Exploring the abstract realities of Terry Gilliam’s colourful sci-fi epic
The thing about speculative works is that they invariably prove inaccurate.
This is no slight on those who create those works; I mean, it would be impossible for anyone to guess with any degree of accuracy every human invention to evolve in the ensuing time period. Back in 1930, innovative sci-fi author Olaf Stapledon wrote Last and First Men, a history of the future over a period of 2,000 million years. The story chronicled the rise and fall of 8 different races of men. Some of Stapledon’s speculations were wild and, in hindsight, downright ridiculous, particularly during the Homo sapien period, but he understood the core values of people, their needs and wants, our very nature. What we get is a stunning work of imagination that is effective without having to reference the great technological advancements we now depend upon.
Another, perhaps more appropriate case in point comes in the form of Pavane, a novel by Keith Roberts released in 1966. Instead of predicting the future, Pavane speculated on an alternate history based on the premise that Catholicism had overruled scientific advancement, resulting in a back-breaking communication device that was controlled manually, its giant, wooden arms communicating with neighbouring towns at the expense of the working man’s health. It was an elaborate, impractical version of what would become the telephone. From the perspective of actual history, this was an improbable invention, but its purpose was to highlight the oppressive and often debilitating rule of extremism.
Terry Gilliam’s outlandish dystopian nightmare Brazil falls into that same category. The movie is set ‘somewhere in the twentieth century’, and as a vision of the future it shares some of those inaccuracies, but thematically it is in many ways reminiscent of 21st century life as we know it. The movie was released in 1985, a time when popular belief assumed that bigger was more powerful, and it sports the same gaudy aesthetics as other notable science fiction movies of the period. This works within the context of the piece, but nobody could have predicted the extent of our technological advancement during the latter part of the 20th century; particularly the internet, an invention that would alter our lives irrevocably—for better and for worse.
Mr. Helpmann: Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seem to have forgotten good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game…
Other themes have proven far more accurate. Brazil‘s picture of a society living in fear, particularly under the threat of terrorism, is strikingly authentic, as were the nondiscriminatory bombs and shifting allegiances in George Orwell’s 1984, a tale whose political shadow looms large here. The movie is drenched in Orwellian aesthetics, but Gilliam takes a more absurdist approach to his material, casting fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin as a colleague turned agitator who employs tactics reminiscent of those used by 1984‘s infamous torture chamber, Room 101. For anyone familiar with Monty Python’s works, you will recognise the dark, yet ultimately surreal brand of comedy on display, resulting in a juxtaposing sense of levity that steers its audience clear of despondency.
The biggest example of Python’s influence comes in the form one of the movie’s most peripheral, yet inspired commentaries: the rise of plastic surgery as another everyday procedure—albeit a highly perilous one. Lowry’s gadabout mother, Ida, whose gaggle of wealthy socialites represent 80s Wall Street decadence and the WASP culture explored in Tom Wolfe’s epic satire The Bonfire of the Vanities, is the personification of passive, a woman with political sway who is immune to the impact of the Ministry’s bureaucratic order and therefore unconcerned by it. Ida is the kind of irresponsible pleasure seeker who stokes the fires of private power with an oblivious nonchalance, her days consumed by the kind of emotional self-destruction that masquerades as desire and ends with cocktails at dawn. There to fulfil her misguided needs are capitalism’s most lowly vultures, here taking the form of faux-obsequious surgeon/confidant Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent), who flogs his product like a precocious God and flutters around his macabre work space with the gleeful effervescence of a male salon owner.
Brazil‘s own institution of order, the Ministry of Information, is both distinctly familiar and utterly absurd—a far cry from the post technological revolution of today, but still seeped in mankind’s unquenchable thirst for power and control. The Ministry maintains its stranglehold not through optical fibre and information databases, but through the installation of giant, connecting air ducts—intrusive implements that help them maintain order, and a commentary on the hugely flawed and highly pervasive nature of industrialism. Like Blade Runner released three years prior, Brazil‘s overbearing city is seeped in neo noir, taking influence from the visual style of the 1940s, while recalling the machinic constructs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Like 1984, this is an outmoded vision reminiscent of World War London, one where the inner city is mired in poverty, awaiting the day when governmental inadequacy arrives to steal away their basic freedoms.
As with all memorable works of speculative fiction, many of the movie’s themes remain resonant, they simply manifest in different ways. The aforementioned acts of terrorism, here coming in the form of Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and his band of rogue service officers, an anarchic breed who scale skyscrapers to ‘check’ for faulty ducts, sticking it to bureaucracy and disappearing into the night like Batman on a death-defying zip line. Pretty archaic stuff post-Internet, but in today’s world Tuttle would take the form of a cyber warrior, dishing out liberation the way Edward Snowden did before his forced exile, exposing the extent of information storage and its capacity as a weapon against personal freedoms. The themes are as relevant as ever; it’s the execution of those themes that appear outmoded.
Harry Tuttle : Bloody paperwork. Huh!
Sam Lowry : I suppose one has to expect a certain amount.
Harry Tuttle : Why? I came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s trouble, a man alone. Now they got the whole country sectioned off, you can’t make a move without a form.
Gilliam, much like Orwell, paints a picture of a totalitarian society that takes a blatant, hands-on approach to oppression, one where people are spied upon and prosecuted and reconditioned in a manner that is will-sappingly blatant. Perhaps adapting to the warnings of our greatest political prophets, a very different form of social order has now been established, one where the impositions of the ruling classes are not so transparent. Propaganda is less blatant in the 21st century, and as a consequence far more effective. Public leaders are now little more than celebrities whose real allegiance is to private power, and political influence masquerades as entertainment. Instead of being monitored brazenly and against our wishes, we are dependent on mobile devices that do the job for them. No longer averse to indoctrination, we are wiling advocates for it. Our sense of order is essentially self-imposed.
Manifestations aside, on the whole the movie is still painfully accurate. Those below the breadline suffer from a severe lack of human rights, trawling a Stasi environment of rusted futility, while those who conform are consumed by daily duties and impractical gadgetry. The irony and uselessness of household appliances seen early in the movie are Phillip K. Dick at his most whimsical, and Gilliam is a huge advocate for the cult author, a fact that is apparent in small doses. Protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is also straight out of a Dick novel, an everyman disenchanted with mankind’s multifaceted beast. Lowry—an obvious nod to the great industrial artist of the same name—is a lowly cleric of the Ministry’s vast and intangible bureaucracy, an obsequious ditherer caught between the convenience of his influential mother and personal independence, of an inevitable pairing with a downtrodden acquaintance and an unrequited love with a fantasy terrorist who quickly becomes an obsession and the focal point of his unending desire for escapism.
The latter is portrayed as a caring prole with a dubious recreational existence. Jill (Kim Greist) is a boyish dowdy who appears in Lowry’s flamboyant dreams as a picture-perfect image of womanhood. A former strip cartoonist for satirical magazine Help!, Gilliam would famously provide the Pythons with their anarchic visual element thanks to some innovative graphic design during the 1960s, and Brazil sees his brand of surreal animation come to life in a series of spectacular dream sequences that soar above the industrial rubble with an ethereal grace, allowing our stiff hero to flee the manic carnage of dystopia for grandiose nightmares that graze the rivers of his subconscious. It is here where Lowry’s fantasies are born and his goals realised, but the latter prove just as intangible as the former.
Jill may provide our protagonist with focus, but in many ways she is illusory. First of all, she is less the idealistic image of perfection we are presented with, and instead represents Lowry’s deepest urges to cast off the shackles of conformity. In the first instance, Lowry is attracted to Jill’s selfless nature after visiting the home of her neighbour and marvelling at her capacity for empathy. When Lowry finally catches up with his elusive beau, she is the antithesis of her admirer. All she sees is a buttoned-down facet of the Ministry, not the repressed rebel dying to break free. Jill seems to soften to him quite unexpectedly, but her quick change of heart poses the movie’s ultimate question: is Jill real or merely a figment of Lowry’s imagination, and if she is real, to what extent?
Mr. Helpmann: Jill? Yes… Sam I think I ought to tell you. I’m afraid she’s upped stumps and retired to the pavillion. Thrown in the towel.
All of this is subjective, but Jill’s supposed act of terrorism seems the most likely juncture for our protagonist’s switch. Pre-explosion, Lowry is a lowly civil servant eking out a path to freedom without ever really getting anywhere. Post-explosion, he is a very different entity—brave and debonair, cut from the Bogart cloth as he rubs shoulders with the state’s elusive and wholly fantastical public enemies. It is here that Lowry’s idealistic dreams begin to seep into reality, his inner romanticism exploding onto his grim social canvas like a blizzard of luxurious feathers heading for the inevitable oil spill. Suddenly Jill becomes trusting, exotic, sensual, and his sense of fulfilment slips in and out with an increasing turbulence.
It is during this final act when the movie truly excels. Beyond the various social commentaries—each delivered via a series of adroit, Pythonesque sketches—the movie is emblazoned with aesthetic beauty, and for the most part emboldened by it. Brazil‘s ending may prove devastatingly bleak, but our journey there is breathless and often liberating. The movie’s offbeat tone has a part to play in this, as does the production’s various cast members and cameos, each of them caked in Gilliam’s circus grotesquery. Everyone from Alien‘s rogue android, Ian Holm, to the late, great Bob Hoskins make an appearance, the former as a nerve-stricken manager squirming under the pressure of everyday regulation, the latter as an intrusive service officer who plagues Lowry with the pettiness of a grudge-bearing traffic warden. The movie is chocked full of morally corrupt characters; an embittered, self-serving rabble who are deserving of little more than our ridicule, and who are brought to life with a gleeful perversity by a cast of some of the era’s finest performers.
But most liberating are Brazil‘s aesthetics. Above all else, Gilliam’s imagery stands colossal, and even the movie’s most dreary and oppressive visuals are never less than spellbinding, with larger-than-life set designs and surreal costumes that plunge us into a waterbed of imagination. It is this fantastical nature that alleviates the almost ceaseless despotism of a mismanaged bureaucracy that specialises in mismanaging lives. In the end, it is those distractions that liberate us, the uncertainty of the narrative that keeps us believing until the end.
In life, some things never change.