L13FC: Terry Gilliam’s Trilogy

CindyLucky13Banner (1)Welcome one and all as this month’s film discussion centers around writer/director Terry Gilliam and his futuristic trio spread out over thirty years. I am much obliged to share today’s event with Australian movie buff, Jordan at Epilepticmoondancer, who shared his admiration for Brazil(1985),12 Monkeys(1995), and Zero Theorem(2013) with me; the more we emailed about this set, we discovered there was a lot to discuss. Fantasy Drama? Thriller/Tech noir? Dystopian Dark Comedy? Science Fiction? However you decide to classify them, the eccentric mind of Gilliam is a fun ride. Let’s go!

Jordan’s thoughts: 


Though a brilliant satire, darkly hilarious and filmed by the inimitable Terry Gilliam, giving the film some crazy angles and busy sets, at its core, Brazil is a love story. Poor government worker Sam Lowry is lonely, and dreams about Jill from the beginning of the movie, while the film is essentially poking fun at the government by making it impossible for Lowry to track down information on this person, burying him under paperwork and government malarkey.

twelve-monkeys-original-600x90012 Monkeys also has dreams that link the film together, but here they are much more thought out, as the dreams slightly change each time we see them. They impact the story in very different ways. Again the film focuses on a lonely protagonist, Cole, played by Bruce Willis. This film is set in a dystopian future, and to begin with it seems that love is impossible for Cole, living underground, a prisoner. But through his travels through time, and his stressed relationship with what was his psychiatrist, he finally finds someone he can bond with, someone he loves. Importantly, this love doesn’t feel forced; it is so psychologically draining it would be odd for the two to not form some sort of connection. Additionally, like Lowry, Cole doesn’t possess much in the way of showing initiative – both seem rather naive to their respective words. Both films satarise society in one way or another too, and this, added to his incredibly unique style, is what somewhat successfully links the three films.
In my opinion, the Zero Theorem deviated from the formula- the dreams, the love story. Qoen is also a lonely protagonist, another common motif of these trilogies, and he, like Sam and Cole, is naive to the world he lives in. The Zero Theorem also pokes fun at modern society, too. What differs isn’t the lack of dream sequences (though they really were done perfectly in 12 Monkeys) but the fact that this lonely man doesn’t find love is what stilts the film. And I’m not a sentimental guy, I usually hate romance, but the love was what made those first two so special. That love isn’t present in Zero, rendering the story a little jarring and confusing.

Cindy’s impressions: 

I’m a fan of contrasts, and Terry Gilliam delivers oxymorons in abundance to my delight. Through Gilliam’s imagination, the ludicrousness of governmental control is the vessel for all three films: inefficient bureaucrats, Homeland Security(?), preservation of the aesthetically insipid, and worshipping technological advancements, made by humans, cripple them.

For all the invasive warnings in Brazil; the topsy-turvy future where animals rule and humans are caged in 12 Monkeys; and the complete loss of the cognizant individual to the simulated state of being in Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam has been warning us for decades about the devolution of man. With this heavy message, he delivers his ultimate contrast: give the bad news with a healthy dose of laughs. His perverted sense of humor has had me in stitches since I was a teen. His garish sets in Brazil and Zero Theorem, the vaudevillian sound effects punctuating conversations, the askew camera angles and frenetic conversations such as Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys (his best performance) or Robert DeNiro and Bob Hoskins in Brazil, or Tilda Swinton as Dr. Think-Rom in Zero Theorem come immediately to mind. You are scared because you’re in a bad-acid nightmare at the carnival and laughing with the clowns glaring in your face. Brilliant.


Need more contrasts? How about the artistic images that have you morbidly curious? The baby face, the flying man in glitter, that red techno-suit, the youth-obsessed, cheek-pull of Mom, and the zoo animals running amuck the city? The infinity sets and industrialization displayed like evil traps of the mind and body? Oh, I love that wicked mind of yours, Terry Gilliam. Thanks for the laughs.

Matt Damon never looked better in Zero Theorem.
Matt Damon never looked better in Zero Theorem.

Which dark message resonates with you? Which lonely character at odds with his world do you like best?

89 Comments on “L13FC: Terry Gilliam’s Trilogy

  1. I was introduced to Gilliam (as were many others) by Monty Python, on TV. It was something you had to be young to get, and I recall my parents thinking it was all very stupid. ‘Brazil’ was Python made flesh, with it’s steam-punk sets, and 1984/Big Brother feel. Pryce is a consummate actor, and was the perfect choice for the lead. In many other ways, it is like a very long episode of Monty Python, often bordering on farce.

    Twelve Monkeys was inspired by ‘La Jetee’ (1962). I watched this as a young teen, and didn’t really get it at the time. The later film expanded the ideas, and was also a visual treat. I actually prefer it to ‘Brazil’, as I find the acting (other than Pryce) far more convincing, and the potentially confusing plot remarkably easy to follow. I would also bestow acting honours to Willis on this occasion, for playing somewhat against type, and appearing to act for once!

    I haven’t seen the third film unfortunately, but I have seen ‘Lost In La Mancha’, the documentary about Gilliam famously failing to bring his vision of ‘Don Quixote’ to the screen.

    My best wishes to you both. Pete.

    • Welcome, Pete, your ruminations are always appreciated. Of the three, Zero Theorem, has been described as the weak link in the trilogy. Arguably, it’s not one in the classic sense. It’s not three parts of one long story. Even Gilliam himself said it wasn’t a trilogy. We clump it together based on the lonely, uncomfortable male protagonist in a weird world. Though reviews were lukewarm for Zero, I quite liked it. Christoph Waltz conveyed his disgruntled situation with believability. I understood his pain. I loved his agoraphobia and the pained look every time he stepped out into the mad, loud world. Love in this film was experienced via the fakeness of a hooker and alternate realities (sex on an imagined beach) I thought it an important theme because in our time, the invasion and obsession with cyber-everything, our reality as we know it is becoming less real every day.
      Everyone loves 12 Monkeys, me included, but I have to say, I’m defending Zero Theorem and I think it’s underrated.

      • I’m glad you liked Zero Theorem Cindy! I really like it too, and have seen it many times over ass the story isn’t your average story, it is subtle and requires some thought from the viewer. Perhaps that is why it wasn’t as well received. I totally agree though that it is underrated.

        I never looked at the virtual reality parts in that way, but now it seems so obvious! Gilliam is so great at taking the piss out of society – how great is that ad that is just a pair of lips on a screen, automatically following people walking past it!? Its a great take on modern advertising.

        • Oh, I know! As you mentioned with 12 Monkeys, the stills, his sets are a strong point. I know when Brazil came out, it seemed very Science Fiction. Zero Theorem portrays a world that already exists. The loud colors. The loud people. You mentioned love is missing in ZT, and I see your point. I see more similarities with Brazil and ZT. I see 12 Monkeys as the anomaly. Yes there’s love, but because we go backward in time and the sets are more gothic, I find it has a completely different feel to it. One thing is for sure, all three films have fun bit parts for a variety of personalities. How about Matt Damon in his zebra suit and white hair?

          • Oh that is one of the very few roles where I have liked Matt Damon. Just not much of a fan. But in ZT he was GREAT, and he looked a lot like a trim PSH too 😀 I loved the character he played too. Was he real? The mental health of Qoen is pretty suspect… and what do you reckon the whole ‘we’ thing was about?

            And I agree, I also see 12 Monkeys as the anomaly, much different tone, it doesn’t have that sense of humour (though Brad Pitt is pretty damned entertaining), and both are great satires of society; Brazil with the terrorism and ZT with the advertising and the cyber-love aspect which you mentioned.

    • I haven’t seen a Monty Python movie since I was a kid. But I totally agree, the humour in Brazil is so Python inspired, its bloody hilarious! I really liked that an American could pull off that English type of humour on his own, outside of Python.

      Zero Theorem has that same satire of modern society, and it also has a similar sense of humour. Its quite funny, I recommend giving it a try. I’ve watched it about 6 times hehe

  2. Great perspective on a very talented Artist. I love watching “Lost In La Mancha” because you see all of Gilliam’s eccentricities on display as he struggles to save his film against all odds….including some caused by him! I also love the book that chronicles the “Brazil” battles…thanks again for a great writeup!

    • Hi John, thanks for the suggestion–is it related in any way to ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quioxte’? It reminds me I still haven’t seen ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’. I’d like to see Johnny Depp and Heath Ledger together on screen. I hear it’s a masterpiece.

      • I’m guessing that doco is about how he has tried to make that movie for the better part of a decade and it is still so far away from being made. I can’t believe I’ve missed it! The Hamster Wheel doco. the one about 12 Monkeys, that one is on youtube. I highly recommend that one too, again you see all Terry’s eccentricities that make him.. him!

        You know, now that I think about it, I haven’t seen Parnassus. I really should do something about that

    • ““Lost In La Mancha”, how have I missed this??? I’ve gotta get on that immediately, this guy is my favourite director. Apparently he is still working to have that vision realised, the project isn’t dead, but its still very far from being made =/

      Do you know the title of that book? That sounds great too!

      • There are two great Gilliam books: Jack Mathews wrote “The Battle of Brazil”, and Andrew Yule wrote “Losing The Light” about the Munchausen saga…and yes, I heard he is still trying to get “La Mancha” going!

        • Yeah, if it ever comes to fruition though is a whole different story

          Thanks for the recs! I’ll definitely have to check those books out, I love Gilliam

    • Don Quijote de la Mancha is one of the greatest books ever written. No one has been able to lick the material, though. Orson Welles tried. On paper, Gilliam was a perfect fit. It’s too bad that the project collapsed. I do think that only a mini-series could do justice to the book.

      • Hmmm. I used to dislike television. But there have been a number a fine series I’ve enjoyed in the last decade, HBO, (Mildred Pierce for example) has been turning out quality work. I can see where a series could compliment the complicated story line. I would love to see a successful version of Don Quixote. The musical was good, but far from doing justice to the book. How many times over the years have I seen the Cervantes classic listed as one of the best novels ever written? An interesting idea!

        • Ahh …. Cindy, I totally share your suspicions — I’m notoriously anti-TV. I don’t trust the medium. I’m trying to get over my prejudice against the small screen. I’m a bit more open minded about TV mini-series. Shogun, Brideshead Revisited, The Thorn Birds, Sybil, etc., are every bit as good as many classics of cinema. Don Q is a long, episodic, complex book that would require at the very least a 4/5-hour movie. That’s why I suggested a mini-series. Gilliam (or Alejandro Jodorowsky) could produce it for HBO or Showtime. No “mainstream” channels, please! 😉

    • Ah, I bet I would! Pryce has such a wry sense to his delivery, and I enjoy the writing of Ian McEwan–loved ‘Atonement’. His screenplay for ‘The Ploughman’s Lunch’ no doubt delivers. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Great write ups from both you! When I catch up on Gilliam’s films I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for those reoccurring themes. He has a really interesting filmography as a writer and director.

    • I think he has the most creative and original films under his belt out of any major director working today, or perhaps of all time. Time Bandits, Munchausen, Fisher King, Tideland, Brothers Grimm, Parnassus… all are so different from not only these three films, but from each other. So much creativity. I love everything he has done, even Brothers Grimm

      • Brothers Grimm was too cheesy for my taste (like Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) but there were aspects of it I definitely liked–probably Heath and Matt and the enchanted forest. I have not seen Tideland so need to fix that. I always liked Time Bandits.

        • Time Bandits is great fun. Have you seen Fisher King? One of Jeff Bridges best I reckon, its a great movie. Robin Williams is excellent in it too.

          Yeah Brothers Grimm is far from perfect, but I still liked it. Mainly cos it looked so interesting

          • Yes, to the Fisher King. I liked Bridges in it. Again,that Gilliam theme of isolated man in a weird world and trying to make sense of it.

          • Indeed. Seems to be a recurring theme, in Time Bandits the child was alone until the bandits came, and in Munchausen it was a similar thing, though it has been a long time since I watched that one. Really need to get around to Parnassus, might watch it today

        • indeed, his work is very unique and varied. I think the guy is massively under-appreciated, probably some of that is due to his irritable persona, but like you say, you have a look at what he has accomplished, and it is a bloody good effort. I hope he hasn’t finished!

        • Eddie, I’m glad we activated your curiosity. That’s what I love about doing this. Other people guide your knowledge base and I learn so much from movie buffs.

      • An amazing imagination indeed!! And you are so spot on, the last few sentences especially. I also love that wicked mind of his, and I pray that ZT isn’t his final film.

  4. I gotta say that Brazil really blind sided me. I didn’t even know movies like this could be made.
    “12 Monkeys”… I never got my head around that. Better watch it again.
    If somebody can toss me around like this … they must be onto something.
    Haven’t seen Zero Theorem yet. Maybe I’ll be somewhat prepared.

    • Hehe yeah, Brazil is such a unique movie, its like a hilarious take of 1984. So surreal too, the visual effects may seem tame today but I still love it all. So much symbolism in that film too, as Cindy talked about

      12 Monkeys is a film that demands to be watched multiple times. That’s the kind of movie it is, it changes each time you watch it. I’ve probably watched it about 50 times!

      I think Zero Theorem is underrated. Give it a shot, it has some great acting from Waltz and Swinton, and all the visual flair is still there. The story just isn’t as strong. Still very interesting though, and it maintains that humour, the satire of modern society

  5. Ranking Gilliam’s films:

    The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, 10/10)
    Brazil (1985, 9/10)
    Tideland (2005, 9/10)
    Twelve Monkeys (1995, 9/10)
    Time Bandits (1981, 8/10)
    Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, 8/10)
    The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, 8/10)
    The Brothers Grimm (2005, 8/10)
    The Meaning of Life (1983, 8/10)
    The Fisher King (1991, 6/10)
    The Zero Theorem (2013, 6/10)

    • Oh, wonderful! You liked Dr. P. Maybe it was you that gave me the impression it was Gillian’s masterpiece. I haven’t seen Tideland–but I will soon! Thanks, Eric.

    • Interesting list mate, especially given Parnassus is at the top. Surprised to see The Fisher King with such a low score though.

      Where would you rank Fear and Loathing?

      • I haven’t seen Fear and Loathing. I don’t care for Hunter Thompson — IMHO, a narcissist blowhard — so I have avoided it. Is it any good? Anyhow, I found Fisher King a bit forced and heavy-handed, but I’m due for a re-watch. I’ve been wrong before. Parnassus is perfection! 🙂

        • I really need to get onto Parnassus!!

          I guess I can’t disagree with your description of Hunter, because its pretty much true hahaha, though I do think he has been somewhat misunderstood.

          If you like Gilliam then I expect you’d enjoy the movie, it is incredibly shot and many of the sets are incredible. But then again, Johnny Depp is playing Hunter (very accurately) so if you don’t like the man you may not like the movie. I reckon its worth a go though, even if its only for Benicio Del Toro’s towering performance.

          Hunter’s best book though was when he followed the 1972 US election campaign, an entire year of political bullshit. It is a very insightful book. Much better than ‘Las Vegas’.

          • I understand Hunter’s appeal. He relished the opportunity to stick it to the establishment. He was a good writer too. I just don’t have any love for self-absorbed jerks. I’m willing to give “Fear” a try. I do like Del Toro. I’m truly surprised that you haven’t seen “Parnassus,” though. It seems like a weird omission.

  6. If I could summarize Gilliam’s oeuvre in a few words to the uninitiated, I would say that his films are essentially about fear of the world descending into chaos. Gilliam fears both science and our ability to manage an increasingly complex society: misanthropy meets tech angst. At their best, Gilliam’s movies are cautionary tales about technology getting ahead of ourselves. I love how Gilliam uses magic realism to warn us about the danger that lays ahead — he is like Michael Crichton on meth … 🙂

  7. Out of the trio of movies, spoken of here, I’ve only seen ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995), and that’s an excellent movie. And from your analysis, Jordan; I gather I’ve watched the best one, of the three!! A very cleverly directed movie. The slight changes in dreams, in ‘Twelve Monkeys’, made the vision clearer!! Of course, I saw it about a decade & a half ago!! And I agree Cindy, Brad Pitt was superb in it!! As was Bruce Willis!! So this answers your final question, Willis’ character in definitely my favourite loner at odds with his world!!

    • Hi Nuwansen, thanks for stopping by. I would vote for Brad Pitt, too. His body mannerisms, his speech, his energy. He was brilliant.

      • He really was wasn’t he? Did you ever watch ‘the hamster factor’ doco on youtube? Its about the making of this film, and you really see how hard Pitt worked to nail that energy of a hyper-active mental patient. And he did nail it, when I was ill I would often get as worked up as he does while in the hospital. Amazing performance

    • Yep IMO it is the best of the three, and yes the slight changes in dreams made it very unique. I think its one of those films with a story that needs to be seen more than once. I must have watched it at least 50 times ;D

      I do highly recommend Brazil though, it is very very funny, and very surreal as well.

      And I’m with you, I think this movie houses both Willis and Pitt’s best performances.

  8. Hello Cindy and Jordan! Sorry I’m late to the discussion, awesome stuff here! I’m most intrigued by Brazil “… at its core, Brazil is a love story” That appeals to me, and I gotta support fellow Minnesotan 😉 Terry Gilliam is from Minneapolis, not sure if he’s done a film here or not though.

    “Terry Gilliam delivers oxymorons in abundance to my delight” Very cool Cindy! It’s been ages since I saw 12 Monkeys but I remember liking that one. I should check out Time Bandits as well, I mean it’s got Sean Connery! 😉

    • Hi Ruth, yes! I haven’t seen Time Bandits since I was a teen, it would be good for me to watch it again. You’d probably like Brazil. Thanks so much for stopping by! I was unaware until recently that Terry was an American. I always thought because he was involved with Monty Python that he was British. I’m always learning something new.

      • Yeah I was surprised too that he’s from MN! I thought he was European as well. I think Time Bandits was one of my Blindspot movies.

      • Time Bandits is such great fun. So dream-like. And yeah, Terry was the only American in the troupe. That is why the humour in Brazil (and ZT to an extent) really impressed me, as it is very British, very dry. Gilliam certainly learned a lot about UK type comedy during his days with them

    • Hey that’s awesome that he is from your state! And I’m with Cindy, I really think you’d like Brazil. Its extremely funny, very surreal at times, and its piss-take of society is some of the best satire I have ever seen. But under all that is Lowry, trying to find the girl of his dreams, literally. Its a great movie 😀

      • Yeah, I guess MN has bred some really wonderful filmmakers, the Coens are from here too 🙂 I’ll check out more of Terry’s films for sure.

        P.S. Speaking of recommendations, I’ve mentioned it to Jordan but Cindy I think you’d like the film I just reviewed, Anthropoid.

        • Wow, Gilliam and the Coens from your state. That is pretty damned cool.

          Definitely catch up on some Gilliam films Ruth, they are all so different, the guy has one hell of an imagination. If you want to see possibly Jeff Bridges best role, along with a manic Robin Williams, check out The Fisher King. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a classic in my eyes too.

    • Just make sure you watch the director’s cut. CRITERION released a fabulous set with all three versions of the film. I think Jordan and Cindy would agree with me that the 94-minute cut is a hot mess. Avoid!

  9. This is a nice piece on a very interesting visionary director. I love Brazil (not just for DeNiro) but for Gilliam’s astute commentary on an Orwellian Dystopia. I wasn’t all that keen on The Zero Theorum though. I actually hugely disappointed in that. I found it far too lethargic and boring – although Gilliam still presented some nice ideas.
    12 Monkeys is probably his best film and one of my favourite sci-Fi flicks of all time. Willis has never been better and (again I agree) it’s Pitt’s best work too.

    • “but for Gilliam’s astute commentary on an Orwellian Dystopia”

      That really is brilliant isn’t it? It is like a comedic version of 1984, and funnily enough they were both released in 1984. Pretty sure on that, can’t be arsed checking 😛

      Bummer that you didn’t enjoy ZT, I’ve watched it four or five times. I don’t love it but it consistently fascinates me

    • “I wasn’t all that keen on The Zero Theorum though. I actually hugely disappointed in that.” Same here. Very disappointed. And I actually liked the universally panned The Brothers Grimm (2005). As far as I’m concerned, Tideland (2005) is his most underrated film — I just adored it!

      • You and I are flip-flopping on this one, Eric. I wasn’t very disappointed at all, but felt that way about The Brothers Grimm. Too junior high for me. Ha! It’s fun how we are all different in our tastes. 🙂

        • I don’t necessarily disagree with you. Grimm is pretty juvenile, but I think the silliness has structure. Have you seen Holy Grail? Did you like it? It’s brilliantly sophomoric. Gilliam is really a child at heart — a weird child but a child nevertheless. 🙂

      • “Gilliam is really a child at heart — a weird child but a child nevertheless”

        Love it!! Sums the man up perfectly

  10. I really have to get around to seeing the other two but I’m a huge fan of Twelve Monkeys. I agree it’s two of the best performances for Willis and Pitt. The sets and camera angles are really well done. Willis actually said there’s two scripts he read and thought nothing has to be changed and they were Pulp Fiction and Twelve Monkeys.

    • That’s a cool side story. I couldn’t agree with Willis more! Many thanks, Lloyd. Do hope you will pop around tomorrow for Lucky 13 topic, Al Pacino as the mentor!

  11. Pingback: L13FC: A Year in Review – Cindy Bruchman

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