubrick’s biggest trick might be to have made a war film in which there is no feeling (sometimes at all) that there is a genuine war going on. There’s too much containment and too little urgency. Even the camera moves haven’t changed once we’re in “Vietnam”, as though they’ve simply been deployed over from basic training along with the marines. There is authenticity here but zero “reality” with the horrors of combat seeming as terrifying as a smooth tracking shot. The marines talk of the some vets having the “thousand-yard stare” yet the most detached, distant gaze in this war-zone is that of Kubrick’s camera itself.

Then there’s the issue of Joker who I not only keep forgetting is meant to be the main character in this movie but that he’s actually IN this movie at all. What is his story, his arc? That war has dehumanised him? But just how much humanity did this sarcastic little prick have to begin with? And why is his verbal show-down with Animal Mother so unfunny and flat? Am I meant to be laughing? Should I be mocking the John Wayne impressions and profanity masquerading as humour or is this just Kubrick’s juvenile sense of humour rearing its head (again, it’s there in nearly all his films)?

Talking of juvenile, there’s Kubrick’s treatment of women who are only here to be penetrated either by cocks, words or bullets. Yes, I know Kubrick is going for the sex/violence angle (the sexually violence language is shoved down our throats no end till we almost gag) but it also highlights, again, Kubrick’s fear of female sexuality. Is that why the “terrifying” climax involves a woman penetrating men? I don’t think this is “the Jungian thing”; like everything in Kubrick it’s actually deeply Freudian.

Is there good stuff in ‘Full Metal Jacket’? Of course. It is a Kubrick film after all although I’m not going to say I like it when I don’t just because it was made by the guy (do you want me to lie?). There’s masterful camera work, great compositions and artistic integrity. It’s all powered by Kubrick’s cold intelligence, absolute precision and technical intricacy, interestingly all elements that could also be applied to American war-machinery and guided missiles. But here’s the rub — for all their sophisticated engineering these weapons tend to be highly inaccurate and the same can be said of Kubrick’s movie. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ aims for the priority target of profundity but ends up hitting the unwitting wedding party of banality instead.

P.S. There is a vastly superior movie about the dehumanising effects of war. It’s called ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997).

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.