Retrospective - What awful people


'Heroes? What do they know about a day's work?' 

Terry Gilliam's body of work has always contained a certain amount of abstract, eccentric, and utterly absurd things and nonsense; whether it's tales of piracy and banking in The Crimson Permanent Assurance, or the time travelling nightmare future of 12 Monkeys. But one feature stands out above his other successes, defying classification as either a simple children's adventure or just another series of bizarre Monty Python sketches. It's a richly detailed, layered story, filled with amazing visuals and memorable characters, as well of lots of rather silly jokes and dialogue. The plastic clad henchmen and eerie set pieces are all present and correct, but it's a film which grows beyond the sum of its parts to become truly one of a kind.

On the surface this is the story of a boy called Kevin (Craig Warnock). He lives a standard dull existence where his interests and his needs are neglected by his parents. They're just the right kind of awful movie caricatures; obsessing over the latest kitchen appliance fads while eating microwave food in front of the worst television shows outside of RoboCop. It's here that little touches start to creep in that build on the simplicity of the story whether it's the way that the villain, Evil personified, later uses the same TV show to trick the heroes, or the way he's also obsessed with modern technology. It's no coincidence the furniture in Kevin's house is still wrapped in transparent polythene - which seems to be the same material Evil's cohorts are all wearing. Whether you want a fantasy film or a sly critique of consumer culture there are plenty of things to enjoy.

Kevin's own interest in learning, particularly about ancient cultures and medieval history, is soon given a boost in unexpected ways. In a classic moment of wish fulfilment a band of diminutive thieves appear one night, apparently using his bedroom wardrobe as a portal from another time or place as they try and evade their former boss; the Supreme Being. After some confusion over how this happened and the subsequent discovery of a 'time hole' in Kevin's house, he's soon taken along for the ride during their escape. However it's not just going to be a straightforward story about meeting famous historic faces, as his new friends reveal plans to use their employer's cosmic map in a bid to become 'international criminals'.

Outside the strangeness of this setup - a group of God's world designers turned time jumping robbers - the main feature of the film is they're just so much fun as characters. Whether it's Og (Mike Edmonds) the one who hasn't had an idea for thousands of years, or Vermin (Tiny Ross) the one who eats everything from candle wax to caviar to live rats, the ensemble of actors is used perfectly to create a sympathetic heart to the story. It's also great to see this team of actors being allowed the chance to play central roles in a fantasy story for once, with Kenny Baker and Jack Purvis being familiar names (but not faces) in credits for films like things like Star Wars series, often hidden inside robots and creature costumes. It works perfectly for the plot where underdog workers try and branch out into something more exciting.

Kevin himself is just right as an antithesis to the usual fish out of water hero - often explaining where they have landed and being a moral centre to the team. Of course the supporting cast is filled with characters that are just as good, with Peter Vaughan as a sea-faring ogre suffering with back ache, Ian Holm as a Napoleon with a Napoleon complex, and Sean Connery as Greek king Agamemnon in an almost forth wall breaking reveal. The variety of the settings and the bizarre nature of their inhabitants is consistently amusing but never done entirely for jokes, with all kinds of historical detail being included. Robin Hood (John Cleese) in particular stands out as being a cartoon likeness complete with a bright green outfit while his own band of thieves are unwashed and grotesque, with costumes and make-up that probably reflects the period more realistically.

This amount of time travelling used is the main component which feels the most sketch like. This is particularly true when Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall appear in a couple of different guises through the story as lovers doomed to have their first intimate moments interrupted by the heroes suddenly appearing. However it never feels badly paced and always has consistent tone, mixing laughs and darker moments. The biggest exampled of them getting this exactly right is David Warner as Evil, the sardonic and murderous villain who looks part H.R. Giger part Jim Henson monster. There are a lot of family friendly fantasy stories with a slight unnerving feeling to them in the '80s, but I think this the best example. Whether he's throwing out glib remarks about the faults of the world or simply exploding his minions, there's no finer example of dry comic timing meeting Terry Gilliam's twisted sense of humour.

The director's knack for creating startling visuals is also at its best here, as the gang travels from war torn Italy all the way through to the Time of Legends. The finale at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is the greatest piece of design work in the story, blending monolithic castles with skeletal creature creations and fantasy mazes. The stand out sequence, a prison escape above a bottomless pit, puts all these elements in motion with nerve-wracking suspense and ridiculous movie logic coming together as the protagonists jump huge distances with an ever dwindling supply of rope. To round this all off the tale comes to a nonsensical toy box finale with Evil fending off a series of time hopping opponents including a Wild West posse, medieval archers, and a ray gun firing spacecraft .

The dark and ambiguous ending may be a point of contention for some, but it feels just right considering the story which led to this point. The standard 'it was all a dream' conclusion is almost played out before being flipped on its head, with an eerie final scene that hints that Supreme Being himself may just be playing around, or giving Kevin what he thinks he actually needs - in the most bizarre Gilliam-esque way possible of course. Before you can really think things through there's an explosion, a rather familiar face, and a crane shot accompanied by George Harrison's Dream Away. Those looking for answers might be left puzzled, but I find that this strange and challenging coda fits everything that came before. It's hard to imagine how anything close to mundane would have worked. Like everything here from the themes of good and evil, the idea of an imperfect creation - or just a boy on an adventure through history - nothing is what you'd expect. It's fantastic, sinister, and humorous in just the right proportions.