Time Bandits (1981)
Written by Terry Gilliam & Michael Palin
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Over the last 20 odd years, I’ve held varying opinions on the work of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python. I can’t say I was ever a superfan of either, but I certainly have enjoyed pieces of their work. For a long time, I counted Brazil as one of my favorite films ever. The more I rewatched it, the more I cooled on that opinion, and I still regard it as one of the best movies to come out in the 1980s. I think the problem I have with Gilliam is the inconsistency of his work, especially within a single film. There will be moments of sheer brilliance followed by sloppy, amateurish content. I always feel like I am on the precipice of greatness watching his pictures, only to walk away with the sense that some vital component was missing. I first saw Time Bandits on television when I was a child, and it left an impression on me to the point that specific images were seared onto my brain after a single viewing. Revisiting the movie, I found it once again had great ideas but poor execution.
Kevin is an eleven-year-old boy living in the U.K. who is fascinated with history. The film opens with him pouring over a book on Ancient Greece while his parents have become obsessed with watching television game shows and buying unnecessary household gadgets. One night, a strange moment occurs while he is trying to go to sleep—an armored knight bursts forth from his closet only to disappear without a trace. The next night Kevin sits and waits for something to happen when a sextet of little people emerges from his wardrobe. These little men are former employees of the Supreme Being and were once in charge of creating trees for the universe. They became dissatisfied after a demotion, stole a map that showed rifts in space & time, and decided to become master criminals stealing treasure from across history. Kevin quickly learns they are complete amateurs as they bungle job after job. Meanwhile, they are pursued by the Supreme Being and watched over by Evil (David Warner), who wants the map so he can escape his prison.
Time Bandits is a movie brimming with unique concepts and striking visuals. The ambition of Gilliam in his sophomore effort is worthy of applause. The type of fantasy he traffics in is unlike anything else out there. Gilliam has a very particular perspective on technology seen in all his work which he explains in some of the behind-the-scenes features of the Criterion Brazil DVD. He sees so much of modern technology being centered around creating gadgets to overcomplicate tasks. You can see this in the food prep Kevin’s parents have in their kitchen. This directly connects to capitalism and spending in the hopes it will bring fulfillment, seen in how the parents drool over their favorite game show. It’s also present in the Time Bandits themselves, believing that having piles of gold will make them powerful and happy.
But there is where the theme of the film gets muddled. By the explosive finale, I’m not quite sure what Gilliam is trying to say. I greatly appreciate the appearance by The Supreme Being to take out Evil, where we get some insight into Gilliam & Palin’s philosophy on the concept of God. The revelation that the Bandits had been allowed to take the map because he allowed it as a test of creation and is met with incredulity from Kevin. The death and destruction caused by this escapade are glossed over by the deity despite Kevin’s protestations. God, in this instance, is someone who knocks things over just to see what happens, with no regard to who is harmed. I personally agree with this view on God as such an entity were to exist. To allow things like the Holocaust or, as Stephen Fry put it, “Bone cancer in children? What is that about? How dare you create a world in which such misery is possible!” If an omnipotent, omniscient being oversees a world such as this and then demands our praise, there is no doubt that such an entity is a complete psychopath undeserving of our love and adoration. It’s more comforting, in my opinion, that there is no God as the alternative is a chilling prospect.
I wish Gilliam had followed this thread more throughout the movie, but it ends up being a fun mishmash of things happening on screen with little to no cumulative meaning. Part of me does like the ending with its coldness. The juxtaposition of George Harrison’s jaunty “Dream Away” against Kevin being left in such a bleak place as God rolls up his map of the universe hits a jarring & uneven note. I’m always so surprised Time Bandits is as acclaimed as it is, but I think that may have to do with much of the audience not fully absorbing that scene with the Supreme Being and its implications on the rest of the movie. I’m always left wondering what happens to Kevin next now that his life has been so thoroughly uprooted. The appearance of a character he met in the past giving him a knowing wink is extra unnerving; I’m not sure if that’s meant to make me feel relieved or despondent.