I think I finally understand what happened here! Not what happens in the movie Brazil – I could never understand that – but what happened to Labyrinth and Time Bandits. Some movie buffs and comedy lovers may know that the Monty Python approach to writing movies was generally to come up with different scenes/sketches that would be funny all centered around a general theme, and then a loose story would be created out of stringing the pieces of the movie together. Naturally, when someone who approaches screenwriting this way has the challenge of writing a more traditional narrative story (that’s focused on likable characters dealing with a dramatic plot, even if that drama is not meant to be taken seriously) we can expect issues to arise with the flow of the story. For Labyrinth, Terry Jones’ screenplay had to be doctored in secret by other writers because it needed a lot of work before it could be made into the film Jim wanted (which still had leftover story problems in the end). For Time Bandits, fellow Pythoner Terry Gilliam made a bizarre family film that makes no sense whatsoever, and is often more awkward and convoluted than entertaining. For Brazil, Gilliam made an iconic ’80s movie masterpiece, but it had similar flaws.
Before going any further, I must recognize that this is, in some ways, a brilliant film. As satire, it’s practically perfect in every way, and makes the human race seem hilariously absurd. At some moments, its comedic criticism of war is better than Stanley Kubrick’s. Much of the film is good fun, and the performances are perfect. The world Gilliam created is brilliantly clever, and the visuals are absolutely outstanding. This truly is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever laid eyes upon, as far as visual art is concerned, because the lighting, the colors, the set designs, and the cinematography are all spot-on. It’s a masterful work of art that raises the bar for the genre of comedy films, and I can respect it if people love this movie a heck of a lot more than I do.
I, however, just don’t get it. Every now and again, I encounter a movie that has me saying to myself, “What the heck IS this movie?!” more and more as the film progresses. It’s a very memorable experience, and it usually means that the movie is going to mean a lot to me for a long time, regardless of whether I think of it positively or negatively. This film had that special quality to it like no movie I’ve seen in a long time, if ever, and I can’t help but be reminded of the first time I saw Gremlins 2, one of my favorite films, and the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my least favorite. As blown away as I was with just how perfect certain elements of the film are, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the story didn’t make enough sense. Some of that special feeling I mentioned above was coming from a sense of being immensely impressed, but some was coming from being annoyingly confused. I now understand why Roger Ebert only gave Brazil just two stars saying, “This is a confused and unsatisfying film in which the magnitude of the special effects, and the chaotic implications of the plot, make the movie hard work for any audience to follow, let alone appreciate.”
So, my first criticism is that the movie doesn’t make enough sense. What starts off seeming like it offers too little with its minimalist plot (which consists of a man trying to meet the woman he’s seen in his dreams) eventually unravels into a psychedelic acid rock song that’s sad about the loss of friendships and angry with society’s constraints. There is very little correlation between what happens in Sam’s dreams and what he deals with in real life, and this gives the audience too big of a chore when they have to try to find the patterns and the meaning in all this. Heck, even the movie’s title, and its titular song of the same name, don’t seem to be very connected to the film at all. There are just too many things that Gilliam did not communicate as efficiently as one would hope.
My second big criticism is directly tied into the first, as it pertains to the lack of satisfaction. I’m not against a movie that doesn’t end with the characters living happily ever after, but I am against endings that don’t feel “correct.” I may have written a bit too much about this before, but screenwriter Terry Rossio’s rules about how an ending must be set up, inevitable, and yet unexpected are a good way to figure out why one might feel unsatisfied by a movie. If the simplistic plot consists of navigating through a dystopian future to marry a dream-girl, there had better be a good reason for missing the one goal we’re rooting for Sam to achieve, but this Gilliam’s only reason seems to be that he wanted to blow one last raspberry at western governments before he had to step down from his soap box.
I think it’s plain to see that I have mixed feelings about this unique work of art. The various trains of thought that I’ve boarded because of this film are so numerous and labyrinthine that I can reach no final verdict. I can completely respect the opinion that this is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and I can equally respect the opinion that this movie is whiny, bitter rubbish. Any efforts to unveil what exactly I feel because of Brazil seem to be disappointingly futile, but perhaps the important thing is that it made me feel, and it did so profusely. When it comes to rating the visuals, however, my feelings are clear: it’s in the 99.9th percentile, A++.