Explaining Terry Gilliam's magnum opus, 'Brazil,' to the uninitiated is about as easy as actually understanding all the strange imagery that makes up this cult sci-fi classic. Or at least, that's what I've come to realize over the last few years. It's a bizarrely surreal, but highly-imaginative hallucination about the future, a world where wild, fantastical dreams merge with dreary nightmares. And like some of his films, Gilliam explores a wide array of probing philosophical ideas. No other film probably best demonstrates his most outlandish musings than 'Brazil,' a bleak dystopian vision of bureaucracy run amok with mechanical angels and computer monitors equipped with ridiculous-looking magnifying screens.
It is often described by the eccentric filmmaker as the second in a trilogy on the power of imagination. The first is 'Time Bandits,' which centered on a young boy's dreams through time, and 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' is the third, revolving around an aged storyteller's crazed delusions. Logically, 'Brazil' features a middle-aged hero named Sam Lowry, played marvelously by Jonathan Pryce. The unambitious government employee lives in a dreadfully mechanical and ordered world that's drowning in consumerism, self-interest, privatization and mounds of paperwork. Though clearly a dreamer, he sees nothing truly wrong with his existence until he finds the woman from his dreams (Kim Greist), which takes his down the rabbit hole and eventually into a permanent state of dreaming.
And wouldn't you know it, Sam's hair-rising, eye-opening journey all started with something as small and insignificant as a housefly, creating a chain of events which slowly pull the curtain aside for Sam. Investigating a printing mishap caused by the fly's dead body, our demurring hero finds himself caught in a kind of Phillip K. Dick adventure that has him questioning his place in the universe. But it's also a harrowing escape from a predetermined, nightmarish existence that seems ripped right out of Franz Kafka's darkest imagination — definitely leaning more towards The Trial than anything else. This downward spiral awakens Sam to see his world as the Orwellian purgatory it truly is, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened beyond repair.
It's a fascinating tale that imagines a future where endless technological possibilities intersect and interact with the antiquated and the obsolete. And in many ways, this interchange between the old and the new appears to have an awful, stifling effect on advancement and imagination. Plastic surgery becomes not only a competitive trend, but also a horrifyingly obsessive pursuit for youthful beauty. Self-employed repairmen such as Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) operate like superheroes, but labeled as terrorists by society at large. Close friends, like Michael Palin's Jack Lint, are exposed as obedient servants to the oppressive system. The architecture of this unnamed metropolis is a grotesquely confining design, laying bare the ugliness of living into an acceptable banality.
This 1985 wildly-erratic fantasy of a totalitarian, bureaucratic hell is arguably Terry Gilliam's best work. He is certainly up there as one of the most visionary and ambitious filmmakers working today, brimming with rich, visually arresting flare and a poignant cynicism, even when his films sometimes fall flat. (I'm thinking specifically of 'The Brothers Grimm.') With the hallucinative 'Brazil,' Gilliam is at the top of his game, mixing a very-dark black comedy atmosphere with a seriously dystopic worldview. It perfectly encompasses the director's most troubling themes of the individual trapped by modernity's machine-like existence and a society content with its obscene abnormality. It's a film with a troubled history that's better watched than explained.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings Terry Gilliam's cult sci-fi classic to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc in the standard blue keepcase. At startup, viewers are greeted by a series of internet-based, but skippable trailers, followed the normal Universal menu selection.
For fans and collectors, this version of 'Brazil' is the 132-minute cut of the film, which is the same as the DVD and Laserdic — cover art and all. While not the full 143-minute cut as it was intended by Gilliam, at least it's not Sheinberg's 94-minute edit. Hopefully soon, The Criterion Collection will provide us with a much better release.
Gilliam's dystopian nightmare lands on Blu-ray with a great 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1), bringing new life to his vision of a bureaucratic future. Although very likely made from the same master as the 2003 DVD release, the picture looks as if it's been cleaned up a bit, though nothing too detrimental or damaging. The transfer still shows a thin layer of grain throughout, especially during Sam's dream sequences, and every now and again specks of dirt suddenly appear on the screen. So despite the possibility of the print being cleaned some, the effort doesn't seem excessive or intrusive to the movie's enjoyment.
All the same, the high-def image is a marked improvement with better clarity and resolution. Fine object and textural details are splendidly revealing with various architectural features and nuances made plainly discernable. During close-ups, facial complexions appear appropriate to the movie's intentions with plenty of visible pores and wrinkles. The color palette deliberately plays a low-key role, adding the photography's overall gloomy tone, but primaries remain accurate and cleanly rendered. Contrast, too, is slightly muted, but consistently well-balanced with strong, crisp whites. Black levels are deep and true with excellent shadow delineation, making this a terrific video presentation of a cult sci-fi classic.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also an upgrade when compared to previous standard-def releases. Rear activity is probably most apparent with some very subtle atmospherics, which open up the soundfield rather nicely. Certain discrete effects during the few action scenes can be plainly heard as well, though it never truly feels immersive and in fact call attention to themselves on most occasions.
The more significant improvement comes by way of a wider, fuller front soundstage with nearly all practical sound effects filling the screen. Channel separation is excellent with good fluid movement between the speakers, giving the lossless mix a terrific sense of presence and scope. Dialogue reproduction is clean and intelligibly precise, making every funny conversation and comment perfectly audible. Dynamic range is surprisingly well-defined and extensive, maintaining great clarity detail even when the design is at its loudest. Low-frequency effects are a bit wanting, but still fairly weighty and responsive, likely true to the original design and as much that can be gathered from a recording made in 1985. It's a great high-rez track fans are sure to enjoy.
Unfortunately, this is a bare-bones release, much like previous versions from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
'Brazil' is arguably Terry Gilliam's 1985 magnum opus, a bizarrely surreal, highly-imaginative black comedy set in bleak, mechanical future. The frightful vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic hell is a visually-arresting film where fantastical dreams merge with dreary nightmares. Over the years, since its troubled release, it has become a cult sci-fi classic with terrific performance by Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro and Michael Palin. The Blu-ray comes with a good video transfer and a great audio presentation, but the lack of supplemental material makes this bare-bones edition difficult to recommend, ultimately worth the price only for the most dedicated collector of Gilliam's films.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.