Terry Gilliam’s epic 1984 spoof takes Orwellian surveillance and dehumanization seriously, but it also figures that Orwellian bureaucracy can’t possibly operate as a perfectly efficient machine because human pettiness and incompetence will inevitable gum up the works. That’s a tragedy for the poor family man who’s hauled off in chains by the secret police because of a typo, but it allows Walter Mitty-ish bureaucrat Sam Lowry a measure of freedom to imagine an escape, one in which he’s the hero who rescues his dream girl (Kim Greist).
As in Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the technology here is retro, but in a way that’s almost endearing; how can you fear a police state whose equipment is so obsolete and low-tech? Tubes, ducts, and pipes that are the arteries and veins of the entire system become a metaphor for a constipated society, which is why the movie’s true heroic figure is an anarchistic duct repairman (played with comic brio by Robert De Niro). Palin’s fellow Monty Python alumnus, the usually hilarious Michael Palin, is shockingly chilling here as the O’Brien figure. Similarly, Pryce, who specializes in weaselly villains, is surprisingly heroic as the unlikely rebel who realizes that the only true escapes from the system lie in insanity or death.
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