By Brandon Engel: Terry Gilliam, beyond the initial fame he gained as a member of the iconic comedy troupe Monty Python, has made a name for himself as a successful screenwriter and director, best known for films like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. However, it’s Gilliam’s contributions to dystopian science fiction literature and film that have endeared him to sci-fi fans across the globe, where he sets up a world where the best of intentions go awry while offering a subtle commentary on society.
In between the final Python films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, Gilliam transitioned into a career as a screenwriter and director with films about the desire to escape the confines of an ordered society throughout the different stages of life. It’s easy to identify themes Gilliam would use in his later works by taking a closer look at what he referred to as his “Trilogy of Imagination”.
The first film, Time Bandits, is presented from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy. The movie has the boy delving into a fantasy world that somehow meshes with his real world once the adventure comes to an end. It’s interesting to point out that the film’s conclusion is far from the cliched Hollywood happy ending, also characteristic of Gilliam’s later works.
In Brazil, a young man is searching for a woman appearing to him in his dreams. This time the film presents a consumer-driven dystopian world dependent on machines that borrows elements from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen featured a different mix of fantasy and reality along with an ambiguous ending meant to leave something to imagination of the audience.
After exploring his interest in subversive literature with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel, Gilliam presented a unique take on The Brothers Grimm, re-imagined as con artists in a film of the same name. Following the sci-fi comedy Tideland, Gilliam returned to the world of pure fantasy with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
12 Monkeys, the story of a prisoner sent back in time in an attempt to discover a virus that has already been unleashed on the world in the present, has several clear cinematic allusions to Chris Marker’s 1962 French short film La Jetee and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with references sometimes overlapping, most notably with the reenactment of the Muir Woods scene from Vertigo that was also recreated in La Jetee. A recent TV adaptation airing on the Syfy Channel (here for more channel information) echoes the same premise of the film. The series, set in the present day, has James Cole returning from the year 2043 to find the elusive group that will unleash a devastating virus in the future.
In 2013, Gilliam’s latest sci-fi flick, The Zero Theorem, debuted at the Venice International Film Festival. In the film, which hasn’t been released in the U.S., a computer genius attempts to determine whether or not life has meaning through a formula he’s developing. In 2013, Gilliam finally confirmed that Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Zero Theorem are part of his satirical dystopian trilogy.
While Gilliam’s movies aren’t always uplifting, he asserts that sometimes it’s appropriate to be serious and somber when bringing a story to life on the big screen, whether it be fantasy, science fiction or a combination of the two genres. In an interview posted online, Gilliam, who has a reputation for speaking his mind, called out Steven Spielberg for not going beyond the predictable, referring to his works as “simplistic,” specifically criticizing Schindler’s List for lacking depth. He also links Spielberg to the “dumbing down” of audiences.