We often look to the past because we can understand it. Thanks to hindsight, anyone can think back to days past and either think fondly or poorly about it. No matter how one views the past, part of the allure is that a person can look back and know why things were like that and have the sense to understand why people acted and thought like they did in the past. On the other hand, looking to the future is a lot more daunting. There’s no idea what the future will be like, and most people are aware that the future is likely to be something beyond their understanding. Values, phrases, and customs might be outdated or forgotten in the future, and to imagine a world without the traits of the present can be hard to handle.
This is why dystopia literature and media has appeal. Novelists like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley published some of their most famous works by writing about their fears for how the future will be. Books like Nineteen Eighty-Four
and Brave New World
examine variations on the current society and told tales about if those attributes, whether it be control or pleasure, were taken to the extreme. These stories are frightening, but fascinating to look at because they represent how the person in that era looked at the future.
It makes sense these works would inspire a film like Brazil. The film, directed by Monty Python member Terry Gilliam is a sci-fi dystopia film that takes tropes common to works like
Nineteen Eighty-Four and uses them to make a farce. In an unnamed city “somewhere in the 20th century,” Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is the typical middleman in a complete bureaucratic hell. His life is dull and gray, usually dealing with technology that’s quirky but useless or dealing with his plastic surgery obsessed mother (Katherine Helmond). The only break in his monotony are the recurring dreams he has, where he’s an armored man with wings who is enchanted by a beautiful woman (Kim Greist) and fights a giant metal samurai. His life changes when he meets a woman who resembles the dream woman, and this takes Sam on a journey into the depths of the bureaucracy and into the depths of madness.
The film really stands out because it’s such a bleak look at the future, but makes fun of the way it presents the future. In Brazil, everything is controlled by the government. Every action has a few dozen forms that require signatures and stamps, propaganda posters spouting phrases like “Loose talk is noose talk” and “Suspicion breeds confidence” are hung all over the place, and rampant consumerism affects everyone’s daily lives. It’s a cynical look at the future, but it’s also sort of making fun of just how far this society drifted to become like this. When a restaurant serves slop that tastes like dishes, they still include a card depicting what the dish should look like. When the wrong man is killed due to a computing error, the people flip out because they have no clue how to properly compensate his family. It’s cynical, but it’s also absurd, so the viewer can’t get too hung up over how Gilliam presents the future.
It does help that the film blends the perspective of how they look to the future. Gilliam called the film the “Nineteen Eighty-Four
for 1984.” Even the art direction, full of art deco and matte paintings to make most sets look even larger, resemble that of dystopian films like Metropolis
. Some claim the film is how the 1980s would have looked to someone in the 1940s, blending noir and science fiction with post World War II fears. Sam does feel like a little man who gets involved in something bigger than he is. Unfortunately, in this story, he’s too small to really make any real change in his world, so all that awaits him is despair.
Brazil really is a clever interpretation of the fears we have for our future. It’s presented in a very bleak, but still somewhat comical manner. Really, what makes Brazil great is that it highlights just how absurd it is to assume the worst of the future. Yes, the world of Brazil has some really dark elements in it, but it’s honestly such a stretch for that to be a possible outcome of our society that you can’t help but laugh at it. In a way, it’s really great because it presents an idea of how the future could turn out, but the absurdity of the scenario means that the viewer can take solace in the fact that it’s probably not going to turn out like this. Brazil asks the viewer to look at the future with a sense of humor, and that’s probably the best outlook to have when one thinks of the future.