It’s particularly special to see Apocalypse Now in the cinemas these days because there’ll likely be nothing else like it ever again. This kind of film, nowadays too dark for the kind of money and resources are thrown at it, is a product only of its time in the mid-to-late ‘70s, but as it has for forty years, will always remain a powerful work of art that portrays the descent into the heart of darkness through the snaking, winding, inevitably dread-filled river.
Apocalypse Now takes one of the darkest novels, ‘Hearts of Darkness’, and places it within one of the darkest wars, the Vietnam War, at the height of its director Francis Ford Coppola’s career, as well as in the New Hollywood era, when American films were shedding their unearned optimism in favor of unveiling the brutal truth of humanity, uncovering the corruption of both our civilization and our souls.
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For a couple of decades or more, Apocalypse Now has been emblematic of the sort of film that couldn’t have been made at any other time. Its purposeful ambiguity towards its troubling and very American themes, its downward-style sequencing (becoming less action-packed and more deliberately introspective as it progresses), and, likely above all, its intense uncompromising gaze into the void would not get it green-lit today. It’s not the sort of blockbuster that comes from the vision of a conglomerate company that has various sequels and spin-offs in mind, with too many people sticking their fingers and other bodily appendages in the pie – Apocalypse Now is the very rare expensive(-looking) auteur film. Ever since the commercial failure of the similar Heaven’s Gate just two years later, these kinds of films are a rarity, regardless of their quality.
No matter what else cinema brings us, we’ll always have Apocalypse Now, and whether in its 1979 original, 2001 Redux, or new 2019 Final Cut version, it’s an astonishing watershed moment for this art-form. Even if you got too stoned and watched this only on a purely visual and aural level, you’d still be overwhelmed. The game-changing sound design is destructive, full, and piled with what sounds like an eternal amount of layers, and the screen is equally filled to the brim with action and destruction that sometimes rips through the lush natural landscapes of Vietnam washed over with a sickly yellow tinge (though this was filmed in the Philippines).
One unique aspect that I noticed more the last time I saw it on Blu-Ray, and even more when I saw the Final Cut in cinemas, was the establishing shots that work to bridge sequences together and convey the time and distance traveled by the “adventurers”. This filmmaking technique has been utilized many times, it’s effective and it simply works, but how it looks in Apocalypse Now is stunning to behold – the shots fade in, out, and overlap each other, sometimes making you wish you could see each one on their own, but they offer up a somewhat surrealist view of this river journey that becomes darker and more cavernous as the travelers near their fateful destination.
From the opening shot of showing a stretching landscape of nature being pulverized to the visage of Willard’s horrified expression of what man (especially himself) can be capable of, Apocalypse Now can only see hell in war, and even the rock ‘n’ roll behavior of Willard’s fellow soldiers only highlights the atrocities through the desperation through fun in the sun – as Willard puts it, “the more they tried to make it feel like home, the more they made us miss it.”
As exciting as it is to have it back in the cinemas, just don’t believe that this Final Cut edition is the superior version. The original is still the best, managing to retain an epic structure at 153 minutes, between 30 and 50 minutes shorter than the other two editions, without feeling bloated. In his video introduction that plays before these screenings, Francis Ford Coppola explains the Final Cut is his favorite edition, which retains some of his favorite moments from the Redux version, whilst introducing a few short moments to existing scenes (one of which showing Kilgore without his hat).
It’s curious to see that the longest excised scene, the twenty-minute French plantation sequence, survived its way from the Redux to the Final Cut, despite being the most criticized scene in any cut. It offers up a restful comma in this elongated boat ride, though the ramblings from the head colonist about land ownership and the history of the French defeat in wars only seems to hover over the rest of the story, rather than find a natural way to be implemented.
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Another very revealing Redux scene that’s in the Final Cut is extended footage of Kilgore as he explains the irony of the napalm smoke ruining the waves, then Willard uncharacteristically steals one of Kilgore’s large and impressive surfboards, chuckling to himself as his boat takes off with it. You can think of this either way, that it shows some humanity to the otherwise emotionally stilted Willard, though I prefer to see him remain as a more passive and observant character, not one who will suddenly engage in the bad-boy antics that he seems to observe, distance himself from.
My sole complaint amongst the plethora of praise is that the colors of this new print seemed a bit too muted and dirty. This was evident from the opening shot, where the greens of the jungle seemed to not be as green as they were before. Although the stunning imagery from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was still appreciated on the big screen, it seemed to be a bit compromised, and hopefully all other prints of the Final Cut around the world (especially the ones playing in IMAX this August) will have the colors looking as prominent as they did on the initial Blu-Ray release. One of the greats of all cinema history deserves just that.