Terry Gilliam seems to have been in a bit of a slump lately, plagued by epically bad luck kicked off by the almost mythic collapse of his long-gestating (and recently revived) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Starting with his 1999 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there has been a noticeable downhill slide in the quality of Gilliam’s recent films, marked as they are by a suffocating excess of style that suggests a director completely unable to self-edit. They have also, with the exception of the grotesque but undeniably personal Tideland, been oddly cold, all that imaginative production design sitting lifeless on the screen without much in the way of ideas or emotion to back it up.
The consensus seems to be that this is a recent development, with critics bemoaning Gilliam’s recurring failure to recapture the magic of his early work with Monty Python or his mid-’80s masterpiece Brazil. But Time Bandits, one of his first post-Pythons projects, suggests otherwise; many of these recent films’ problems, it seems, were with Gilliam all along.
Time Bandits begins with young Kevin (Craig Warnock) in bed while his parents (David Daker and Sheila Fearn) sit downstairs watching a crass game show hosted by a creepy, wide-grinning suit (Jim Broadbent). One night, out from Kevin’s wall bursts a group of six dwarves. Led by the power-hungry Randall (David Rappaport), the dwarves are travelling through time with a time-map stolen from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). This setup allows Gilliam to execute a series of presumably comic sketches in which Kevin and the Time Bandits interact with historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese), and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), all while trying to evade the Supreme Being and his evil opposite (David Warner) who is trying to get the map for his own purposes.
In typical Gilliam fashion, these sequences feature imaginative, dynamic designs and compositions. But as in a recent Gilliam failure like The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, the visual flair is uncontrolled and messy, with no through line or sense of cohesion or purpose. The goal is to mount a critique on technology and modern entertainment, which Gilliam sees as disconnecting people from any sense of mystery or fantasy. But he explores this agenda with an adventure story completely lacking any sense of wonder, adventure, or humanity. Individual scenes play like sketches Monty Python would have wisely rejected, and the characters—and their relationships—are suffocated by the movie’s self-satisfied tone and manic pace. Gilliam is never able to successfully celebrate his movie’s world because he never slows down long enough to actually admire it.
Time Bandits is not a complete miss. Cleese’s Robin Hood is an amusing creation, as is Warner’s Evil Genius (his rant about slugs is a genuine highlight). But these are moments in a movie otherwise jumbled and unfocused, one that displays problems the director would later get under control, at least for a while. When people say all Gilliam needs to do to make another good movie is get back to his roots, perhaps they should think again.
The image is wildly inconsistent, ranging from fine to faded and scratched. It frequently looks as though the transfer was struck from an old, beaten-up print with next to no restoration. Audio is better, but it's often more adequate than awesome.
A brief interview with director Terry Gilliam and a trailer for the movie. That's it.
An underwhelming Blu-ray to remind viewers that the problems with Terry Gilliam’s recent films are not an entirely new development.