80sSFF: Apocalypse Now (1979) and Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

The first part in a series dedicated to examining the science fiction and fantasy films from 1979 to 1989.  The series will investigate whether these films possess certain ineffable qualities missing from today’s films of the same genres.

Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?
Willard: I’m a soldier.
Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

Why are we beginning a series devoted to the science fiction and fantasy films of the 1980s with Apocalypse Now?  Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War film holds the key to unlocking what made Eighties science fiction and fantasy films so great.  It’s an unlikely beginning, especially since John Carpenter’s classic horror film Halloween, was released the previous year.

Apocalypse Now, while still a War Movie, has several characteristics that make it closer akin to the Fantasy genre.  There is a Knight on a Quest in search of a Mythical Object guarded by a Monster.  In the film, the Knight is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), accompanied by the crew of a small patrol boat.  They travel up the Nung River in search of Colonel Walter P. Kurtz, at once the Object and the Monster.  In addition, Apocalypse Now is a visionary film.  To be a visionary, one has to look at the same thing but in an entirely different way.  While the War Movie has a long and storied history, Coppola created a unique cinematic experience, cobbled together from a script by the conservative scriptwriter John Milius and narration written by war journalist Michael Herr.  What resulted was a depiction of the Vietnam War as a hallucinatory carnivalesque nightmare.  The effects of the Vietnam War on the domestic side would not be covered with this extended unflinching hallucinatory nightmare until Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

At the time of its release, the closest antecedent to Apocalypse Now was Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), itself an extended indictment of the ravages and excesses of industrial capitalism.  In terms of science fiction and fantasy film, Apocalypse Now’s title is telling.  Unlike, say, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or The Dark Crystal, which are both post-apocalyptic films, the apocalypse is now.  The soldiers in the film seem morally adrift and numbed to the world, only attuned to finding sex or the next drug fix.  Chef reads a newspaper article about the Charles Manson murders, the murders mirroring the actual atrocities of My Lai.  Surrounded by madmen, murderers, and mayhem, the world seems at an end.  The apocalyptic setting and the horrific montages make the film much more than a faithful transcription of a Southeast Asian conflict.

The End is the Beginning is the End

Apocalypse Now came at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s unrivalled critical and commercial success.  The film also represents the terminus of the American New Wave, Coppola belonging to a membership that included Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.  Coppola’s success began in 1972 with The Godfather and continued with The Godfather: Part II (1974) and the Conversation (1974).  Marlon Brando gives a landmark performance as Colonel Walter P. Kurtz, his presence a potent admixture of military and intellectual genius, Nietzschean amorality, smoldering sexuality, and tribal godhood.

The release of the film came during a revolution in the world of cinema.  Gone were the days of the freewheeling director and hands-off producers.  Apocalypse Now came two years after Star Wars (1977, George Lucas), a film that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster, and the Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner).  While not a cinematic flop, the film’s cost overruns and numerous other issues would make produces much more reluctant to give a visionary like Coppola massive budgets and little creative oversight.  The Eighties would see the rise of empty spectacle, family-friendly pap, and marketing juggernauts.  Apocalypse Now is a self-contained epic, not a node in a massively orchestrated marketing and merchandising operation.

Apocalypse Now vs. Apocalypse Now Redux: a Defense for Both

In criticism, especially film criticism, an overarching trend exists where “the director’s cut” has more credence than a film released by the studio system.  The phenomenon exists because of the Auteur Theory championed in academic circles and the larger trend of the search for Authenticity™.  When discussing Apocalypse Now, fans, critics, and audience members become divisive regarding which version is better.  Many see the original Apocalypse Now as the better film and Redux as a travesty.  (Thankfully, Coppola’s film was about the Vietnam War and not a Jedi insurgency, thus giving the world a Director’s Cut without CGI dewbacks and Greedo shooting first.)

My opinion splits the difference.  I enjoy both, but both versions are radically different films.  Even at nearly three hours, the original Apocalypse Now possesses an insistent pacing and momentum.  It is the more economical, pared-down film.

I enjoy Redux because it delves deeper into this nightmarish world.  Characters are expanded, entire set pieces are added, and Captain Willard comes across as a different person.

The issue of pacing becomes more pronounced with Redux.  Even the original is lacking in traditional battle scenes.  After Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) aerial assault on the Vietnamese village, the only military “action” are isolated skirmishes and the Do Long Bridge stalemate (less a battle than a siege).

The majority of the film is Captain Willard reading the Kurtz’s dossier.  The normal narrative trajectory of a war film is the reverse: skirmishes leading up to a climactic battle.  The film operates under a series of anti-climaxes.  In the end, Willard finally reaches the Kurtz Compound to realize the Colonel is not there.  When he does return, there are several conversations and finally Willard taking down Kurtz at the very end of the film.

Redux includes two extended scenes which were cut from the original: the crew meeting the Bunnies and the French Plantation Scene.  In the latter, Willard tells Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément) that he doesn’t intend to return to the United States following his mission.  It’s a major difference and the film narrative becomes altered, since this throws into question why he should continue his mission?

The longueurs and anti-climaxes heighten the viewer’s sensitivities.  The waiting, the meditation, and the visuals combine to create a cinematic experience both hypnotic and excessive.  The artificiality of Carmine Coppola’s score plays off against the claustrophobic and ruthless nature of the Cambodian rainforests.  The score becomes integrated into a whole by the editing, cinematography, and sound design.

The film is a non-traditional candidate for a science fiction or fantasy film, but it excels in its fantastic visuals and the meticulous worldbuilding.  Standing at the crossroads of the American New Wave and Eighties Action Spectacle, Apocalypse Now prepares the way for films set after apocalypses (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the Dark Crystal), those indicting the inhumanity of bureaucracy (Brazil), and the organized madness of modern existence (They Live, Buckaroo Banzai, Bladerunner).

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