tidings

It’s a holly jolly dystopian sci-fi Christmas! With Twelve Monkeys and Brazil, you can have yourself a merry little Terry Gilliam double-feature, with all the dizzying dark satire that implies.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a cog in the bureaucratic machine of the Ministry of Information, a bored and boring low-level office worker whose happiest moments come in his sleep, where he dreams of heroism and love. When his office issues a warrant with a typo that leads to an innocent nobody being executed as a notorious terrorist, Sam is assigned to redress the injustice — except that in this grim bureaucracy, “redressing” means issuing a token payment to the next of kin. One thing leads to another, and Sam finds himself chasing after the literal woman of his dreams while trying to dodge the labyrinthian laws of the omnipresent state.

Brazil brutally undercuts and critiques our cultural obsessions with beauty, youth, and the endless accumulation of STUFF. In this near future, the crass commercialism and blatant profiteering of corporate merchandisers and society’s widespread obsession with the crudest facsimile of youthful appearance keep the bourgeois populace preoccupied while the rabble stay downtrodden, freeing the state to impose its ever-greater regulations and restrictions on individual freedoms. The 1985 satire is even more chilling today.

In the opening of Twelve Monkeys, an obscure committee calls prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) to “volunteer” for duty on the treacherous surface of the earth collecting biological samples, in the distant hope that someday the surviving humans who huddle in this underground colony can diagnose and cure the plague that drove them underground. James’ missions get progressively more dangerous, and eventually they send him on a time-travel mission to the past, to find the source of the outbreak.

James, raised in isolation and underground, is dazzled and disoriented by the bright, brash, loudness of the bustling world aboveground. He has few social or physical resources at his command; “no license, no prints, no warrants.” And, y’know, he’s ranting about a plague and infections and the end of the world. It’s hardly surprising that present-day police take him for a lunatic and hand him over to the state mental institution for observation. Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) takes a particular interest in him, and — to her detriment — James begins to take an interest in her.

It’s futile to pinpoint the temporal setting in a time travel story, especially one as sprawling and thorny as Twelve Monkeys, which weaves in and out, around itself to the point of paradox… but one of the most haunting refrains in Gilliam’s work is the precious surviving audiotape from the present (James’ past) in which an unknown voice, warped and warbling with the distortions of time and tape damage, tries to warn the committee of the plague’s outbreak and closes with a high, hysterical “Have a merry Chriiiiiiistmas!”

For more stories set at Christmastime but without that Christmas peace-on-earth sentiment, check out:

Prometheus
In Bruges
Eastern Promises
Mysterious Skin
Lethal Weapon
The French Connection
The Square
Lady in the Lake
Metropolitan
Go
Profondo Rosso
First Blood
Female Trouble
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The Mothman Prophecies
Hellcab, aka Chicago Cab
The Lion in Winter
Die Hard
Holiday
The Shop around the Corner
Toy Story
Doubt
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Better Off Dead
The Apartment
The Proposition
Eyes Wide Shut
Meet John Doe
Three Days of the Condor
The Conversation
Bell Book and Candle
Gremlins
Diner
The Thin Man
Trading Places
Edward Scissorhands
The Ref
The Ice Harvest
Less Than Zero
The Matador
Eyes Wide Shut

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