How Does “Brazil” Satirize the Concept of Technological Advances?


In Brazil (1985), director Terry Gilliam (of the Monty Python comedy troupe) offers a darkly comic take on the plot of George Orwell’s 1984,which itself has been adapted into two films, 1984 (1956) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1984). Brazil features a Big Brother-like government whose “modern” technology looks old and capable of breakdown, very much the way the future appears in Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. As in 1984, a dissatisfied worker, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is drawn into the resistance movement because of a girl (in this case Jill, played by Kim Kreist). The individual is not successful, just as in George Orwell’s book, or at least not in the “real” world. But the most salient difference between Brazil and the original dystopian story is that while 1984 is deadly serious, Gilliam pushes the satire of Orwell’s cautionary tale into an over-the-top, absurdist story with plentiful black humor.

In Gilliam’s brave new world, ugly air ducts snake through every room, resembling tentacles of a huge octopus invading everyone’s lives. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Robert DeNiro appears as renegade air conditioning specialist Archibald Tuttle, who is dressed like a military commando and opens up the walls of Lowry’s flat. The ducts expand and contract, as if breathing. The scene transforms the machinery from a metaphorical into living monster intruding in the homes of individuals.

This human violation by technology is also seen when the two main characters are physically prodded by machines in the scenes when Lowry goes to his mother’s party and when Jill confronts a government official about the wrongful abduction of her neighbor. The viscerally annoying ringtone of phones in the film sounds like a demonic dentist drill. The ringing sounds are warning signals, alerting us to the sinister side of technology.

Brazil shows that as we build more complex machines, more chances arise for the machines to break down. And if we have built our lives around those machines and become reliant on technology, then we, too, break down with them. There are numerous illustrations of this argument: we watch Lowry’s coffee machine pouring liquid on his toast, his air conditioning breaking down, and the ridiculous plastic surgery operations (which stretch people’s skin to temporarily recapture youth) making people prematurely old and then killing them.

When “Central Services” is called to fix things, they are either unavailable, don’t have the proper paperwork, or create more damage instead of repairing anything. Of course, the more the technology fails, the more the population is dependent on those in control of the authorities in place, and the more they are failed by the system. The very first moment of the film establishes the potential injustice that can arise when people’s life trajectories are determined by technology. In the opening scene, a bureaucrat becomes distracted by the attempt to swat a fly, which gets stuck in the printer and causes a misprint of an official file. The film’s entire plot follows from this innocuous event, which leads to the incarceration (and death during interrogation) of the wrong man (Archibald Buttle, cobbler, instead of Tuttle, De Niro’s rebel).

From this very opening scene, Brazil alerts us to the dangerous consequences of following through our reliance on technology to its logical conclusion: we risk losing our humanity and making people vulnerable to unjust outcomes due to the most banal glitch in the machinery.