Watching a lot of science fiction movies (and writing a regular science fiction movie column) is the kind of thing that can make you feel numb to the genre. And then you revisit an all-time favorite and you’re reminded of why this is the greatest and most important genre in fiction. You remember that the best thing about science fiction is how it uses the impossible and the extraordinary to explore our current reality. The absolute best sci-fi isn’t about the future, but about the here and now, and the path that we’re on. We relate to characters in unreal worlds because, at their core, they’re still human beings and they have the same questions, problems and frustrations that we have… they just deal with them in a world where technology has leapt ahead or aliens walk among us.
Simply put, sci-fi is the seemingly distorted mirror that actually reflect us more perfectly than anything else.
I wasn’t aware of how much I was taking science fiction for granted recently until I managed to catch a repertory screening of my all-time favorite movie, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Seeing it in a theater for the first time (in 35 mm, no less) not only confirmed my suspicion that it remains the greatest movie of all time, it rekindled my passions for science fiction and movies in a way I was not expecting. I was suddenly rocked out of the doldrums that I didn’t even know I was in and found myself excited and invigorated.
In other words, this nearly 30-year-old film kicked my ass in a major way even though I’ve already seen it a dozen times.
For those unfamiliar with it, Brazil is best described as Monty Python meets George Orwell, taking place in a world where the politics of 1984 and slapstick comedy collide in every frame. It’s hugely cynical but blissfully romantic, pitch black but totally silly, deeply moving but consistently hilarious. Brazil may be one of the angriest movies of all time, but it sneaks up on you, disarming the audience with comedy and sight gags before going in for the final blow, delivering the second best bittersweet ending in film history (number one would be the very-much-not-sci-fi The Apartment, if we’re being honest).
Like the best science fiction, Brazil feels almost terrifying in its modern relevance. In this world, citizens are rounded up and “interrogated” by an oppressive government and their families are billed to pay for their torture and incarceration. The city is plagued with “terrorist” bombings from militants who most likely don’t actually exist and people have simply accepted that this is the way that things are. Red tape and bureaucracy have gotten so thick that people aren’t even allowed to fix their own air conditioners unless they go through the proper channels. And then there’s the main character Sam Lowry, who spends his days daydreaming and doing everything in his power to avoid being noticed. After all, if he’s noticed, he’ll get promoted at work and forced to take on responsibilities and leave his simple, fanciful life behind.
Our modern world doesn’t perfectly align with the one in Brazil, but there is enough overlap for the film to feel like a dire warning from 1985 about the mundanity of true evil. The characters in Brazil don’t seem to notice (or even care) that they’re living in a totalitarian police state or that they’re eating mush flavored like steak or that billboards have completely replaced scenery. They’re living in a nightmare and they don’t care because caring would force them to give up what few comforts they do have. It’s terrifying stuff. You spend so much time laughing at Brazil’s jokes and gags that when this realization hits (and it didn’t hit me for a day or two after my first viewing) it sends chills down your spine.
This blend of satire, imagination, cynicism and anger is, for me, the recipe for the perfect movie. Brazil is my favorite science fiction film because it presents a world that seems impossible and forces us to see ourselves in it. It’s beautiful and it’s horrifying and it’s unforgettable.
And now I want to hear from you. What is your favorite science fiction movie? And more importantly, why? I want to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments below.
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