Terry Gilliam is a master. The cast and crew he brought together for his 1981 film, Time Bandits, is nearly flawless. The acting is superb, the music fitting, the set and costume designs jaw-dropping, the special effects mind-blowing (even today). And of course the camera direction, as it always is with Gilliam, sets up each scene’s mood perfectly. The script, written by Gilliam alongside his fellow Monty Python veteran Michael Palin, is also vivid and well versed.
The ’80s was a powerhouse time for (mostly cheesy) fantasy. This film is certainly no exception. It details a boy, neglected by his parents on account of their commodity fetishism, who stare blankly into the TV, watching their favorite game show, Your Money or Your Life, dreaming about the various commercialized products they will buy as soon as they have enough money to do so. The boy, Kevin, sits and reads history books, attempting to share what he learns with his family, but is brushed off and sent to bed. Upon his falling asleep, he enters a surreal fantasy dreamscape in which he travels with a group of six dwarfs through time and space looting various historical figures. All the while the group is being pursued by the Supreme Being, who is demanding his map of creation be returned.
The story is typical, cliché even, and I was unimpressed. What with the superb visuals and dialogue however, the plot’s flaws are easily overlooked. But in it yet are few virtues. It paints a wonderfully comic, if not demoralizing view of history. Napoleon is a man obsessed with leaders of the past, but only those whose height was less than average. Robin Hood and his merry men are a bunch of fools. Agamemnon is blinded by trickery through his love of magic games. And the Titanic was bound to sink, for all its hubris and pride.
At last, the group ends up in the Time of Legends, where our main villian, Evil, dwells. He too seeks the map, and plans to dominate the world through technology and machines. He remarks that butterflies and the like are unthinking and cannot do his bidding, and this is where the Supreme Being lacks in comparison to him. And through the promise of the most magnificient object in the universe (the same object Kevin’s parents lust over while watching television) he easily captures the dwarfs in the modernist Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, an etcheresque tower built with what looks to be Lego blocks. Through cunning and ingenuity, the brute force of Evil is overcome and the Supreme Being, as we’d guess, prevails.
And in the end, Kevin wakes up into a world, to no one’s surprise, where reality sets in once more, but aspects of his dreams carry over, suggesting there is something more to life and the creative mind than that which is on the surface. And despite the nature of the story and plot, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. For it is born of the same essence from which Terry Pratchett’s stories come. It is meant not to be taken seriously, but as a parody of fantasy, as a comment on the nature of the hero’s journey and the like. It is self reflective and inclusive of what is fantasy.
Throughout the film, Gilliam nods towards those classics such as The Hobbit and LOTR, Alice, Narnia, and so on. It plays like a Disney cartoon turned live-action and moves at the same pace, paired with a slight tinge of british humor. It is a grand study of religion, mythology, and legend. And it is a warning, that greed and consumerism, technology and machines, will kill the hero in us all if we allow it. I can’t help but to call this film a masterpiece.