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
This Blu-ray edition of Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil' comes by way of The Criterion Collection (spine #51). The two-disc package features the original143-minute cut of the film on a Region A locked, BD50 disc, which sits comfortably on top of another Region A, BD50 disc containing supplements and Sheinberg's 94-minute "Love Conquers All" edit. Both are housed in the distributor's standard clear keepcase and accompanied by a 16-page booklet with an essay entitled "A great Place to Visit, Wouldn't Want to Live There" by film professor David Sterritt, which appears to be exclusive to the Blu-ray edition. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According the accompanying booklet, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of Gilliam's dystopian nightmare was struck from a new 35mm interpositive. The results are rather excellent and a marked improvement over previous editions. Compared to last year's release from Universal, the differences are arguably marginal, but this transfer is still the better of the two. Certain limitations in the production and cinematography are apparent, as the picture quality is not the sort to rival newer movies, yet this is the best 'Brazil' has ever looked.
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and approved by Gilliam, the video is awash in a thin-layer of grain, especially during Sam's dream sequences, providing the image with an attractive film-like appearance. Staying true to the intentions of cinematographer Roger Pratt, the transfer comes with a low-key color palette and a slightly-muted contrast level, creating a consistently gloomy, low-spirited tone to the plot. Primaries, however, remain bold and full-bodied, with warm secondary hues and crisp, clean whites throughout. Blacks waver a tad, depending on the scene, but come in rich and accurate nonetheless with strong shadow delineation. Except for a few soft spots, details are sharply defined with excellent resolution and visibility of the smallest features in the stage design, making this a splendid high-def release of a cult sci-fi classic.
Like the video, this DTS-HD MA stereo soundtrack was also remastered from 35mm magnetic tracks. Unlike the video, however, the differences between this and last year's release are not vast. Comparatively speaking, the two are very similar and both have their advantages, with the only real difference being that of certain atmospherics employed in the rears creating a wider soundfield. Given the choice though, I prefer this track since it stays truer to the original design.
As for this particular release, the lossless mix comes with a splendidly wide front soundstage. Discrete effects fill the entire screen from beginning to end, and channel separation is very well-balanced. Especially when it comes to the whimsical music of Michael Kamen and Geoff Muldaur's version of "Watercolor of Brazil," imaging feels spacious and broad with a large sense of scope. Dynamic range is crisp and crystal-clear with room-penetrating clarity and definition during the film's loudest moments. There's not a whole lot going on in the low-end, but it's accurate and appropriate from a recording made in 1985. A couple conversations come in a tad lower than others, but nothing that would be considered distracting. Otherwise, dialogue reproduction is terrific and precise in the center, making this a marvelous presentation of a Gilliam favorite.
Arguably Terry Gilliam's magnum opus, 'Brazil' is a bizarrely surreal, highly-imaginative black comedy set in a bleak, mechanical future. The frightful vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic hell is a visually-arresting film where fantastical dreams merge with dreary nightmares and features terrific performances by Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro and Michael Palin. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection, the controversial, cult sci-fi classic arrives to Blu-ray with an excellent audio and video presentation and a wealth of supplemental material, making the overall package highly-recommended.
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.