In 1954, Walt Disney set about proving the mettle of his studio and Science Fiction by producing one of the first great genre epics of the post-war era, turning to Jules Verne to supply him with the setting and outline of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That, in turn, inspired a lengthy series of Victorian Scientific Romances rebranded as Atomic Age parables that stretched until the end of the Sixties, running parallel to the more modern Science Fiction of the time. However, after the Summer of Love, the global protests of 1968, the Stonewall riots, the Tet Offensive, and the moon landing, the heady days of ray gun adventures of cautionary atomic optimism were passed. In their place came a strange affectation for deromanticized films which gave the impression of depth by being light on acting, dialogue, and story but heavy on running time. Ponderous length and turgid performances somehow gave the impression of possessing profound meaning, no better exemplified than in the first truly large-scale, full-colour, obscenely-budgeted Science Fiction epic since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
An instructive comparison can be made between the two. Above all else, 2001 is a film about the emergence of consciousness. First, we see the emergence of primate consciousness in the "Dawn of Man" sequence and the connection between consciousness, technology and the violent struggle of survival. In the middle section, which contains the only part of 2001 that may be considered a story, we see the emergence of technological consciousness as HAL 9000 gains sentience and repeats the violent struggle for survival. Finally, in "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" we see the emergence of stellar consciousness as a state of being that cannot be described, only show in slit-screen effects over footage of Monument Valley. Yet all of Kubrick's brilliant cinematography is a disingenuous construct, meant to disguise the fact that the entire movie is conceptual. It is a 161 minute depiction of a theme without any meaningful ideas, and certainly very little that approaches anything like a story or characters. Kubrick asks us to be in awe of the technical spectacle of 2001, accepting that the spectacle in-itself comprises something kind of like a philosophical idea.
By contrast, 20,000 Leagues possesses not only a theme (atomic power), but an idea (how atomic power should be used responsibly) conveyed through an impassioned human drama. Whereas Kubrick may be the greater artiste, Disney is by far the greater showman. He no doubt recognized that you can't carry a 121 minute movie on theme alone. A concept is what gets you started, a foundation upon which you build a movie and not the movie itself. Therefore the theme of atomic power's responsible use underlies an actual story about a trio of men who are taken captive aboard Captain Nemo's submarine ship... A story overflowing with human drama, tragedy, action, and charismatic personalities. It is a heartily Romantic, passionate film. Even the settings are richly Romantic, from the beauty of the ocean to the wealth of Nemo's salon. 2001, on the other hand, shows the vast expanses of the cosmos but somehow depicts them as listlessly dull. All the ballet music in the world cannot bandage the gaping wound in which space, space ships and even whole planets are stripped bare of anything interesting. With newly expansive stellar consciousness pushing beyond the infinite, all Dave Bowman sees are infinite dead worlds not unlike the dessicated desert that was Earth at the Dawn of Man. Though trying to communicate space as a place of infinite growth and possibility, Kubrick somehow only succeeds in making space looking really boring. It is no wonder, after 2001 and its offspring like The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien, that the original Star Wars should have been such a huge hit. Its return to a Romantic vision of space begat a string of genuinely well-loved Science Fiction films through the Eighties and Nineties, like Back to the Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T., Aliens, Jurassic Park and even, God forbid, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
The purpose of this exegesis on 2001 is to set the background for understanding The Light at the Edge of the World, which is the Kubrick paradigm applied to Jules Verne. Based on a posthumously published 1905 adventure novel, this 1971 vehicle for aging stars Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner divests story for theme. In the original Lighthouse at the End of the World, Verne takes his readers to the faraway archipelago of Tierra del Fuego (an area to which he would return in Magellania, from which one also sees echoes in Light at the End of the World). Three men tend the lighthouse that guards the straits through which all traffic circumnavigating the Americas must pass, until two are killed by a marauding band of pirates led by the villainous Kongre. Vasquez, the survivor, lasts as well as he can in hiding until he is joined by the sole survivor of a ship that the pirates dash upon the shoreline after commandeering the lighthouse. The two engage in a guerilla campaign designed to detain the scallywags until help can arrive.
From that, one could see the outline of a film very much like 20,000 Leagues in tone, especially when Kirk Douglas plays the Americanized survivor of the lighthouse. On the one hand you have the theme of the rugged, far-flung lands that test the civility of man, and on the other you have an adventuresome story full of charismatic personalities and swashbuckling heroics. Instead what we get is a landscape of physical, emotional and moral bleakness, with only Brynner's Kongre to get within spitting distance of a character. The pirates have a certain flamboyance about them, but they hardly even speak, opting instead for animalistic howls and cackling. Douglas plays Denton, a veteran of the California Gold Rush who is on flight from a broken heart and a criminal record, wearing his bleakness on his weathered face and surprising us with such an inappropriately robust voice uttering from it for his five or six lines. Eventually two shipwrecked passengers join them, a man rescued by Denton and a woman held hostage by Kongre. They are there. They exist in the movie. That is all.
The Light at the Edge of the World is poorly titled, as we spend its 120 minutes watching that light slowly become extinguished in the contest of wills between Denton and Kongre. Don't make the mistake of thinking that it's an exciting contest of wills, mind you, as the one between Nemo and Ned Land or Nemo and Arronax or Arronax and Ned Land might have been. It's mostly Kongre's cool calculations against Denton's stumbling around the Spanish coastline where it was filmed. In Verne's book, Vasquez is holding on as a force of civilization, order and decency at the furthest tip of the continent. He not only seeks to protect the lighthouse but is himself the lighthouse. In this film, Denton does not start out well, and only declines from there. The pirates are nihilistically perverse and violent, which imparts the same characteristic on the film itself (there is a pretty sizable body count, as well as a gang rape, and the graphic flayings of both a man and a pet monkey). In the end, not even the lighthouse is preserved, and Denton's rescue has the same feel as when the adults finally arrive in Lord of the Flies... The Light at the Edge of the World is "Jules Verne's Apocalypse Now."