This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
GolubGluhan’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Most of Stanley Kubrick's movies are about these five themes:
1) individuals attempting to strive against a deterministic Universe or the stifling social Establishment that seeks to put everything under its control
2) the Establishment brainwashing people to conform to its colonialist desires
3) the process of evolution or devolution of the protagonist and/or humanity in general
4) humans struggling to overcome their base animalistic selves
5) the paradoxical interplay between Eros and Thanatos
Theme 1) is noticeable immediately in Kubrick's first mature work - heist noir The Killing. While noir is a genre predicated upon fatalistic stories, Kubrick takes this even further with this film, starting it off with a powerful image of horses herded into cages and ushered down off a fixed track. The hero, Johnny Clay, is molded like clay by his environment despite his efforts to exert control over it; his meticulous plans go awry due to unforeseeable circumstances and he learns that perfectionistic micromanaging won't help him in the face of chance and unfixable past events - the film relies on multiple flashbacks to drive home this theme of cause-and-effect.
In the war film Paths of Glory, soldiers are constrained by duty and political forces they have no control over. They are stuck in the trenches and affixed like pawns to a chessboard, as is expected from a story about WWI, a war that more than any other revealed the essence of War: dehumanization of its fighters, turning them into cannon fodder living on a whim of their superiors. Years later, Kubrick's unfinished film about Napoleon was planned as an epic story of a man in control of his life and surroundings, waging war against enemy forces with a clear purpose in mind. The film never came to fruition and instead Kubrick made Barry Lyndon, a complete thematic opposite where the protagonist is powerless against his surroundings and his life is in complete control of chance from the very start. This hard determinism is woven into every frame of the film, by using constant zoom-outs that contextualize the humans as mere specks on a canvas, the omniscient narrator that "predicts" events before they happen, imagery associated with luck and gambling, precise and stifling shot compositions, rehearsed social rituals the characters partake in in order to chase social status, the binding of humans by duty and social roles, landscapes "swallowing" the actors, etc. Barry's future is already predetermined by a cosmic dice roll, and so by the end he's beaten into submission just like Johnny Clay, intentionally losing a duel in a defeatist act. In Barry Lyndon, the Universe's whims and Society's intricate rituals work in tandem to suffocate an individual into a state of learned helplessness.
Theme 2) deals with the System, which in Kubrick's films is a towering abstract "institution" that seeks to spread its influence as far as it can go. The most famous distillation of Kubrick was offered by Gilles Deleuze, who wrote that "in Kubrick, the world itself was a brain", and this is true; most of Kubrick's stories are predicated upon complicated societal and other mechanisms - the Establishment - such as the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, the Overlook in The Shining, Technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Government in A Clockwork Orange, etc., and the dramatic tension often revolves around these large structures breaking down, be it a mental breakdown (Jack, Alex, Pyle), a systemic annihilation (in Dr. Strangelove) or some other kind of dissolution.
More importantly, Kubrick's movies are about the pressures that the Establishment, the Machine, exerts on individuals, about fixed ideologies It serves them to make them pliable to Its will, therefore making Its cancerous spread easier. While Full Metal Jacket and The Shining depict how the System brainwashes humans to make them carry out Its bidding, Eyes Wide Shut shows what happens when an individual snaps out of this illusion he has been fed by his society.
The conflict of interest in Kubrick's movies is that of the individual against this overarching, centralized, all-powerful "brain". Kubrick himself being a notorious pedant, his endeavoring characters (most notably Napoleon) are an extension of his filmmaker-like quest to contain and tame the messy natural world. Note how pvt. Joker is emasculated when his camera is stolen in Full Metal Jacket.
Some viewers are quick to write off The Shining as incomprehensible, but if you remember that Overlook Hotel represents America, already the film's politics are made clear - some kind of a mixture between a generally left-wing preoccupation of "white guilt" over colonialism, and the Conservative outlook that sees humanity as inherently weak, sinful and prone to regression into an undomesticated state. The Overlook is built on an Indian burial ground, run by a Presidential-looking manager who notes that "all the best people have stayed here", is decorated by Native American art as if it assimilated past societies and drowned them out in concrete walls, the Torrance family wears red, white and blue while staying there, and there are several unsubtle references to colonialism in the script - e.g. "white man's burden". Jack Torrance is an unstable individual whose frustrations are used by the Hotel to drive him to murder the undesirables. Luring him in with alcohol (which "the House" pays for) and with ideals of the classic Americana - the Gold Room, Jack's anger is turned outwards, towards those able to sense the Hotel's evil, those with "the shining". He becomes a "little Eichmann" ready to properly protect the Hotel. Instead of reflecting on his own failings, he allows the Hotel to overtake him and provide him with an easy scapegoat whom he needs to kill (or to "correct", per Delbert Grady) in order to fulfill his role as the caretaker. In this sense, this film is an early example of the intersectional worldview that will, over the next decades, be pushed relentlessly top-down from Hollywood and the media apparatus onto the public - "the System's Neatest Trick".
The Shining is visually dependent on labyrinthine images and notions of cyclical temporal motion. History repeats itself and the Hotel demands new caretakers. Jack is weak and unable to resist Overlook exploiting his failings, whereas his son Danny can "shine" and resist being a part of the Hotel's bloody history. He is able to retrace his steps and escape the maze, while Jack gets lost in it, never thinking to cut his way through it with his axe. Danny is the Kubrickian Hero - someone able to see through and outwit the Establishment. Use of mazes (a powerful Jungian symbol) in the film works on multiple levels - representing the film's puzzling structure, but also the audience's Unconscious. When Danny traverses through Overlook's mazelike corridors, the camera's first-person POV immerses us into the action as well. And what is the Minotaur, the repressed Jungian "Shadow" memory that he finds at the heart of this Labyrinth? Ghosts of a previous caretaker's murdered daughters, a symbolical representation of the bloodshed of America's past, a wound in audiences' minds that Kubrick's film seeks to re-open. Another telling image is the pattern of Overlook's carpets; a bunch of arrows pointing forward and backward as if meant to invoke history's inability to move forward. While Danny is playing on this carpet, the Hotel hands him a tennis ball - the same ball that his father angrily threw onto Indian art on the wall and beside the golliwog doll on the floor (the same spot where he'll later murder a black man). It's clear the ball represents aggression towards the "undesirables", a sentiment the Hotel wants to impart on Danny too.
Full Metal Jacket is less subtle in showing how this "colonization" works; the System first conquers the soldiers' mind so that they can go and conquer other countries. The people of Vietnam are reduced to whores for the soldiers, who are themselves whored out to the System. If The Shining is about "caretaking" and "correcting", FMJ is about "cleaning". Not only are there numerous verbal allusions to shit, filth, slime and cleansing, but also the imagery - soldiers cleaning toilets (or the "Head") and "washing" the useless Pyle by beating him with towels and soap, only for him to "flush himself out" on the toilet after his mind is broken beyond repair, his death being a byproduct of the "filtration process" necessary to insure a "clean" final product: a group of perfect killers. The film also shows how ideology needs to construct a Jungian Shadow out of the soldiers' insecurities in order to sell itself to them. This Shadow is both the Infantile (Pyle) and the Feminine (Hartman's attempts to replace sexuality with gun worship: "You are married to this piece... this weapon of iron and wood..."). After the soldiers have completely suppressed their weak and feminine side (the Jungian Anima), in the end they venture into a Labyrinthine wrecked building and face off against their Minotaur, their Shadow - a teenage girl sniper. This is when it becomes obvious that this army ideology is a lie. That which the Marines seek to suppress and/or destroy is in fact a victim of brainwashing, same as them. Not only is this overarching Marine narrative a lie, but so is the Vietnam War itself. The artificial nature of the war is often referenced ("...this is Vietnam: The Movie!"), and constant pop culture references, badass quips, advertisements scattered over Vietnam - all of it is affectedly constructed by the System, which pulls elements from religion, sexual insecurities, nationalism and pop culture to "sell" the expansionist ideology better.
In Eyes Wide Shut, the occult society is the normal day-to-day society unmasked; a colorless place where "the rainbow ends" as opposed to multicolored Christmassy lights of our profane world. The final scene with Helena surrounded by Magic Circle toys while Bill and Alice are both awakened to the workings of the world is a reversal of The Shining, where the parents are trapped in the vicious circle of repeating history while their child is awakened to the System's deception. To add to this, the last scene sees Helena walking away with two mysterious men (from the secret society?), which maybe cements this impression. But ultimately, EWS is about the modern man seeing behind the veil of the social system. The base story about Bill becoming disillusioned with his marriage is a "cover story" for him finding out the grim truth about his own social status and the validity of societal values in general. Just the opening scene, with Alice stripping herself in the light and Bill stumbling about in the dark, still clinging onto his pretensions of status ("Honey, have you seen my wallet?") hints to Alice being awakened to the Truth from the very start - social elites prostitute those below them and once you're aware of this, all you can do is be a "happy hooker", or "love the bomb". The film was released in 1999, near the dawn of the next millennium, but unlike Bowman who manages to overcome the Computer, Bill's realization leaves him helpless. The best he can do is pretend to still be satisfied under this society even though he now knows it's a sham. EWS is a more defeatistic iteration of other Hollywood productions like The Matrix (from the same year) or They Live, films about people "taking the red pill" and realizing the bitter truth about society.
Theme 3) is very prominent in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film begins with an image of a bright Sun appearing behind the Earth and shadowy Moon in a constellation, and proceeds to tell the story of an ideal human evolution, from violent apes to Homo Sapiens to an "enlightened" Star-Child (side note: 19th century mystic Albert Pike named the "Star-Child" as the end goal of Freemasonry, in what might be Kubrick's and Clarke's nod to the Mystery Schools, or just mere coincidence). Kubrick sees this evolution into higher consciousness as a certain "filtration", an Alchemical process where the base coagulation ("Nigredo" in Alchemy) is further and further purified until a Great Work is formed. This resembles Carl Jung's Individuation process (remember Jung was influenced by Alchemy, and Kubrick was a massive Jung fan), but also his telling of the Hero's Journey: the primitive phase (apes) > the phase where the Hero performs legendary feats (Man's technological innovation) > the fall from grace (technology almost leading to Man's downfall) > death of the Hero, which does not necessarily diminish his legendary status, but can also serve to transcend it (Star-Child). This notion of "human evolution", not in the Darwinian sense of random mutation but in a transcendent sense, is in itself an archetype and so you can read the movie's plot through various spiritual or even secular frameworks. For example, it parallels Nietzsche's Three Stages in creating the Overman (note Kubrick's inclusion of the piece Also Sprach Zarathustra, named after Nietzsche's book): camel (beast of burden) > lion (lone warrior who defeats the Dragon) > child (new beginning). Kubrick's story has also been compared to Great Realms of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life - Malkuth (Earth Realm), Yesod (Moon Realm), Tiferet (Realm of Sun but also switchable with Saturn; Kubrick originally intended to have Saturn instead of Jupiter but the SFX team struggled with the ring) and Kether (Sublime Realm). You can also see parallels with the order divide of Gnosticism (hylics, psychics and pneumatics) cosmology of Pythagoras (Material World, Superior World and Supreme World) and Christianity (Hell, Earth, Heaven), which are symbolic of base animal nature, the milquetoast human sphere and higher spiritual ideals.
The three degrees of the ancient Mysteries were, with few exceptions, given in chambers which represented the three great centers of the human and Universal bodies. If possible, the temple itself was constructed in the form of the human body. The candidate entered between the feet and received the highest degree in the point corresponding to the brain. Thus the first degree was the material mystery and its symbol was the generative system; it raised the candidate through the various degrees of concrete thought. The second degree was given in the chamber corresponding to the heart, but represented the middle power which was the mental link. Here the candidate was initiated into the mysteries of abstract thought and lifted as high as the mind was capable of penetrating. He then passed into the third chamber, which, analogous to the brain, occupied the highest position in the temple but, analogous to the heart, was of the greatest dignity. In the brain chamber the heart mystery was given. Here the initiate for the first time truly comprehended the meaning of those immortal words: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." - Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages
Ostensibly the year 2001 was chosen since Alchemist Fulcanelli spoke of the Great Transmutation of Humanity at the start of the 21st century (read S.K. Bain's amusing book 9/11 as Mass Ritual for a fascinating synchronicity between Kubrick and 9/11).
The "Marine ideology" in FMJ is in fact the same "purification story" of 2001 (Hartman attempting to evolve his recruits from "pieces of amphibian shit" to perfect Marines), except it's shown to be a fabricated lie. Hartman does his best trying to weed out the animalistic urges from his recruits ("What in the name of Jesus H. Christ are you animals doing in my Head?"), but the second half of the film presents war as a savage, beastlike thing and the epitome of truly "unevolved" humanity. This "Marine ideology" is then a complete reversal of reality, with Hartman renaming a black Pvt. Brown into Pvt. Snowball, and referring to disobedience as "Mickey Mouse shit", when in fact the second half of the film reveals the Army itself to be some "Mickey Mouse shit".
2001 was a film that could have only been produced in the late '60s, given how its promise of spiritual progress reflects the psychedelic mind expansion trend of the time, but it's also emblematic of the Space Race, equating humanity's excursions outside Earth to a "space baby". In outer space, we're infants and need to re-learn how to walk, eat, etc. The film heralds a gigantic paradigm shift and is, uncharacteristically for a Sci-Fi film, optimistic about it. Fitting for a story celebrating human achievements and the Faustian spirit of the West yet beckoning us to return to our roots, the film itself is a technical marvel that also polishes some ancient symbols for a 1960s audience. The Monolith ("single stone"), for example, was described by Kubrick as a Jungian archetype. To Jung, stones are a symbol of the permanent and immutable wisdom and unknowable essence of the universe (in short, the "God archetype"). The image of a stern black stone aligned with the Sun immediately strikes some sort of a primordial, almost spiritual response in the viewer.
Some other classical concepts that appear in the film relate to, fittingly enough, Odysseus, who blinds a cyclops who murdered his friends, much like how Bowman (perhaps named after Odysseus' mythic archery skills?) terminates the "one-eyed" HAL. Christian iconography abounds too, Bowman's dying outreach towards the Monolith which recalls Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, or water being "turned into" wine - apes drinking water from a pond, helpless but to rely on natural resources, to Bowman drinking wine in a glass near the end, only to break the glass, and with it, shed his earthbound body.
Theme 4) ties into this in the sense that in 2001, the first step of evolution, the ape, is like the Jungian Shadow in humanity's Collective Unconscious. The ape's violent territorial nature is something that always lurks below our rational, civilized veneer. Other Kubrick films show what happens when we regress back into this uncivilized state. The Shining is like anti-2001; instead of 2001's final image of progress and fresh start, we get a final image of non-progress, of repetition - Jack is frozen both in ice and in the photo, having failed to break free of the Overlook/America/History's vicious circle of bloodshed and massacre. Unlike Danny, he has "overlooked" the past horrors and has learned nothing from history, having chosen instead to ignore his human potential and return to animalistic savagery. The film's intro, that of his car traversing the narrow road to Overlook, can be interpreted as him being inevitably lured or sucked into the Hotel, but also as him losing all contacts with civilization and humanity, as he travels deep into the forest, which prefigures his impending relapse into impulsive beastliness (another seminal American film from this era, Apocalypse Now, is also about a metaphorical travel to the depths of the soul in search of inherent brutality and evil). Many critics have pointed out Kubrick's use of bathrooms as set pieces central to his plots; bathrooms are associated with animalistic, physiological urges and so Kubrick often places his characters in bathrooms during moments of them succumbing to their lower nature and failing to "shine" (like the meeting between Jack and Grady, where the latter manipulates the former).
What is 2001's version of the Establishment? It's Technology. Or, to be more precise, HAL. The film almost implies that Technology is a false god/ideology that has to be transcended. Much like Overlook/America in The Shining or the Military Establishment in PoG and FMJ, Technology in 2001 is something created by humans as a tool or means to an end, that eventually got a life of its own and started to subjugate humans. Bowman, the Kubrickian Hero of 2001, faces off against the Machine and in the end evolves into a new form by ending his reliance on the material. Why? Because tools and technology are a leftover from the Shadow, from the ape period. Technology is no longer necessary, it stifles our freedom and has therefore become the Establishment. We needed Technology to survive on this limited-resource planet, but in the boundless outer space it is yet another limitation. Society, technology and civilization are then just stepping stones. A man who lives outside of society is either a beast or a god.
As for Theme 5), it is most obvious in Dr. Strangelove, where Kubrick constantly mixes together sexual images with war-related images, in order to grasp the strange paradox that the annihilation of life could be caused by the exact same mechanisms behind the creation of life. In 2001, it's the other way around, and instead of sex being the cause of brutality and death, the apes' violence eventually leads to humanity's rebirth, itself full of sexual imagery (Discovery: penis, astronauts: sperm, Bowman: surviving sperm, Monolith: vagina, Stargate: fertilization, chamber: gestation, exiting through the Monolith: birth). The structure of FMJ almost resembles the male-female relations in the time of Vietnam and the sexual revolution; starting with the Masculine rule-bound traditionalism and cutting to the immediate dissipation of traditional values once the Feminine is introduced, through the image of a whore and the sound of a racy Nancy Sinatra tune. Beyond that, the plot outline in total assumes the form of growth into maturity; the Marine Corps here functions as an individual, who is born, then disciplined and educated, after which he "kills" his infantile self (Pyle), rebels against his parents (Hartman and Virgin Mary), enters puberty (Vietnam) and ends his development, or proves his manhood, through sexual conquest (the Vietnamese sniper).
Kubrick had a unique cinematic language. To start with, form is always content with him and so in FMJ we have the strict, militaristic and purely physical first act, with an emphasis on fast pace, structured narrative and tidy symmetrical compositions. Once the film shifts from the comfortable "boot camp childhood" to uncharted "Vietnam adolescence", the camera becomes wayward (even Joker's own camera gets stolen), the narrative loose, the comfortable rigid pace falls apart. Then we have The Shining, which is itself structured like a maze, the film's meaning not clear outright, thus encouraging its audiences to "shine". Kubrick also incorporated Freud's theory of the Uncanny by shoving into the film as many doublings, mirror images, and numbers 12, 21, 24 and 42 as possible (e.g., Wendy swings the bat 42 times, Jack axes the door 12 times...). Freud believed our animal minds attach "uncanny" and "magical" meanings to doubles and patterns, and therefore Kubrick seems to be making a larger point that all "supernatural" occurences in The Shining are in facts products of our own mind, leftovers from a bygone era we need to move past just like we need to move past our violent history. This also betrays his politics to be similar to the common conception of "progressivism".
Since I've already mentioned the Faustian high culture (a Spenglerian term) in regards to 2001, I might as well add that I haven't been able to find any source where Kubrick talks about Oswald Spengler, or any Spenglerian analyses of Kubrick, which is odd considering both these men can be seen as harbingers of a culture in rapid decay. Spengler's description of the Faustian man, a tragic figure that strives on despite knowing the final goal is out of reach, finds a voice through characters such as Joker, who knows that America has "been a'messin' where it shouldn't've been a'messin'" yet continues with enforcing its power in Vietnam, or the War Room politicians and generals, who keep taking Strangelove's hopeful speech seriously despite having already accepted the reality of impending nuclear annihilation. Barry Lyndon's life is an apt representation of the Spenglerian life cycle of high cultures - after a long period of creation and endeavour, urban leisure sucks the creative drive out of a culture, and as an result, it implodes on itself. Barry, then, isn't just an individual controlled by Fate, but an embodiment of human history, itself "on rails", going through the preset motions of growth and decline.
Over the years, Kubrick's films have gotten a large following of analysts of all kinds, leading to semiotic clutter. A great deal of these analyses feel either incomplete, paranoid or absurd, no matter their premise. You may come across a reading of The Shining that says the film is a coded confession of how Kubrick faked the Moon landing footage, but the author won't be able to explain elements of the film that clearly have no connection to the Moon landing. Or you may come across an essay on how Eyes Wide Shut is actually a Fool's Journey from the Tarot cards because it starts with Bill asking: "Honey, have you seen my wallet?" bringing to mind the idiom "a fool and his money are easily parted" therefore connecting him to the Fool, but then the essay's author will struggle trying to find other Tarot cards' equivalents in the film. Was Kubrick killed by secret societies after revealing the secrets of Rothschild balls and MK-Ultra in his last film? Was his death a ritualistic sacrifice since he died 66 days into 1999 and 666 days away from 1/1/2001? Is the final image from The Shining a Jungian archetypal representation of the Egyptian Underworld? Is A Clockwork Orange's usage of Singin' in the Rain itself a Ludovico technique? Does 2001 point to IBM? Browsing the "Kubrick analyses" on the Internet can be entertaining but not always enlightening.
I see Kubrick's films as mostly an expression of angst under a complex, intertwined, rapidly spreading globalized Machine. Dr. Strangelove portrays this through the context of Cold War paranoia where humanity is helpless against factors we have no control over; his other films are about the same idea but in different contexts. Loss of freedom and/or control is a common theme with him. In some films, this is due to the deterministic Universe or social environment the characters find themselves in, in others it's due to a faceless stymying Establishment, which threatens to eliminate humanity's freedom/control by brainwashing us into making us believe that we in fact WANT this loss of freedom/control. Kubrick depicts this through a psychoanalytic (usually Jungian) lens, where the Establishment controls our Shadow to control us. What, then, is the solution? How to fulfill this Individuation Process and become like the Star-Child? The Shining answers this: we need to stop feeding the Shadow, stop being in denial of our past and start seeing more clearly. It seems that to Kubrick, instincts are death and rationality is salvation. The way the audience approaches these films mirrors the way audience approaches the System - you can get lost in The Shining's labyrinths and proclaim it a pointless film, or you can try to get to "where the rainbow ends".
To put it in the shortest way possible: Kubrick's films are about Humanity struggling to overcome its animal nature in order to progress, and in trying to do so we're often set back by complex mechanisms of our own creation.
This can be illustrated by this single scene from Full Metal Jacket. Joker is torn between brutal animal nature (Born to Kill) and higher goals (Peace), the "Jungian Thing" of Collective Unconscious vs. Personal Unconscious. This dichotomy is "resolved" by a Colonel who recommends the "Born to Kill" option by using grandiose language to rationalize this ("We are here to help the Vietnamese because inside every Gook, there is an American trying to get out.").
This review is basically a smorgasbord of info on Kubrick's themes that I've gathered from various sources including interviews with Kubrick and some critical essays by Jason Francois, Slavoj Žižek, Bill Reid and others. This is an attempt to merge all of this info into a brief summary on what Kubrick's films were generally about.