Badlands/2001 A Space Odyssey
Both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick’s Badlands portray the dichotomous depiction of the protagonist as the classical ‘hero’ and as the vessel for the narrative of the film. In 2001, our protagonist is characterized merely as a metaphor for mankind in its most distilled form. He is stoic and unmoving, and the viewer watches him grow and evolve throughout Kubrick’s visually stunning narrative. There exists a curious irony in the way in which the protagonist does not possess individual characteristics or display a classical development of character in possessing his own agency. In this way, 2001 A Space Odyssey is not so much about the characters, but rather the visual odyssey as aptly depicted in the title.
In a similar fashion, the romantic and tumultuous relationship between Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen’s characters in Malick’s Badlands evolves along the linear thread of their travels from place to place, punctuated by the violence that leads to their eventual demise. The film portrays a sense of faded destiny; the lack of emotional response to the deaths that occur as a result of the protagonists’ relationship is a warped dis-illusion of the classical ‘hero’ narrative as mentioned previously. Paradoxically, though Sheen and Spacek are void of emotion as they carry out their destructive path, the viewer experiences a profound loss for the archetypal ‘American hero.’ We desperately want Kit to be the hero, but his lack of development means he does not fully flesh out the requirements to be one, yet nor does he fully encapsulate the role of the villain either. Thus, he is a suspended individual, and instead acts a metaphorical symbol for a transitional American youth. The muted emotional responses from Kit and Holly make it impossible to establish a tangible connection with them; their glassy and detached personas of the archetypal ‘murderer’ and ‘his lover accomplice’ are degradable as the film progresses. Malick places them in the position to be the new and updated ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ but purposefully does not establish enough justifiable character growth to fulfill these roles.
What is so interesting about the main protagonists in Badlands is their inability to perceive or portray any extreme emotion, whether it be the lackluster experience of Holly losing her virginity, the lack of remorse in murdering several people, the perplexing calm that accompanies their violent actions, or most pivotally the void of passion or love in their relationship. Though they play the part of being in love, there exists an asexual ontological presence to their perception of the classical depiction of infatuation and obsession. In this way the director subverts the classical emotions of the runaway love story and re-designs the emotional response as a kind of illusion. Even the emotion of nostalgia is only semi-tangible; as a viewer we try to enforce the conception that Kit and Holly are children playing this runaway romance as reality, but in actual fact Kit is most likely 25 years of age, and Holly similarly probably only 15. They live in their tree-house like a modern day Peter Pan and Wendy, but all the while are ruthlessly murdering people.
Returning to 2001, the absence of character emotions means that cinema is left to fill the gaps, and we see just that, with both films displaying a visual prowess in describing their respective journeys/odysseys. Neither film is focused on dialogue, rather they place emphasis on the visual description of the narrative; for example in 2001 the various long plain scenes and in Badlands the drive into the sunset across the majestic desert emptiness. In this way, there is no need for words, as emotional experience is conveyed through the visual, and thus one can argue that the visual is as much a central character of both narratives alongside its human protagonist counterpart.