(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
“I am Evil. Evil existed long before good.”
Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy-adventure Time Bandits is the first installment in his “Trilogy Of Imagination” series, followed by Brazil (1985) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). The trilogy is thematically connected in its examination of escapism through fantasies in lieu of the failings of systemic organizations and institutions, or as film critic Jack Matthews put it in his 1996 essay, Dreaming Brazil, “the craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.”
Outside of being the inaugural entry into Gilliam’s “Trilogy Of Imagination,” Time Bandits also belongs to a small canon of unusually bleak live-action films geared towards the children of Gen X, released throughout the early to mid-eighties. At face value, films such as The Dark Crystal (1982) and The Never Ending Story (1984) function as family entertainment at a PG rating. But beneath the surface are existential doubts about morality, the catastrophic letdowns of growing up, and the somber realities of adulthood. These subtextual undercurrents were exasperated by the political and cultural context in which these films were released. While they masqueraded as popcorn flicks, they also served as criticism of Reaganite cinema: a term used for eighties films that idealized conservative politics and the false promise of capitalism; big-budget sensationalism to be enjoyed passively (think the Rambo series). But before we unpack its sardonically venomous commentary on populist culture, let’s get back to the surface of Time Bandits. After all, it’s a playful time-travel fantasy with broad appeal for audiences young and old…right?
Eleven-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) lives in a middle-class suburb with his zombified parents. He’s a history buff, devouring books about ancient Greece and drawing pictures of medieval capers. Meanwhile, his mom and dad veg out in front of the television, watching mindless game shows such as “Your Money Or Your Life.” The family’s house is outfitted with cheesy gadgets and appliances from late-night infomercials – the kind that you must “BUY NOW” for the “LOW LOW PRICE” of whatever “DEAL WON’T LAST” – but Kevin’s bedroom is humbly analog. His walls are covered with maps and illustrations from King Arthur’s reign, his floor littered with magazines and wind-up toys. Unlike his banausic parents, Kevin’s world is filled with imagination and creativity.
One night, while Kevin is sleeping, an armored knight on horseback bursts out of his wardrobe closet. The knight rides off into a forest setting where the bedroom wall once was, and as soon as Kevin blinks – the knight is gone, the bedroom returned to normalcy. The next night, armed with a flashlight and Polaroid camera, Kevin waits in bed for the knight to return. As he drifts off to sleep, six mystic dwarfs dressed in steampunk apparel topple out of the closet. Kevin learns that they are former employees of The Supreme Being, an omnipresent God-like figure. After leaving their jobs as repairmen and arborists, the dwarfs stole a map from The Supreme Being that charts all of the holes in the fabric of time, and they’re using it to steal treasures from different eras. They invite Kevin to join them, and the ragtag gang leaves the drab British suburbs for a colorful adventure through space and time, dropping in on historical characters and folklore legends alike: Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese), King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and an aging Ogre named Winston (Peter Vaughan). Unbeknownst to Kevin and the dwarfs, a malevolent being named Evil (David Warner) is monitoring their topsy-turvy journey through time, manipulating events to acquire the map so that he can remake the universe in his own (evil) image.
The nuts and bolts of Time Bandits are fastened to classical narrative devices in fantasy literature and film, ranging from Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (1963), Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (1865), The Wizard Of Oz (1939), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and countless others. It adheres to the mono-myth of fantasy: a protagonist must journey through an external magical realm to gain internal knowledge that will change their “ordinary world” reality. However, Time Bandits viciously subverts expectations – defying its predecessors as well as its successors such as Back To The Future (1985), Last Action Hero (1993), and The Pagemaster (1994) – by presenting an indifferent universe. Time Bandits is anarchic, refusing to buy into the sentimentality of Disney or Amblin films. There is no free will. There is no sense to be made of a senseless world. And if God does exist, he’s apathetic towards our plights.
As the young and impressionable Kevin traverses the centuries, he encounters a variety of historical figures that he looks up to. These are the heroes that Kevin tacks up on his bedroom walls, mythologized and romanticized by the passing of time. But in the flesh, these notable adults are ultimately disappointing. Napoleon is a self-obsessed tyrant who compares himself to other conquerors not by accomplishments, but by appearances. Robin Hood is a thief who presents himself as a sleazy politician, and his band of “merry men” are little more than barbaric thugs. Despite his wealth and privilege, Agamemnon is an unhappy and lonely king who teaches Kevin the art of cheating and deception. The whimsical gang of dwarfs have a spacetime map that could be used for the betterment of civilization but instead is used to rob others for selfish gains. Overseeing all of this is The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), who behaves and looks more like a crude wall street banker than a God. Having screwed up the design of the universe on account of only having seven days to make it, The Supreme Being watches the pain and agony of humanity from a cosmic ivory tower as an idle spectator. At the film’s explosive coda (literally and figuratively), a piece of Evil destroys Kevin’s parents. The Supreme Being does not intervene. Rather, he watches the death and destruction from afar before rolling up the map, as if to say, “Oh well. Shit happens.” In Time Bandits, nobody has the answers, including the guy who invented the questions.
Unlike the surreal fantasy of The Wizard Of Oz or the time-bending sci-fi of Back To The Future, Time Bandits concludes by offering Kevin no “ordinary world” to return to with newfound wisdom. His adventures through time were not the result of a dream or hallucination, and they offer little lessons other than, “You’re on your own, kid” and “The world is a cruel place.” Even the dwarfs, having previously left their menial jobs to exploit the map for their fortunes, are no better at the end of the film than they were in the beginning. In fact, they’re worst off – they get demoted: “I should do something very extroverted and vengeful to you. Honestly, I’m too tired,” The Supreme Being tells them, “I think I’ll transfer you to the undergrowth department, brackens, more shrubs, that sort of thing… with a 19% cut in salary, backdated to the beginning of time.” Despite being a time-bending adventure film marketed to children, the philosophy of Time Bandits is more Albert Camus than Walt Disney.
Considering Gilliam’s penchant for dry British humor and dark satire (let us not forget this is the same director as 1975s Monty Python & The Holy Grail), it’s interesting to note that Time Bandits predates the iconic Amblin films of the eighties such as E.T. (1982), The Goonies (1985), and Batteries Not Included (1987). In retrospect, Time Bandits almost seems like a precocious parody of the feel-good, binary morality of Amblin films. It’s the punk rock answer to media from the era of Regan and Thatcher that promoted the capitalistic myth of freedom and the vapidness of consumerism; cleverly disguising itself as the status quo only to ditch its “fun-for-the-whole-family” costume in the final act, revealing itself as an explicit meditation on nihilism.
If there is a moral compass to Time Bandits, it’s that the complacent materialism of a capitalistic society will guide you towards evil. In one of many instantly quotable scenes, Evil pontificates this sentiment by saying, “God isn’t interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time! Forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men! Slugs! HE created slugs! They can’t hear. They can’t speak. They can’t operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I were creating the world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers! Eight o’clock! Day One! When I have the map, I will be free, and the world will be different…soon I shall have an understanding of video cassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have an understanding of them, I shall have an understanding of computers. And when I have an understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!” In a film that has such a decidedly cynical worldview, it’s no wonder that the personification of Evil not only has the most logical bit of dialogue, but also the most prophetic. | e hehr